by Michael Blim
Think back to your first class in American history. It could have been in high school or in college. The opening line was probably the same: “Half of American history occurred before the Revolution. If you want to understand American history, you need to understand the colonial period.” Or words to that effect.
I recall sitting in a big, darkened auditorium, a spiral notebook and pen in one hand, and a cigarette in the other. The class was big, perhaps as many as four hundred, but the room seated perhaps twice that many, so that there was enough room to light up, smoke, flick the ash, and crush out the butt without lighting up a fellow student. Such were the necessities of undergraduate life, once upon a time.
I can still remember my dismay at the prospect of an entire semester devoted to America before the Civil War. Images of witch-burnings, buckshot, buckskins, Hawkeye and Chingachgook competed with thoughts of powdered wigs, knee britches, the Adams family and the pockmarked, wooden-toothed father of our country for my all too limited attention span. I was never too impressed with our nation’s founders, having discovered pretty early on that many of them had countenanced Indian killing and slaveholding, and that the great document they forged counted a slave as three-fifths of a person.
In fact, I did not consider during those late days of the sixties the Constitution to be such a great document at all. The Warren Court was finally fixing its inequities, and despite Justice Black’s quaint habit of carrying around a copy of the Constitution in his pocket like a legal baby-blanket, was actually making new law so sorely missing from the old. I wasn’t so keen on the constitutional set-up of government either, as Cold War presidents had become unaccountable emperors, and the two-house Congress had all but put the legislature in the hands of Southern reactionaries. Lyndon Johnson was showing how broken American government had become by subjecting the Congress for good at home and the populace for bad with war abroad. Even if you thought America’s rulers were well intentioned, Richard Hofstadter, the premier American historian in those days, was awfully persuasive in describing the national political tradition as one of cynical opportunism.
Forty years have passed since I was told to pay attention to early American history, and I finally understand why, petticoats and Pilgrims aside, it was such good advice. For it was their great concern about who should rule America that should now become ours.
Who should rule America, the revolutionary and Constitution-writing generations of American leaders asked? Should it be an aristocratic elite bred to rule by the best families of the land? Or should it be direct representatives of the people whose knowledge of statecraft might be slight but who were reflective of the popular will?
Though America’s revolutionary leaders and the constitution-writing generation comprised a highly self-conscious and well-born elite, and as Anglophile as it might have been, the fight against imperial privilege and rule has soured them on replacing a remote absolutism with one homegrown. The spurts of raw democratic radicalism inspired by the revolution motivated this elite to write what Gordon Wood in Creation of the American Republic (1969: 513) has called “an intrinsically aristocratic document.” Republican rather than democratic with state power divided among agencies to prevent direct popular rule, the elite strived in as much as possible to reserve government for itself.
But this same elite, its roots in immigration and hardscrabble made all the more obvious after the properly English-related well-born had fled the colonies with British defeat, feared the creation of a new “England” in their midst even as they attributed their own social mobility to the fact that society’s best, like cream, always rose to the top. America needed an aristocracy, they reasoned, but let it be a natural one drawn from the ranks of people like them, those whom in their conceit they decided were the best and the brightest.
And so the concept of a “natural aristocracy” was born.
Gordon Wood provides an incisive reading of political beliefs that shaped the founders’ minds:
“’The people commonly intend the PUBLIC GOOD,’ wrote Hamilton in The Federalist, but they did not ‘always reason right about the means of promoting it.’ They sometimes erred, largely because they were continually beset ‘by the wiles and parasites and sycophants, by the snares of the ambitious, the avaricious, the desperate, by the artifices of men who possess their confidence more than deserve it, and those who seek to possess rather than deserve it.’ The rights of man were simple, quickly felt, and easily comprehended: in matters of liberty, ‘the mechanic and the philosopher, the farmer and the scholar, are all upon a footing.’ But to the Federalists matters of government were quite different: government was a ‘complicated science, and requires abilities and knowledge, of a variety of subjects, to understand it.’ Only if the respected and worthy lent their natural intellectual abilities and their natural social influence to political authority could governmental order be maintained.” (1969: 508)
One of the great ironies of American history is that even though the elite design of the Constitution triumphed, the post-revolutionary elite met defeat at the hands of Andrew Jackson, whose administration signaled a pronounced democratic drift in life of the American republic that lasted until the end of the Civil War and the subsequent rise of a new, robust, and particularly brutal bourgeoisie bred by industrial capitalist success. The great robber barons recreated American life in their image, calling themselves the just inheritors of the natural aristocratic right to rule.
Their triumph still defines our lives, though as Americans, we struggle always to shorten bondage’s cords. Could half of America’s history really have occurred before the Revolution? Could slavery really have defined an epoch of 250 out of 400 years of American history? Could we still be locked in robber baron capitalism’s deadly embrace?
Ask our elite, our natural aristocrats. They too suffer the long-term memory losses of the nation and thus cannot remember a time when people of their sort did not possess the right to rule. That they worship in the temple of merit only obscures the fact that they are an elite convinced of their divinity like every other. Their reign begun with the election of Grover Cleveland 125 years ago is by far shorter than Africa America’s time on the cross, and still shorter than a time in early America when their role in the nation’s history was prefigured and placed at the center of the Constitution.
In this time of agonizing national crisis, isn’t it time to question divine right again?