Jonathan Sallet can't seem to stop writing, even when he claims to be on vacation. Apparently, I provoked him just a little with my reference to Gordon Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution -- which is one of his favorite books. And this is what resulted. Jonathan is a lawyer by training, but he has spend much of the last decade(s) working either in politics or in the business, policy, and technology of communications. That's useful background to reading this note he wrote :
A life of eighty-six years and a speech that lasted about three minutes. Both confronting the question of what is America. Is America a race? A place? An accident? A geographic region bounded by (some) natural borders? A unique, ahistorical, occurrence?
Or the embodiment of an idea? The life of Benjamin Franklin and the Gettysburg Address of Abraham Lincoln chart the course of America as an idea -- as an Enlightenment society created to replace rigid social hierarchy with the individual’s capacity to pursue knowledge and society’s capacity to benefit from the sum total of individual aspiration.
My friend, colleague and co-author Steve Weber was kind enough to note my recommendation that he read Gordon Wood’s “The Radicalism of the American Revolution” a book that, along with Professor Wood’s equally excellent, “The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin”, probe the enormous change from a pre-revolutionary society through an enlightened age of political creation to the democratic successes (some would also say excesses) of Jacksonian politics.
What is an enlightened society? One formulation would be to say that it assumes the ability and the willingness of individuals to pursue the truth and the desire of their fellow citizens to learn, to inquire and to improve. Immanuel Kant, in his 18th Century essay “What is Enlightenment?” contrasted the state of enlightenment with the state of immaturity:
Immaturity is the incapacity to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. Such immaturity is self-caused if its lack is not lack of intelligence but by lack of determination and courage to use one’s intelligence without being guided by another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own intelligence.
For the Revolutionary generation, Wood says, “America became the Enlightenment fulfilled;” the means, in the words of John Adams, “for the illumination of the ignorant and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth.”
Emancipation? In what sense can that term be applied to a group of politically active colonists who, in point of fact, were more likely to be slave owners than slaves?
In this sense. The struggle of the Enlightenment was a fight for the ability to discern the truth free from the dictates of powerful, hierarchical institutions. Those institutions could be scientific or political or social or religious. But they had in common the belief that truth was a mandate from above, not a voyage to be embarked upon by any person. So, for example, medical students in the Middle Ages learned anatomy by listening to san instructor read aloud the ancient texts of the Roman physician Galen while they watched a human dissection. Sometimes what they saw differed from what Galen asserted. And, when confronted with that disparity, they chose to believe received authority and not their own eyes.
Against this monopolization of knowledge sprang the Scientific Revolution, the invention of capitalism and the spread of democratic ideals, culminating in the American Revolution. All three movements built upon the simple notion voiced by Stephen Hawking to explain why he was drawn to the study of physics: “It doesn’t matter what school you went to or to whom you are related. It matters what you do.”
Benjamin Franklin’s life serves as an example. Franklin was born into an era of rigid social classes in which the mark of a gentleman was to graciously “condescend” to the other class, namely commoners. Franklin’s own rags-to-riches story is well known – a journeyman printer turned gentleman, scientist, revolutionary, diplomat and statesman. Wood makes a larger point – that Franklin’s life marked the larger journey from the times of social hierarchy to a time that embraced a radically different notion: That all men (if not yet all women and certainly not people of color) were created equal.
But that phrase, penned by Jefferson and approved by a committee of the Continental Congress on which Franklin served, was only born – not fulfilled in 1776. It fell to Abraham Lincoln – eighty-seven years later – to enshrine the Declaration as the central concept that defines America. And so Garry Wills, in “Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America” devotes a short book to an even shorter speech. Wills’ central point – that Lincoln used the Declaration of Independence, rather than the Constitution as the central intellectual foundation of America. With Lincoln, John Adams’ plea for Emancipation was proclaimed upon a larger stage.
The ability of the individual to seek his or her own truth can be misunderstood as lacking independent moral content. The impetus towards democracy that overthrew the hierarchies of kings is sometimes portrayed as the same force that lead to the terrible excesses of the French Revolution. The impetus towards scientific discovery that led to Darwin’s theory of evolution is sometimes treated as one step to Hitler’s genocide.
