This review by Peter Berkowitz of a book by an author unknown to me — Gordon Wood — suggests, rightly, that the Founders changed the world in a way that made it an alien place to most of them. The cultural environment that formed the backdrop for men like Adams and Jefferson simply assumed differences in class, education, and moral worth. These differences were rigid and followed as a consequence of birth and family.
The Founders accepted the differences, but shattered the link with nobility of birth. Both Adams and Jefferson, despite their very different ideas about the relation of a people to its government, believed in a natural aristocracy: an elite of gentlemen of talent, learning, and above all virtue, in whose hands the power to rule could be entrusted.
Political equality was required because such aristocrats might arise anywhere; to preserve public office in one family invited personal corruption and national decadence. Similarly, free public education, of which Jefferson was a powerful advocate, paved the path to the elite for humble but talented men. In the new republic, as nowhere on earth before, a gentleman was made rather than born.
What actually emerged from this revolt against privilege was a far rougher, cruder, and nakedly competitive political environment than any of the Founders could have envisioned. The ideal of a natural aristocracy was quickly left behind, being incomprehensible to those who had not suffered the class assumptions of an aristocracy of birth. The gentleman politician just as quickly gave way to the hack.
For two centuries, worshippers of public opinion have fought a cold war with those who demand and embody virtue: the tension between these poles defines our country today, no less than in the 1820’s.
Berkowitz is a leader among those who understand the necessity of virtue to our political system, not simply for what we would call “moralistic” reasons but to protect and preserve freedom. His book on the subject throws light on the problem of morality in a liberal democracy — it is a public need, yet can only be promoted as a private pursuit. His conclusion in this review reflects an abiding affection for the American way to political freedom, and a concern about the future of the Founders’ legacy in our own ungentlemanly times:
The founders lived through a cultural transformation that the triumph of their political ideas accelerated. Formulated in erudite pamphlets and sophisticated newspaper essays on behalf of liberty and equality for a cultivated but narrow audience of fellow gentlemen, their attacks on monarchy and inherited rank encouraged the people to take a livelier interest in politics. At the same time, their writing promoted a democratization of literary practices and tastes. Indeed, during the Revolutionary era, the reading public underwent a huge expansion. According to Wood, “by 1810 Americans were buying more than 22 million copies of 376 papers sold annually, the largest aggregate circulation of newspapers of any country in the world.” Many of the founders looked aghast upon this new public world. To their way of thinking, the new democratic free-for-all was a world in which nothing was sacred, all was fair, and every hack had his day.
In other words, the world that the founders’ revolution brought into being is ours. Recalling the complexity and distinctiveness of theirs, along with the reason behind their choices and the character animating their principles, encourages a certain sympathy for our inevitable excesses, a gratitude for our constitutional government — whose establishment was anything but a foregone conclusion — and a sober concern for our politics because of its continuing dependence on virtues that seem increasingly difficult to summon and sustain.