The Founders' Temporary Republic

The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America
Drew R. McCoy, 1980

The basic premise of
The Elusive Republic is that the Jeffersonian Republicans, especially James Madison but even including Benjamin Franklin, thought they could use the frontier to substitute development across space for development over time.  In this way, America could be kept in a sort-of artificial infancy, forestalling the what these men, all familiar with classical antiquity, universally believed was the inevitable declension of republics into decadence. Their objective, says Drew McCoy, was to keep America in an intermediate state which they hoped would allow for commercialization without the corruption of public morals and dependence on imported luxuries they believed marked the beginning of the end for a republic. McCoy says the republicans were obsessed with personal virtue because they believed only a “Spartan” citizenry could maintain a republic. The irony, understood by only a few, was that in its attempt to keep people virtuous, Sparta had eliminated the freedoms and individual rights the republicans sought to protect.

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McCoy begins with the very important observation that “Contemporary Americans all too often presume an unjustified familiarity with their Revolutionary forebears. It is easy to assume that our basic concerns were theirs, and especially that our understanding of the Revolution and its legacy accurately reflects the meaning and significance they attached to it...few acknowledge how frightening and even distasteful twentieth-century America might appear to the members of a Revolutionary generation” (5). This misunderstanding is due, he says, not only to the unimaginable changes that separate them and us, but also to the fact that they were knowingly engaged in an anachronistic, “poignant struggle to adapt the traditional, classical republican impulse to modern commercial society” (9). Since “The Revolutionaries lived during an age when a consideration of the normative dimension of economic life” was still expected, McCoy sets out to describe their attempt to “establish...a republican system of political economy in America” (7).
“American republicanism.” McCoy says, “must be understood as an ideology in transition” (10). It might also be described, to extend his train of thought, as a system idealists like Jefferson tried to apply to a reality they didn’t (and didn’t want to?) completely understand. Or, if one were cynical, it might be described as a political discourse, presented to a European audience (via Francois Marbois) wondering how America was going to arrange its affairs. Consider this famous description of yeoman virtue by plantation owner and noted deist, Thomas Jefferson:

Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phaenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example. It is the mark set on those, who not looking up to heaven, to their own soil and industry, as does the husbandman, for their subsistence, depend for it on the casualties and caprice of customers. Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition...generally speaking, the proportion which the aggregate of the other classes of citizens bears in any state to that of its husbandmen, is the proportion of its unsound to its healthy parts, and is a good-enough barometer to measure its degree of corruption. (Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia)

This is supposed to be the core statement of the Jeffersonian agrarian myth. But why should the breasts of farmers be the only possible “deposit for substantial and genuine virtue”? Is it only because Jefferson says so? Is that why he needs to resort to “God”? And “Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators...” He’s conveniently forgetting not only that he and his fellow Virginian cultivators own slaves, but that they own slaves specifically because they were not living in virtuous subsistence, but producing a staple crop for foreign commercial markets! And if his virtuous cultivators are actually the slaves, then there goes his whole republican formula.

“Dependence begets subservience,” is only a short step from some type of Rousseauvian belief that any social interaction is a “fall” from a pure state of nature. It’s not a state of nature Jefferson or any of his readers has ever seen. But back to McCoy. Republicans like Jefferson and George Mason, he says “never doubted that the natural sequence of social development would culminate inevitably in the form of society he feared” (16). It was the classical paradigm of declension, the fall, the feet-of-clay story. It's interesting, as McCoy notes, how these people are able to mix these ancient paradigms with “enlightenment” ideas from Hume and Adam Smith, in ways that seem unreasonable to us now. But I'm still not convinced these were actually beliefs these folks honestly held, rather than rhetorical devices they used.

McCoy spends some time defending Adam Smith, in an argument that seems to fit well with Joyce Appleby’s contributions to the “capitalist transition” debate. He says Smith both “emphatically approved of an advanced division of labor as the basis of continuing economic growth and social progress, [and] was also concerned with its concomitant tendency to relegate the laboring classes to a brutish existence that crippled their minds and bodies” (37). Smith is the smartest guy in McCoy's story, offering nuanced, qualified observations, such as his statement that under mercantilism, “the private interest of a part, and of a subordinate part of society” was taken to be “the general interest of the whole” (quoting
Wealth of Nations, 43). Other insights are provided by Franklin: “Manufactures are founded in poverty...it is the multitude of poor without land in a country, and who must work for others at low wages or starve, that enables undertakers to carry on a manufacture” (quoting “The Interest of Great Britain Considered,” 51), and John Adams: “the balance of power in a society [parallels] the balance of property in land [so society must] make the acquisition of land easy to every member of society [or] make a division of land into small quantities, so that the multitude may be possessed of landed estates” (68).

McCoy suggests there was some “uneasy suspicion (and sometimes recognition) among the Revolutionaries that even predominantly agricultural America was already a relatively advanced commercial society” (70). They made practical distinctions, however, between “wealth that accrued through the perseverance of habitual industry” and the “sudden fortunes acquired through the manipulation and chicanery of speculators and stockjobbers” (85). This seems to go to the heart of the republican objection to Hamilton. After all, as Thomas Paine said, “Our plan is commerce, and that, well attended to, will secure us the peace and friendship of all Europe” (quoting
Common Sense, 89). But did anybody really think you could build a nation on commerce and not create fortunes?

The cause of America’s problems, in McCoy’s story, was the new nation’s inability to sell its agricultural surpluses freely in Europe and the West Indies. In this sense, Britain nearly defeated the new American republic by causing a political crisis that split the founding generation into republican and federalist partisans. Jefferson and Madison’s idea of “developing across space rather than through time” depended on both the availability of a frontier and the “ability of new settlers to get their surpluses to market” (121-2). The Embargo and attempts to eliminate foreign luxuries and focus on domestic manufacture of “necessaries” raise interesting questions about the role of government in economic development. McCoy reminds the reader that even Hamilton insisted “the development of advanced manufactures in America would require extensive government encouragement” (quoting the “Report on Manufactures,” 159). He concludes that the republicans’ revolution, the “escape from time,” had always been understood by Madison as temporary (259). At some point, the frontier would close. By his 1815 annual message, Madison had begun explicitly supporting “manufacturing establishments...of the more complicated kind” (245). Was this Madison’s  acknowledgement of the basic mismatch between classical republicanism and nineteenth century America? Was it a political victory for the capitalists and their cronies in professional government? Maybe the defining moment, in political changes like the demise of agrarian republicanism and its reappearance as an American myth, is not when the other guys finally win out, but when its proponents give it up.