Fashioning a Free People

Daniel E. Ritchie

Current Issue

"What makes you think that Iraq can create a democracy?" Three years after the 2003 U.S. invasion, as the Iraqi insurgency was killing civilians at random and a full civil war seemed inevitable, this questioner at a University of Minnesota forum wanted answers. The official from the Bush administration replied that it was our government's position that all people deserve to live under a democracy. Muslims could learn pluralism, added the speaker from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, from the various schools of Islamic jurisprudence. My conclusion: We have no idea how to fashion a free people.

In the dozen or so years since that forum, skepticism about how to prepare a people for viable, free government has only grown — and sustaining even established democracies is now of great concern as well. Consider the way many now view our past: The narrative of white supremacy that underlies many a film, curriculum, and popular history is producing a public that doubts the United States has ever been the land of the free. And consider how we think about the present: Among progressives, the danger of electing the wrong president was captured by the title of Slate's feature "Trump Apocalypse Watch." Or look at how some Americans regard the future: Rod Dreher's Benedict Option argues Christians should "strategically withdraw" from full participation in mainstream culture since they cannot prevent its decline. 

For all this skepticism and anxiety, however, most commentators think they themselves know how to fashion a free people. They generally contrast their approach with some other camp, but even naming the camps can be difficult. For some, the divide remains between progressives and conservatives, although certain issues bring old-school liberals and conservatives together while libertarians and progressives agree about others. The editor of First Things, R. R. Reno, recently proposed ditching these old categories altogether in favor of a divide between nationalists and globalists. Meanwhile, George Weigel believes the opposing views of freedom are rooted in disagreements about human anthropology: the autonomous self versus biblical and philosophical traditions that place the individual in community (see his "A New Awakening" in the Spring 2017 issue of this journal). Still, the names we give our warring camps matter, for they reveal our basic assumptions about how a free people is created and sustained.

REVOLUTIONARY OR CONSTITUTIONAL

None of these descriptions is exhaustive, though each explains differences in our divergent understandings of how to form a free people. Maybe we can begin to explain the contested underpinnings of liberty by adding yet another such polarity: Ever since the 18th century, two different sensibilities, a revolutionary sensibility and a constitutional one, have contended for the best way to fashion a free people. These two sensibilities are constructed by ordering and connecting knowledge in certain ways — the very procedure that the Enlightenment Encyclopédie proposed in its "Preliminary Discourse." By looking at that era, we can learn a great deal about the forces that swirl around the competing institutions, practices, and habits that claim to support free societies.

The 1790s, give or take a few years, is the most instructive political decade of the "Atlantic Enlightenment," as the interchange between France, Britain, America, and elsewhere is now known. In that period, America launched the constitutional phase of its experiment in self-government, France tried and failed to launch its own such experiment, and Britain largely held on to its freedoms, despite the stains of slavery, sedition laws, and second-class citizenship for women. Maybe it's just the benefit of hindsight, but during that decade, the tide of novels, speeches, and pamphlets taking up the question of how to fashion — or destroy — a free people seemed to crest.

The Encyclopédie, published in France between 1751 and 1765, is in many ways a prospectus for revolution, as article after article skewers the ancien régime and promises an enlightened future. "The victory of the Encyclopédie presaged not only the Revolution," writes Philipp Blom, "but the values of the two centuries to come." Well, its values are certainly shared by those with a revolutionary sensibility. But how many who took up arms in the American Revolution shared enough of those values to wish for révolution à la française? Washington and Hamilton fought for our Revolution, but their actions and words in the 1790s displayed a strikingly different sensibility — a "constitutional" sensibility. Indeed, French writers of the day faulted our Constitution for its strong presidency and separation of powers, both of which counteracted the direct voice of le peuple. Their contrasting sensibility is reflected in the very title of the French Revolution's founding document, "The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen"; French republicans could always appeal to the universal rights of man when they felt restricted as citizens by the French Constitution.

Nearly every politically serious writing of that decade joins the argument over how to fashion a free people. The same is true today. Peace allows rival views to coexist and jostle for influence. But conflict, such as we faced in the 1790s and face again today, forces some to opt for more revolutionary solutions, while others trust in constitutional approaches.

