Political parties, observed Tocqueville in Democracy in America, “are a necessary evil in free government. But they have not at all times the same character and the same propensities.” For the most part, they lack any lofty or noble aspirations, and instead promote narrow interests. They usually employ the most violent language and the most base methods to advance their influence and power.
Yet, in isolated periods of great social and political upheaval, parties of principle do emerge in the midst of misery and confusion: “These parties are usually distinguished by nobler features, more generous passions, more genuine convictions and a more bold and open conduct than the others.”
When Tocqueville wrote these words in 1831, the era of great parties had long passed. Yet he could look back to the period following the War of Independence when the Federalists and the Republicans vied for the political soul of the new republic. “The Nation was divided between two opinions-two opinions which were as old as the world and which are perpetually to be met with, under different forms and various names, in all free communities, the one tending to limit, the other to extend indefinitely, the power of the people.”
This great contest, which shaped in large measure the destiny of the regime, lasted until 1800, when Jefferson, champion of the Republican cause, captured the Presidency. From then on, the Republicans maintained the allegiance of an overwhelming majority of the citizens, and the Federalists vanished from the political scene.
Given this background, Professor Joyce Appleby seems to have chosen one of the most dramatic and colorful periods of American political history for her study, Capitalism and a New Social Order: The Republican Vision of the 1790’s. Yet, as her own description of the study reveals, her perspective on the matter is rather different from Tocqueville’s: “In this volume, I shall look at the demise of the venerable political tradition which the Federalists defended or, to put it more positively, I shall examine the elements that went into the triumph of the first truly American political movement, that of Jeffersonian Republicans” (p. 4, emphasis mine).
Appleby’s thesis, in other words, is that the Federalists upheld principles which were wholly alien to the American Founding. Their position was, in fact, a distillation of two distinct-and distinctly English-concepts of liberty; i.e., “classical republicanism” and the “historic rights” tradition.
Both of these traditions arose among the English gentry in opposition to absolute monarchy. Classical republicanism championed constitutional rule, or the rule of law, against the arbitrary will of kings. It sought rather a mixed regime which balanced the legitimate claims of the one, the few, and the many, and eventually created a new kind of sovereign-the King in Parliament. As a theory of government, classical republicanism took its bearings from the Politics of Aristotle:
To be a free man was to participate in the life of the polis or community. . . . Liberty in the classical republican tradition pertained to the public realm and not the private. Indeed it was the capacity of men to rise above personal interest that made republics and therefore liberty possible. Virtue and liberty were indissolubly linked in classical republican theory. (p. 16)
A rival and “potentially contradictory” notion of liberty was the secure enjoyment of private life and especially of property. This was not a theory about the best regime, but a demand that government be limited, no matter what form it took. Liberty was identified with the body of rights and privileges protected by custom and the common law. These “rights of Englishmen” were compatible in practice with classical republicanism to the extent that the private enjoyment of one’s own possessions did not interfere with virtue or the common good. Together, they shaped and preserved the more or less aristocratic institutions of traditional English society and government. However, a third, more radical notion arose out of the social contract theories of Hobbes and Locke. Appleby calls this the “liberal” concept of liberty:
Nothing turned out to be more subversive than the analytical spirit that the liberal approach encouraged. Instrumental, utilitarian, individualistic, egalitarian, abstract and rational, the liberal concept of liberty was everything that the classical republican concept was not. (p. 21)
Until the American Revolution, notes Appleby, these three notions of liberty blended together in the minds and public discourses of the colonists. Since the Declaration of Independence, however, the appeal to historic rights of Englishmen was abandoned in favor of more universal claims. For a decade, classical republicanism and the Lockean natural rights theory were “like elements suspended in a solution, awaiting the catalyst that would crystalize them” (p. 22). The French Revolution provided that catalyst.
The Declaration of Independence itself had been ambiguous even though it had been drafted by Jefferson. It insisted that the purpose of government was to secure individual rights, but at the same time, it recognized the laws of nature and of nature’s God. It defended the right of revolution, but at the same time, it called for political prudence. It was, in short, a compromise.
The French Revolution gave the Republicans the opportunity to rally behind the rights of man in their purest form. The Federalists, fearful of the violent passions which the cry for “liberty, equality, and fraternity” had unleashed, retreated to classical republicanism. But by their typically un-American appeals to virtue, authority, and the common good, concludes Appleby, the Federalists doomed themselves to extinction.
There is much to be said for Appleby’s perceptive analysis of the three notions of liberty in the Anglo-American political tradition. In fact, the affinity between the contractual and essentially private character of the historic rights tradition and the social contract theory of Hobbes and Locke bears further development.
Yet, in applying these distinctions to the political “visions” of the Federalists and Republicans, she seems to have overstated her case. Perhaps because her research focuses on partisan rhetoric of the period rather than the principles that animated it, she gives the impression that they were opposing armies in an ideological crusade, rather than rival parties in a fledgling government.
By so closely identifying the Republican vision with “true Americanism,” progress, and the birth of free enterprise, Appleby comes to regard the Federalists as impediments and obstacles. Because of their “elitist” interference, the real American Founding was postponed until 1800. Tocqueville’s account of the Federalist contribution seems to be more generous, and given the personalities involved, more plausible:
The accession of the Federalists to power was, in my opinion, one of the most fortunate incidents that accompanied the formation of the great American Union. . . . [They] gave the new republic time to acquire a certain stability. . . . A considerable number of their policies, moreover, were embodied at last in the political creed of their opponents: and the Federal Constitution, which subsists at the present day, is a lasting monument of their patriotism and their wisdom.
Appleby’s low estimation of the Federalists, however, is a mere peccadillo compared to her unintentional slur against the Republicans. By interpreting their rhetoric exclusively in terms of individual, private rights, she sets them in opposition to the very idea of a common good. Statesmanship comes to mean presiding over a congeries of vested interests in order to maintain “the widespread enjoyment of comforts” (p. 90). What is worse, Appleby, in one particularly candid passage, denies that the Republicans’ appeal to natural rights had any basis in truth:
If would be a mistake, however, to conclude with the]effersonians that in . . . invoking the rights of all men they were in fact dealing with universal truths. In fact their conception of an unvarying, uniform human nature was an intellectual construction of the modernizing notions of the West. It was no less a cultural artifact than the ancient view of the human essence lodged in the four humors or the Puritan description of men and women as the erring children of Adam and Eve. (p. 101)
From this passage, one begins to see why Appleby, and indeed the bulk of contemporary scholarship from which she draws so heavily, are often frustrated in their attempt to interpret the American Founding, for in denying the reality of the common good, of virtue, and of human nature itself, these scholars place themselves outside of that tradition and can judge it only as outsiders and strangers.
In fact, the great thinkers and statesmen that Appleby intends to interpret-Hobbes, Locke, Smith, Burke, Hamilton, and Jefferson-have more in common with one another than any of them do with her, for they understood themselves to be disputing those serious questions which are “as old as the world,” and not to be engaged in “the intellectual construction of the modernizing notions of the West.”