AMERICA BECOMES WHAT ITS FOUNDING FATHERS FEARED
LOUIS RENÉ BERES
René Beres is Professor of Political Science at Purdue
University. He is author of many books and articles dealing
with international politics. His columns have appeared in the
New York Times, Washington Post, The Jerusalem
Post and OUPblog
(Oxford University Press).
Hamilton once remarked, “The People, sir, are a great
beast.” During American presidential campaigns, it is
obligatory to celebrate "the American people." In
all such conspicuous tributes, whether the candidate is a Democrat
or Republican is largely irrelevant. What really matters here
is that banality pays. To be sure, each visceral tribute can
yield the contender a predictably useful electoral mantra.
there exists a residual problem with these seemingly benign
references. Most importantly, their ritualized appeal to an
entirely mythical "American people" reflects an invented
or contrived history of the United States. It may indeed offer
presidential candidates an expedient and apparently risk-free
premise for success at the polls, but it is also patently false.
even the most cursory examination, our foundational political
history will reveal an utterly stark contempt for popular rule.
is correct, of course, that the white, propertied men (no women)
who drew up the Constitution in Philadelphia, during the summer
of 1787, created a document that was stirringly republican.
Nonetheless, they did not believe in democracy, not for a moment.
Rather, imbued with the cynical philosophy of Hobbes, and the
relentlessly severe religion of Calvin, they had eagerly expressed
very strongly anti-popular sentiments.
is more. Such fully understandable attitudes reflected not only
the founders' most basic political ethos, but also the corollary
precepts of their subsequent public policies.
Edmund Randolph, the evils from which the new country was suffering
had originated in the "turbulence and follies of democracy."
Regularly, Elbridge Gerry spoke of democracy as "the worst
of all political evils," and Roger Sherman hoped that "the
people . . . have as little to do as may be about the government."
Hamilton, charging that the "turbulent and changing"
masses "seldom judge or determine right," fervently
sought a permanent authority to "check the imprudence of
democracy." For Hamilton, the American People represented
a "great beast."
Washington (remember him?) soberly urged the delegates not to
produce any document, merely “to please the people."
as America prepares to vote again in November, we neglect that
the country's creators had displayed an immutable distrust of
democratic governance. With literally no more than a half-dozen
exceptions, the men of the Philadelphia Convention were scions
of wealth and privilege. For them, any expectations of serious
thought by the general population would have been simply unfathomable.
the young Gouverneur Morris, in a candid quote that speaks volumes
about the true origins of our current national democracy, "The
mob begin to think and reason, poor reptiles . . . They bask
in the sun, and ere noon they will bite, depend on it."
reptiles." What a metaphor. There must, one will now likely
inquire, still be some prominent exceptions? What about Benjamin
Franklin, for example, a "man of the people" if ever
there was one? Isn't that an unassailable description of Franklin,
one we had all dutifully accepted, back in the fifth grade?
consider this. In reality, Franklin remarked, on several occasions,
that any conceivable public capacity for purposeful citizenship
would have to remain hidden and improbable. President Washington,
in his first annual message to the Congress, revealed similarly
compelling apprehensions about meaningful public participation
in government. The American people, he had then sternly warned,
“must learn to distinguish between oppression, and the
necessary exercise of lawful authority"
as we don't care to admit it, especially at election time, the
founding fathers were largely correct in their plainly expressed
reservations, but for all the wrong reasons. Contrary to early
expectations, 'we the people' have displayed a more-or-less
consistent capacity for deference to “lawful authority.”
Yet, we have also shown a persistent unwillingness to care for
ourselves as individuals, as singular persons, and as correspondingly
a "mob" assuredly does define America—not the
same mob feared by Hamilton, Sherman and Morris, to be certain—but
a dangerous mob nonetheless.
are its members? Unmistakably, they are rich and poor, black
and white, easterner and westerner, southerner and mid-westerner,
educated and uneducated, young and old, male and female, Jew
and Christian, Muslim and Hindu, Buddhist and atheist.
is, in some respects, exactly as the founding fathers had feared,
a democratic mob, but its most distinguishing and debilitating
features are not poverty, or lack of formal schooling (a particular
concern of Jefferson), or even a routinely shameless vulgarity.
They are, instead, the flagrant absence of any decent self regard,
courage or interest in serious thought. Although it is undeniable
that millions of Americans dutifully do attend schools and universities,
there is precious little in those institutions to offer anything
more than a discernibly thin veneer of authentic learning.
to the more general public, it averages reading less than one
book per year, and that book is inevitably what is then being
recommended by equally thoughtless arbiters of mass taste.
we Americans inhabit the one society that could have been different.
