U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Toward Democracy Book Club: Entry 5 – Chapters 3-4

Dust Jacket for Jim Kloppenberg’s Toward Democracy (OUP, 2016).

[A few weeks ago I posted the schedule. I vowed to do my best to stay on it, but have already had to adjust. Please note the new schedule, which moved each week’s topic back another week. The new scheduled end is March 30. Today we proceed with chapters 3-4. As noted in prior entries, my notes here are purposely not comprehensive. They’re idiosyncratic in relation my interests. Last week I summarized too much. Today’s post, I think, avoids that kind of tedium. – TL]

These chapters, meaning three and four, were hard for this modern Americanist. I’m a post-Civil War historian with broad interests, but reading the historical details from English events and people dating from the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), the English Civil War (1642-1651), Restoration (1660-1688), and Glorious Revolution tested my professional patience.

The present political events of the last few weeks and month have most certainly fed my interest in Kloppenberg’s larger themes—i.e. reciprocity, autonomy, consensus, the role of religion in democracies, censorship, popular sovereignty/consent of the governed, toleration, mutuality, deliberation, freedom of conscience, human fallibility, and the importance of personal ethics/morality. Let there be no doubt about the continued relevance of themes important to fostering a democratic culture and politics.

The problems, for me in relation to the pressures of the present (or even the last century) and my own professional interests, are the forces of opposition. Instead of middling classes and bourgeois elites fighting against the divine rights of kings and royal sovereignty, my professional historical interests lie in the how democratic citizens interact and converse—how discourse fails and flounders. My concern is with the intensity of ideological expression in the context of technocratic elites, the corporate plutocracy, and those outside either circle. I’m most worried about the internal social and economic problems of democracies and democratic cultures. While the tyrannical behavior of leaders most certainly has my attention, that behavior in the context of monarchs is, well, old news.

That said, I do understand why Jim Kloppenberg needed to set the context for works by thinkers such as Henry Parker, Philip Hunton, Richard Overton, William Walwyn, John Wildman, Oliver Cromwell, Henry Marten, Thomas Hobbes, James Harrington, John Lilburne, Hugh Peter, Henry Vane, John Milton, Algernon Sidney, Hugo Grotius, Sam Pufendorf, John Locke, and William Penn.

As a scholar of the great books idea, wherein most lists include works by Milton, Hobbes, and Lock—at the very least—I appreciated the context. And Kloppenberg knew the appeal, for instance, of Milton, writing:

Of all English writers active during the middle decades of the seventeenth century, the poet John Milton is no doubt the best known today. Champion of free speech, freedom of conscience, and divorce by consent, critic of monarchy and empire, Milton appeals to many twenty-first century liberals and libertarians.[1]

I don’t hear many people quoting Milton these days, but I think I see Kloppenberg’s point. It’s not hard to find topics of appeal, even if you’re not citing Milton directly. As a scholar of great books, I’d heard of Areopagitica but had missed Milton’s political works, such as The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649) and Eikonoklastes (1649), wherein Milton justifies regicide. Having missed Tenure, I had also not seen Milton’s reply to the French Huguenot scholar Salmasius, titled Defense of the English People (1651). Finally, I was completely ignorant of Milton’s The Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth (1660), a lament on the loss of the commonwealth, “so dearly purchased.” [2]

Milton’s enthusiasms and regrets buttress the themes and argument of chapter three. Kloppenberg argued, overall, that “the waves of violence that swept across England from the outbreak of the civil war in 1647 until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 were another expression of the same convulsive religious wars that rages in Europe throughout the preceding century.”[3] I won’t recount all of the ways Kloppenberg supports this by covering the writings of pamphleteers among Puritans and Presbyterians, and then the Levellers, in response to the Church of England and Archbishop Laud/King Charles. But I find the straightforward thesis convincing.

