“Un-terrified Jeffersonian Democrats”: Part I

by Matthew Thomas

“The Anarchists are simply un-terrified Jeffersonian Democrats. They believe that ‘the best government is that which governs least,’ and that which governs least is no government at all.” — Benjamin Tucker

The independence and establishment of the United States of America was a source of great inspiration for the European Left — liberals, republicans, and socialists — because it proved that republican government was not only possible, but that it functioned well.

On September 9, 1867, at the opening Geneva congress of the League of Peace and Freedom, Mikhail Bakunin called the American republic “the finest political organization that ever existed in history.”

The United States had recently concluded its long and destructive Civil War, but it still inspired confidence abroad. The League of Peace and Freedom was an international organization committed to ending the seemingly endless wars between European states. “[T]here is but one way to bring about the triumph of liberty, of justice, and of peace in Europe’s international relations, to make civil war impossible between the different peoples who make up the European family;” Bakunin continued, “and that is the formation of the United States of Europe.”

Why should the United States be of such significance to European republicans; particularly with examples set by the revolutions in Europe, England and France? Simply put it was because the American revolutionary experience was unique. There was no titular nobility in America, no deeply ensconced English aristocracy upon these shores; therefore, European reaction to the American states declaration of independence, the Revolutionary War itself, was confined largely to military conflict between America and England, their allies and mercenary forces.

Once the armies of that action had been defeated, the reaction to the American revolution ceased. Because of this — this limitation upon the “furies of reaction,” and the well-recognized legitimacy of the various state legislatures in the eyes of the American public — the American republic could develop in a more liberal fashion than might otherwise have been possible.

The English Revolution was a series of civil wars beginning in 1642 between the Crown and Parliament. With the Crown’s defeat, and the enactment of the Commonwealth, the English saw the final and unfortunate emergence of Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate.

Under the Lord-Protector, puritanical laws, very much despised by the English, were passed (the closure of theaters and the banning of newspapers were two of the more onerous laws). The English republic lapsed into authoritarianism while the more liberal and egalitarian strains of thought, such as those of John Lilburn (1614 – 1657) and Gerrard Winstanley (1609 – 1676), were lost in the struggle between the relatively powerful gentry, and high-ranking military officers.

The restoration of the monarchy, and the enactment of the Bill of Rights, was welcomed because it thoroughly ended the religious and civil austerity imposed by the Puritanical government.

Unlike the English struggle between the Crown and Parliament, incompetence and malfeasance on the part of the French Ancien Régime was such that revolution was inevitable in France, beginning in 1789. The end of the absolute monarchy of Louis XVI brought about a constitutional monarchy first and then a republic. But the National Assembly fell into disorder as the French defended themselves against foreign threats on all sides and was thus unable to address the myriad problems French society faced.

The reaction to the French Republic was fierce and direct. The Committee of Public Safety, headed by Maximilien Robespierre, crushed all opposition to the republic in what came to be known as the Reign of Terror. There was no time to develop a functioning, liberal republican government committed to the ideals embodied in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Instead, there was only reaction and a polity boiling with numerous, contradictory interests.

By the time Napoleon took his seat with the Consulate in 1799, the Republic was already on its way towards Empire.

When Mikhail Bakunin spoke in Geneva in 1867, the French had gone through two republics, the Bourbon monarchy of the Restoration and that of the July Monarchy, and two empires. And so while the French republicans were tenacious, they had yet to see the foundation of a stable republic. Nevertheless, the French revolution had provided that necessary impetus towards liberty, equality, and fraternity not only in France, but throughout Europe, while the American republic proved the ideal realizable.

The American republican tradition is far more radical than many realize. We are given, in our schools, a sanitized version of the events surrounding our revolution, one sadly lacking in understanding of, or sympathy for, the fervor which inspired a generation to grapple with that established authority, the British Empire, and to remake their own society.

The American anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre observed, regarding the American revolution, as it has come to be understood, that: “[N]ame-worship, both in child and man, has acquired such mastery of them, that the name ‘American Revolution’ is held sacred, though it means to them nothing more than successful force, while the name ‘Revolution’ applied to a further possibility, is a spectre detested and abhorred. In neither case have they any idea of the content of the word, save that of armed force.”

As such, cynicism has overshadowed hope, complacence has obscured attentiveness, and deference has squelched participation.

Too many Americans are disaffected by a two-party system which skews popular representation and has led in no small part to the ossification of political institutions and the concentration of political and economic power.

