America Universalis: A Republic in Concord with Nature and a Model for all Mankind

The title of this chapter is an allusion to the feeling of exceptionalism that seems to have permeated the Founding Fathers as they laid down the foundations of the American constitution. Sentiments that have been outlined in Isaac Kramnick’s essay on the Federalist Papers (Kramnick 1987). It was thought that the establishment of the American republic would finally free man from the “long shadows of feudalism” and permit him to live in accordance with himself and nature. Thus it was thought that America would be a Republic in Concord with Nature and Model for all Mankind.[1]

The view of the American Revolution taught to me as an undergraduate student of History was that the American Revolution was the philosophy of liberalism brought to political fruition. However the study of republicanist sources and the writings of professional historians, Pocock’s Machiavellian Moment above all, have made it clear to me that republicanism had just as big a part to play in the discussion surrounding the founding of the American state.[2]

Early republicanism in the United States drew heavily on the ancient Roman precedence as well as on the discussion from seventeenth century England.[3] As such, it can be said that there was a common educational and philosophical frame inside which the discussions of the founding fathers took place. The contents of this shared intellectual baggage were, of course, the precedence of the Greco-Roman world, Machiavelli, and the political philosophers of seventeenth century England.[4] To this end, we shall hopefully have made the case for the intellectual continuities outlined in the present paper. But even beyond the Federalist Papers it would be no exaggeration to say that the republican views studied in the following chapters would be representative of figures such as Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, George Washington, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson.[5]

The American Constitution and the Federalist Papers

Since the time of the Roman Republic itself, no state has come as close to the ideal set fourth by republicanists as the United States of America. Even the framing surrounding the discussion about the American discussion is teeming with references to Roman history. Indeed the United States of America was the first realization of a large republic since the time of Rome itself and it is hard to overlook the symbolism of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay writing under the pseudonym of Publius Valerus, the founder of the Ancient Roman Republic,[6] or the iconography of America having a “Senate” on “Capitol” hill overlooking the “Tiber”,[7] just as there are numerous mentions of Rome in the Federalist Papers.[8]

The American Constitution: A Victory for “Checks & Balances”

In the overall design of the American republic the American federalists did not follow Machiavelli’s call for regal power to any notable extent (the presidency was endowed with only very few political powers). Conversely, in their on rigid insistence of checks and balances, no doubt a contributing factor to the 200 years life span of the American constitution, the American federalists not only emphasize but break with Machievalli’s notion of adaptability and dynamism.[9] As such, they were far sterner in their attitude towards the (lack of) flexibility they would permit with regards to checks and balances, certainly sterner than Machiavelli.[10] Thus the consecutive presidencies of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe were characterized by a championing and an understanding of the principle of checks and balances as an instance that served to limit the nature of government. – In regards to the historical precedence, we may thus note, that John Adams felt that while Greeks may have thought of the principle of checks & balances they had never mastered it. [11] Likewise, the founding fathers disagree with Machiavelli that the framing of a Republic’s constitution should be determined by checks and balances, rather than by the political dynamism generated by a conflict of the orders. Thus the apex of this spirit of checks and balances might be said to be embodied in the Tenth Amendment of the American Constitution:

“The powers not delegated to the United States [i.e. Federal Government] by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”[12]

The introduction of a Senate as well as a house of congress reflects the conflict of orders as it was explicitly stated to represent an aristocracy, albeit not one bestowed by birth but by merit. Thus Thomas Jefferson made his voice known saying they there existed a ‘Natural Aristocracy’.[13] This was thought to be an aristocracy of the spirit, rather than one of heredity which they – along with Machiavelli and others – condemned as harmful. Instead, the image of this ‘natural aristocracy’ seems to have been shaped by another antique idea, namely the humourism of Hippocrates and Galen.[14] Jefferson and Madison wanted for their senators men who could deliberate coolly on matter of state and act as a check against the ‘heated’ mass of public opinion that would surely gain access to the house of representatives.

The Ideal of the Yeoman

Early republicanism in the United States had a strong, somewhat idealistic focus on the Yeoman as the political citizen-ideal. This idea permeated the minds of even great thinkers like Thomas Jefferson who has been called the “philosopher sphinx” of America.[15] The Yeoman was defined as a self-owning farmer, in possession of practical common sense, and perhaps armed as the Roman farmers had been under the Republic, and as Machiavelli had envisioned it for his ideal Republic. In stressing this, the founding fathers aligned themselves clearly with both Harrington’s Oceana as well as with the historical Roman Republic.[16] The self-ownership was seen as the anti-thesis to the oppressing feudalism of the Old World, and as a bulwark against unrestrained majority rule, the maxim being that if the citizens risked loosing their personal property they would naturally be conservatively inclined politically and think twice before enforcing the political oppression of their neighbours.[17] – Thus political theorists such as Thomas Jefferson feared that American political virtue would run out along with the supply of land on the western frontier and that the eventual urbanization of the United States would ultimately lead to a strengthening of the democratic element, on behalf of the more aristocratically-aligned republicanism, as did in fact happen. But these developments could not be regarded as finalized until somewhere in the 20th century and the Yeoman-voter would remain the dominant ideal political discourse throughout the entire debate surrounding the constitution.

