BOOK THREE:
LIBERALISM AND THE CONSTITUTION
PART ONE: THE AGRARIAN DEFEAT
1783-1787



CHAPTER I AGRARIANISM AND CAPITALISM

I

THE BACKGROUND OF IDEAS

English and French Contributions

WITH the close of the war the question of the times was the urgent problem of the form and control of the new political state to be erected: whether it should be the coercive sovereign of the whole, or should share its sovereignty with the several states. Although the problem was political, the forces that were driving to a solution were economic, and were commonly recognized as such. Agrarian and mercantile interests opposed each other openly and shaped their political programs in accordance with their special needs. Not until French romanticism popularized the doctrine of social equalitarianism was there any serious questioning of the principle of the economic basis of politics. The fact of property rule was challenged in America no more than in England, and the laws of suffrage in the several states were founded on that principle. The new state, therefore, took its shape from men who were political realists, deeply read in the republican literature of the seventeenth century, and inspired by the 'deals of the rising English middle class. The opponents of the new state, on the other hand, were economic liberals who rejected English middle-class ideals, and inclined increasingly to the humanitarian theory of the French thinkers, though with an eye always upon American conditions. The struggle between these two schools of thought determined the final outcome of a long and acrimonious contest.

The English middle class had received its creative bent from seventeenth century Puritanism. That vast movement survived political defeat and effected a silent revolution in English character that projected its ideals far into the future. It permeated the rising tradesman class, stimulated its ambition, and gave it an ethics precisely fitted to its needs. In inculcating the doctrine of a sacred calling to work, it substituted the modern attitude towards production for the medieval. It rejected the older conception of work for the sake of livelihood of production consumption, and substituted the ideal of work for its own sake, of production for the sake of profit. It implicitly condemned the leisurely, playloving and pleasure-taking activities of medieval England, and substituted a drab ideal of laborious gain, that measured life in terms of material prosperity and exalted the business of acquisition as the rational end of life. In the sanction of such an ethics, wealth became the first object of social desire; and this ideal, that answered the ambitions of the rising middle class, was preached under the authority of religion. To labor diligently in the vocation to which one is called of God, it was believed, was to labor under the great Taskmaster's eye, and in the confident hope of eternal reward.

No conceivable discipline was better calculated to breed a utilitarian race and create a nation of tradesmen. The immediate result was the emergence of a middle-class, unimaginative, laborious, prudential, who devoutly believed that the right to rise in the world, to pursue economic well-being in a competitive society, was the most sacred of human rights; that those who were faithful in little things, God would make rulers over great things. To scant one's service, whether to God or one's master, was the cardinal sin; work, thrift, self-denial, were the cardinal virtues. This amazing revolution in the ethics of work laid the basis upon Which modern England was to rise; it carried in its loins the industrial revolution. The rise of the new ethics coincided historically with the final disintegration of the craft guilds, and the emergence of the great trading companies. It provided a desirable sanction for the modern principle of exploitation, and the development of the middleman system of distribution; and these conceptions the Puritanized English commercial class seized upon eagerly, and in capable fashion set about the work of creating the system of modern capitalism.

Every rising group is jealous of its interests and active in asserting them. It joins forces with whatever movements of current liberalism promise to further its purpose, but it will see to it that the wider movement shall serve its narrower ends. The commererce of work for the sake of a livelihood, of production for social class gathered strength swiftly during the early seventeenth century, and with the gentry formed the backbone of discontent with the strong rule of Strafford. London was growing fast, " the abode of smoke, disease and democracy," as a contemporary gentleman phrased it; and the London burgesses supported Parliament heartily. The new money-economy wanted to be free from governmental restrictions and exactions, and the simplest I way seemed to lie in asserting parliamentary sovereignty. That hope was frustrated after 1660 when control of Parliament passed into the hands of the landed gentry. The aristocracy was too strong for the middle class, and the latter was forced to buy its the open parliamentary market. privi I rket. Not until the intellectual liberalism of the later eighteenth century clarified its conception of the minimized state, did the money economy rise to fresh political consciousness, and then it joined heartily with the, new liberalism in an attack upon the centralized powers of the political state.

