At the last American Political Scientists Association (APSA) convention in Chicago (September 3-6, 1987), I was immediately struck, and happily so, by the unusual attention given to historical matters. This certainly was a reflection of the convention’s theme that was a response to last year’s bicentennial celebration of the national Constitution. Nevertheless, there were two aspects of this new historical sensibility that I found deeply dissatisfying. The two central historical themes—the Constitution and republicanism—were badly handled and, rather than reflecting simple incompetence, their distorted presentation told of the deeply held ideological, religious, and class biases amongst almost all of the association’s membership.
My dissatisfaction with the panels and the ensuing papers on the Constitution resulted from what I took to be a misplaced emphasis on trying to discover with apodictic certainty what the original intent of the founders was. Under any understanding of constitutional jurisprudence, the intent of the delegates to the national convention is at best a tangential question and, at worst, purely specious on at least two different levels of analysis.
First, we know that many of the nationalist promoters of the convention—including the two central authors of the main apologia for the document, Hamilton and Madison—were deeply dissatisfied with the final outcome. On this level of analysis, therefore, their original intentions can tell us nothing about the final document or how it should be understood. This intellectual confusion is not a matter of bias but simply of a mistaken approach to the problem. It is on the second level of analysis, however, that strong possibility of intellectual bias crops up.
Putting aside how many Americans actually supported the new frame of national government (be it 5 percent or 20 percent), the importance attached to the intention of the “founders” flies directly in the face of the original legitimacy on which this government rested. This framework of national government was raised to the level of fundamental law by the consent of the people, and not by the desires, dreams, or visions of our national elite. Even Madison himself observed that:
As a guide in expounding and applying the provisions of the Constitution, the debates and incidental decisions of the Convention can have no authoritative character. However desirable it be that they should be preserved as a gratification to the laudable curiosity felt by every people to trace the origin and progress of their political Institutions . . . the legitimate meaning of the Instrument must be derived from the text itself; or if a key is to be sought elsewhere, it must be not in the opinions or intentions of the Body which planned and proposed the Constitution, but in the sense attached to it by the people in their respective State Conventions where it received all the authority which it possesses.
This continuing misdirection of inquiry should be seen as an indictment of the bourgeois sympathies and elitist biases of most scholars addressing this issue. The question that is rarely asked is, “How did the Americans awarding the document their approbation understand it?” Only the understanding of the people whose representatives ratified the Constitution and gave it life is critical in any appraisal of how well or poorly the Constitution is understood today. And in answering that question, the intent of the “founders” may have limited relevance that would, however, need to be demonstrated empirically. Only after closely examining state and local records might it be shown that the coastal elite’s views were of (great or little) importance in shaping how the vast majority of Americans, isolated in their islands of near autonomy, might have understood the new national frame of government to which they gave legitimacy and standing. In effect, the term “founders” is an egregiously offensive and horrible misnomer.
But no matter how America’s parochial and Christian people understood the construction of this secular and “liberal” national experiment, they certainly did not believe that its substantive values (or lack thereof) could, should, or would be applied to real units of corporate ethical and political life—the local communities and states. Hence, if we want to understand the role which the constitutional regime was expected to and did play in the political life of the average citizen for the next 75 years (that is, the understanding that was awarded approbation by the delegates to the ratifying conventions), we must examine the thought and values of the people of America, its conservative commons, and not the intentions of a small aberrant but elite minority whose values mesh so well with the contemporary American scholars who are their intellectual descendants.
It is instead the ethically intrusive, substantive vision of the good that defines Christian “republicanism” that we must turn to if we want to understand the ground upon which the Constitution, with its national regime of “liberal” nonvalues, was accepted to better insure the continuity and maintenance of the rather homogeneous island of corporate ethical and political life. This most assuredly was not the intention of those transitional liberal nationalists who promoted the Constitution—the national elite’s intention must be considered largely irrelevant to our understanding of what the document that was ratified meant to the American people.
That “republicanism” was an ideology that guided a significant number of influential Americans during its revolutions has now become knowledge more or less (all too often still, less) acceptable to at least the best informed Americanists and theorists among political scientists. Our understanding of the essence of this social theory is derived from the documentary evidence gathered during the last 25 years by a loose coalition of revisionist historians as they went about mounting an eviscerating attack against Hertz’s thesis of an innately liberal America. In the words of Appleby, who is the liberal apologist among them, “America was not born liberal, individualistic, or capitalistic.” Certainly this must be accepted as a most refreshing gift of historical legitimation to those of us who still have not made our peace with an America that its intellectuals see exactly as what she wasn’t—that is, liberal, individualistic, and purely capitalistic. The “discovery” of a historic America that preferred Christianity over secularism, sacrifice over selfindulgence, community over the individual, and the male over emasculated neuters should be no surprise to anyone familiar with the “folk” of America.
