Yellow banner with pen and letters

Author: Aldo Matteucci

To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders


When I feel dispirited about the current crop of political leaders in Switzerland or around the world, I like to take refuge in one of the most uplifting political stories of mankind – the American Revolution.

That such a radical departure from received political wisdom could take place, and republican democracy could emerge – essentially formed – from the deliberations of wise, but mortal men, never stops amazing me. How was it possible?

Fortunately, there are many good scholars of the subject nowadays, and ample revisions of the hagiographic approach to history have taken place. No longer compelled by nation/building imperatives to ‘invent’ the American past and describe it as a stately and pre-ordained pageant, we have been regaled with dispassionate analyses – we are shown the frailties of the personalities that shaped the Revolution, their ambiguities, and thus their humanity. Bernard Bailyn ranks among the best historians of the American Revolution; and if this most recent collection of essays is not a magisterial throw like his Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, it is more easily accessible and in some ways more stimulating.

Bailyn starts by recalling the Revolutionary achievements – the breaking through convention to counterintuitive propositions. I shall list them, for they show how much our modern political thinking rests on the American Founders’ novel insights:

    • Absolute power need not be indivisible but can be shared among states within a state (federalism) and among branches of government, and the sharing of power and the balancing of forces can create not anarchy but freedom;
    • Formal, written constitutions, upheld by judicial bodies, can effectively constrain the tyrannies of both executive force and populist majorities;
    • Human rights can be seen to exist independent of privileges, gifts, and donations of the powerful, and these rights can somehow be defined and protected by the force of law;
    • Exercise of power is no natural birthright of an elite but must be a gift of those who are subject to it. Instead a dynamic system of representation would prove useful;
    • Religion in the hands of power can be the worst kind of tyranny, and thus religious freedom should be established.

There had never been in the history of the world a great republic until 1776. Athens had been small, and Rome had traded up from democracy to empire as it expanded. Italian Renaissance republics were small too. That the gigantic scale of the U.S. would be ideally suited to republican institutions ran against all instincts of the time. The then prevalent political ideologies gave the American Founders the courage to reject the extant political structures, not to imagine the ones they would eventually build. ‘Nothing was assured: the future was unpredictable. (…) They found few precedents to follow, no models to imitate. They struggled with logical, ideological, and conceptual problems that seemed to have no solutions.’ Yet they succeeded. Why?

Bailyn maintains that America’s provincialism allowed it to overcome the strictures of conventionalism and the status quo. ‘Their world was discontinuous. (…) The result was a degree of rootlessness, of alienation either from the higher sources of culture or from the familiar metropolitan sophistication.’ Never comfortable with the cosmopolitan establishment of Great Britain, they challenged it in the light of their immediate needs and experiences – their ‘need not to quarrel with their bred and butter.’

As a scientist I like the conjecture. New species develop from small and isolated communities, while big communities tend to remain stable. In literature also the periphery often bests the core. This is the case for most of Italian literature: the isolated islands yield far greater writers than the mainland. The same applies to English. India, Canada, Oceania have stronger voices than London.

Living in the periphery has its drawbacks, though. The first is the temptation of isolationism – living away from the centre might lead to withdrawing safely behind the walls of the ‘city on the hill’, rather than sullying one’s hands in world politics. The converse risk is also true – to sail forth in on world-improvement. Robespierre came from Arras, a French frontier town. Underlying both attitudes is the naïve self-righteousness of people whose ideas were never challenged in a wider arena.

Rootlessness favours revolution – so Bailyn. Rootless and without established frontiers the U.S. succeeded while in settled Eurasia most revolutions, though based on the same American principles, ended in restoration or mired in murky compromises. ‘Old Europe’ does not believe that change is truly possible – only accommodation.

The second risk then is that the very success of its revolution favours the country’s rootlessness and restlessness. Having successfully escaped its past the U.S. is condemned forever to disregard what is past. America’s foremost temptation is the sword with which to cut real or imagined Gordian knots. Or falling prey to the latest craze, or revival – and any form of fundamentalism or other invented tradition. As the country moves from the periphery to the core, and is no longer restrained by the need not to quarrel with its bread and butter expect the restlessness to increase.

