Gordon Wood
The Radicalism of the American Revolution

Unlike the European states, the United States, already composed of more and more diverse peoples, could not rely on any tribal or national identity. To be an American could not be a matter of blood; it had to be a matter of common belief and behavior. And the source of that common belief and behavior was the American Revolution: it was the Revolution, and only the Revolution, that made them one people.

Therefore Americans' interpretation of their Revolution could never cease; it was integral to the very existence of the nation. Some found the meaning of the Revolution in the Constitution and the union it had created. Others discovered the meaning in the freedom and equality that the Revolution had produced. But many other Americans knew that such meanings were too formal, too legal, too abstract, to express what most actually experienced in being Americans. In concrete day-to-day terms invocations of the Constitution meant the freedom to be left alone, and in turn that freedom meant the ability to make money and pursue happiness.

It was inevitable, therefore, that many came to conclude that this unruly society couid tie itself together only by bonds that were in accord with the realities of American freedom and pursuits of happiness. Nothing less than interest itself—that 'most powerful impulse of the human breast'—would do as an adhesive force in this dynamic busy society. Many Federalists and Republicans, like many Whigs and Democrats later, concluded that interest was about all most Americans had in common. They could not be controlled by force, or else they would have no liberty. But appeals to virtue could not contain these busy people either. Only interest could restrain them. Americans govern themselves, they said, because it was in their interest to do so. The desire to make money and get ahead helped them to develop habits of self-control. 'The influence of money is wonderful, and the mind changes as the means of acquiring it are presented.' By the 1830s Tocqueville thought he saw what was holding this diverse, rootless, restless people together. 'Interest,' he concluded. 'That is the secret. The private interest that breaks through at each moment, the interest that, moreover, appears openly and even proclaims itself as a social theory.'

Most of the Americans' defenses of interest and money as the best connecting links in society were thus not cynical or reluctant concessions to reality; they were not made obliquely or m embarrassment. Quite the contrary: these defenses were made proudly and enthusiastically, as if interest and the making of money through trade had become deserving of as much acclaim and admiration as republican virtue traditionally had been given. Interest and moneymaking after all were egalitarian and democratic. When people related to each other only through interest, there was no obligation, no gratitude required; the relationship was to that extent equal. Many had always believed, moreover, that interest was what preoccupied and moved ordinary working people, and these ordinary working people, including not just laborers and employees but master craftsmen, enterprising farmers, proto-industrialists, and businessmen, anyone and everyone who worked for profit and for a living, were 'the most useful, honest part of society.' Indeed, some were already saying that such working people were now the only people who mattered in America.

One of the earliest and most ingenious full-scale defenses of the social benefits of business and commerce was that of Samuel Blodget, merchant, economist, and sometime architect who designed the First Bank of the United States in Philadelphia. Blodget in several pioneering essays on the American economy written during the first decade of the nineteenth century argued that commerce was the major source of cohesion in the society. Of course, from at least the beginning of the eighteenth century, many thinkers, including Montesquieu, had described commerce as beneficial to a country. It brought wealth to the society, tied different nations together, and even helped to civilize people. But by commerce most of these commentators usually had meant what Montesquieu meant: 'the exportation and importation of merchandise with a view to the advantage of the state,' which translated into the traditional view, as one American put it, that 'only exports make a country rich.' Commerce was generally equated with international trade, not with mere trafficking and exchanging within the community. Such internal trading and retail dealing had traditionally possessed little of the importance and respectability of overseas commerce. But now Blodget and others identified commerce with all business activities within the community, however petty and vulgar.

Indeed, Blodget celebrated economic interest itself as the best adhesive a society could have. Every people had 'social ties.' The first, said Blodget, were those of blood or kindred; the second were those of the laws; the third were those associations for the extension of the arts and sciences. The fourth, 'and perhaps the most to be depended on of all,' were pecuniary ties. Because people were naturally so restless and quarrelsome, nothing else would work.

  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.