My choice of terms is hardly original. In his great study of French Jacobinism, Patrice Higonnet speaks of a "Jacobin sensibility." It was produced by the "order and interconnections" of knowledge that gave force to the writings of encyclopédistes like Diderot, Rousseau, d'Alembert, and their intellectual descendants. Its descriptions of the citizen, rationality, religion, nature, education, mœurs, and other sociopolitical terms are intricately related to the Encyclopédie's notion of liberty. The Encyclopédie gives them universal significance, unhindered by local customs. By the 1790s, the Jacobins had sealed these ideas together and insisted upon unity in pursuing them. This unity and universalism gave birth to the fully formed revolutionary sensibility, from its blend of personal and moral integrity down to its slogans and songs.

The "constitutional sensibility," by contrast, is Steven Hayward's phrase for Lincoln's style of jurisprudence (see his "Two Kinds of Originalism" in the Winter 2017 issue of this journal). What I have in mind, however, connects this approach to the same cultural issues that preoccupy the revolutionary — the citizen, rationality, religion, and so on — though the constitutionalist understands and connects them in different ways. For instance, constitutionalists are typically repelled by political universalism because of the radical imperfection of human nature. Even constitutionalists with strong convictions regarding religion or natural law generally shun the visions of all-embracing political and moral unity that inspire the revolutionary. Their sensibility is gratified by local reforms, ordinary domestic happiness, and bourgeois well-being. They are willing to tolerate imperfection — even injustice and prejudice in some cases — to avoid violence, power grabs, and the destruction of their cultural heritage. And songs? I've yet to hear one about the U.S. Constitution.

For the richest 18th-century landscape featuring the interconnections of these ideas, there is no better prospect than the era's dictionaries and encyclopedias. In his 1736 Dictionarium Britannicum, for instance, Nathan Bailey offers a little sermon on "freedom": "We who live in the land of liberty hardly know or are sensible of our happy state." At the end of the century, the 1797 Encyclopædia Britannica (in the entry on "Revolution") warns that if the French example "cannot make us contented with the government under which we live," we are "a people...ripe for the greatest miseries." Not to be outdone, the 1798 Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française pointedly defines "citizen" as "[t]he common name for all of the French and for other individuals from free nations who enjoy the rights of a citizen." By this time, Noah Webster had become an early critic of the French Revolution. And even if his American Dictionary of the English Language didn't appear until 1828, the term "Jacobin" was already associated with one "who opposes government in a secret and unlawful manner or by violent means."

The citizens of Britain, America, and France virtually all considered themselves "free" in the 1790s, but they meant very different things by that term — and they had their doubts about those across the channel or the ocean. And isn't the same true today? Don't we speculate that Europeans are starting to succumb to Tocqueville's soft despotism of the all-competent state, while they wonder how we can consider ourselves free without universal health care?

THE MEANS OF FASHIONING

In the 1790s, the political pamphlets, speeches, novels, poems, and plays of the Atlantic Enlightenment exploded with contending notions of how "the people" were fashioned. Even Jane Austen's literary predecessor, Fanny Burney (1752-1840), who denied the political significance of her works, dealt with major social questions, from crippling debt and women's economic dependence to the baneful effects of inequality.

If, as Charles Péguy says, "everything begins as mystique and ends in politique," the revolutionary and the constitutionalist sensibilities divide at the very beginning. For when the revolutionary surveys the institutions that are entrusted with the deepest mysteries of life — above all, religious institutions — his first instinct is to criticize. For regeneration he turns to education. The very form of the Catéchisme du citoyen, to say nothing of its insistence on faith to the Revolution unto death, illustrates his quasi-religious faith.