But the American Enlightenment was not devoid of moral value. Indeed, Wood emphasizes that to the Founders:
[E]nlightenment was not simply a matter of material prosperity, of having Wedgwood dishes and finely pruned gardens. It was above all a matter of personal and social morality, of the ways in which men and women treated each other, their children, their dependents, even their animals. Such enlightened morality law at the heart of republicanism.”
And what was the “content” of this morality? Wood tells us that “[i]t implied being reasonable, tolerant, honest, virtuous, and candid, which meant just and unbiased as well as frank and sincere.” Garry Wills cites “critical intelligence, tolerance, respect for evidence, a regard for the secular sciences.”
Here a potential conundrum arises. For these Enlightenment virtues are not fulfilled merely by the exercise of direct democracy. Kant’s formulation quoted above celebrates the ability of each individual to make a decision, but, by itself, doesn’t tell us how to assess the impact on society of the sum total of individual decisions.
For the Framers, the search for truth – still enshrined in the capacity of each individual – was cast as something more than simply counting noses. The Federalist Papers warned against mob rule and the power of factions. The Constitution carefully structured democratic decision-making – filtering them different branches of government, chosen at different intervals, and selected through different methods – direct election for the House of Representatives, indirect election for U.S. Senators, election by the Electoral College for the president and vice president and selection by the other two branches for the members of the federal judiciary.
Moreover, majorities ruled by prejudice and passion are not permitted to invade an individual’s autonomy. Thus, the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment.
Much of American history has taken the form of a debate between democracy and individual rights. In Professor Wood’s words, the Framers who lived into the era of Jacksonian democracy “found it difficult to accept the democratic fact that their fate now rested on the opinions and voted of small-souled and largely unreflective ordinary people.” Indeed, a reasonable counter-factual argument could be made that had the South remained in the Union in the 1860s, the great Constitution amendments of the Civil War era, including the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of due process and equal protection under the laws in the face of hostile state action, could not have garnered sufficient public support to be ratified.
But, to my mind, the counter-majoritarean principles of the Bill of Rights and the Civil War Amendments have been justified too much as legalisms in and of themselves – and not enough as examples of American political philosophy. Of course, the Constitution guarantees the right to voice unpopular notions. But, from the perspective of Enlightenment values, the ability to dissent is not just an attribute of individuality, it is also a necessary means for society to test, correct, and improve itself. The First Amendment, in other words, benefits not just the dissenter – it benefits society by protecting the instruments of enlightenment. Similarly, diversity is not just a right of minorities, it is a means by which society improves through meritocracy.
Still, it’s safe to say that the avowed espousal of Enlightenment values has disappeared from the political sphere. Consider the last time you heard a successful political platform call for intelligence, empiricism and tolerance. Not lately.
Indeed, in today’s discourse, we lack even the language to explain and justify the pursuit of Enlightenment values. Tolerance sounds weak. Empiricism seems obscure. Intelligence seems elitist.
Moreover, Enlightenment values sound, to our ear, more like a call for nice process than an invocation of great national goals. One candidate says, we want a nation that is Strong. Another says, we want a nation that is Reasonable. Who wins?
Apart from political discourse, what other means are there to advance Enlightenment values? Education, of course. It is no coincidence that Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. The Founders understood that education was critical to the creation of a modern mind. They might not have been surprised to see that the battleground of the debate over creationism is the schools – and they surely would have understood that there is more at stake than high school biology.
Is there a better solution? Here’s a hypothesis that may be worth testing. I invite comment, attack – anything short of personal abuse. Might the following be true? That with the decline of structural republicanism and the passing of the Revolutionary generation, the pursuit of enlightenment values became a province of elites. But as self-styled elites became removed from the political process and the aspirations that it served, the playing field was left to forces that did not represent the Enlightenment values of the Framers. Without forceful advocacy, without intellectual heft and without the strength of persuasive language, Enlightenment virtues seem to be a form of special pleading for the weak or for the privileged – not the cornerstone of American greatness.
We need to be explicit about the importance of Enlightenment values. The current debate over the role of the Supreme Court, in a larger sense, is about the meaning of the American Revolution. Because the true American Revolutionary is one, like Jefferson and Franklin, who regards science as a means for understanding the world; one who, like Hamilton, views commerce as a means of strengthening the nation; one who, like Madison, strives to construct a political system that pursues wisdom.
There are voices today who seem to be trying to repeal the values for which the American Revolution was fought. But who will stand up and say so? And, just as importantly, how can they best explain what is in danger of being lost?