U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Toward Democracy Book Club: Entry 7 – Chapters 6-10

The dust Jacket for Toward Democracy (OUP, 2016).

[My last entry brought us up to chapter 5. Today’s brings us nearly back on schedule. I say nearly because chapters 6-10 are fully covered, but I couldn’t reach 11. – TL]

In the interest of expediency—due to the fact that I’m covering five chapters (252 pages)—this installment will follow a mechanical format. I’ll be concentrating on facts and highlights instead of constructing a review narrative with lots of reflection. I hope to resume that format next week.


Chapter 6 “Faith, Enlightenment, and Resistance in America”

– Thesis: “The American Revolution cannot be disentangled from the American Enlightenment. …Although this chapter concentrates on the particular relation between ideas and the emergence of commitments to independence and self-government, Enlightenment in America had multiple dimensions, of which politics was but one” (p.252).

And here’s quality restatement from the chapter’s conclusion (p. 313): “Rooted in religious and political convictions and experience, that commitment [to self-governance, at the heart of the American Enlightenment] manifested itself in the unexpected development of a new consciousness, expressed in different registers by Franklin at the Court of St. James’s, by Adams in his “Novanglus” essays, by Jefferson in his Summary View, and by countless other colonists in countless different forms.”

In this chapter, JTK attempts to answer one of the larger questions of this section: “By the 1790s, almost no one doubted that the United States…was the world’s first democratic nation. How did a cultural revolution of that magnitude occur?”

– Main characters: Benjmanin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson. Of these, John Adams is central.
– Minor characters: Abigail Adams, James Otis, Jonathan Mayhew, Elisha Williams.
– Pages: 60
– Chronology: 1730s-1775
– Highlights/Impressions: Kloppenberg starts with Franklin (pp. 255-263), moves to John Adams (pp. 263-64, 271-277, 285-293, 297-300, 302-305), and then ends with Jefferson (pp. 305-310). Adams clearly drives the narrative, with JTK using him to set the intellectual context, make a connection to women via Abigail, and frame colonial events (e.g. Stamp Act, Boston Massacre, Tea Party, Coercive Acts, and the First Continental Congress). For whatever reason, I found the sections on Franklin and Jefferson less interesting. I was captivated, however, by the JTK’s presentation of Adams. I’m guessing it’s because I knew the least about him. I was also impressed, yet again, by the prominence of Scottish common-sense philosophy in the intellectual life of this era. I know it, and Sophia Rosenfeld retold this story just a few short years ago, but JTK makes excellent use of this movement in his text as an important differentiator between the American and French Revolutions.

Chapter 7 “Democracy and American Independence”

– Thesis (pp. 315-316): While the War for Independence necessarily involve separation from Britain, the story of this chapter is about how “the people…struggled with each other. …’Mutual jealousy’ meant that a ‘voluntary coalition, at least a permanent one,’ was as hard to imagine as a union of fire and water. …The war revealed new fissures as well as old ones. …Equally significant were the tensions between those who embraced and those who abhorred diversity, and between those willing to compromise and those who saw in every disagreement a struggle between Life and Death, Good and Evil, Got and Satan.”

Also (p. 318): “When [the Second Continental] Congress voted to adopt that resolution [to have colonies produce constitutions/statements of law on popular sovereignty] on May 15, 1776, the hsitory of democracy in America entered a new stage.”

Finally (p. 360): “As the war dragged on, signs of a new sensibility began to emerge among the American colonists. A spirit of equality quickly filled the vacuum left by the displacement of monarchy and aristocracy, and it expressed itself in a new confidence that the state constitutions would enable people to maintain direct control over all the officers of their governments. As it rose, that spirit of equality remained yoked to the idea of autonomy, the older conception of liberty restrained by God’s will and man’s laws.”

– Main characters: Thomas Paine, John Adams, Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson. Adams is central.
– Minor characters: Mercy Otis Warren, Benjamin Rush,
– Pages: 49
– Chronology: 1775-1783
– Highlights/Impressions: Through the writings of Adams primarily, this chapter explores the problem of representation in popular sovereignty. The key question is how to represent and be represented (pp. 324-327). For instance, the question of unicameral or bicameral bodies raised the question of a “senate”: yes? no? how? (pp. 356-357).In the process, Adams’ Thoughts on Government becomes a key text of JTK. JTK calls it “the most decisive proposal advanced at this crucial moment and among the most influential documents in modern history (p. 318). As with Adams, Paine’s key was representation–and the rejection of direct democracy (p. 320-321). The passages on pages 342-347 address John and Abigail’s exchanges on the role of women in this new polis. JTK meditates on their letters, and Abigail’s to Mercy Otis Warren, to open further the topics of equality and suffrage. JTK does so while defending Adams contextually advanced “commitment to equality” (p. 343), even while acknowledging “he was stuck” between his conviction to broaden eqaulity while avoiding the problem of seeing “no end to it” (meaning the emancipation and opening, p. 346). Hovering over this chapter are the issues of virtue and inequality.

