Cover image for The elusive Republic : political economy in Jeffersonian America
Title:
The elusive Republic : political economy in Jeffersonian America
Author:
McCoy, Drew R.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Chapel Hill : Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Va. by the University of North Carolina Press, [1980]

©1980
Physical Description:
ix, 268 pages ; 24 cm
General Note:
Based on the author's thesis, University of Virginia.
Language:
English
ISBN:
9780807814161
Format :
Book

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Summary

Summary

By investigating eighteenth-century social and economic thought--an intellectual world with its own vocabulary, concepts, and assumptions--Drew McCoy smoothly integrates the history of ideas and the history of public policy in the Jeffersonian era. The book was originally published by UNC Press in 1980.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Chapter One SOCIAL PROGRESS AND DECAY IN EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY THOUGHT Sometime during the summer or early fall of 1780, as the war for independence approached its most critical juncture and Americans faced an increasingly problematic future, the secretary of the French legation in Philadelphia, François Marbois, initiated a chain of events that would produce an intellectual and literary landmark of the Revolutionary age. As part of the French government's effort to secure useful information about its new and largely unknown ally, Marbois circulated a detailed questionnaire among influential members of the Continental Congress. When a copy of the questionnaire found its way to Thomas Jefferson, then the besieged governor of Virginia, he seized the opportunity to organize his wide-ranging reflections on the conditions and prospects of his native country. Many revisions and several years later, when the Notes on the State of Virginia publicly appeared, they included what was to become Jefferson's best-known commentary on political economy. His celebration of "those who labour in the earth" as "the chosen people of God" has become a centerpiece of the republic's cultural heritage, a quintessential expression of its impassioned concern for the natural, earthbound virtue of a simple and uncorrupted people.     Jefferson's classic statement is so familiar that it might, at first glance, seem to require neither explanation nor analytical elaboration. But lurking beneath his deceptively simple paean to an agricultural way of life was a more sophisticated perception of how societies normally changed through time as well as an acute understanding of the moral and political implications of a social process that he assumed was inevitable. His memorable observations on the comparative merits of agriculture and manufactures were directly informed by a characteristically eighteenth-century conception of social change.     Jefferson was responding in the Notes to Marbois's inquiry about the present state of commerce and manufactures in Virginia. Making a distinction customary of the times, Jefferson reported that the Revolution had encouraged the prolific production of very coarse clothing "within our families," but for the "finer" manufactures Virginians desired, he continued, they would undoubtedly continue to rely on importations from abroad. Recognizing that such a pattern would be considered unfortunate by "the political economists of Europe," who had established the principle "that every state should endeavour to manufacture for itself," Jefferson contended that it was instead a wise and necessary response to peculiar American conditions and to the lessons of history. In Europe, where the land was either fully cultivated or "locked up against the cultivator" by the bars of aristocratic tradition, manufacturing was "resorted to of necessity not of choice." New forms of employment had to be created, in other words, for those people who could not find occupations on the land. In America, by contrast, where "an immensity of land" courted the industry of even a rapidly expanding population, an alternative form of political economy that would not force men into manufacturing was both feasible and eminently desirable. Citing the "happiness and permanence of government" in a society of independent and virtuous husbandmen, Jefferson emphasized the moral and political advantages of America's social opportunity that far outweighed narrowly economic considerations. If his countrymen foolishly and prematurely embraced manufacturing, he predicted, a consequent and inevitable corruption of morals would necessarily endanger the fabric of republican government. Once large numbers of Americans abandoned secure employment on the land to labor in workshops, they would become dependent on "the casualties and caprice of customers" for their subsistence, and such dependence had historically bred a "subservience and venality" that suffocated "the germ of virtue" and prepared "fit tools for the designs of ambition." "It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigour," Jefferson cautioned his readers, since "a degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution."     