Les philosophes and the Federalists

“The philosophes cultivated their connections with power, and their fraternizing with the enemy cost them heavily. It distorted their tactics, long circumscribed their freedom of action, sometimes seduced them into intellectual dishonesty, and blurred their radicalism, not only for others but for themselves as well. . . . Most of the philosophes found much to cherish in the existing order. Seeking to distinguish themselves, the philosophes had little desire to level all distinctions; seeking to be respected, they had no desire to destroy respectability. Their gingerly treatment of the masses, which became less patronizing as the century went on, reveals their attachment to the old order and their fear of too drastic an upheaval.” — Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Vol. 1 (1966)

“The stress placed upon the Adams-Hamilton feud pointed up a deeper problem in the Federalist party, one that may explain its ultimate failure to survive: the elitist nature of its politics. James McHenry complained to Oliver Wolcott, Jr., of their adherents, ‘They write private letters to each other, but do nothing to give a proper direction to the public mind.’ The Federalists issued appeals to the electorate but did not try to mobilize a broad-based popular movement. Hamilton wanted to lead the electorate and provide expert opinion instead of consulting popular opinion. He took tough, uncompromising stands and gloried in abstruse ideas in a political culture that pined for greater simplicity. Alexander Hamilton triumphed as a doer and thinker, not as a leader of the average voter. He was simply too unashamedly brainy to appeal to the masses. Fisher Ames observed of Hamilton that the common people don’t want leaders ‘whom they see elevated by nature and education so far above their heads.'” — Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (2004)

Jean Huber. Untitled. Un dîner de philosophes.

The wrong side of history

Many progressives believe that history is linear, that mankind moves inexorably toward universalism and greater individual rights. Many reactionaries also believe that history is linear, that their tribe’s story moves inexorably from an idyllic past to the present pollution to a future restoration of the idyllic past. In a sense, these progressives and these reactionaries both prophesy.

In Macbeth, Shakespeare examines the notion that prophecy is not an attempt to see the future but to shape it in the broad daylight of the present. Prophetic rulers sometimes bring rapid regime change or suffer from a tragic blindness, or both. How about the ruled? They’re unlikely to act if, with respect to the future, the fix is in. Religion is not the opiate of the masses; prophecy is.

The progressive idea that, despite inevitable setbacks, history inexorably bends to progressive ends can be seen in one of President Obama’s favorite opprobriums: something or someone is “on the wrong side of history.” This notion’s underlying assumptions are tragic: the future (including the prophetic present) sees the past (and, because of it, the present) cooly and clearly, progressive values will ultimately prevail no matter what we do (or don’t do), and it is possible for the clearsighted to see his opponent in a light both objective and disparaging.

But the future is not fixed. Only history is fixed — or, rather, only the past is fixed. History is debatable, and the future is malleable. In fact, history is warmly debated in large part because the future is malleable.

Hero time

Some specialists are rushing to hold the republic together. I’m reading two more books that recast two lifetimes of research and thought as efforts to chip away at the thickening wall between left and right. One book’s approach is psychological; the other’s is philosophical. The first book, Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, admits this rush:

People who devote their lives to studying something often come to believe that the object of their fascination is the key to understanding everything. Books have been published in recent years on the transformative role in human history played by cooking, mothering, war . . . even salt. This is one of those books.

Friends of friends of mine, prophets, came to town years ago and asked me point blank what made me tick. “I want to save the world,” I admitted rather sheepishly under some questioning that seemed intense, given the social context. They shook their heads sadly.

Thor and his brother Loki in Thor: Ragnarok

I told that story to a friend of mine. “Saving the world is something people give up in their teens,” she reflected. Yes, well, that’s because most people spend their youth testing their limits. I spent mine balancing my idealism by reading a lot, first Mad Magazine and later the Bible, both of which helped me develop a greater sense of irony. (Reinhold Niebuhr also learned his irony from the Bible: The Irony of American History is based on the Bible’s ironic worldview.)

Haidt’s ironic statement, evincing both self-deprecation and purpose, probably will lead to a lot of head-shaking. But it’s an idealistic age, even if some idealists, like me, wish to help talk some part of the world off the high ledge of political idealism.

After Thanksgiving dinner, we walked through the lit, empty outdoor mall by our condo to see Thor:Ragnarok. After long captivity, Thor tries to escape by throwing a large red ball through a window. He’s halfway through a refrain — an inspirational and idealistic proclamation about heroism — when the ball bounces off the glass, hits him in the head, and floors him. The motivational, non-diegetic music that accompanies the proclamation stops, too. But the music resumes as Thor gets up, completes his statement, and files through the window thanks to the crack the ball has made.

