The Idea of an “Empire of Liberty”

How we label things, or how we construct their meaning and place in history, obviously will say a lot about us.

The Constitution serves as a good example.

The Constitution has its flaws, its oversights, and some ungainliness about it.  We understand that it’s obviously not perfect. But it surely has worked on some level, having lasted this long.  Because it has worked (or at least we assume it has — more thoughts on this later), we think of it as a very “modern” and forward-looking document.  This matches how we think of ourselves.  We are a “progressive” people, the documents that define us must also have the same character.

But in his two books Empire of Liberty, and The Idea of America acclaimed historian Gordon Wood makes the point that the Constitution tried in fact to stem the rising tide of “liberty” and change unleashed by the “spirit of ’76.” The Constitution may not have been a completely “reactionary” document but it was a response to a quick erosion in society of what many elite revolutionaries like Adams and Madison held dear.

Through various quotes and citations, Wood lists the changes seen and feared by such men in the 1780’s . . .

  • A loosening of traditional relationships between men and women — parents had much less control over who their children married.
  • Riots and protests against professors at the few (and elite) colleges by many students demanding curriculum changes, attitude changes, and the like
  • A decided turn against the virtues of the ancient Romans and a great movement toward the ideas of tolerance and conviviality as the means to hold society together
  • Democratization of religion, which became much less authority driven and much more ‘touchy-feely.’
  • Extreme partisan politics on local levels, with stories of violent behavior in state legislatures rampant.  The rise of the “party-spirit” in politics bewildered many.
  • Both “free love” and drugs going mainstream into the culture

Ok — the last is not true, but if one looks at the list, it looks quite familiar to us, making us think of the 1920’s or the 1960’s, or today.  Maybe we must face the fact that this is what America was, is, and ever shall be.  As Alfred North Whitehead once said, “The major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur.”

Wood asserts that while the Constitution succeeded in establishing a structure that put up some barriers to change, overall the idea of liberty and “the people” triumphed over the Constitution’s conservative aspirations.  In the end, the idea liberty and the reality of the voice of the people ended up remaking the Constitution in its own image.  The Anti-Federalists, those who opposed the Constitution’s ratification, lost the battle but won the war.  The best the ideals of Washington and Adams can do now is fight rear-guard actions against the overwhelming power of the “people.”

Though initially shocking to our sensibilities, the idea of a reactionary Constitution helps make sense of much of American history down to the present day.  It also partially explains why appeals to the vision of the founders, or the intent of the founders falls on deaf ears.  For one, Madison and others probably believed that the factional “evils” they saw in state governments would not transfer to the national legislature.  Perhaps Madison wanted a stronger national government because he thought that only the “better sort” would get elected to the national legislature and thereby elevate discourse.  This “better sort” would not fall prey to party politics.  He sought then, more power not so much to the national government but to the “better men.”  However strong Madison’s hopes on this score, they quickly proved illusory.  Madison and others like him either misinterpreted or remained ignorant of exactly what their revolution had wrought.**

At a deeper level, two other questions arise.  Can the structures of organizations curtail underlying driving principles that form such organizations?  I tend to side on this one with the Jurassic Park dictum, “Life finds a way.”  The early “conservatives” could not call upon the spirit of self-determination in 1776 and then expect to put the toothpaste back in the tube once the Revolution had accomplished what they wanted it to.  The population at large could rightly retort, “What about us?” Bowing to the “will of the people” became a necessity, and eventually, a foreordained, positive good. Even a Constitutional “literalist” or “minimalist” like Jefferson gladly dispensed with his principles with the Louisiana Purchase, among other instances.  Like a nuclear blast, the concept of “liberty” leveled everything in its path.  What mattered to most was not the past, but the future.  The founders had done their part, but our vehement abhorrence to anything smacking of aristocracy made us quickly resistant to anything resembling the determining “tyranny of the past.”  John Adams, among others, quickly tried to assert that, “Wait!  That’s not what we meant!”  Most responded with some form of “I don’t care!”  Within a generation of the Constitution’s ratification, “egghead” professions like that of lawyer already were viewed as “elitist” by many, especially towards the frontier.  The seeming radical nature of the “Jacksonian Revolution” actually had its roots laid years prior.

Wood deals with the slavery question related to these political questions, but I found his analysis of the relationship between Americans and Native Americans more intriguing.  He writes,

Conceiving itself as a composite of different peoples, the British Empire could somehow accommodate the existence of Indians within its territory.  But the new American Republic was different: it contained only citizens who were presumably equal with one another.  Since the United States could scarcely imagine the Indians as citizens equal to all other American citizens, it had to regard Native Americans as members of foreign nations with which treaties had to be negotiated.  Of course, most of the Indians themselves had no desire to become citizens of the American Republic.

While the 17th century colonists did fight with Indians, little doubt exists that American Independence proved a disaster for Native Americans.  Problems began years before the war itself — one of the driving issues behind the Sugar Act and Stamp Act involved keeping colonists off Native American land.  Wood’s reasoning fits with de Tocqueville’s thoughts on equality, and the problem persists today. We have yet to work out the tension between liberty and equality.  When the “people” speak (however we measure this) we cannot tolerate deviation from the norm.  The example of Bruce/Caitlin Jenner speaks to this.  How many ESPN commentator’s could keep their jobs and declare that Jenner is tragically mistaken in his actions?  To be fair, had ESPN existed 50 years ago, could anyone have then applauded his actions and kept his job?

One unsaid implication of Wood’s book is pride of place between the American and French Revolutions.  Most see the American Revolution as giving birth to the French Revolution, with the French Revolution as the bastardization of all that went well in America, then withering on the vine as Napoleon took over.  But we might instead see the French Revolution as the real victor, with its sense of the power and authority of the “people” in more or less full swing by the early 19th century in America.  He who laughs last laughs loudest.  Or perhaps both of these positions wrongly presume an essential difference between the two events.  Maybe the American Revolution started to resemble the French Revolution because they had the same origins — fraternal if not identical twins.  If we consider this option, then we may need to reevaluate America history as a whole — an exciting if not daunting task.

“A man’s worst difficulties begin when he is able to do as he likes.” — T.H. Huxley

Dave

*We should note that those at the the Constitutional Convention had different ideas, and others whom we might consider “founders” like Patrick Henry, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson were not at the Convention at all.

**Wood cites a variety of sources to demonstrate that the traditional understanding of the need for the Constitutional Convention being the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation are false.  Many had perfect awareness of these weaknesses and their fix remained relatively simple.  The real concerns of men like Madison and Washington lie rather in their observations of the petty bickering of state legislatures, and the fact any man Jack seemingly could get elected to state legislatures.

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One comment on “The Idea of an “Empire of Liberty”

  1. Carlos Fernandes II says:

    Good read! I thoroughly enjoyed the analogies and quotes incorporated in the text!

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