Very different is the treatment of Christianity by the 18th-century constitutionalist, even one of a deistic bent. To be sure, secular educators love the passage from Washington's 1796 "Farewell Address" that says, "In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened." But this speech, written largely by Hamilton, came just two years after the Terror in France, the Citizen Genêt affair in America, and the appearance of Thomas Paine's Age of Reason in England. In referring to "enlightenment" and "knowledge," Hamilton and Washington were not invoking their service in revolutionary causes. Just a few sentences earlier, Washington had warned:

[L]et us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

Washington is at pains to warn that "religion and morality are indispensable supports" of political prosperity. A year earlier, the evangelical president of Yale, Timothy Dwight, had declared that Christian piety "is to be deemed the real, the natural, and the universal foundation of social good." For him, Paine's attack on revealed religion in The Age of Reason could only undermine American republicanism. The constitutionalists' first instinct is to appreciate and amend religion, not repeal and replace it. For the revolutionary, by contrast, the scandal of religious particularity had already become insurmountable by the 1790s, and Paine is typical in rejecting all creeds, national churches, and revealed scriptures. Bernie Sanders was simply following Paine's lead this summer when he applied an unconstitutional religious test to denounce Russell Vought, nominated as deputy director of OMB, for Vought's belief in Jesus Christ as the exclusive means of salvation. What are constitutional rights, reasons the revolutionary, compared to the universal prohibition on discrimination?

By separating religion from its cultural modes, revolutionaries appeal to truly universal principles — not ones hampered by particular, institutional forms of piety. Multiculturalism in its relativistic form thus makes perfect sense to the revolutionary sensibility. It welcomes the cultural contributions of everyone without privileging one over the other. The first time I took Christian students to the Middle East, a few months before President Obama's Cairo speech, my group desperately wanted to affirm that a Muslim's salvation was based on grace. Wasn't grace a universal element of religion? I was glad they were experiencing cultural discomfort. But I had to point out that their theological proposal would make the crucifixion unnecessary. Without that, as Flannery O'Connor put it, you have a "Church Without Christ."

These theological problems didn't discomfit the Enlightenment philosophes. They had a term for exalting particular, historically located truths into universal standards: prejudice. "To believe oneself the unique darling of nature," wrote the encyclopédiste Jaucourt, is the prejudice of self-love.

The historical rootedness of the constitutional sensibility binds it to particular times and places, which brings particular, cultural virtues and vices into politics. By contrast, the universalism of the revolutionary slips the surly bonds of earth altogether. It finds its mores directly in the political sphere. As the Encyclopédie puts it (paraphrasing Montesquieu): "Virtue in a democracy is love of the laws and love of the Country....This love leads to good mores, and good mores lead to love of Country."

Under Jacobin rule, the revolutionaries took this to its extreme conclusion: "Children belong to the general family, to the republic, before they belong to particular families," declared Barère in 1794. "Without this principle, there can be no Republican education." The inherited habits and customs of French citizens were irrelevant; their particular religion did not matter. The mores, religion, and virtues in a revolutionary democracy must take their direction from universal values, and that meant directing them from the top.

Burke saw the difference with clarity. "Manners are of more importance than laws," he wrote:

In a great measure the laws depend upon them. The law touches us but here and there, and now and then. Manners are what vex or sooth[e], corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breath[e] in. They give their whole form and colour to our lives....Nothing in the Revolution, no, not to a phrase or a gesture, not to the fashion of a hat or a shoe, was left to accident. All was the result of design; all was matter of institution.

However powerful his insights, Burke here lacks the sympathy to perceive the underlying, global mystique of the revolutionary's politique. That appeal binds revolutionary manners, religion, and education together. In our day as in the 1790s, the connection is perhaps most obvious when it comes to education. Consider the slogan of the Minneapolis Public Schools: "Urban Education. Global Citizens." The district's mission statement assigns nothing of value to its city, state, or nation. Its goal, rather, is to equip learners with the tools "to confidently engage in the global community." Granted, this is hardly comparable to throwing up the revolutionary barricades and singing "The Internationale." But an instinctive preference for the universal over the local is a hallmark of the revolutionary sensibility. And as the French realized, this preference — or prejudice — must be taught.

As for that tolerant mode of religion that gains favorable notice in the Encyclopédie, it posed no political challenge to the revolutionary: It would own no property, administer no institutions, and form the basis for no significant communities. As Paine said, "My own mind is my own church." These characteristics illustrate another division between the revolutionary and constitutional sensibilities: Unlike the thick layers of voluntary, non-political associations that mediate between the citizen and the constitutional state, there is little that comes between the citizen and the revolutionary one.

