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Hellfire Politics

What kind of people are we anyway? Politicians are not the only ones asking this question. Historians are too. For the past several years historians have been vigorously debating the origins of early American culture. Monographs and articles have increased, and students are more and more bewildered. The stakes are high: nothing less, it seems, than the real nature of America. In his passionate, agitated book John Diggins, professor of history at the University of California at Irvine, makes a powerful contribution to this debate and describes very frankly just what kind of people we are. It is not a pretty picture.

Diggins’s book has all the usual scholarly paraphernalia: notes, appendices, and references to a number of historians. But his book is not another ordinary dreary monograph in a historical debate. It is really not a work of history at all, at least not in any conventional sense of the term. Beneath all of its scholarly apparatus, it is a very personal essay in cultural criticism, a veritable cri de coeur. Diggins is not simply quarreling with some fellow historians; he is quarreling with modernity itself, with all of its relativity, skepticism, and confusion. The book is Diggins’s desperate search for authority in a chaotic world.

On the surface the book seems to be a full-scale assault on what has been called “the republican synthesis,” especially as it has been formulated by the work of J. G. A. Pocock. Although many historians are cited and quoted by name in the main body of Diggins’s text, Pocock is not. Yet for Diggins Pocock is always the figure behind the republican curtain.

Pocock is the author of The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (1975), one of those blockbuster works of history that dominate a period of historical writing. Just as Louis Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), with its argument that America from the beginning was preoccupied with Locke and with individual private rights, summed up historians’ thinking in the 1950s and 1960s, so has Pocock’s book tended to define the thinking of the past decade or so. Pocock in fact was determined to eliminate Locke as the patron saint of American culture and replace him with Machiavelli. The implications of this substitution are important: if Pocock is right, then maybe we Americans are not as inevitably individualistic and capitalistic as Hartz and others thought.

Pocock took the works of a number of historians, particularly those working in fifteenth-century Florence and eighteenth-century America, and put them together to form an Atlantic republican tradition. Pocock argued that what he likes to refer to as the “paradigm” of eighteenth-century Anglo-American thought had its origins in the Renaissance. Out of the writings of antiquity Machiavelli and others created a body of political thinking that has been variously called “civic humanism” or “classical republicanism.” This Renaissance body of thought revived the ancient belief that man was by nature a citizen who achieved his greatest moral fulfillment by participating in a self-governing republic. Liberty was interpreted positively as a condition that is realized when people are virtuous or are willing to sacrifice their individual interests for the sake of the community. To be completely virtuous citizens, men had to be independent and free of the petty interests of the market-place. The greatest enemy of virtue was commerce and the dependency it engendered, for any loss of autonomy was corruption. Hence time, change, and commerce all threatened virtue and the stability of the balanced republic.

These classical ideas were invoked by seventeenth-century Englishmen, particularly the republicans Milton, Nedham, and Harrington, and were carried into the eighteenth century by “country party” thinkers who ranged from radical Whigs like Trenchard and Gordon to Tories like Bolingbroke. Not only was this classical republican tradition set in opposition to the unprecedented financial and commercial developments of Hanoverian England, but it also formed the basis of the Americans’ revolutionary ideology of the 1760s and 1770s. The language of this opposition ideology was not liberal, Lockean, and individualist; it was, Pocock said, “one of virtue, corruption, and reform, which is Machiavellian, classical, and Aristotelian, and in which Locke himself did not figure.” Thus to Pocock the American Revolution, far from being a progressive event moving America into a new liberal, capitalistic world, was “the last great act of the civic Renaissance”; America was born in a “dread of modernity.”