Once, in commendable defiance of the founding fathers, we had
cautiously nurtured a potential to become more than a mob. Then,
Ralph Waldo Emerson had described a much younger nation, one
still motivated by industry, intellect and "self-reliance,"
not by conformance, consumption, fear and (long before Kierkegaard,
and before any possible loss of Facebook "friends")
today, is the 'individual' American citizen, the Kierkegaardian
“single one?” For the most part, he or she no longer
exists. In present-day America, it doesn't matter if the multitude
is lovingly sublime or hideously obscene, so long as one is
permitted entry to the mass, and thereafter allowed to belong.
is largely about "fitting in." In these now desperately
frightened United States, especially during an election year,
demos is no longer a preferred path to civic virtue, but rather
a suffocating valley of imitation, mediocrity, amusement and
eventual despair. Whatever our historic misunderstandings of
the founding fathers, we Americans have somehow managed to come
a distressingly long way from the ancient Greek belief that
each person should be honored for his or her individual worth.
the still-insightful words of Pericles, the great Athenian statesman,
"Each single one of our citizens, in all the manifold aspects
of life, is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner
of his own person, and do this, moreover, with exceptional grace
and exceptional versatility."
grace, and exceptional versatility." Can we even mention
these admirable traits in the same breath, as the names of our
leading presidential contenders? Heaven knows, it's a rhetorical
America, especially in an election year, the overriding goal
for millions is perfectly obvious. It is an allowance, or at
least a dispensation, to chant nonsense, in chorus. Always,
the chanting must be done in chorus.
is, therefore, as a gravely shallow mass society, that we Americans
now choose to define both our private and our public lives.
Somehow, in part by surrendering all responsibility to educate
ourselves seriously, we have managed to deform the republic
and our individual personages at the same time. Even in our
major universities, once a seemingly last refuge for original
thought, an unshakeable ambience of mimicry and raw commerce
now reigns supreme.
in the onetime "temple of intellect," virtually every
student has willingly become a tangible commodity. Here, almost
every intellectual effort is promptly measured and evaluated
as a potentially marketable product.
underlying American malady is not difficult to diagnose. 'We
the peopl'e want comfort and easy wealth, but very little else.
The American public, now so cravenly praised by presidential
candidates, has little recognizable genuineness to commend itself.
In many obvious respects, in fact, it already fulfills early
Roman appraisals of the plebs; that is, as an unambitious and
downtrodden mob, one wishing only to learn what is demonstrably
practical, a mass roughly comparable to the ancient Greek hoi
polloi, a shapeless herd (a term of both Nietzsche and Freud)
that casually celebrates the sovereignty of unqualified persons.
of these demeaning but correct appraisals was already well familiar
to America's founding fathers, primarily by way of Livy. "Nothing
is so valueless," said the Latin author, who was familiar
to most of the founding fathers, "as the minds of the multitude."
Now, recalling Livy, America's core enemy is intellectual docility,
a cheerlessly uninquiring spirit that knows nothing of truth,
and, above all, wants to know nothing of truth.
his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson
proposed an improved plan of elementary schooling in which "twenty
of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually."
Today, of course, it is inconceivable, and for very good reason,
that any presidential aspirant could ever refer to his fellow
Americans as "rubbish." Yet, this grotesque analogy
expressed the unambiguous sentiment of America's most famous
early populist, and later, the new republic's third president.
reasonable person could argue that our current presidential
contenders should display the fervidly anti-populist sentiments
of America's founding fathers. They could never be elected.
But, at the same time, any more shameless pandering to “the
American people,” by these candidates, and without any
related expectations of individual citizen responsibility, can
only further impair and defile our already wounded electoral
principle, at least, there is nothing wrong with our presidential
candidates taking a deferential position on “the American
people,” even with a stance that is fundamentally at odds
with the ubiquitously antidemocratic views of America's founding
fathers. It is wrong, however, for these candidates to take
such a position without first calling for a citizenry that is
conscientious, informed and absolutely willing to finally stand
for something serious. An American democracy that treats education
as little more than ornamentation can never elect a capable
their part, acting against early predictions that American democracy
is the "very worst of all political evils," our elected
leaders must finally become willing to offer citizens much more
than their desolate creed of embarrassing clichés and
thoroughly empty witticisms. Reciprocally, should such a welcome
willingness ever materialize, "the people" might actually
begin to deserve some genuine tribute.
would represent a second American Revolution.