Today’s comic-book heroes enjoy irony, which separates these movies from the dark-and-light banality of their comic-book predecessors. But Thor:Ragnarok could be the marriage of comic-book Thor and Alfred E. Neuman, the mascot of Mad, whose satirical comic stories featured antiheroes and loads of prepubescent irony.

Our ideals, Thor: Ragnarok seems to suggest, must grow to accommodate irony and to encounter setbacks and even self-understanding. We cannot become like Thor’s trickster brother Loki or his captor Valkyrie, who let their experiences and cynicism trap them in selfishness in the universe’s hour of peril.

The second book, the philosophical one? American Covenant: A History of Civl Religion from he Puritans to the Present by Philip Gorski. Both books start with what we know: the country is divided, hopelessly so. Seemingly hopelessly. Both, then, start like comic-book movies.

Each of us, having dedicated our lives to something we now understand can save the republic, must come to understand that we are only one of those so dedicated and so motivated. And we must admit that we may have missed out on some normal stage of development.

He that sitteth at meat

Christian republicanism is a thing. So asserts Philip Gorski in his American Covenant, citing John Milton first and Jonathan Mayhew, a Harvard-trained Congregationalist minister, foremost (67 – 68). Mayhew’s most influential work was the widely published text of his 1750 sermon “Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission,” which Gorski calls “an exceedingly clever defense of popular resistance to political tyranny”:

[The sermon] took the locus classics for the doctrine of passive obedience (chapter 13 of Paul’s epistle to the Romans) and used it to justify a natural right to resist unjust rule. In Mayhew’s interpretation, Paul argues “not in favor of submission to all who bear the title of rulers, in common; but only, to those who actually perform the duty of rulers, by exercising a reasonable and just authority, for the good of human society.” (68, emphasis original)

In asserting a right to resistance, of course, Mayhew echoes earlier writings by Aquinas and Locke.

Mayhew’s distinction between a titular and an actual ruler came up in our devotional reading this morning:

And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest.  And he said unto them, The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve. For whether is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? is not he that sitteth at meat? but I am among you as he that serveth. (Luke 22:24 – 27, KJV)

Maybe Christian republicanism gets its understanding of what constitutes a true ruler from Jesus’ brief discourse here.

If republicanism is waning in America, maybe it’s due to how we see one another. If we elected a king — if the future bears out our fears that we voted out the republic last year — is it because we see one another as Jesus and the Jews of his community saw the Gentiles, as those outside the covenant?

Jonathan Mayhew

Silence in paradise

An espousal of equality, even the ontological equality at the intersection of Christianity and Lockean liberalism, must get around to answering this: what about property? (We saw a school production of Robin Hood Saturday that brought the issue back to mind.)

To someone steeped in the Book of Genesis as well as in Locke’s Second Treatise, property accumulation may feel like the moral equivalent of divorce. Jesus says that “Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.” And John Locke’s version of the Garden of Eden, the state of nature, involved no accumulation of property as a means of oppressing others.

Joyce Appleby saw that Locke’s version of paradise connects property “with a moral end: God’s desire to provide sustenance for man. The labor which made the common gift into private property executed God’s design. The picked apple facilitated nourishment at the same time that it became private. The introduction of money,  however, destroyed the moral purpose associated with God’s gift of the earth, for it removed the check on accumulation” (Appleby’s Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination at 88 – 89).

Joyce Appleby

Appleby says that Locke later, in effect, contradicted himself by championing the old balance-of-trade monetary theory during the recoinage battle of 1696. In that battle, he argued that mankind “put an imaginary value upon gold and silver. This intrinsic, unique value of specie had created the utility of money because it made possible a standard for all other commodities. Because men held gold and silver in unique esteem, they were willing to trade useful goods for them.” (I’m quoting Appleby’s summary of Locke’s position, not Locke himself.) Therefore, the king couldn’t put an arbitrary value on coins because people would always weigh the coin’s silver and trade it based on how much the silver was worth. Locke’s view was discredited on economic grounds, but it led to his conclusion that “the value of money was rooted in nature” (Appleby’s words), or at least in nature in the sense of beyond the reach of man or even kings to fix or change.

Locke was wrong from a macroeconomic standpoint, but he laid the metaphysical groundwork for Adam Smith some eighty years later. Smith added the market to liberalism’s doctrine as something that had a mind of its own — discernible, but incapable of being contradicted by tyrants or by anyone else, really — like natural law itself.

Looking out his Parisian window at pre-Revolutionary France, however, Jefferson wrote to Madison that the existence of the “unemployed poor” meant that “the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right.” In a society with unemployment, private property  is no longer God’s means of providing for his children but a means of oppressing them.