Suddenly in light of Pocock’s synthesis all sorts of events in early American history could be reinterpreted. Thus the party quarrels between the Federalists and the Republicans in the 1790s, as Lance Banning and John Murrin have shown,1 could be best understood as a continuation of the debates between “court” and “country” of early eighteenth-century England. Jefferson was no longer seen as a progressive reader of Locke leading America into its individualistic future; instead he became a backward-looking follower of Bolingbroke obsessed with virtue and corruption and fearful of new commercial developments. Some historians like Ralph Ketcham have seen this classical politics coming to an end with the rise of Jacksonian democracy.2 But others like Dorothy Ross have found traces of the civic humanist tradition persisting well into the nineteenth century. 3 Not only does Pocock’s stress on the survival of the virtuous republic, according to Ross, reinforce “the findings of many recent studies of the Revolution, the early republic, and the antebellum decades,” but his work on the Atlantic republican tradition even “projects a long light” into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Reinforcing this Pocockian assault on the supposed liberal and individualistic origins of American society and culture was the work of Garry Wills and others.4 Wills in his book on the Declaration of Independence put the Scottish moralist Francis Hutcheson in place of Locke as the dominant influence on Jefferson. Suddenly it seemed that Jefferson was far more concerned with benevolence and communal values at the expense of individual rights than we had once thought. At the same time other historians, like Michael Zuckerman and James Henretta, were uncovering a communitarian and precapitalist mentality among the eighteenth-century husbandmen of America that most historians had scarcely known existed.5 The often implicit political message of these discoveries that America was not always liberal (in the sense of favoring equal personal rights) or capitalistic or individualistic was that maybe we were not destined to remain what we had become. But even without this hidden political message, the removal of Locke and liberalism from the center of early American culture constituted an extraordinary historiographical upheaval.

Scarcely had this upheaval taken place, however, before counterrumblings began to be heard. Despite its emphasis on a dialectic between virtue and commerce, “the republican synthesis” was not really capable of explaining the eventual emergence of liberal America. If America had not always been the society of possessive individualism we all know, a society ridden with claims for rights and interests, how and when had it become so? Pocock’s classical republican tradition seemed to miss so much. It seemed too neat and self-contained, too narrowly and abstractly conceived, too much the product of what Pocock himself calls a “tunnel history’6 : “selecting a single theme, and pushing it through until it emerges in the daylight of a new country.” Such a “tunnel history,” Pocock now admits, “cannot claim to have told all that there is to tell.” There are other tunnels, having to do with natural rights, negative liberties, and civil jurisprudence, for example, that might also be driven through the historical landscape. And other historians led by Isaac Kramnick and Joyce Appleby were soon digging away, creating their own separate liberal tunnel that allowed Locke once again to move back into eighteenth-century America.7

The republican synthesis, these neo-Lockean historians argued, had little applicability to the democratic revolutions of the latter part of the eighteenth century. Classical republicanism was elitist, hierarchical, and nostalgic, and it had little to offer important new social groups of artisans, shopkeepers, and other members of the petty bourgeoisie. These middle-class radicals, for whom John Wilkes and Thomas Paine were spokesmen, had none of the independence from the market that the landed gentry had. They had “interests,” their property was small, mobile, and the consequence of work, and they were deeply involved in commerce. They were less concerned with virtue and community than they were with equality and private rights. They had no interest in the classic moral values of political participation; they hated political privilege and wanted freedom from an elite-dominated state. Even America’s farmers in the late eighteenth century were far from being backward-looking, uncommercial yeomen; they were too busy making money by selling foodstuffs all over the Atlantic world. The United States was created not in a mood of classical anxiety over virtue and corruption but in a mood of liberal optimism over individual profits and prosperity.

After these arguments, the way was prepared for Diggins’s full-scale assault on “the republican synthesis.” And what an assault it is! Diggins is passionately determined to refute those “contemporary historians who make virtue the main theme of early American political philosophy.” (By his many references to “recent historians” or “contemporary historians” Diggins usually means Pocock.) Thus much of the book has a critical and negative quality. It is really a series of loosely connected essays—chapters and sections with intriguing titles (“Who’s Afraid of John Locke?” “David Hume and the ‘Seamy Side of Human Affairs,’ ” “The Charismatic Authority of the Virgin and the Matriarchal Ideal”)—each devoted to telling us just how weak the influence of classical republicanism has been and how individualistic and liberal we really are.