Promoting the new manners, education, and religion of the French Republic became state-sponsored activities. The ancien régime collapsed with breathtaking speed in 1789, observes historian Higonnet, and "political traditionalism...decomposed in a matter of days, not weeks." Given their heady experience of unity and success, it's no wonder the revolutionaries thought they could succeed.

THE PRACTICE OF FREEDOM

If different ways of fashioning a people reveal the fissure between the revolutionary and constitutional sensibilities, the political, intellectual, and economic ideas associated with freedom only deepen it. "Nature" is the sole meaningful source of liberté in the Encyclopédie — which means that liberty must be universal in every significant aspect. Society may limit freedom, but it cannot perfect it. With regard to historic liberties in the French past, the Encyclopédie tells the story of loss upon loss: The rights of the communes to maintain a militia and raise taxes were gradually removed by "our kings"; the people of France, formerly "the most respectable part of the nation," had given way to those of higher status.

To anchor his hope in a just political future, the revolutionary has always ascribed extraordinary power and goodness to human rationality. "The people" will be ready for a free civil society when they are properly educated. Prior to the revolution, however, education is always at war with human nature. "Good nature seems to be born with us," writes Jaucourt. "It is one of the fruits of a happy temperament that can be splendidly cultivated by education...." But what we call a "good education" today forges an "artificial humanity," he complains, which merely apes natural goodness. It degrades our nature by degrading our reason.

Criticism of education was not, of course, limited to revolutionary Frenchmen. Hannah More, who strenuously opposed revolutionary sentiment in England, ridiculed the "shreds and patches of useless arts" that masqueraded as education for women. Her emphasis on intellectual companionship between husband and wife had been anticipated in America by John Witherspoon's "Letters on Marriage," published in 1775 and 1776. In that work, the Calvinist divine and president of James Madison's Princeton urged the husband to comply with his wife "wherever there is a great and confessed superiority of understanding" on her part. An English revolutionary like Mary Wollstonecraft would agree.

The difference between the two sensibilities, then, is not that one favors the status quo and the other does not. The difference is that More and Witherspoon welcome reforms that come from their literary and religious inheritance. Wollstonecraft, on the other hand, finds it "necessary to go back to first principles in search of the most simple truths, and to dispute with some prevailing prejudice every inch of ground." She erects her educational program on the unequivocal axioms of reason that she believes will result in "the perfection of our nature." "[T]ill society be differently constituted," she concludes, "much cannot be expected from education."

Wollstonecraft helps us see how rationality provides the central link between humanity and nature, for "society...differently constituted" is (paradoxically) both the outcome and precondition of a revolutionary education. An almost mystical belief in reason is the basis for the revolutionary's hope in a fully rational politique. "Natural laws," writes Jaucourt in his Encyclopédie article on that topic, "can be deduced by the cultivation of our reason. Even the most mediocre minds can grasp most of them." Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary, published in 1764, says the same thing in an essay on "human laws": If laws were based on universal propositions about human nature, "thirty laws...all of a nature beneficial to mankind, would be unanimously agreed to" by simple farmers in a single hour. 

The revolutionary connections among rationality, humanity, and nature promised a consensus about the shape of civil society. With prejudice overcome, education would be reformed, the church divested of power and property, and marriage transformed into an easily dissolved civil contract. At the outset of the French Revolution, Higonnet writes, the Jacobin sensibility assumed that knowledgeable citizens would soon be of one mind. But this meant that when persistent disputes arose, the revolutionaries lacked a polity where reasonable people could disagree. To take one issue, should private property be strictly protected (as many Jacobins initially believed)? Should ownership be equalized (the dominant sans-culotte view)? Or should property be shunned as the origin of inequality (as Rousseau had written)? Similar contradictions arise within the left today. Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that property provides a good starting point for understanding the alternative, constitutionalist approach to liberty.

After the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688, which deposed the last English advocate of divine right of kings, James II, property was "the sole, rightful basis of authority." So writes Paul Langford, the foremost authority on property in 18th-century British thought. Langford may have overstated his case: Sir Edward Coke's Commentaries had earlier established the superiority of the rule of law above even royal declarations, to say nothing of property rights. Still, the hierarchy of rights and duties in British society was firmly rooted in property, not in abstract notions of natural right, the social contract, or virtue. To be sure, this hierarchy, its corruptions, and its inequalities were under attack. Behind the marriage plot of many an 18th-century novel is a critique of property. Even accounting for its corruptions, however, property was firmly joined to English liberty. Due process and the separation of powers, essential to the legal regime of a free people in the constitutionalist's mind, owe much of their pedigree to the strength of historic property rights against the English Crown.