What I found so unacceptable (even if wholly predictable) among APSA panelists was to whom the newly rediscovered “republicanism” was awarded, or better said, to whom it was denied.
Each and every paper that touched on the broad range of themes associated with “republicanism” (and they were plentiful) failed to recognize that “republicanism” has been a continuously active element in the outlook of, until recently, an overwhelming majority of the American population. But these Americans, truly the “people,” rural and often lower middle class, invariably Christian and hailing from the Midwest or South, could never be so recognized because they are seen (rightfully so) as the implacable enemy by the cosmopolitan secular intellectual. These men and women, who still attempt to maintain a moral community life in the small towns and backwaters of America, are the true but ignored heroes of the intelligentsia’s renewed recognition of the role “republicanism” has played in American life.
Not only were the people who were still active participants in “republican” societies ignored as if they don’t (and never did) exist, but there was also no public recognition among the “objective” scholars that it is conservatism that is the blood descendant and inheritor of the “republican” mantle among contemporary ideologies. Indeed, the representative chosen to be “discovered” as depositaries of this mind couldn’t be more poorly selected by any set of objective standards. Nevertheless, they were well matched with the class outlook and values of the investigating scholars. The recipients of this honor, of course, were none other than the “Founding Fathers”—another coastal elite intelligentsia—who were (in very general terms) infatuated enlightenment rationalists, deists, and atheists, venal bourgeois materialists enormously overattentive to the rights of the individual, with almost no concern with the ethical goals only the community can effect or values other than those instrumental to the maintenance of a bourgeois regime. In almost all ways their values or lifestyles were antithetical to those expected to be found in authentic “republicans.” But the most legitimate “republicans” then and now, the Christian commons of America, can never be recognized as such, for they represent and bring to life an order diametrically opposed to the effeminate secular elite now most amusingly self-perceived as promulgators of “republican” values and masculine virtues.
Consistent with the class bias found in the search for exemplars of “republicanism” in the American past and present was the papers’ distortion of substantive content of both pagan “republicanism” and its Christian American variant. The expositors of the classic tradition invariably dredged up a neutered and sanitized version suitable for contemporary liberal consumption. Gone were the racist, elitist, unabashedly sexist, xenophobic, and jingoistic elements, along with classical republicanism’s overriding concern with patriotism and ethical intrusiveness in what we call the private life of the citizen (the true republicans might very well find such a phrase solecistic). What remained was a pretty, dressed-up simulacrum which only showed an authentic concern with economic egoism and a confused approbation of some sort of group ethical existence— without, however, being oppressive to the individual, or exclusive in terms of groups to be accepted.
What this all too closely resembled was the oxymoronic class dream of Western intelligentsia, the “liberal democratic socialist utopia.” Given the distasteful reality that Western intellectuals have had to confront with each of their successive socialist sweethearts (first the Soviet Union, then China, and then Yugoslavia, and finally Cuba), these peripatetic dreamers have finally found an appropriate environment in which to invest their sympathies—a past that they can remake in their own chosen image and where reality need not necessarily intrude on their fantasies.
I also found the treatment of “republicanism” among the papers to be distinctly deformed in yet one other additional way. What was ignored, consistent with the kind of bias Vitz has discovered in the textbooks written by a similar intellectual class, is that Americans, except for a handful of coastal elite, were not pagan “republicans” but Christians. In attempting to ground American “republicanism,” most conveniently, in 14th-century Florence or among the articulate deist population of 18th-century America, those proponents of a renewal of American “republicanism” feel unencumbered by the American reality. The reality that American “democratic” intellectuals so studiously avoid is that communalism in America has almost invariably been Christian, and that even today articulate spokesmen who wish to speak to the majority of Americans of the necessity and centrality of corporate ethical visions to a fully human life must continue to do so in the language of a Christian moralist.
In sum, I must indict not just the organizers and paper givers at the various APSA panels this past summer, but given their likely representative nature, I must hold responsible the entire political science community for its blatant and ugly class, ideological, and religious biases. But maybe it is compassion that is called for, instead of vituperation, since we must remember that the average liberal political scientist is caught on the horns of a most unyielding dilemma.
The antinomy they confront, that might be worthy of empathy, is how to continue to write as if they were “democratic” (as their self-image demands) while insuring that the average Christian American with antithetical political and social values is either ignored or never accurately represented (as their self-interest insists). Their solution, as the papers and discussions that I witnessed indicate, is to bifurcate their minds. On the one hand they loudly proclaim their democratic sympathies, while on the other they continue to ignore the average historical and contemporary American or to fabricate a replacement whom they can uphold. Isn’t it time that political scientists accepted Americans as they are, and finally invited them, at least in spirit, to the party that is annually given in their honor? Or is this a radical proposition much too dangerous to the class interests of political scientists?
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