To be sure, many of these short essays have interesting insights—especially those dealing with writers who unsuccessfully sought to bring liberal capitalism under control—Emerson, Thoreau, Henry Adams. The prose is excited and vigorous and fairly crackles with aphorisms: e.g., “Individualism provided the means by which Americans could pursue their interests, pluralism the means by which they could protect them”; “There is a disturbing paradox in Thoreau’s concept of friendship: The more men really love each other, the less they need each other”; “It was characteristic of Adams to value most what existed least.” But although these intensely written essays are generally confined to the period between the Revolution and the Civil War, they make no pretense of being a narrative history of the period.

The book is too high-strung and too polemical and too much of it is devoted to exposing the superficiality of “the republican synthesis” for it to be an ordinary history. Diggins tracks Pocock everywhere, following doggedly at his heels down the classical republican tunnel, lifting every American rock labeled “virtue” to show us all the liberal individualists scurrying beneath it. Do “recent historians” say that the founders believed in civic obligation and the moral basis of politics? Then Diggins will show that “the classical idea of virtue as resistance to political corruption and a patriotic subordination of private interests to the public good was an idea whose time had come and gone by 1787.” Do historians believe that the Revolution was the consummation of “the Machiavellian moment”? Then, says Diggins, “it must surely seem a little awkward that the idea of virtue was not even mentioned in the Declaration.”

Did Americans believe in the ideals of classical virtue that stressed civic duty and made the “whole organic community greater than its discrete parts”? Then how come the colonists had “no sense of obligation to support the greater good of the British imperial system”? “Did the idea of ‘virtue’ compel the colonists to do good for others or to do what was useful for themselves?” Do historians believe that the concept of virtue was important to Jacksonianism? Then Diggins will show that “in the famous bank-veto statement there is no suggestion that the virtuous man should subordinate his interests to the general good and that civic activity should be his highest ideal.” If historians believe that classical republicanism influenced Populism, then Diggins will show them to be wrong: “Although adopting the rhetoric of ‘virtue’ and ‘corruption,’ Populist protest did not follow the pattern of classical discourse.” Did not Theodore Roosevelt use the term “republican virtue”? But “he did not necessarily have in mind the ideals of classical politics.” If classical republicanism was so strong, why did not everyone use it? “It is curious,” says Diggins, “that [the Transcendentalists] did not draw upon classical political ideas.”

And so it goes—a relentless exposing of the falsity of one example after another of classical republican influence. Perhaps this literal-minded pursuit of classical republicanism was inevitable, given the exaggerations of Pocock and his followers. But readers who believe that the problem of classical republican influence was misconstrued in the first place will get tired of Diggins’s repeated refutations. For early Americans there never was a stark dictionary of traditions, liberal or classical republican. None of the historical participants ever had any sense that they had to choose or were choosing between Locke and Machiavelli. The categories of “liberalism” and “classical republicanism” into which the participants in the past presumably must be fitted are the inventions of historians and as such are gross distortions of past reality. Jefferson, for example, could believe simultaneously, and without any sense of inconsistency, in the likelihood of America’s becoming corrupt and in the need to protect individual rights from government. By the late eighteenth century classical traditions were much too domesticated and modernized and the thinking of the founding fathers was much too dynamic and amalgamated for historians to be able to put people easily into one or another of fixed and static boxes.

But ultimately such criticism misses the point of Diggins’s book, which is not really a historiographical polemic after all, but a jeremiad. Diggins is angry with Pocock and the classical republican tradition only because they have prevented us from seeing ourselves as we really are. His pitiless pursuit of Pocock throughout the book comes from his intense desire to strip away the false classical coverings of our politics in order to reveal ourselves in all our naked liberalism. Diggins wants to assert Louis Hartz’s thesis with a vengeance.