Lest one censor this heritage as a combination of self-interest, class stratification, and fear of the mob, note that the first critics of the French Revolution were alarmed by the 1789 spoliation of church property — not of their own lands — and many a poor Catholic felt similar anxiety. By the end of 1790, the exiled finance minister Charles Alexandre de Calonne worried that the National Assembly's "war against...all the possessors of landed property" was but a step toward establishing a new "Inquisition." Next, he warned, the corporate bodies, provincial charters, and other mediating elements that made up French civil society would be abolished. "[F]rom the midst of these ruins," he wrote with bitter sarcasm, "let a Constitution arise, so new, that it may absolutely resemble nothing." Of course, that is exactly what many of Rousseau's revolutionary followers wanted.

All of this helps us see how revolutionaries and constitutionalists define and connect property, liberty, reason, and other concepts differently. But the two sensibilities also differ in the limits they discern for these concepts. The revolutionary sensibility typically wants the state to limit property and commerce in order to fashion a more equal people. The constitutional sensibility typically wants to limit the state — to its delegated and enumerated powers, for instance — for the sake of liberty, even at the cost of economic inequality. Both sensibilities believe that a free and virtuous life is unattainable apart from reason. But the revolutionary believes that reason must be freed from the limits of prejudice in order to direct citizens to virtue and liberty. For the constitutionalist, by contrast, reason itself is limited. Religion, customs, and mores must supply what it lacks.

Even if one sides with the constitutionalists, it is a massive understatement to observe that the United States and Britain enjoyed imperfect liberty in the late 18th century. Suddenly made more profitable by the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, American slavery steadily gained defenders, and the British took until 1834 to end it. Women were second-class citizens. The American Sedition Act of 1798 resulted in over a dozen indictments of Republican journalists for criticizing John Adams's government. In Britain, a mob burned the home of the radical Joseph Priestley. The lands of constitutional liberty in the 1790s accommodated much injustice.

THE PEOPLE THEMSELVES

Have you noticed that after many an impassioned speech, someone rises to ask, "What can we do to achieve this?" The speaker has just given a call to arms — to end inequality, save the planet, or rescue the truth — and the earnest questioner wants a plan.

The expectation is that the speaker will respond in the imperative mood: Empower this group; change that law; teach these texts. Now, of course, everyone uses the imperative from time to time. But the revolutionary needs the imperative mood at nearly every point. The people need "regeneration," he says. That term flowed from the pen of many a French revolutionary writer in promising what their political clubs, catechisms, and calendars would accomplish. But the more accurate term is really "generation," for, on a fundamental level, the revolutionary generally believes the people have not yet been created.

The cultural position of businessmen, lawyers, fine craftsmen, and men of letters excludes them from the people, according to the encyclopédiste Jaucourt. Only the laborers and workers are the people now, he continues. From them, and from the Encyclopédie of course, his readers must learn their political identity. Then the people will be born.

Imperatives dominate the verbal instructions of today's revolutionary sensibility as well: We live in a rape culture, the Nation laments, which requires us to "name the real problems," "re-examine and re-imagine masculinity," and "adopt enthusiastic consent." America's original sin of slavery requires us to pay reparations, says the Movement for Black Lives, along with freezing charter schools and ending "broken windows" policing.

Beneath all of these fiats, the revolutionary sees "the people" as the deeper problem. As Oren Cass noted in these pages (see his "How to Worry about Climate Change" in the Winter 2017 issue), disagreement over a key element of the program (for instance, about whether a carbon tax is a good idea) leads to being labeled a "denier" — a term of cultural exclusion "previously associated with refusal to acknowledge the occurrence of the Holocaust." Exclusion was a sharp tool in the Atlantic Enlightenment as well, and the philosophes excelled in excluding their intellectual opponents from the Republic of Letters. It seemed witty and harmless at the time. But the national festivals of the French Revolution quickly began sorting good citizens from bad, all in the name of promoting the right kind of fraternity. Their attempt to restructure time finds an echo in the ideologically based "months" that now populate our own calendar.