I especially appreciated the lessons offered by Kloppenberg as he ended his analysis of Milton’s writings in the face of the Restoration. Here’s what is presented in Toward Democracy—a long paragraph I present here in full because of its moving nature:

Champions of democracy have often celebrated the heroic, selfless struggle of those willing to fight and die for popular government. The English experience, however, like that of Europeans in the preceding century, illustrates that war, even when it is inescapable, makes democracy to attain and less likely to survive. Faced with chaos, ordinary people often choose order over the constant discord of democratic life. Political convictions, fortified by religious faith as profound as that of Milton, fuel partisan loyalties too fierce for moderation. The ethic of reciprocity requires a willingness to tolerate difference and disagreement. Autonomy is incompatible with enforced conformity. War fans the flames of passion and snuffs out the virtues of mercy and forgiveness. If democracy is a cultural project as much as a struggle over institutions, nothing represents a more serious obstacle than war, which breeds lasting resentments and destroys the trust on which democracy depends.[4]

It is here that Kloppenberg’s rises into the ranks of the profound. Democracy survives precisely when people are *not* willing to resort to arms. It survives by dialogue and discourse, which allay resentment.

The topic of discourse is underscored in chapter four, titled “Coup d’Etat: 1688 in England and America,” when Kloppenberg turns his attention Algernon Sidney, John Locke, and William Penn. Kloppenberg admires Sidney’s “understanding of human fallibility and…confidence in the productive power of deliberation.” Because only the wearer of shoe “knows where it pinches,” Sidney focused on “the importance of enabling citizens to express their own personal interests in politics.” While individuals might not “know why problems existed” or “how to solve them,” Sidney was confident their opinions could be “refined” through representative assemblies and further discourse. It was the “national representative assembly” that held “the capacity to transcend the perspective of individual communities.” When representatives met with constituents and deliberated with them, those representatives could “help forge a public good.”[5]

Kloppenberg further distilled Sidney’s thinking: “The assembly brings together multiple perspectives and thus can determine…through the back-and-forth of debate, the position that best approximates the interest of the public as a whole.”[6]

After a long subsequent discussion of the thinking of John Locke (most excellent, pp 150-170) and William Penn and his exemplary Quakers (pp. 177-185, to bring “the historical significance of 1688…in England…[to its] North American colonies), Kloppenberg concludes this chapter, and Part I (chapters 1-4), by summarizing the political conditions of European settlers.

The differences in North America, he asserts, were “widespread landownership” and the early appearance of “institutions of representative government.” Those roots “spread wide and deep.” It was the “presence of institutions of self-government, and the absence of a hereditary aristocracy to dominate those institutions, together made possible the vigorous, unruly cultures of the colonial assemblies.” Kloppenberg added: “The experience of making their own decisions shifted the center of gravity away from a hereditary class of magistrates toward a set of officials selected by ordinary people to occupy positions in government.” Lest on think the analysis merely celebratory and forgetful of slavery, Kloppenberg does explicitly acknowledge the settler freedom depended—“especially but not exclusively in the South”—on coerced labor. For the moment, however, the author is focusing on 1688 as the point of departure between what happened in England (“the landed gentry…recovered…control over Parliament”) and in America, where there occurred a “steady rise of representative democracy.”[7]

You might say that The Glorious Revolution across the Atlantic enabled the glories of the forthcoming American Revolution.

Although I’m not discussing Kloppenberg’s analysis of John Locke here, I will say that those twenty pages held my attention fully—for the reasons outlined above (i.e. my interest in great books and the history of the great books idea). Locke is one of the few philosophers in my library I’ve not yet read. So Kloppenberg’s introduction to Locke was most welcome. I’m now primed to read Locke’s A Letter concerning Toleration, Two Treatises of Government (especially the second), and his Essay concerning Human Understanding. But, given that I have 500 pages of this book left, it’ll be a bit before I get to Locke. – TL


[1] James T. Kloppenberg, Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016),129.

[2] Ibid., 128-135.

[3] Ibid., 95.

[4] Ibid., 134.

[5] Ibid., 147-148

[6] Ibid., 148.

[7] Ibid., 174, 187.

One Thought on this Post

  1. I feel like a dog. I have very little time to grab this book and join in. However, I have enjoyed reading these posts. Keep it up.

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