previous sub-section
1— Crime and Punishment
next sub-section

Decline of Political Rationality

What Woods calls the "end of classical politics" marked the breakdown of this political rationality. "The American Revolution introduced an egalitarian rhetoric to an unequal society," J. R. Pole sums up with admirable succinctness.[73] The complex accommodation between political equality and distributive inequality, once the working paradox of the republican order, now became the fault line along which the entire polity threatened to come apart. The egalitarian rhetoric which had once united the "oppressed" colonies against the "tyranny" of their British rulers was now directed inward, and, applied to the new nation, it quickly revealed the same drama of tyranny and oppression. And so civil society was now seen no longer as a rational entity, a "graduated organic chain" dedicated to the common good, but as a factious conglomerate, torn by competing interests. And to the extent that these competing interests were reproduced on the level of popular government, the political sphere itself was transformed into the home of furor and passion, rather than the home of reason and justice. For as Madison somberly noted in his famous entry (no. 10) to The Federalist , political equality was no longer an adequate answer to the "unequal distribution of property," no longer an adequate check on its cankerous passions:

Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would at the same time be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.[74]

In short, for Madison, the political sphere was no longer the ground of commensurability, no longer the seat of a rational order. It had been corrupted, instead, into a passional arena, overrun by "impulses of


rage, resentment, jealousy, avarice, and other irregular and violent propensities," and given over to "ruinous contentions," as Alexander Hamilton also noted.[75]

Hamilton was writing in the aftermath of the 1786 Shays's Rebellion, which he identified by name.[76] That event seemed to epitomize the irrational nature of democracies, their tendency toward "ruinous contentions," for its participants, to the horror of all, were revealed to be not dyed-in-the-wool ruffians but ordinary farmers in distress, led by none other than a former militia captain. The rebels were put down, but, again to the horror of all, they were able to recoup in a matter of months under a new tactic, namely, by "promot[ing] their views under the auspices of constitutional forms," as Madison bitterly observed.[77] Those constitutional forms proved so hospitable that they were soon in a position "to establish iniquity by Law."[78] Such atrocities dramatized the extent to which the political sphere had been corrupted, transformed from the rational ground of a republican order into a theater of the absurd.[79] They also dramatized the extent to which the idea of equality itself had been redefined: from a republican to a liberal idea, from civic participation to personal entitlement, from a question of political rationality to a question of individual parity.[80]

The exact nature of the political changes in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is of course a much disputed issue. Inspired by the work of Bernard Bailyn, J. G. A. Pocock, and Gordon Wood, historians have engaged in a long and heated debate over the relative centrality of classical republicanism and modern liberalism in the early republic.[81] Without being unduly partisan, it is possible, I think, to argue for a new orientation beginning in the 1780s, moving away from the "republican" view of the polity as differentiation for the common good toward a modern "liberal" view, with its emphasis on differentiation as an individuating principle, a principle of centrifugal desires. Liberalism, John Rawls writes, affirms a "plurality of distinct persons with separate systems of ends."[82] This is what makes liberalism compelling and problematic in the twentieth century, as it was compelling and problematic in the nineteenth. And most problematic of all was, and is, the idea of commensurability, given the "plurality of distinct persons." Since commensurability would now have to be defined as equality, and since equality itself would have to be defined as a distributive category—distributing unequal resources


through equal individuation—the liberal idea would seem to have embodied at its core a logical incoherence, thrown into ever sharper relief by an ever growing plurality of claims.[83] If "commensurate but unequal" was the paradox of classical republicanism, "equal but incommensurate" might turn out to be the curse of modem liberalism.

Modern liberalism was, to be sure, neither full-blown nor even fully articulated at the end of the eighteenth century. Still, by 1794 the problem of equality—and its vexed relation to individuation—had become so acute that Samuel Williams, historian of Vermont, was moved to offer the following attempt at synthesis:

[Americans] all feel that nature has made them equal in respect to their rights; or rather that nature has given to them a common and an equal right to liberty, to property, and to safety; to justice, government, laws, religion, and freedom. They all see that nature has made them very unequal in respect to their original powers, capacities, and talents. They become united in claiming and in preserving the equality, which nature has assigned to them; and in availing themselves of the benefits, which are designed, and may be derived from the inequality, which nature has also established.[84]

Nature, that time-honored oracle, seemed more than a little confused here, wavering as it did between an egalitarian theory of rights and a hierarchizing theory of talents. No wonder the author, Samuel Williams, wrote with some confusion himself. Paying his respects, on the one hand, to the newly sanctified tenets of individual equality, Williams seemed to have one foot firmly planted in the liberal landscape. Convinced, on the other hand, that "benefits" were to be "derived from inequality," he seemed to be looking backward to a republican universe, "a graduated organic chain in the social hierarchy." Judging from this spectacle of divided allegiance, we can only agree with Lance Banning: "Logically, it may be inconsistent to be simultaneously liberal and classical. Historically, it was not."[85] However, even this formulation does not quite settle the problem, for to be "simultaneously liberal and classical" must entail a peculiar set of mental gymnastics, not to say a peculiar set of mental constraints. It must give rise, that is, to a peculiarly unstable notion of commensurability, at best supple and inflected, at worst punitive and repressive.

Cooper had no pronouncements as delicately balanced or as visibly perplexed as Williams's. Still, the problem of equality was important enough to merit two chapters in The American Democrat (1838), a


work also haunted by the exigencies of being simultaneously liberal and classical. True to the latter, Cooper observed, quite bluntly, that "the celebrated proposition contained in the declaration of independence is not to be understood literally. All men are not 'created equal,' in a physical, or even in a moral sense." And he went on (in a litany worthy of The Deerslayer ) to enumerate those items that made for hierarchical distinctions: "one has a good constitution, another a bad; one is handsome, another ugly; one white, another black[;] . . . one possessing genius, or a natural aptitude, while his brother is an idiot."[86]

Cooper's world remained—anachronistically—a republican universe, a graduated organic chain in the social hierarchy. Such organic gradations posed no threat to the idea of equality, for Cooper, true to his republican legacy, defined the idea strictly in political terms: not as an existential fact emanating from the individual, but as a legislative fact emanating from the polity. Equality, he argued, is simply the consequence of "a new governing principle for the social compact," so that "as regards all human institutions men are born equal." So far, Cooper would seem to be a quintessential (and belated) advocate of classical republicanism. And yet, writing as he did in 1838, he could no longer rest secure in his republican faith. Seeing political equality as an institutional artifact, he also saw it as a groundless artifact, for, as he said, "human institutions are a human invention, with which nature has had no connection."[87] Cooper's republicanism was thus republicanism infected with a liberal problematic: a republicanism that, in spite of its hopes in the structural rationality of the political order, nonetheless ended up doubting that political order, doubting its very ground of legitimacy. Here, then, was another way to be simultaneously liberal and classical. And just as Samuel Williams had previously ended up with a "nature" that spoke with a forked tongue, so Cooper's denaturalized polity also brought on something like a rationalizing crisis. After all, if equality is an artificial creation, not grounded in nature but legislated by man, what is there to give it a foundation, a sanctifying ground beyond its stipulated provisions? And if equality is "not to be understood literally" but to be taken rather as a figure of speech—a consensual metaphor instituted by a "social compact"—what is there to make that consensus absolute?[88] What is there to stop one particular individual from figuring equality in a different way? What is there to stop someone like Judith, for


example, from claiming that though she is not "literally" equal to Natty, she might nonetheless be deemed equal, deemed, in fact, marriageable to him?

previous sub-section
1— Crime and Punishment
next sub-section