Jefferson's effusive optimism about his country's peculiar social potential could not obscure some nagging fears. He worried, on the one hand, that his contemporaries might blindly follow the maxims of European political economists, ignore his wisdom, and plunge into manufacturing. Education and a commitment to republican principles might defuse this particular danger, but a larger and less tractable problem loomed on the horizon. Jefferson recognized that the loathsome dependence, subservience, venality, and corruption that he so much dreaded--everything, in short, that he associated with European political economy--were in large part the unavoidable outgrowth of what he referred to as "the natural progress and consequence of the arts." He alluded here to a universal process that eighteenth-century social thinkers often described, a process whose repercussions might "sometimes perhaps" be "retarded by accidental circumstances," as Jefferson put it, but which inevitably had to be felt. Like most enlightened thinkers of his age, Jefferson conceived of natural laws of social and cultural development that applied to America as much as to Europe. Vast resources of land might forestall the unfavorable consequences of this "natural progress" of the arts, but he never doubted that eventually America would be swept up in an inexorable logic of social change. Jefferson's plea in the Notes on Virginia , a plea that he would make throughout his public life, was that his countrymen not abuse or disregard the natural advantages that could postpone, but never prevent, a familiar and politically dangerous course of social development.     Jefferson's general conceptualization of the dynamics of social change was characteristic of post-Revolutionary Americans. Responding to a controversial piece of legislation in his state, George Mason, a fellow Virginian, had occasion in late 1786 to address several of these same issues in similar terms. In 1784 the general assembly had enacted a measure popularly known as the Port Bill, which attempted to limit the commonwealth's foreign trade to five coastal towns. Although the purpose of the act--the creation of a more centralized commercial system in the state that would release it from the pre-Revolutionary domination of British merchants--was supported by an overwhelming majority of Virginians, many citizens, led by Mason, objected to this particular bill on both practical and ideological grounds. In the course of a lengthy memorial to the general assembly, Mason argued that Virginia was still at a relatively simple stage of social development and that legislative interference, promising to create large commercial cities, would only accelerate a dangerous process of social change. "If virtue is the vital principle of a republic, and it cannot long exist, without frugality, probity and strictness of morals," he queried, "will the manners of populous commercial cities be favorable to the principles of our free government? Or will not the vice, the depravity of morals, the luxury, venality, and corruption, which invariably prevail in great commercial cities, be utterly subversive of them?" History, both ancient and more recent, supplied the unspoken but obvious answer.     Mason never doubted that the natural sequence of social development would culminate inevitably in the form of society he feared. He argued, rather, that Virginia not accelerate the process. There was no sense in incurring the many disadvantages of a more complex society before it was necessary. "Are not a people more miserable and contemptible in the last," he asked, "than in the early and middle stages of society? And is it not safer and wiser to leave things to the natural progress of time, than to hasten them, prematurely, by violence; and to bring on the community all the evils, before it is capable of receiving any of the advantages of populous countries?"     Mason's battery of rhetorical queries suggests many of the tensions that troubled the eighteenth-century mind as it grappled with the wrenching repercussions of unsettling social and economic change. His admission that the advance of society to a more sophisticated form might have advantages is revealing, but he, along with most Americans of his age, seemed preoccupied with the deleterious consequences of this natural social development. Like Jefferson, Mason assumed the inevitability of a particular pattern of social growth, and they both perceived an intimate relationship between this pattern and the American experiment in republicanism. To understand fully the implications of their social analysis, and to appreciate the texture and resonance of American thinking in political economy in general, we must first turn to a consideration of the broader intellectual universe in which their perceptions were grounded. [I] The eighteenth century marked a watershed in the economic as well as the intellectual history of Western Europe, for the leading thinkers of that era had to assess the impact of a commercial revolution that had transformed nearly every aspect of European society since the fifteenth century. Today we tend to view this revolution as the preliminary stage of an even more fundamental "industrial revolution," but to men in the eighteenth century, who lacked our perspective, the commercialization of society in itself marked the birth of a distinctly modern order that represented a dramatic and dislocating break with the past. The rise of a flourishing international commerce, the development of more complicated national economies based on an advanced division of labor, and the revolution in public finance that brought with it funded public debts, large corporations, and the institutionalization of money markets were the major elements of this transformation in the economic life of Western Europe. By stimulating curiosity about the historical development of societies, these changes encouraged attempts to explain how and why societies customarily changed through time and brought about efforts to evaluate the impact of these changes on the manners and morals of men. Appropriately, the eighteenth century witnessed vigorous debates on such matters as the civilizing versus the corrupting tendencies of commercial development, the definition and character of "luxury," and, above all, the question of whether some kind of fundamental decay was curiously inherent in social progress.     