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Machiavellian Moments

In response to:

Early American Get-Up-and-Go from the June 29, 2000 issue

To the Editors:

After a quarter of a century, I should like to be free of the role of straw man to the American historical profession, which I did not seek and do not think I have deserved. In his review of Joyce Appleby’s Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans [NYR, June 29], Gordon S. Wood repeats the decades-old charge that I riveted on American history a “republican synthesis” from which Appleby “almost single-handedly” rescued Jefferson by emphasizing his immersion in an ethos of liberal capitalism, entrepreneurial and democratic. I am supposed to have denied this by emphasizing his concern for agrarian values and his terror of a system of government based on the financing of a national debt. I think the attribution of this position to me, which has been going on since the appearance of The Machiavellian Moment in 1975, is based on a persistent misunderstanding of what I then wrote. I have said so before, and am now obliged to say it again.

In the last chapter of The Machiavellian Moment—which by the way does not state any set of aims with which the whole book was written—I said nothing whatever about Jefferson’s views on a liberal-capitalist economy. I laid stress on his detestation of Hamilton’s fiscal and political proposals, of “the English system of government,” and of David Hume’s History of England, which he considered with some justice the apologia of that system; though it is interesting that Hume’s essay “Of Public Credit” is one of the most virulent denunciations of government by national debt ever penned. This was not an attack on trade, commerce, or liberal capitalism; in an older language, Jefferson was hostile to “the monied interest,” not “the trading interest,” in ours to finance capitalism, not mercantile or industrial capitalism. For this reason I said nothing about his attitude to the latter, and it has always been an error to suppose that I did. The problem is why so many of my colleagues have proved incapable of avoiding this error.

I represented Jefferson’s position as “republican” because this is obviously what it was; the attempt to represent Jefferson and “republicanism” as antithetical indicates that something has gone wrong with language. I represented it as having to do with “the Machiavellian moment”—the republic’s persistent doubt of its own durability—because I saw the debate about “public credit” (a century old in Jefferson’s time) as an expression of fear that investment in the national debt might doom the republic of separated powers to corruption and the loss of virtue. This fear can be represented—as Wood has always insisted—as aristocratic in origin, but it can equally well be represented as populist. I presented the debate whose issues Jefferson articulated as institutionalizing in the American mind a need to see the republic as virtuous and a fear that it might corrupt itself; an American continuation of “the Machiavellian moment” in its eighteenth-century form, never to be severed from the question of how the republic was to finance itself. In 1975 we were closer to the populist outbursts of 1968 than we now are, but I have not seen reason to abandon my argument.

It is possible—and Appleby may be arguing—that Jefferson (like Paine) saw an entrepreneurial democracy as the remedy for this peril, though I should still want to ask whether he was free from (quite justified) fears for its future. This reading would be wholly compatible with what I was then arguing, and I want to know why I have been so persistently misrepresented, as if I had made Jefferson the apostle of a self-sufficient Arcadian agrarianism in which nobody this side of Rousseau believed. All serious thinkers in the eighteenth century accepted commerce, and all had doubts about it. To range them, or to range ourselves, “for” or “against” it is to miss the reality of the debate whose history I was trying to write. Are historians incapable of counting higher than two? Or is American historiography incurably foundationalist, a search for the true principles on which the republic was founded, so that any attempt to see the foundation as inherently debatable is inevitably presented as a new (and false) foundationalism? This has certainly been the fate of The Machiavellian Moment.

I cannot accept Wood’s suggestion that Appleby “almost single-handedly” rescued Jefferson from my stranglehold. His own position was declared in The Creation of the American Republic, six years before my book was published, and I was immediately the target of a good deal of rejection—some of it not marked by his and Appleby’s invariable friendliness and good humor—in which I found I had blasphemed against icons of American liberalism, when all I wanted to say was that the icons were unsure of themselves. Inheriting the Revolution must be Appleby’s fourth or fifth major publication on this subject, and I do not know what part I play in it. I think my colleagues can write very fine books without making me their whipping boy; I think they misread me when they do; and I think they can and should get along without me in the future.

J.G.A. Pocock
Professor of History Emeritus
The Johns Hopkins University
Baltimore, Maryland

Gordon S Wood replies:

Professor Pocock has some justification in protesting that he has become a “straw man to the American historical profession” for having riveted a “republican synthesis” onto American history-writing. But is being a “straw man,” or a “whipping boy,” if that indeed is what he has been, such a bad thing? It has made him famous, at least among historians. Besides, he ought to know by now that books belong to their readers, not their authors.

Pocock is certainly right about the crudity of the historiographical debates we scholars engage in. Those debates often require straw men, or whipping boys, or representative figures, and for many historians Pocock seemed to fit the role. More than any other single historian writing in the 1970s and 1980s, he came to stand for the so-called “republican synthesis,” which held that America was born with a fear of corruption and a desire to promote classical virtue.

Pocock is correct in saying that all serious thinkers in the eighteenth century accepted commerce with, of course, varying degrees of doubt. Jefferson, however, does seem to have had more doubts than most. In his Machiavellian Moment Pocock himself recognized this when he quoted and interpreted Jefferson’s famous phrase of contempt for those dependent “on the casualties and caprice of customers.” But it was not so much Jefferson’s views on capitalism that historians like Appleby invoked against Pocock and the “republican synthesis.” It was more Jefferson’s belief in Lockean liberalism and individual rights, especially as developed and used by his followers.

But the debate seems to be over now, and the crude boxlike categories that we historians invented—”republicanism” and “liberalism”—have crumbled. The reality of the past is always more complicated than we historians can ever recount. It is about time that we recognize that Jefferson could express simultaneously, and without any sense of inconsistency, the classical republican fear of America’s eventually becoming corrupt and the modern liberal need to protect individual rights from government. The debate may be over, but Pocock’s great work will remain. I don’t think he has been terribly misread, and I don’t think we can get along without him in the future.