Chapter 8 “Constituting American Democracy”

– Thesis (p. 369-370): “James Madison and James Wilson were two of the most ingenius, influential, and controversial figurs of the years of the Critical Period. Both believed the United States faced two dangers—unrest at hom and threats from abroad—wich only a stronger national government could check. Yet they were as determined to preserve self-government as they were to restore domestic order and secure the nation’s international standing. … [Both] believed that the complexity of the problems dictated a multifaceted soclution, and they came to think that the new United States Constitution…offered the best available option. …When delegates gathered in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention in May of 1787, Wilson’s influence in the deliberations was secon only to Madison’s. …Despite the stark differences in their standing today, Madison acclaimed or reviled and Wilson forgotten, in the 1780s these allies were pivotal figures in creating the United States Constitution.”

– Main characters: James Madison, James Wilson,John Adams, Thomas Jefferson. Madison is central.
– Minor characters: Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, George Mason, Edmund Randolph, Robert Morris
– Pages: 44
– Chronology: 1783-1787
– Highlights/Impressions: This is a harder chapter to condense or offer just few nuggets about, even though everything centers on the Constitutional Convention–before, during, and its conclusion. Major themes in this chapter include inequality and justice in relation to forging the Constitution. Both controlled aspects of its construction. We see problems around inequality and injustice (i.e. debt), as well as authority, in relation to Shays’s Rebellion.

In terms of ideas and Madison, he came of age intellectually at Princeton University, which JTK refers to as “one of the centers of resistance to British policy” in North America (p. 373). He was influenced there by John Witherspoon, Locke, Montesquieu, and Scottish common-sense philosophy. Madison also imbibed a strong sense of “religious toleration” there, which underscored the problem of religious uniformity in the Anglican South as opposed to the rest of the nation. Returning to the politics of the mid-1780s, both Wilson and Madison desired what JTK calls “a democratic empire of liberty” (p. 377). JTK spends a fair amount of time explaining Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments (1785, pp. 377-379) and “Vices of the Political System of the United States” (1787, pp. 386-390). JTK also deals with Adams’s Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (1786, pp. 383-385).

The framers entered into debates about the Constitution with the idea that democratic leadership possessed (or should possess) only revocable authority, and that “nothing in a democracy is final”—i.e. that “contingent developments alter perceptions and options” (p. 392). JTK notes that Madison relied heavily on Adams’ work on the Massachusetts Constitution. In terms of the Convention, JTK emphasized the spirit of dialogue and give and take that occurred during it. He adds: “All were ‘open to the forcde of argument,” to use Madison’s terms (p. 395). But secrecy and discretion were also important, because public debates limited the contours of deliberation (p. 396). All believed in a representative democracy and popular sovereignty, being concerned with the excesses of direct democracy (p. 397). At the Convention, JTK uses Wilson as a kind of closer—as the one who brought the Convention together to agreement (398-401). To close out the chapter, however, JTK turns to Jefferson as way to underscore problems with race and slavery (pp. 403-406).

Chapter 9 “Ratification and Reciprocity”

– Thesis (p. 412, 413): “All arguments that had played out in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 were revisited in the yearlong battle over ratification, only this time with debate involved not dozens but thousands of participants.” (I guess this justifies my long look above at Chapter 8.) …”The ensuing war of words, the most consequential debate ever conducted on the principles of democracy in the United States, exposed fault lines that have continued to divide Americans.”

– Main characters: James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay
– Minor characters: mercy Otis Warren, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Rush
– Pages: 44
– Chronology: 1787-1791
– Highlights/Impressions: The chapter begins with a long look at the federalists (those who desired a stronger federal government) and the antifederalists (those who didn’t) (pp. 412-425). After that, JTK dives deep into the Federalist essays, particularly numbers 9, 10 (“among the most significant pieces of American political writing”), 37, 57, 63 of the 85 total (pp. 425-433). JTK then covers the process and issues in most states, lingering longest on Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Virginia (pp. 433-440). The Bill of Rights is covered (pp. 440-441, 444). The chapter concludes with a meditation on commerce and equality, with a nod toward Benjamin Rush and with connections made to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (pp. 446-453).

