John Patrick Diggins
The Lost Soul of American Politics

In classical republican traditions the life of politics was held up as an ideal. The speech, thought, and human interaction demanded by politics and public affairs would replace force and violence, and in this civilized realm man's civic character would find expression and stimulation. Given this classical emphasis on the civic virtues, one might expect to find the American framers celebrating the responsibilities of citizenship and leadership. Yet politics as an honorable vocation is a theme missing not only from the work of the Founders but from almost all of American intellectual history. Woodrow Wilson, the one president who tried to revive respect for the classical British model of government, believed that the framers had missed their calling by devising a political system in which legislative authority is fragmented into a myriad of interest groups and executive leadership stunted by misplaced suspicion. Even Lincoln, a truly self-made man who successfully made a career of politics, was reluctant, as we shall see, to hold up politics as the proper vocation of the American people.

The American Founders especially could hardly expect the people to become absorbed in politics and public affairs because they themselves experienced politics as unpleasant, intrusive, and undignified. Washington was relieved to leave the White House and return to Mount Vernon, and when asked if he would consider another summons to public duty, he replied that he would go 'with as much reluctance from my present peaceful abode, as I should go to the tomb of my ancestors.' Jefferson believed politics to be oppressive and discovered 'public service and private misery inseparably linked together.' Hamilton had deep reservations about political democracy because the people showed little sustained interest in political affairs, and thus he entrusted government to a nucleus of well-trained administrators. John Adams put the matter even more poignantly. 'The science of government is my duty to study,' he wrote to Abigail. 'The arts of legislation and administration ought to take the place of, indeed to exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, and naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.' Whatever the Founders may have felt about civic duty, clearly they did not feel that politics answered to man's higher nature. Ironically, Henry Adams, the great-grandson of John and Abigail, did in fact grow up to study medieval architecture, statuary, and tapestry, and he realized that Old World classical ideals had come to their grave in America, a realization that ultimately drove him to escape the unvirtuous world of interest and power in a desperate search for spiritual salvation.

Why classical ideals died in the American environment is a question that has gone unexplored in contemporary historical scholarship. Many historians have traced the continuation of classical thought as a species of language, what I have called the rhetoric of accusation. But as Lincoln observed, the politics of fear, suspicion, jealousy, and hatred that predominated in the early years of the Republic, and particularly at the time of the Revolution, gave Americans only the language with which to denounce power, not the ideas and emotions to deal with authority. The language of opposition can overthrow a regime; to sustain a republic requires something more. For Lincoln it would require the dream of liberalism and the conscience of Calvinism, the promise of labor and the reminder of sin. Today, however, one historian offers an argument that results in a curious alternative: what is required is either the spirit of Machiavelli and virtue or the spectre of Locke and interests. Another offers a loaded choice: either the beauty of Scottish moral philosophy or the bane of acquisitive liberalism. The difficulty with these formulations is not that one must choose between searching out the residues of classical thought or concede America to John Locke. Rather, one should look more closely at what we have called 'the Scottish turn' in American political thought between the Revolution and the Constitution. The emergence of this turn of mind, especially the influence of Hume upon Hamilton and Madison, may help explain the demise of classical political ideas in America, perhaps in ways that have yet to be fully explored.

It is commonly known that Madison drew upon Hume's 'The Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth' and other essays in his defense of a large American Republic. Montesquieu and other classical thinkers had assumed that political virtue could only endure in a small republic where citizens participate actively in the workings of government, and the anti-Federalists remained suspicious of a remote, central government, where presumably the powerful and talented would predominate. Thus Madison followed Hume in demonstrating that liberty is best safeguarded in an expansive political territory because here the diversity of interests and attitudes precludes unity of popular action. 'Extend the sphere,' Madison wrote in Federalist no. 10, 'and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less possible that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other.' This passage has been variously interpreted as Madison's attempt either to protect property from the threat of collective action; neutralize the pressures of factions and thereby bring a 'stalemate' to government; acknowledge the legitimacy of competing interest groups, the 'pluralism' of the parts that prevents the destruction of the whole; or control what Tocqueville would later call 'the tyranny of the majority.' Whatever the validity of these interpretations, Madison's own thinking is a long way from classical political virtue, and for several reasons.

First of all, the idea of unanimity, of various factions having a 'common motive,' Madison not only distrusts but dreads, for nowhere does he suggest that 'interested majorities' will be interested in the public good. Moreover, in extending the 'sphere' of government the people are to be distanced from it, because it is at the local and state levels that popular majorities can 'concert and execute their plans of oppression.' Thus two central ideals of classical thought—activity and unanimity, the means and the end, participation and patriotism—are inessential to Madison's thinking. Liberty is now identified with diversity, and the American Republic will succeed because its citizens are factious, not virtuous.

Anti-Federalists who opposed the Constitution may have disagreed with Madison, claiming that the greatest danger lies in the potential tyranny of the distant few, not the immediate many, and that numerical majorities can be entrusted with power in the states because a free people are the best guardians of their own liberties. But the differences between the Federalists and the anti-Federalists on the issue of power and liberty only highlights the problem of virtue in American politics. The problem is that while anti-Federalists believed that virtue could not be the focus of the central government because it was too remote from the citizen's immediate concerns and participation, Federalists believed that state governments and communities could not be the wellspring of virtue because that was where disinterested behavior was least likely to be found. The irony is that the Federalists still followed the classical tradition in believing that true virtue must aim toward the larger society, the commonweal as opposed to whatever was personal, private, and particular, while the anti-Federalists believed that true political liberty both evolved from and devolved to the regional and local. Appropriately, then, it was the Federalists who saw that Americans were seldom able to focus their attentions on the national interests and the public good. Opponents of the Constitution need not worry, Hamilton reassured them; the central government will never be able to command the loyalty and interests of the citizens in the various states. 'It is a known fact in human nature that its affections are commonly weak in proportion to the distance or diffusiveness of the object. Upon the same principle that a man is more attached to his family than to his neighborhood, to his neighborhood than to the community at large, the people of each State would be apt to feel a stronger bias toward their local governments than toward the government of the Union.'

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.