A longer excerpt from Jefferson’s letter:

I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind. The descent of property of every kind therefore to all the children, or to all the brothers and sisters, or other relations in equal degree is a politic measure, and a practicable one. Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise. Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labour and live on. If, for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be furnished to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not the fundamental right to labour the earth returns to the unemployed. It is too soon yet in our country to say that every man who cannot find employment but who can find uncultivated land, shall be at liberty to cultivate it, paying a moderate rent. But it is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state.

Jefferson here seems to propose the end of primogeniture with regard to inheritance, an indexed property tax rate, and the grant of small parcels of land. But he leaves a qualified door open for other ideas (“legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind”).

But why “silently” in Jefferson’s “silently lessening the inequality of property”? Because the rich would otherwise discover the lessening and stop it? Because (as happened in France a few years later) the loud lessening of equality means violent revolution? Because the dignity that people find in work requires that any supports remain silent, almost providential?

Close

Last night, Victoria showed me a Facebook post picturing a couple and their three young boys. The mother is pregnant with triplets — all girls. I’m still waiting for the 19th Amendment to hit home.

But maybe at the national level it’s “greater and opposite” as opposed to “equal and opposite reaction.”

Jefferson wanted “a system of local ‘wards’ or ‘hundreds,’ which were intended to be ‘little republics’ and schools of democracy,” Gorski writes in American Covenant (65). Without such a close atmosphere, we lather ourselves with anti-government sentiment like sunscreen.

Filtration

In the library, playing with lighting. My friend W. says that light is more important than paint. We have freshly painted, gray walls that go warm and cool, depending on the sun. It’s a bit beige at three with purple shadows at dusk. I bought an architect-style desk lamp that toggles among four tints of white, and Thursday I screwed a GE Reveal LED bulb into the library’s floor lamp. White, but not blue-white. Like the walls — every shade but yellow.

I just finished Philip Gorski’s chapter on the Puritans in his new book American Covenant: A History of Civil Religions from the Puritans to the Present. Gorski’s chapters on things I know nothing about — Puritanism, for instance — seem enlightening and, for all I know, erudite. Those on things I know more about — today’s culture wars and Lincoln, for instance — seem facile. Was it I. A. Richards who described books as thinking machines? Sometimes I think books are little more than that.

Philip Gorski

Gorski sees American history in large part as a struggle “between civil religion and religious nationalism.” This helpful framework echos the Jaffa-Rhenquist struggle between equality and natural law, on the one hand (Jaffa’s), and a bottomless conservatism that leads inexorably to nationalism and nihilism, on the other (Rhenquist’s). In this respect, Gorski’s American Covenant should get to know Jaffa’s Storm Over the Constitution. I think the two frameworks are met in John Locke. Locke feels like today’s liberalism, but not so. Locke was as covenant-related as Winthrop or Lincoln.

Anyway, Gorski should read Jaffa and not be so dismissive of Lippmann’s “public philosophy” (natural law).

Today’s liberalism isn’t part of either conversation. (MLK and others are, though. King grounded his liberalism in covenant and natural law, like Locke.) This lack of philosophical ballast is why Democrats struggle to become anything more than a regional party specializing in municipal governing even with the president’s approval ratings at tauntingly record lows. Now that nationalism has taken root in half the country, one can feel an unmoored, whipsaw aspect to liberalism’s causes. Today it’s sexual predation, yesterday it was global warming. Lots of lines but no cleats — dangerous when the wind kicks up. And the current administration is bent on wrecking the ship of state all at once. An issue a day is frenetic, but it’s not fast enough.

Crazy how the Republicans of the Founding generation saw little distinction between the American and French Revolutions even after Robespierre and even Napoleon. Washington and Adams stuck with neutrality, and both paid for it politically. While Adams sent emissaries to France, Vice President Jefferson “was already in the thick of a secret campaign to sabotage Adams in French eyes.” Jefferson

advised the French to stall any American envoys sent to Paris: “Listen to them and then drag out the negotiations at length and mollify them by the urbanity of the proceedings.” Jefferson and other Republicans encouraged the French to believe that Americans sided with them overwhelmingly, and this may have toughened the tone that the Directory adopted with the new administration.

Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (548 – 549). Jefferson’s — dare I say it? — treason may have been partially responsible for the XYZ Affair, which he believed to be a Federalist hoax. Fake news. Will Trump go down as another Jefferson? Like Jefferson’s, will his party reign for a generation?

I think we’re seeing an infiltration of a foreign government into our domestic political life that we haven’t seen since the Adams administration. Just as many Republicans of Jefferson’s day related to France’s revolutionary fervor and found the Revolutionary French more American than the Federalists, so many Republicans today relate to the “family values” Putin espouses and find his muscular, illiberal nationalism more American than the politics of the American left. In a kind of senility, we’re reverting to our infancy. Maybe we’re getting back to the Founding after all.