Republicanism and Democracy in the 18th Century
A Book Review
Some of us have learned the history of the American Revolution in a way which leads us to think the revolution was inevitable. There were logical forces and circumstances leading to the revolution and like other people in other revolutions the American colonists reached a point where they had no other choice but to revolt. Some of us have learned that the revolution parallels the French Revolution. The author, Gordon S. Wood, takes aim especially at what he describes as the Progressive interpretations of the American Revolution and demonstrates neither the revolution nor the revolution’s outcome was inevitable; instead they were radical.
The premise of Gordon’s argument rests on how different the American Revolution was from every other revolution before it and for these differences alone we could consider the American Revolution a radical revolution for the 18th Century. But there is much more to history when considering the complex actions and reactions that took place in this time when people had become fed up with the monarchy’s government. At the same time they were experiencing a life in which in order to build a new life class distinctions had become useless and perhaps even silly. Everyone’s hands were needed for work and when everyone is working together for a common goal many differences fade away.
Radicalism was inherent in the goal of the revolutionaries which was to rid themselves of the corruption of the monarchial rule, leave the paternal monarchy behind and rule themselves with a spirit of independence. They wanted a government which would reflect human nature not a highly structured paternal hierarchy. Gordon S. Wood won a Nobel Prize for this book. He describes how colonists with such a variety of backgrounds, experiences and personal goals were able to form a cohesive revolution so very different from any other and one that also changed society in revolutionary ways.
This essay looks first at how the beginnings of a republican system were evident from atmosphere of frustration the people felt with the monarchial rule. This discussion will hopefully describe some of the essential foundational definitions of a republic by using examples and thoughts from Gordon’s book. Next the idea of democracy during the transition will be discussed, not with definitions but by looking at some of the ways democracy was perceived and acted upon. The third section talks about republicanism and democracy working together in order for the reader to understand the difference between the two. The conclusion will reflect how tidily republicanism and democracy fit together and some comments on “The Radical American Revolution.”
The Beginnings of a Republican System
The vertical hierarchy of royalty reached clear up to the God in heaven; the hierarchy that gave cohesiveness to the united Colonies was also vertical but the glue holding it together was not a veneration or adoration of George Washington or Benjamin Franklin. Political patronage was the glue holding the system together as the republic was forming. This was not in the form of the bribery or through campaign donations as in modern times. The patronage was within families and one’s circle of friends and acquaintances. In Chapter 5 Gordon uses the example of Benjamin Franklin when in 1753 he became deputy postmaster of North America appointing sons, nieces’ husbands and other people he knew into job positions that needed to be filled.
Nepotism is a showing of favoritism but in the 18th century in the newly united colonies we need to think of political patronage as the act of inventing a system which works the opposite of a monarchy. No one would have thought of accusing Benjamin Franklin of nepotism by appointing family and others he knew into positions within the post office. Franklin or anyone in a position to appoint workers into jobs chose family members, friends and people who they knew. This way of ‘doing business’ was already the glue of the colonial social system - mutual respect, obligation and reciprocity in personal relationships plus very strong family bonds. Now it was done as usual but within the context of building a new political system.
Compare the new republican way to the obsession of so many of the royal officials, such as sheriffs, governors, lords and ladies in receiving favor from the King. Organizations with the civil government, even small households, had community responsibilities which were done as a duty to the King and to help him accomplish the smooth running of his lands.
The quote below from Gordon is important because he explains in it how ripe for a turn to republicanism was at the time, yet how far away it seemed. It was an ideal but not an ideal that was being planned for consciously or that was expected to be reached at any time soon.
“Eighteenth-century monarchial government still rested today on inherited medieval notions that are lost to us today. The modern distinctions between state and society, public and private, were just emerging and were as yet only dimly appreciated. The king’s inherited rights to govern the realm – his prerogatives – were as much private as they were public, just as the people’s ancient rights or liberties were as much public as they were private. Public institutions had private rights and private persons had public rights.” (1687)
After 1765 the atmosphere was one of disgruntlement from those with no aristocratic pretentions and there was also a lack of willingness to go along with their “superiors” who tried to tell them what to do. What seemed obvious was a dislike of authority but what was happening was more important. People did not accept the royal governance as their natural right but more as an obstacle to their natural rights.
Even in the family republican ideals were popular with the people and women in colonies, for some years anyway, had more freedom and legal avenues to own property and have legal rights.