I was most enthralled by that last section, where Kloppenberg raises issues of benevolence, commercial power, moral sense (i.e. rational v. intuitive), conscience, and “freedom” conceived in the absence of restraint and ethics. Religion and ethics converged with the framers and founders (esp. Adams, Madison, Jefferson, and Wilson) in the sense that loving one’s enemies was necessary to benevolence. To Adams, “the animating principles of American democracy originated in the Christian scriptures” (p. 450-451). Even for Jefferson, his animosity was not religion but rather intolerance (p. 451). JTK ends the chapter by looking briefly at Francois Alexandre Frederic, duc de la Rochefoucauld-Liancourt and his reflections on the United States (i.e. cultural consequences of democracy, simplicity of manners, lack of hereditary democracy, rotation of elected offices, the focus on materialism and commerce and attendant industriousness). The result of these activities—i.e. the convergence of commerce and democracy—was an advantage that Tocqueville later termed (in translation) “enlightened self-interest, or self-interest properly understood” (p. 453).

Chapter 10 “Delusions of Unity and Collisions with Tradition in the French Revolution”

– Thesis (p. 457, 459): (1) “The success of America’s democratic revolution caused the French Revolution. The failure of the French Revolution postponed for nearly a century the further development of democracy in Europe.” (2) “Many observers on both sides of the Atlantic thought the failure of the French Revolution discredited democracy.” (3) “By the end of the eighteenth century, the French Revolution had metamorphosed from a struggle over hte shape of French politics and society to a broader clash over fundamental cultural values, which gave rise to previously unknown and self-conscious forms of conservatism and radicalism through the Atlantic world. The consequences remain with us two centuries later.”

– Main characters: Maximilien Robespierre, Jacobins, Luis XVI, Thomas Jefferson, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, Condorcet, Abbe Mably, Abbe Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes
– Minor characters: Abbe Raynal, St. Jean de Crevecoeur, Jacques-Pierre Brissot, Etienne Claviere, Nicolas Bergasse, Francois Quesnay,
– Pages: 47
– Chronology: 1770-1800
– Highlights/Impressions: The historical trajectory and context of France versus America determined why the French Revolution failed and ours succeeded (i.e. preexisting extreme inequality in France, desire for complete unity by French revolutionaries, antagonism with Catholic Church and tradition, power of Jansenist forces). There existed a belief that the American experiment/project could be “very easily adapted” in France (p. 460). JTK also identifies the French “physiocrats” (champions of science of society) were also identified as a peculiar problem, as a kind of elitist force that believed their judgment overrided that of the people (p. 467). Of all of this, I was most impressed by Kloppenberg’s argument about the delusions of unity—that it distorted the goals of equality and justice in France. (pp. 457, 467). Despite these issues, the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” stood as a triumph for popular sovereignty in France, if not for its problematic statement, in a final version, about the location of sovereignty being with the nation (in article 3, p. 490, 493). Kloppenberg ends with an ominous account of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy resulting in an ethic of animosity between French Catholics and the new nation (p. 504).

Next week’s entry will cover only chapters 11 and 12. See you then! – TL

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. One of the really interesting aspects of chapter 7 is in note 43 from the expanded version in JK’s pdf extended notes. In it he disputes the “widely accepted” belief among historians that the terms democracy and republic carried distinctly different meanings. JK maintains that in the 20 + years or so from the 1770’s to around 1800 democracy and republic were used interchangeably. While choosing this position he takes on Bailyn and Wood.
    “I believe that both Bailyn and Wood, whose books remain the best overall treatments of the development of ideas during the revolutionary era, underestimate the democratic quality of representative democracy and follow those writers, ancient and modern, friends and foes, who equate democracy with direct democracy and see representative democracy as either defective or second-best.”

    • This is a great point to underscore, Paul. It comes up in the text, again and again, but I hadn’t consulted the notes to see with whom JTK was arguing. And this distinction is very important in the later chapters on France and the French Revolution—how French thinkers and revolutionary characters embraced and reacted against popular engagement. – TL

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