To this end we can compare the position of civic virtue as envision by Madison, mostly a reflection of Machiavelli’s vivere civile to the tenets of the French revolution:[18] As the latter was more of an urbanized phenomena it naturally downplayed the republican yeoman-ideal and with it the expectations of common sensical, conservative civic virtue and favoured solidarity and (attempted) fiscal equality instead; – ideals truly foreign to America’s founding fathers. In fact, Jefferson, Madison and others tended to view the American Republic as founded on Nature and thereby as constituting a break away from the artificial, inherited, feudalistic state of the Old World. To them the Republic functioned in accordance with natural law and the nature of man, whereas the French revolution set out to create a better version of man.[19] The Aristotelean/Machiavellian equality of the republic is understood as equality before the law or equality before the republic. Machiavelli recognized the dangers inherent in the extrapolation of a political mindset where the people believe that men should be equal in all respects.[20] This is undesirable as it ultimately leads to a despotism of the opinion of the majority which was also clearly recognized by Tocqueville.[21]

In relation to this view we may note that also Tocqueville observed the brisk aggression of the westward farmers. As has been described by Fernard Braudel and others, these men were not truly farmers but entrepreneurs living on the harsh frontier.[22] They did not wait for the state to approve of their fiscal aggression and lonesome ventures but took their chances and risked everything in pursuit of happiness. This, amongst other things, was what fostered American Exceptionalism.[23]

[1] Kramnick, Isaac: Commentary on The Federalist Papers, Penguin 1987 p. 13

[2] Pocock, J.G.A.: The Machiavellian Moment p. 507

[3] Ibid.

[4] Also of course the Founding Fathers shared a common background of deism and Puritanism, knowledge of French thinkers such as Montesquieu and so on.

[5] Shalhope, Robert E.: Toward a Republican Synthesis, William and Mary Quaterly, 29

[6] Hansen, Mogens Herman: Den moderne republicanisme og dens kritik af det liberale demokrati p. 76

[7] Flower, Harriet I. et al: The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic p. 347

[8] Madison, Jay & Hamilton: The Federalist Papers: Federalist V, VI, XVIII, XXXIV, XXXVIII, XLI, LXIII, LXX, LXXV

[9] For a discussion of Machiavelli’s flexibility regarding checks and balances, see Discourse III.9

[10] Harrington does not as much deliberate on the issue of the optimum degree of rigidity regarding checks and balances as he simply over-expounds every detail of the republic’s workings.

[11] Although it lies outside the scope of this paper an interesting observation for the reader interested in the American revolution would be the parallel of the French revolution and its disregard for the principle of checks and balances and the consequences that such a republican attitude spawned. See also: Flower, Harriet I. et al: The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic p. 347

[12] Various Authors: The Constitution of the United States of America (1787)

[13] Madison, Jay & Hamilton: The Federalist Papers (Penguin 1987) p. 21

[14] Kramnick, Isaac: Commentary on The Federalist Papers, Penguin 1987 pp. 45-55

[15] Amongst others see, Joseph J. Ellis, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997: ‘American Sphinx’ as well as Kelley L. Ross, 2006: ‘The Great Republic: Presidents and States of the United States of America, and Comments on American History’ in The Proceedings of the Friesian School, Fourth Series.

[16] The Romans of Antiquity appear to have honoured the rural castes and their imagined unspoiled rural past and mistrusted civilization and urbanization which they saw as the root of Rome’s political corruption.  See Millar, Fergus: The Roman Republic in Political Thought p. 89 – Furthermore, the alignment with Harrington is no accident as American politicians, such as John Adams, had read Harrington and were familiar with his thoughts. See: Flower, Harriet I. et al: The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic pp. 348-349

[17] Madison, Jay & Hamilton: The Federalist Papers: Federalist X See also: Pocock, J.G.A.: Journal of Modern History 1981

[18] Hansen, Mogens Herman: Den moderne republikanisme og dens kritik af det liberale demokrati p. 43

[19] Pocock, J.G.A.: The Machiavellian Moment p. 537

[20] Machiavelli, Niccolò: The Discourses I.34

[21] Pocock, J.G.A.: The Machiavellian Moment p. 538

[22] Pocock, J.G.A.: The Machiavellian Moment p. 537

[23] See Schmidt, Regin: American Exceptionalism. Nationale Myter, historiografi og virkelighed og Braudel, Fernand: A History of Civilizations pp. 458-480