An incredible change in social organization took place when the young people refused to go along with the tradition of arranged marriages. Arrangements had historically been made to marry young people so an advantage would be gained for the families through the legal relationship usually in the form of land or perhaps farm animals or other possessions.
The Beginnings of Democratic System
Democracy was gaining adherents among the sons of some of the established aristocracy such as Abraham Bishop from Connecticut. He would become enraged at the Federalists and the Federalists called him “a monstrous oddity in the world.” The Federalists were already upset about their weakening power and perhaps even more so about their weakened economic advantages. Republican polemicists in the 1790s such as Bishop railed against the Federalists and their monarchial pretensions. In doing so the Republican polemicists were rallying against the monarchy by challenging people to stop kowtowing to the gentry and open their eyes to the true nature of the monarchy and its adherents; certainly the first important step in forming an equalitarian system of government. They were the voice of the common people and in a position to be heard.
A surprising fact that Gordon (5631) presents in the book is the admission by Bishop that the gentry were “extraordinary men’ due to their education and manners but Bishop turns the argument around to reason that because they are “extraordinary men” they were not fit for governing ordinary people. In fact he called them “dangerous and unessential for republican government.” Those were very strong words yet he felt free to express his opinion in public. He pointed out that the gentlemen rulers were fake and rude in that they considered themselves “well-born” yet the people as “base-born” (5678). So here we learn one of the first public arguments made in the colonies to tip the two class system on its head or better yet get rid of one of the classes to form a democratic society.
Democratic and Republican in the 18th century
Gordon writes at the beginning of Chapter 6, “the late eighteenth century in the Atlantic world has been called “the age of the democratic revolution.” It might better be called “the age of the republican revolution.”
Americans had a shared feeling that everyone should work; an intensely egalitarian therefore democratic ideal. Gordon (5929) points out that in the 1890 census men were asked to state their occupation; definitely not the acceptable aristocratic way of doing things. The dukes, princes and bearers of title from royal familial lines were not ‘workers.’ They had a title and that was enough.
But there were exceptions. The exceptions included men with monarchial appointments to the congressional assembly who could not support a family unless they could pursue a private business. It was impossible to pay for all the expenses of a decent life unless a fortune or inheritance was in one’s bank account. So within the aristocracy there were men who wanted to be set free of their monarchial appointments in order to make a living so they could have the means to support their families. These men who would seem at first glance to be tied to the monarchy in fact became part of the society clamoring to break the monarchy’s chains. (5953)
Chapter 16 is particularly interesting because Gordon lays out the different views and arguments that evolved into the forming of the bicameral Congress we still have containing the House of Representatives and the Senate. The first came about from a desire for direct representation of the people and the second due to the transforming of the traditional self supporting congress member to someone perhaps still from that class but obligated to meet the needs and desires of the people in representative (democratic) government. The argument started over whether or not federal officials should be given a salary.
Importantly Gordon reminds us that a democratic institution cannot be of any use to anyone unless it is legitimized and he argues that the “Jacksonian Revolution” was the key to legitimizing the new government. They did this with forceful democratic rhetoric and practical element of the monarchial system in order to centralize and coordinate the young government. He explains this contradiction as follows.
“Jacksonianism did not create democracy in America but it legitimated it; it restrained and controlled it and reconciled Americans to it. It did so by infusing into American democracy more elements of monarchy than even the Federalists had dared to try. They did this however in the midst of the most enthusiastic democratic rhetoric that any modern country had ever experienced.” (6277).
No new ‘superior’ head of government had replaced the monarch as a ruler such as happened after the English revolution (Cromwell).
Instead this new republic had been born with a new democratic sensibility. The young republic was divided into governmental departments which held elected officials and emphasized that the people would be represented in their government.
And that is why the beautiful document declaring independence starts with the words, “We the people of these united states . . .”
Gordon’s argument that the American Revolution was a “radical” revolution is convincing. His reasons are not the reasons many of his readers might expect, but due to his historical insights, examples of the conversations and comments of historical figures, and his carefully written book, his reasons have convinced many that “radical” is the perfect word to describe the American Revolution.
I feel very proud of my founding ancestors especially now that I understand that the transformation from the monarchy to a democratic republic was indeed astonishing and radical.
Wood, Gordon S. The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States. London. Vintage Books. 1993. Kindle Cloud Reader.