Too many Americans are dismayed that a nation “conceived in liberty” should imprison a disproportionately large number of its citizens. Too many Americans are disgusted by their government’s endless wars and the imperial “projection of power” abroad.

And too many Americans are discouraged that the world’s wealthiest nation should see too many of its citizens disinherited, homeless, and poverty stricken.

But a re-examination of the republican principles espoused by that revolutionary generation might dispel the cynicism which leads to political apathy. And we have an advantage which that generation lacked: We can compare the ideals, history, and practices of our own experience with that of the Hellenic and Roman republics. Jefferson, Paine, Madison, Adams, and Hamilton could look back upon the failures of Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic and attempt to compensate; we can look back not only to the polities of antiquity, to scrutinize their failures, but to our own history, and see the successes in the evolution of our own union.

Libertarian socialists — from fellow anarchists to those free social democrats who believe the state may play a beneficial role in society should it be wholly answerable to the people and uphold certain individual rights as inviolable — should keep in mind that America’s republican revolution started as much with Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense as it did with the Continental Congress’ Declaration of Independence.

“Some writers have so confounded society with government,” wrote Thomas Paine, “as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections; the latter negatively by restraining our vices.”
The Public Matter: The Commonwealth and Classical Republicanism

“For the fate of Charles the First hath only made kings more subtle – not more just.” — Thomas Paine, Common Sense

By the time Thomas Paine had written those words in 1776, the “republicanization of monarchy” in Great Britain and her territories had long been under way. The subjects of the English crown were among the freest people in the world. They enjoyed the benefits of a constitutional monarchy, where governmental power was vested, by and large, in the Parliament, and a social hierarchy much looser than those found in France, the German states, Spain, or Russia.

And of all the subjects of the British Empire, it might be said that the English colonists in North America were the freest of them all. Representative and even democratic institutions existed in its colonies, in its colonial legislatures and town assemblies. And in several colonies, adult male suffrage was rather extensive. Even so, between sovereign and subjects, there is always tension. Constitutional or limited monarchy is a peculiar construct, maintaining two antagonistic principles, that of the Crown’s sovereignty, and his prerogatives, and the notion that his legitimacy is maintained only by the consent of his subjects.

On one hand, you had conservatives, who, following the earlier sentiments of Robert Fillmer, believed a monarch was necessarily above the law; social order demanded it. On the other, you had Whigs and “Commonwealth Men,” who believed if government’s legitimacy arose from the consent of the governed, then it was right also to insist that the people were sovereign, and that monarchies, no matter how they were constituted, were an affront to justice.

Americans had lived under republican government once before, briefly, with the 1649 pronouncement of the Commonwealth of England, which included all of its territories. The legislative houses in the colonies were, for the most part, of a semi-democratic sort, and representative institutions were deemed wholly legitimate. Those few attempts to impose a titular nobility upon the Americans had never met with any success when proposed. There was, in short, from the very beginning a democratic character to the American experience.

Despite the failure of the English Commonwealth, and Cromwell’s dictatorship, a precedent had been set. Many Americans, not just those of the working-classes, as one might expect, but also many of the middle-class identified with the Levellers (also called the Agitators), and the democratic rights which John Lilburne expounded upon during the English Revolution more than a century before.

Early on, Lilburne had called for reforms within Cromwell’s New Model Army, and, later, for a written constitution, religious freedoms, and universal adult male suffrage. This identification with the Levellers was particularly true in Philadelphia; a group known as the “Associators,” took to the cause of American independence and were deeply engaged in the revolutionary politics of 1775 and 1776.

Among their proposals, three were quite radical: 1.) Militiamen had the right to elect their officers; 2.) all men serving with the militia, regardless of social status, were to be enfranchised; and 3.) those men who refused service in the militia were to be taxed to support the families of militiamen who had been called away from gainful work.

When the revolution was accomplished, and the break with Great Britain complete, the Americans had to accomplish self-government for themselves

There was a republican sentiment that could not be denied in these States. The Founding Fathers were well aware of the failures of the Commonwealth, and its promise, they were also familiar, through their schooling as gentlemen, of the history of the republics of antiquity. In their attempt to bring a new government to America, they had two sets of influences working upon them: The Commonwealth and classical republicanism.

Republic is a much abused and apparently misunderstood term. Many on the Right try to distinguish between republic and democracy; the result, confusion.

The root of this attempted distinction, apparently, can be found in the Federalist Papers, No. 10, written by “Publius,” better known as James Madison.