In a separate essay Bailyn tries to make sense of one of the most ambiguous personalities of the American Revolution – Thomas Jefferson – whose reputation has acquired ‘kaleidoscopic changeability’. A committed idealist who had developed a comprehensive view of politics, freedom, and America’s unique role in world history, he was also a realist and hard-headed pragmatist, a natural politician as shrewd and calculating as the best and more effective than most.: ‘Repeatedly he saw a pure vision, conceptualised and verbalised it brilliantly, and then struggled to relate it to reality, shifting, twisting, manoeuvring backward and forward as he did so.’

Bailyn’s portrait of Jefferson is masterly in its concision and coherence. It is a clear and clever introduction to the soul of this fabulous polymath. In particular, it shows how ‘Testing and probing constantly, Jefferson sought in everyway he could to contain the real world in the embrace of his utopian ideals.’ He espoused freedom and equality for all men but supported slavery as an evil necessary to the survival of the agrarian South and with it of the U.S.. Here he was the unflinching pragmatist. His embargo of 1807-08 was devised and sustained by his idealistic passion for rational solutions to international conflicts. Yet it proved to profit the rich and the unscrupulous, while sacrificing the welfare of the poor – he destroyed Virginia’s tobacco economy, and his own personal fortune in the bargain.Jefferson’s vision engrossed his mind and imagination. Yet he was never confident that these goals could be reached. And from this deepest uncertainty came his unsteady stewardship in his policies. To me the tragedy of Jefferson was not that he struggled to contain the real world in the embrace of his utopian ideals, nor that his judgement in this struggle was far from flawless, but that he failed to admit to this – out of personal pride, political expedience, or temperament. Unlike the blustering, emotional, but deeply humble John Adams, Jefferson felt the need to pretend to Olympian serenity, integrity and superiority which we see in Monticello today. American would be a better place today, had his foremost idealist admitted squarely that the ideals are less than perfect guides to action.

In his essay on the Federalist Papers Bailyn reminds us that these were polemical essays, not an objective commentary on the U.S. Constitution. They were a hurried and helter-skelter if not desperate effort to dispel fears of centralised power. The papers tackled these fears head-on, trying to ’embrace the Revolutionary heritage, and then to update it in ways that would make it consistent with the inescapable necessity of creating an effective national power.’ First and foremost, the Federalist Papers were then ‘work in progress’; in so doing unsystematically, almost inadvertently, they drew fundamental principles into the popular debate. It was the beginning of the tradition of a ‘living’, evolving Constitution, where change emerges from an extended and informed conversation illuminated by the political issues of the day.

The current fastidious and invidious attempt to establish, in an archaeological fashion so to speak, what was the true intent of the Constitutional Convention was thus alien the authors of the Federalist Papers. They had the courage to argue and defend their views, and thereby give new and deeper meaning to the freshly baked constitution, rather than rely mechanically on authority or precedent, which is authority wizened by age. The Constitution should be allowed to grow organically and not – like Frankenstein – by the cut-and-stitch approach of amendments, or judicial fits and starts.

It is the tragedy of the American constitution, in my view, that the Federalist Papers tradition failed to resolve in an organic fashion the main question before the nation – slavery. That it took the horrors of the Civil War, rather than reason and decency, to resolve the issue, is testimony to human folly and greed, but also the restlessness of thought that fails to perceive the small cracks in the opponents’ arguments through which a compromise may be driven.

Is there a lesson to be drawn from Bailyn’s book? To define the ideas and acts of the Founding Fathers he uses the term ‘ambiguity’ – ‘double meaning, either deliberate or caused by inexactness of expression’; so the OERD – which as a slight pejorative note attached to it: more honesty or precision would then resolve the ambiguity. I don’t like the word, though I fully espouse the underlying analysis. Because it is multi-dimensional reality is inherently ambiguous and, though holding opposite views, different sides can each be right. The essence of democracy then is the respect of the other, the acceptance of the fact that compromise is not a murky deal, or a sign of weakness, but the acknowledgement of the opponents’ views and interests.

To this worldview the U.S. Constitution is a living monument: ‘Tension, balance, adversarial clashes leading to conciliating moderation lay at the core of the Federalist writers’ thought – but they knew that a mechanically tense, self-balancing system did not activate or maintain itself. Its success would depend in the end on the character of the people who manage it and who allow themselves to be ruled by it – their reasonableness, their common sense, their capacity to rise above partisan passions to act for the common good and remain faithful to constitutional limits.’

Review by  Aldo Matteucci