When I taught a course on the American Revolution last year, we spent a lot of time talking about the ideas that shaped American responses to British colonial policy in the 1760’s. There were several important ideological factors at work in American political thought during that period—a mistrust of power, a pervasive fear of conspiracies, and an emphasis on the need for public virtue.
And, of course, there was the conviction that government could not deprive citizens of their property without the consent of those citizens, an idea summed up in the familiar phrase “no taxation without representation.” Since Americans didn’t send representatives to Parliament, so the argument went, that body had no authority to levy taxes on the colonies. No American had any role in deciding who went to Parliament, so no American had any voice in the decision to pay taxes that Parliament demanded from the colonies.
The history of ideologies always makes for a good classroom discussion, so I introduced this idea by asking my students why we modern Americans consider our government sovereign. I assumed that they’d respond that it’s because we elect the government, therefore delegating some of our authority to them so they can exercise it for our benefit. I’d then point out that no members of Parliament were elected by American colonists, and we’d all have a handle on why the principle of Parliamentary taxation was so controversial in America. Then I’d go home and pat myself on the back for drawing a stimulating analogy.
What happened was that my students stated pretty unanimously that we consent to the government’s dictates because the government has the ability to enforce compliance. In other words, we do what the government tells us not because our electing them gives them authorization to pass laws, but because we’ll go to the federal pen if we don’t. I hadn’t planned on that response, and it threw me off a little.
This semester I’m teaching an introductory course on American history, and a similar thing happened. Contrasting the colonial and British forms of government with the one that emerged in the wake of the Revolution, I drew a distinction made by Gordon Wood in his important study of the Revolution as an act of political creation.
New Yorkers celebrate America's independence by pulling down a statue of George III in 1776. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-1476.
England’s government incorporated different components of traditional European society; the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the commons were all represented in some fashion. Americans, by contrast, came to understand that the only component of their society was the people. Having severed their ties to the monarchy, Americans didn’t need an executive who represented the king’s interests, which is what the royally-appointed colonial governors were supposed to do. And lacking an aristocracy, the Revolutionaries didn’t have to work out the relationship between a House of Lords and a House of Commons. Everybody in America was a “common.” The result was, as Wood argues, a new way of thinking about politics. The government became the people’s creation. The people were the only real source of sovereignty, and they temporarily delegated some of that sovereignty to the government, which would act in the people’s interest.
Again, I was surprised at my students’ response. (Remember, this is a totally different group of students than the ones I discussed earlier.) When I launched into my little spiel from Wood about the sovereignty of the people as a unique legacy of the Revolution, they snickered. It was clear they didn’t think the American way of doing government still worked that way. Not in practice, where the rubber actually meets the road.
So here I had two different groups of students, composed of very different individuals, at different times, and they all agreed that the American notion of government by and for the people was nothing more than a warm and fuzzy fiction. Every student in both of these classes seemed to believe it, whether Republican or Democrat. It had nothing to do with who was actually in power, or which party the individual students wanted to be in power. It was just an eternal truth of politics, as inexorable as the changing of the seasons.
On one hand, there’s some obvious continuity here with the political ideas of the Revolutionaries. Eighteenth-century Americans responded to British taxation with horror partly because they mistrusted power and the people who wielded it. They saw political power as something inherently dangerous and invasive, and therefore you had to watch the powerful like a hawk.
On the other hand, this attitude is quite different from that of the Revolutionary generation. The Revolutionaries’ mistrust of power was fundamentally active. They didn’t just harbor suspicions about authority; they moved to rectify any occasions when they believed the imperial authorities had overstepped their bounds. Their mistrust of government led them toward political engagement. It seems to me that this more modern form of mistrust has the opposite effect. It leads to passivity. All those bums in power are going to look after themselves, and they’re not like us, so we’ll keep our heads down and hope they keep the damage to a minimum.
The ironic thing is that the generation that created our American notion of a government of the people were born into a world that was far less democratic than our own. Their parents and grandparents took it for granted that all men weren’t created equal, and that the uncommon few had more business being in control than anybody else. And yet they were evidently more optimistic about the potential of representative government than we are today, having enjoyed its benefits for over two centuries. I’m not saying my students’ negative view of modern America is either right or wrong. I am saying that it seems a shame to start assuming that we’ve just gone back full circle to the world the Revolutionaries left behind.