“A republic,” he writes, “by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place,” would have to include, contrary to his intentions, not only the very government from which the Americans just won their independence, but the Athenian democracy itself. In both cases, that of the British constitutional monarchy and the Athenian democracy, schemes of representation took place, as both Parliament and the Boule were representative bodies. Therefore “republic” clarifies nothing.

Historically, the term republic has been used synonymously with “the state.” Systems of “mixed-government” and even kingdoms have been called “republics.” Plato’s Republic, that early political treatise, posits that the ideal state would not be a republic as we understand the word, i.e. a state in which the people, collectively, are sovereign, but rather a monarchial state headed by a philosopher king.

From this example, Republic is simply a Latin translation of the Greek word politeia, that is, polity, state, or, more precisely, the governmental organization of the state.

Further, Pierre Joseph Proudhon writes in his book What is Property?:

A republican! Yes; but that word specifies nothing. Res publica; that is, the public thing. Now, whoever is interested in public affairs — no matter under what form of government — may call himself a republican. Even kings are republicans.

The distinction that James Madison made, in fact, was not one between republics and democracies, but one between those systems of government which are representative and those which are participatory. So, while all democracies are necessarily republics, not all republics are democracies. But, when one carefully considers the meaning of the word republic, this phrase res publica — the public matter, the public thing, the public concern — it becomes clear that a democracy is the most appropriate and consistent republic. The public matter is, after all, the public’s concern

For many of the Founding Fathers, republicanism meant austerity, public virtue, and a concern for the public’s welfare. Most were admirers of Rome, of Cicero and Cato. Others were admirers of Lycurgus, the law-giver, and the Spartan republic which he established. There could be no two greater examples of republican austerity than these. And even though they were admired, Alexander Hamilton readily admitted, in the Federalist No. 6, that Sparta was “little better than a well-regulated camp,” and Rome “was never sated of carnage and conquest.”

Then there was Athens. Of all the democracies, Athens is the best known. The system of government there included all freemen — polites, citizens — and possibly as many as sixty-thousand might in a given year participate in the affairs of state. The members of the courts, executive councils, and sitting legislative council of five-hundred citizens, the Boule, which set the legislative agenda, were all selected by lottery. The military’s generals, the Strategoi, were subject to popular election. And the legislative assembly itself, the Ekklesia, was open to all citizens. All could vote. And all were free to initiate matters to be considered.

Most of the Founding Fathers regarded democracy with contempt. Their denunciation of democracy, no doubt, relied on Plato, and the criticisms of the Athenian aristoi, “the best ones,” as well as their own class interests (as the Federalist No. 10 makes clear).

Plato complained of the “evils” of democracy in Republic, comparing it ultimately to anarchy, saying:

“By degrees the anarchy finds a way into the private houses, and ends getting among the animals and infecting them.

“How do you mean?

I mean that the father grows accustomed to descend to the level of his sons and to fear them, and the son is on a level with his father, he having no respect or reverence for either of his parents; and this is his freedom, and the metic [an outlander] is equal with the citizen and the citizen with the metic, and the stranger is quite as good as either.”

It was this equality and liberty that Plato, this lover of authority and hierarchy, saw as evil. But this was not the worst of it. He continues:

“The last extreme of popular liberty is when the slave bought with money, whether male or female, is just as free as his or her purchaser; nor must I forget to tell of the liberty and equality of the two sexes in relation to each other.”

And indeed, among the freemen there were a few who argued that slavery was wrong. In the 4th Century B.C., a Greek sophist named Alcidams wrote, “God has set everyone free. No one is made a slave by nature.”

How the aristoi abhorred this; how democracy upended the “natural order” of things! Athenian democracy was interrupted by its “best citizens” on two different occasions, and they instituted oligarchy, reordering the franchise according to evaluations of property.

If there was any reason at all that Athenian democracy might be considered a failure, it was for its lack of equality, for its lack of liberty. Athens was a city-state founded upon slavery, after all. Women lacked the franchise. And the divisions of property were so great that even Plato argued property should be held in common. But the truth is, despite the numerous criticisms, the democratic Athenian republic represented a high point in the history of western civilization. Athens gave us improvements in the arts, literature, medicine, philosophy, architecture, and science; Sparta gave us an early model for a police state, social regimentation, totalitarianism, in a word, fascism.

The question, ultimately, is this: What sort of republic do we desire for ourselves and to leave for future generations — one austere or one free; one Spartan or one Arcadian; one aristocratic or one democratic? To be continued with Part II.