American thinkers were absorbed in these controversies by necessity as much as by choice. The colonists' sudden embrace of republicanism gave immediate and pressing relevance to the question of the relationship between economic change and public well-being. In this way the Revolution intensified an awareness of the broader cultural and moral implications of social change, an awareness that grew out of both recent colonial experience and the reflections of the historians, philosophers, and social commentators of the age. The convergence of experience and social theory in Revolutionary America was to produce a fervent aspiration to unprecedented success in harmonizing economic life, a wholesome society, and republican institutions. But behind the idealism, even utopianism, of the Revolutionary commitment lay an informed understanding of the imposing and perhaps insuperable problems in such a venture.     Eighteenth-century perceptions of social development were often shaped by a common conceptual approach. They were usually derived from ambitious attempts to apply scientific methods of inquiry to the study of man and society, an endeavor that produced a new historical sociology whose goal was the discovery of what was natural and normal in collective human development. This effort to create a "science of society" from a historical perspective owed much to the French philosopher Montesquieu and reached its fruition in the thought of his Scottish admirers, but it was inspired by a prevalent conviction of the age that social change could be understood in terms of a common process that eventually affected every society. It was generally believed that a comparative approach to history, based on the assumption of a universal human nature, might uncover predictable patterns of change that transcended accident or chance.     As the men of the Enlightenment surveyed the terrain of their own relatively advanced society and speculated on its origins, they thought in terms of an evolutionary process that had discrete stages of development. All societies, they inferred from the evidence of history, normally proceeded through several phases of organization from "rude" simplicity to "civilized" complexity. The number and specific characteristics of these stages varied somewhat from thinker to thinker, but the general pattern was consistent. By the second half of the century, especially among French and Scottish writers, the theory had taken firm shape and delineated four distinct and successive stages of social development, each based on a different mode of subsistence. This "four stages theory" was clearly reflected in the contemplations of a wide range of writers, from Helvétius, Turgot, and the physiocratic disciples of François Quesnay in France, to Adam Ferguson, Lord Kames, John Millar, and Adam Smith in Scotland. Their schematic understanding of socioeconomic development, which indirectly contributed to the rise of a new "classical" school of political economy, dominated sociological thought in the latter half of the eighteenth century.     In simplest terms, the four stages were described as hunting, pasturage, agriculture, and commerce. In what Adam Smith referred to as the "lowest and rudest state of society"--a stage prior to any social organization of production--hunting, and to a lesser extent fishing, were the predominant modes of subsistence. A voluminous contemporary literature on the aboriginal inhabitants of America portrayed them as the perfect representatives of this universal first stage of social development. At the second stage, these primitive hunters were superseded by tribes of nomadic herdsmen or shepherds, such as those that had overrun and conquered the western provinces of the Roman Empire centuries earlier. The third, or agricultural stage, was peopled by more settled husbandmen who tilled the soil but who had, according to Smith, "little foreign commerce, and no other manufactures but those coarse and household ones which almost every private family prepares for its own use." As men advanced beyond this intermediate agricultural stage toward the highest, most complex levels of civilization, they eventually entered the fourth, or commercial stage. Represented by the most civilized areas of eighteenth-century Europe, where the development of commerce and the "finer" manufactures had progressed to a significant extent, this final form of social development was modern commercial society. It was characterized by an advanced division of labor in the production process and the "polish" or "luxury" of a people of greatly refined manners and habits.     As eighteenth-century analysts examined different societies of both the past and present, they discovered examples of each of the various stages, and they concluded that within any social system there was embedded a natural pattern of change that would normally manifest itself in time. According to most accounts, the basic stimulus to this change was population growth, which promoted a search first for supplementary sources of food and eventually for additional sources of employment that could support increased numbers of people. Although the exact number of stages was often subject to individual interpretation, this general framework for describing the progress of societies provided the basis for virtually all discussions of social and economic development in the middle and late eighteenth century. During the American Revolution, for example, a writer in the London Chronicle offered the following typical assessment of the condition of the rebellious North American colonies: There are five principal stages in the progress of mankind from the rudest state of barbarism to the highest state of politeness. Their first employment is hunting and fishing; their second pasturage, their third agriculture, their fourth manufactures, and their fifth trade and commerce. The Americans, at least the greatest part of them, are in the third of these stages; and beyond it they are not likely to advance for a considerable time, for this very obvious reason, that being possessed of an immense tract of country, and that, too, fertile in the highest degree, they will naturally employ themselves in cultivating the soil, before they begin to think of manufacturing its produce. (Continues...) Copyright © 1980 The University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.