In America, for Diggins, there is Locke and self-interest, and nothing but Locke and self-interest. Liberalism has conquered all, and in its relentless pursuit of individual rights and happiness it has left us mired “in a bog of vulgar materialism.” Pocock and classical republicanism are not what really troubles Diggins; it is our individualism and our pluralism: they have left America “without a sense of moral community” and “without a sense of national purpose.” In a section entitled “Ten Issues in Search of Authority” Diggins feverishly describes how liberalism prevented nineteenth-century Americans from solving basic political and social problems and brought on the Civil War. The pursuit of self-interest by all groups, classes, and sections undermined all political authority and made a national community impossible. Political parties were the natural consequence of liberalism, and with their acceptance in the Jacksonian era, “politicians no longer saw themselves as neutral, impartial upholders of the national interest. Instead, the public good came to be regarded as identical to party loyalty, and the party itself regarded electoral victory as tantamount to moral virtue.” Property and work became solely private and lost their connection with the welfare of the whole community. Indeed, since liberalism “does not require community for its realization,” all sense of community in America—“the idea that the whole is greater than the parts, and that private interests must yield to the larger ideals that transcend them”—eroded and disappeared. Ultimately “the idea of political authority withered away.” It is thus foolish, Diggins says, to keep talking about classical republicanism and its tradition of civic obligation and duty. Americans, he writes, have no idea at all why they should obey anything or anyone.

But it is worse still. Because the rhetoric of classical politics—virtue, corruption, disinterestedness—persisted into the nineteenth century and beyond, long after the substance of any such classical politics had disappeared, Americans lost their ability to deal honestly with language. Ideas and words became hopelessly separated from the reality they were supposed to represent, and this separation left Americans helpless, unable even to describe their plight accurately. By the time of Jackson the political language of the Democratic and Whig parties “no longer had any precise or consistent meaning.” Words hid reality more than revealed it, and “certain truths [about slavery, for example] could not be uttered in political discourse.” Although both parties may have debated in the language of classical politics, “that language provided no mutually recognized norms for using language in accepted ways, no rules or discourse to govern the meanings of ‘tyranny,’ ‘liberty,’ ‘virtue,’ and ‘corruption.’ Hence Democrats could justify political patronage and Whigs private profit—both anathema to classical republicanism.” Words became simply manipulated things; for Americans “the language of politics had no accepted rules governing its use.”

For Americans the situation has become so bad that “truth and reality may be independent of the language of politics.” This crisis of language is part of our general modernist wretchedness, afflicting even historians; for, says Diggins, “without rules governing the use of political language the historian has no way of knowing whether the speaker had a right to say what he said.” Without honesty and virtue in men, in other words, there can be no authority, no truth, in ideas. Diggins realizes that this problem of the relation of language and ideas to reality goes beyond the events of antebellum politics, and thus he devotes three appendices to the ways recent historians have succumbed to modernism. But what Diggins wants—the restoration of truth, authority, and the “essential meaning” of words—is more than our postmodernist world will allow. It is a measure of his despair.

Diggins finds “alienation” is everywhere in America. Thoreau was alienated; so too was Henry Adams. Even Tocqueville: “Indeed, Tocqueville was haunted by a sense of human alienation far more disturbing than anything found in Marx’s writings.” Despite all their eighteenth-century enlightenment the founders too were alienated. They had an “image of weak, fallen man,” and “the unspoken imagery of sin and evil stalks the pages of the Federalist.”

Like a hellfire preacher Diggins seems to delight in exposing the extent to which liberalism has created our ” ‘fallen,’ alienated condition.” Because only when we face our liberal reality honestly and admit our sins freely, he says, will there be hope for us. Only then can we be redeemed. Liberalism is sinfulness, and the only escape from sin is through religion. If there is to be any salvation for America, he implies, it thus has to be a Christian one, a Calvinist one. Classical political thought and all it represents in the way of earthbound pagan virtue can never save our lost soul. “If it lacks the insights of Christianity,” and it does, it “remains morally empty.” No doubt liberalism leads to anarchy and alienation, but precisely because it does, it contains the source of its own deliverance. Unlike classical republicanism, liberalism, says Diggins, has its “foundations” in Calvinism and thus carries “the seeds of its own condemnation.” Because Calvinism shares with liberalism “the problem of alienation,” it offers the only solution to the contradictions of liberalism and the destruction of authority. Lincoln especially knew this, and for Diggins he is our savior.