To propose an alternative vision of the people as they should be, you must have a narrative of the kind of people they are now. The most powerful revolutionary narrative on offer today, of course, is that the story of the American people is white supremacy. The Electoral College is its instrument, proclaims Slate blogger Mark Joseph Stern. White supremacy is "one of the central organizing forces in American life" in every era, asserts Ta-Nehisi Coates. It's not enough to acknowledge that Stephen Douglas supported it. One must accept Douglas's interpretation of American history over Abraham Lincoln's.

Coates's discussion at the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival with Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans was especially revealing. When asked how he would address the culture of violence among African-American males, Coates had a quick response: "By the destruction of white supremacy in this country, it's just that simple." But when pressed to say what he would do if he were mayor, Coates became agitated: "I don't know what I would [do]....[I]t's beyond mayors...I can tell you what I would do if [I were] king...I'll tell you what King Ta-Nehisi would do...I would immediately begin finding ways to get people out of prison. And by the way I include violent — ‘violent' [forming quotation marks with his fingers] — criminals." To his credit, Landrieu rebuked Coates for his unrealistic platitudes and listed recent initiatives in health, education, and employment in New Orleans: "I'm not waiting for everybody else to change the world," he said. Landrieu is a liberal constitutionalist. Coates, by contrast, is a revolutionary. Coates realizes he would need to be an absolute monarch rather than a constitutional leader to regenerate the people.

Constitutionalists agree with revolutionaries that "the people" is a political construct. "The idea of a people is the idea of a corporation," Burke writes. "It is wholly artificial." But unlike the revolutionaries of his day, who pitted the artificial against the natural, Burke saw the two as complementary: "Art is man's nature," he affirms, "For man is by nature reasonable; and he is never perfectly in his natural state, but when he is placed where reason may be best cultivated," namely in civil society. Society makes our practice of liberty humane by limiting it and by expecting citizens to put it to good use.

Burke explicitly identifies "civil society" as the source of the social order. The political authority alone does not create "the people" or the social order. Fashioning the people and their leaders is primarily left to existing institutions and practices — educational, professional, economic, and religious. They mediate between nature and society in a way that the revolutionary usually finds harmful.

Of course, the institutions of civil society are always flawed and in need of reform. But constitutionalists across the political spectrum typically receive them with gratitude. Martin Luther King, Jr., called the Constitution and Declaration of Independence a "promissory note" on which America had defaulted. Still, he continued, we "refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation."

Burke called "[i]ngratitude to benefactors...the first of revolutionary virtues," but this is again due to his lack of sympathy. Malcolm X didn't differ from King because of ingratitude. Based on his experience, he simply couldn't envision an American civil society that embraced blacks: "I don't even consider myself an American," he said in 1964. "I don't see any American dream; I see an American nightmare."

Wouldn't anyone, revolutionary or constitutionalist, give up on a polity that would never meaningfully include large numbers of inhabitants among its "people"? Hamilton did, in 1776. The revolutionary element in Malcolm X didn't come from his anger; it came from putting his faith in the socialism of Castro's Cuba and Julius Nyerere's Tanzania. This faith was misplaced — ask any immigrant from Cuba whether America is more or less inclusive than the regime they left — but the citizenship of Burke's England and Hamilton's America was far from equal. The authority of property meant that political rights were mostly restricted to property owners. The legal rights of religious and racial minorities often put them even lower than women. Surely at such a time, we could sympathize with Wollstonecraft, Paine, and their radical American admirers.

THE TASK AND THE LABOR

The novels, essays, plays, and sermons of the late 18th century testify to increasing turmoil throughout the Atlantic Enlightenment, but only in France did the revolutionary currents entirely overwhelm the constitutional stream. For Britain, Napoleon served as a common enemy, tamping down the most revolutionary sentiments without altogether quashing movements to end slavery, promote Catholic emancipation, and reform parliamentary representation. In America, Republican administrations under Jefferson and Madison may have led Federalists like Timothy Dwight to despair of politics, but the following Republican administration, under James Monroe, came to be remembered as defining the "Era of Good Feelings." In both America and Britain, countless individuals turned their energies toward forming voluntary societies that promoted literacy, temperance, abolition, prison reform, and various forms of public education.

