U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Toward Democracy Book Club: Final Entry

I want to thank everyone who has been following along, but with today’s entry I regret to report that I have to close the book club earlier than anticipated. What follows is an explanation coupled with some brief thoughts on chapters 11-12.

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

Since the last entry, which brought us up to chapter 11, Kloppenberg has remained focused on the French Revolution. Chapter 11, titled “Virtue and Violence in the French Revolution,” covers reactions to, and fallout from, the events of 1789-1790. The writings of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine were explored, as well as Olympe de Gouges and Mary Wollstonecraft’s inspired work on women’s equality. I was also pleased to learn more about how events in Haiti correlated, resulting of course in the Haitian Revolution. Finally, Kloppenberg narrates the tragedy of Robespierre as an object lesson in the futile hopes of unanimity in representative democracies. However seemingly painful, pluralism is a necessity for maintaining democracy. These are the most important lessons in that chapter.

While I’ve not completed chapter 12, titled “Democracy in the Wake of Terror,” what I’ve read thus far has provided a better understanding of the mechanics regarding Napoleon’s ability to rise and take control. Thanks to Kloppenberg, I have a better feel for the practical effects of the radical Enlightenment rationalism, as seen in France, versus the “Moderate Enlightenment” (p. 570) that arose in the United States. The latter, while repressing a more advanced version of social and political equality that might’ve resulted from the Declaration and Constitution, also suppressed the possibility of more revolutionary violence in America. John Adams is a central figure in that more temperate approach—even if he was falsely vilified as a monarchist and/or aristocrat by Jeffersonian individualists in the early Republic. Adams helped foster a “majority rules” kind of democratic culture. This revision of Adams’ legacy is central to Kloppenberg’s argument about the American version representative democracy. I can’t say more, or anything more authoritatively, however, without completing the text.

On the book club, I’m not suspending it because I won’t finish the book. Taking an incomplete is not an option for me. I’ve reached page 573 (of 710 total), and I’ll bring this reading home. I hope you finish it too. By today, however, the goal was to have completed thirteen chapters. The schedule was created not only to help guide us together, but because a round table on Toward Democracy is scheduled here at the blog next month. I created the book club with a selfish goal in mind—i.e. to help me read and complete the book—but I also hoped to finish these entries in plenty of time to foster participation in the round table. If you’ve been following along you’ve received a strong start toward that end.

On a personal note, this premature closing is also due to the unexpected awakening of another project. That endeavor is now urgently calling for completion. Keyboard time for it will necessarily subtract from the focus and energy required to complete chapter write-ups and compose a fitting book club summary. In fact, this other project will also call me away from any writing in this venue for about a month. If all goes well and I receive approval from the Blog Editor, I hope to return on May 4, 2107.

I apologize for not being able to see the book club through to the end. But thanks again for following along! – TL