Lincoln,” writes Diggins, “stands as a tragic hero who set out to sanctify the secular and the profane.” For Lincoln religion was “not a convenient fiction but a painful truth that can possibly illuminate why America must suffer for its sins.” Lincoln had no pagan pride; his “Christian sensibility” made him humble before God and history. Although he realized we live in a morally ambiguous world, he knew right from wrong, good from evil. He did not wallow in relativity, and he “did not sink into linguistic despair.” For him the meanings of words like liberty or slavery “depended on their essential definitions, and not on the context of their use.”

Unlike us, Lincoln believed “that certain ideas were absolute because they involved fundamental principles.” He had all that we do not have because he really believed in “Christian values.” He “went beyond reason and history to invoke religious concepts as authoritative.” Lincoln believed in authority and in “what the humanists had dismissed as superstition—the wrath of God.” Lincoln in fact helped to heal the wound civic humanism had inflicted on Americans by reminding his fellow citizens that there was a rational sovereign God who “cannot be for, and against the same thing at the same time.” Lincoln thus reintroduced “into political discourse the Christian moralism that Machiavelli had purged from his theory of statecraft.” Lincoln’s Christianity was underpinned by two deep convictions: “the inescapability of sin and the universality of guilt.” But he also knew compassion and forgiveness. “In Lincoln American political thought ascended, and, ascending, reached spiritual ecstasy.”

There we have it: the diagnosis of our ills and a starkly honest “Niebuhrian corrective to the pretensions of American virtue.” Precisely because Americans have so many more opportunities for pursuing wealth and self-interest than other peoples, we have a greater sense of alienation and therefore a greater degree of the “alienated man’s need for grace and redemption.” But in the late nineteenth century “the Christian values” Lincoln had stood for “died out” and “the older Calvinist tension between the sins of self-interest and the demands of Christian morality” was replaced by John Dewey’s narcissistic “self-realization.”

The outlook is bleak. No doubt Americans need what Pope John Paul II recently called “a healthy sense of sin.” No doubt we no longer believe that words have fixed essential meanings. No doubt too our postmodernist world lacks authority and absolutes of all sorts. And perhaps it would be wonderful to believe once again in God and to recover our lost soul. But there is no going back to those faithful days—at least not without a religious upheaval the like of which the Western world has not experienced in two thousand years.

  1. 1

    Lance Banning, The Jeffersonian Persuasion: Evolution of a Party Ideology (Cornell University Press, 1978); John Murrin, “The Great Inversion, or Court versus Country: A Comparison of the Revolution Settlements in England (1688–1721) and America (1776–1816),” in J. G. Pocock, ed., Three British Revolutions: 1641, 1688, 1776 (Princeton University Press, 1980).

  2. 2

    Ralph Ketcham, Presidents Above Party: The First American Presidency, 1789–1829 (University of North Carolina Press, 1984).

  3. 3

    Dorothy Ross, “The Liberal Tradition Revisited and the Republican Tradition Addressed,” in John Higham and Paul K. Conkin, eds., New Directions in American Intellectual History (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980).

  4. 4

    Garry Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (Doubleday, 1978).

  5. 5

    Michael Zuckerman, Peaceable Kingdoms: New England Towns in the Eighteenth Century (Norton, 1978); James A. Henretta, “Families and Farms: Mentalité in Preindustrial America,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, 35 (1978).

  6. 6

    In Istvan Hont and Michael Ignatieff, eds., Wealth and Virtue: The Shaping of Political Economy in the Scottish Enlightenment (Cambridge University Press, 1984).

  7. 7

    Isaac Kramnick, “Republican Revisionism Revisited,” American Historical Review, 87 (1982); Joyce Appleby, “Commercial Farming and the ‘Agrarian Myth’ in the Early Republic,” Journal of American History, 68 (1982); Appleby, “What is Still American in the Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson?” William and Mary Quarterly444, 3rd series, 39 (1982).

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