Victor Nuovo: More on independence
Editor’s note: This is the 12th in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
I have written about the Declaration of Independence as though it were a perfect statement of principles. It was not.
Nor did it escape contemporary observers that the promoters of independence were shortsighted in the application of the principles of reason they espoused, and to that extent they were hypocrites. I will mention only one acute observer, Abagail Adams.
In a letter to John Adams, her husband and second U.S. president, written months before the Declaration was composed, she expressed doubts about their endeavor. She wondered how “the passion for Liberty” could really exist “in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs.” She was referring to slavery.
And she had good reason for her doubt. In an early draft of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson included a condemnation of King George III because he introduced slavery into the colonies, and he equates this with waging war against humanity itself: “He has waged cruel war against human nature itself,” wrote Jefferson, “violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.”
This clause was deleted and replaced by another, which is arguably racist. It charges the King with exciting “domestic insurrections among us”; the immediate agents of these insurrections are not mentioned, but it is undoubtedly a reference to African slaves. In the same clause the King is blamed with causing “merciless Indian Savages to make war against the colonies,” knowing that their method of waging war is indiscriminate killing “of all ages, sexes, and conditions.”
Abagail Adams also counseled her husband that as he and his colleagues were at work fashioning a new code of laws for the colonies, “I desire you would Remember the Ladies,” and she warned, “if particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies, we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation.”
She rightly anticipated Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and much more that has been done, and still needs to be done, to rectify the wrongs against women.
These things make clear that the people for whom the Declaration of Independence first spoke were, for the most part, white males who were by descent Englishmen, in short, “Wasps.” We must be grateful that the idea of independence proved to be more powerful than the prejudices of many of its original proponents, and along with it the rights of all sorts and conditions of human beings.
And it hardly needs be said that the struggle to realize these ideas in all their purity is not ended, nor is its outcome certain, which is all the more reason why we must constantly renew them in our minds and hold them sacred.
Before ending this discussion of independence, there remains this question: What sort of form of government did the proponents of “independence” want to create? A Democracy or a Republic are the usual answers. But they are not the same form, so which is it? Historically, democracy originated in ancient Athens; republic signified the polity of ancient Rome, before Caesar’s coup.
The simplest, indeed literal, definition of “Democracy” is the rule of the people. Greek political theory distinguished between three kinds of government in terms of the number of those who rule: one, few, or many — or monarchy, aristocracy or democracy.
Plato, who witnessed the downfall of democracy in Greece, took a dim view of it. His fear, which was confirmed by events, was that democracy was unstable, and that it led inevitably to tyranny, which he considered the greatest political evil of all. A classical democracy consisted of one ruling body: the assembly of the people, who made laws and administered justice, and decided on all public affairs, domestic and foreign, including declaring war.
In a direct democracy, all decisions are made by vote of the people. But Plato saw that the people at large were often not motivated to act by reason, but by their passions, which were aroused by political orators, who appealed to their prejudices rather than to their rational good sense. Moreover, since there was no higher rule than the assembly of the people, there was no rule of fundamental law, nor basic principles of right that might act as a safeguard against mass feeling, which fed upon resentments and prejudices.
The people’s assembly seemed to Plato the perfect seedbed for clever demagogues to plant their self-serving ideas and thereby gain power. They were mere flatterers of the people and patrons of their own egos.
This was not the sort of democracy that Pericles practiced, but it remained a constant threat even during that golden age of ancient Greece. There is no doubt a dark aspect of democracy, which we are witnessing today. It is fed by populist prejudices and crude demagoguery, and it is not being effectively resisted.
In any case, to conclude, a form of government may be described as democratic if it maintains the principle of universal suffrage.
A republic is also a government of the people inasmuch as it rejects the heredity rights of a ruling family or of nobility in general. But it otherwise tends toward elitism.
It founds government on a fundamental law that cannot or must not be transgressed either by any individual or by the unanimous voice of the people. This law may be inherent in the nature of things or it may be established by the people through their elected representatives, as was the case with the American Constitution.
Which introduces another feature of republican government: It is government by representatives, who although elected by the people, they are also bound by the rule of law even when that law requires that they act contrary to public sentiment. In addition, public officials are expected to exhibit all the qualities of civic virtue in their actions: prudence, temperance, courage and justice. It promotes government by a moral elite.
To conclude, the United States of American is not a pure democracy; rather it is a democratic republic. Hence Jefferson, who was well read in the history of politics, named his political party The Democratic Republican Party, which stood against the Federalists.
Postscript: As the historian Pauline Maier has observed, the Declaration of Independence has become a sacred text, which is all the more reason that it be read carefully and critically. Her book, American Scripture (New York: Vintage Press, 1998) is a readable and reliable guide.
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