American Radicalism

A fundamental difference of approach at the level of political philosophy underlay and informed the aims, aspirations and methods of American and French revolutionary radicalism. American enlightenment theorists embraced the advances of their British mentors to help overcome the main impediments of democratic development. British science and philosophy rested upon Francis Bacon’s conclusion that knowledge is best acquired through study and emulation of the skills and understanding of the mechanical trades, including those involved in the manufacture of armaments. This represented a fundamental break with the assumptions of Aristotelian and scholastic theory which were dominant throughout the medieval period and established empirical induction and the experimental method at the heart of British scientific method and philosophical enquiry. As a result of all countries the common sense understanding of the craftsman and artisan acquired its highest esteem in Britain and found reflection in a similar regard for the opinion and judgement of ordinary men in the realm of politics.

These developments became manifest in the 17th century scientific and political revolutions, but were presupposed by many centuries of democratic practice in decision making by consent among ordinary men through both parliaments and juries, as well as popular experience of similar duration in keeping, bearing and making arms for defence both of themselves and the realm. The empirical method itself had similarly longstanding antecedents, including the work of Duns Scotus and William of Occam. The viewpoint of common sense in technology, science, politics, law and citizen rights also found reflection in matters of religion, most especially following the translation of the Bible into English, by then already the most developed language in the world, with more than twice the vocabulary of any other language. The first modern nation state republic enabled the ties of reason to faith to be severed not merely at the level of abstract theory among the scholarly elite but also at the level of practical understanding among the people - the primary source of research for Locke’s recognition of the principle of toleration in matters of religion and the right to resist tyranny in the affairs of government. Classical republican theory and study of natural law exemplified in the work of Cicero was revived upon a higher plane of understanding in British political theory, moral philosophy and law.

What Gramsci attempted to grasp as common sense in ‘its good, English meaning’ developed further through a century of experience in American colonial self government. The debates, intrigues, and factional disputes which informed and underpinned the formulation and adoption of the US constitution and Bill of Rights took place against this background. American radical leaders sought to promote those tenets of democratic practice which would maximize possibilities of political participation not merely to elicit the consent of the governed but also their engagement in the future design and ongoing systemic review of the constitutional order itself. By such means radicalism sought to contain the ambitions of power and wealth and with this the tendency to aristocratic factionalism, and ultimately tyranny, which it correctly perceived to be endemic to the business of government: since the dawn of urban civilization most large scale polities have been tyrannies of one sort or another. These insights were acquired through the English experience of republicanism, constitutional monarchy and colonial self government alongside study of world history and politics, most especially that of Rome and the ancient world.

Radical aspirations to democratic participation had to be tempered by a willingness to shape institutional arrangements such that diverse opinions could be subordinated to an ultimately controlling, single locus of sovereign power able to wield effective authority and ensure the financial solvency of the new republic. Compromises to achieve these goals, including that between democratic and aristocratic forms of organization, were not driven merely by the purely practical logistical question of coordinating the competing requirements of political participation, funding and the centralization of power in accordance with the general interest: narrowly factional interests also played a role in the negotiations. Alongside differences of judgement in the radical democratic camp itself conservatism, in both republican and thinly disguised monarchist form, exercised a retrograde influence by rejecting the very possibility of democratic government. Many plantation owners similarly rejected even the possibility of abolishing slavery. Frontier settlers gave their support to the new republic in the hope of acquiring land from the native population more easily, including by sheer coercion. International banking interests also exerted an insidious influence by their power to fund the war indebted new republic. Freemasonry, itself a relatedly dark horse with murky origins and ambitions, may also have exercised significant influence, for example by limitation of the use of sortition as an electoral device to constrain the influence of secret factions.

Through the interaction of these interests a new constitutional order was eventually agreed. In essence it comprised two component parts. Its first, federal form was Hamilton’s ‘representative democracy’ and was based, as was the Roman republic, on elections for competing nominated candidates. The Roman model, known to Athenians as ‘elective aristocracy’ is more aristocratic in form and so vulnerable to the influence of secret factions than that of Athenian democracy, since the latter was based on election by sortition in order to constrain the influence of secret, aristocratic factions. In order to gain ratification the federal constitution was subsequently changed to a more democratic form by means of ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights. These amendments, which include the use of sortition by way of the jury system, were conceded as the chief democratic counterweight to ensure mainstream radical support.

Once independence had been declared and Vermont had become the first state in world history to abolish slavery many American revolutionaries believed that the greater good would best be served by maintaining anti-imperialist unity around the constitutional settlement since the democratic gains to be made through the survival of the new federal republic would in the end outweigh all other considerations. As Lincoln claimed, by establishing a viable foundation for government by consent the American revolution had made it possible to end slavery and promote democratic progress throughout the world.

There is certainly a reasonable foundation for a fully positive view of radical aspirations underlying the American constitutional settlement and Bill of Rights. At their most concise and comprehensive these aspirations can be summarized under three main headings: first, the promotion and defence of freedom; second, the development of political participation to its fully democratic form, which would include greater use of juries and similar non partisan Athenian practices for use not merely in regard to questions of local or minor concern but also upon matters of a broad, systemic nature including regular, long term review of the constitutional order itself; third, the division of property upon an equitable and meritocratic basis chiefly by means of regulating the distribution of inherited wealth. These far reaching Jeffersonian aims were largely shared across the political spectrum including by Ben Franklin and John Adams. Differences in the revolutionary camp were chiefly pragmatic in nature and concerned the rate at which such aspirations could be realized given the difficult conditions of the period. If these long term aims had been realized the American constitutional order would have provided an effective structure for testing economic systems such as socialism upon a non partisan foundation. Failure to realize these aims may be attributed to two main causes: first, the resistance of the propertied classes; second, left incompetence.

Conservative resistance to the aspirations of American revolutionary radicalism was both tyrannical and adaptive: once Vermont had outlawed slavery abolitionism spread rapidly throughout Europe and the world, such that the upper classes opted to concede to such demands while retaining those foundations of privilege which could be more easily defended. At the same time collusion with slavery could still be discreetly maintained. This was the overall posture adopted by the British ruling class. Hence while formally supporting the abolition of slavery in the USA British diplomacy was at the same time keen to grant recognition if at all possible to the confederate cause. The greater the difficulties created for genuine radicalism the greater room there would be for conservatism to manoeuvre and construct for itself a new democratic facade able to command ever more secure support among the working classes.

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