And yet, however obvious it may seem that a free people needs such associations, the pure revolutionary sensibility, drawing on Rousseau, typically rejects such mediating structures. The only thing "between the world and me" in Ta-Nehisi Coates's memoir of that name is his body. Coates won't even give credit to his alma mater — Howard University — for forming him. Instead, he credits the popular metonymic identity of Howard, "The Mecca," with his cultural awakening and carefully distinguishes it from the university itself. Actual associations, he writes, are part of "The Dream" that whites use to falsify the ultimate reality of America, which is to maintain white supremacy through violence. The Dream "is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways," he writes. "The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts."

I read this just after inventorying our block-association supplies and helping my Cub Scout pack figure out the best way to serve a single mom and her two boys. I suppose I'm perpetuating "The Dream," but I can't see disbanding our block association. Nor can I pass along Coates's offensive and absurd teaching to that mom or the immigrant parents in our pack, namely that whites can "humiliate, reduce, and destroy" their boys because they're not white. Coates often echoes Malcolm X's revolutionary voice, from direct references down to the very structure of his memoir, but he repeats it as farce. Malcolm X confronted Jim Crow; Coates is challenging the Webelos.

A free people cannot be fashioned by ideologies and intellectual currents alone, whether they are revolutionary or constitutional ones. Specific individuals must form the associations and institutions that will sustain a people. I identified Mary Wollstonecraft as a revolutionary, but after the Terror she moderated her political views, as did Wordsworth, Coleridge, and scores of other significant figures. Where would English culture have been without them? What England had, France lacked: Necker fled, Talleyrand looked out for himself, and Napoleon tyrannized.

For all its failures, however, the revolutionary sensibility still has a more visceral appeal than the constitutional one. Its universalism and unity shun the limits laid down by any constitution. Like the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, the famous phrases from our own Declaration of Independence are for everyone. But unlike the French document, our Declaration was not used as a bludgeon against the rule of law. Jefferson may have spoken of watering the tree of liberty with a revolution every 20 years, but his response to the Alien and Sedition Acts — indeed, his presidency on the whole — was far from revolutionary.

The constitutional sensibility aims at the rule of law for one nation. Robert Frost captured this in his 1932 political pastoral, "Build Soil": "[B]efore we're international," says the skeptic of progressivism, "We're national and act as nationals." But the constitutional approach, as Walter Bagehot frankly noted in a sprightly essay, is often dull — dull but defensible. As he writes, "[N]ations, just as individuals, may be too clever to be practical, and not dull enough to be free." For Bagehot, the genius of the English people "was to be both dull and free," as Gertrude Himmelfarb observes. Bagehot praised steady labor, detail, and elaborate minuteness, as opposed to "ardent genius," effervescence, and "general ratiocination." "Dullness is our line," he observed in 1856, "as cleverness is that of the French....They wished, in a word, to have a popular government, without, at the same time, having a dull government."

If you think this is something of a come-down, consider our immigrants again: Whether they leave revolutionary regimes or kleptocracies, most simply want an ordinary life under the rule of law. No doubt many respond to Lincoln's universal language, through which we understand our country as "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." But they want to be Americans, not global citizens. They have come here by the tens of millions since the 1965 amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act. They have not similarly gone to Cuba, China, or other revolutionary countries that fail to secure the universal rights they proclaim.

My deepest experience with an immigrant came not too long after that University of Minnesota forum on Iraq. This friend had escaped war in West Africa and gained asylee status here, but his path to citizenship was a torturous one. Still, nothing could deter him from the day he would take his oath of allegiance to the United States. That ceremony was only the beginning of his citizenship, however, not its end. Had I and others helped my friend learn what we mean by hard work, being a dependable neighbor, integrating religion and life, and the thousand habits that comprise the constitution of liberty for American citizens? That is the task, to adapt the Sibyl's advice to Aeneas, this is the labor.

Daniel E. Ritchie teaches English at Bethel University. He is grateful to the Newberry Library, where he researched this essay. 


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