The philosophy of this new liberalism was derived largely from two notable thinkers of the preceding century, Harrington and Locke, supplemented later by Adam Smith. The influence of the Oceana upon later thinkers was profound. In grasping and applying the principle of the economic interpretation of history Harrington laid the foundation of modern political theory. The true source of political power, he asserted, is economic power-" empire follows the balance of property." The form of government in a given country, whether monarchical, aristocratic, or democratic, according to the doctrine of economic determinism, depends upon the ownership of land, whether vested largely in one, in a minority, or in many. This primary economic power is modified, however, by the presence in every society of a natural aristocracy; the authority of character and ability imposes a natural leadership on those less capable, and disturbs the simple economics of the situation. Because of the resulting clash of interests, political stability can be secured only by a judiciously calculated system of checks; and the system which Harrington elaborated provided for a bicameral legislaturethe aristocratic branch proposing and debating, and the democratic branch resolving-rotation in office, and the ballot, to the end that there should be a government of laws and not of men. His ideal was rulership by the best and wisest under well-considered laws, circumscribed by a written constitution.

Locke followed Harrington in founding his political theory upon economics, but he gave to it a characteristically middle-class interpretation. Harrington had been primarily concerned with a land economy; Locke was to become unconsciously a spokesman of a money economy. The persistent problem of that economy was the security of private property against sequestration, and the ultimate effect of Locke's teachings was to secure and strengthen the rights of property in the state. In basing his doctrine of property ownership upon labor, he prepared the way for a conception of economic power dissociated from land. In the universal communism which marks the state of nature, he argued, private property rights result from labor bestowed, and are ethically and socially valid. But in such a state of nature, the possession and enjoyment of property thus detached from the communal whole are at constant hazards.The great and chief end, therefore, of men uniting into commonwealths and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property.1 If such was the original purpose for which government was instituted among men, it follows that government must regard property rights with particular tenderness; for if the state prove untrustworthy, the original compact upon which it was erected is dissolved, and society returns to a state of nature. Locke therefore went far in asserting the inviolable rights of property, laying it down as a guiding principle that the sovereign in time of war may lawfully enforce conscription upon the bodies and lives of his subjects, but not upon their property. "The supreme power cannot take from any man any part of his property without his own consent," for "to invade the fundamental law of property is to subvert"the end of government."2 In thus asserting the sacredness-of property, Locke laid the foundation of the new philosophy of capitalism.

As English capitalism grew stronger it began to envisage more critically the fundamental problem of the powers and functions of the political state. A state controlled by the landed interests, given to imposing vexatious restrictions upon trade, could not answer its needs; freedom rather than regulation was requisite to healthy development. From the Physiocratic teachings had come the new conception that economic well-being cannot be imposed from above by governmental paternalism, but results from un 1 Second Second Treatise on Civil Government trammeled individual enterprise. The great concern of government should be to assist and not hamper industry and trade; political policies should follow and serve commercial interests. Thus was provided the background from which emerged The Wealth of Nations, the declaration of independence of modern capitalism. Adam Smith completed the work of Locke, and gave definite form to the middle-class liberalism of eighteenthcentury England, a liberalism that in the pursuit of commercial freedom found it desirable to limit the powers of the state. The Tory state had been centralized and paternal, the capitalistic state was to be reduced to the position of umpire between competitors. The net results, thus, of two hundred years of English middle-class struggle to free its economic ambitions from governmental restrictions was the conception of the social, political, and economic sufficiency of laissez faire. "Let alone" had been erected into a fetish.

In France, on the other hand, the economic interpretation of history dominated political thinking far less than in England, and the liberal movement owed more to a group of intellectuals than to the middle class. The French leaders were a remarkable group, far removed in temper from Harrington and Locke and Adam Smith. The Physiocrats were agrarians and the romantics were humanitarians, They followed the path of logic to broad principles. As leadership passed from Montesquieu to Rousseau, French liberalism abandoned the cautious historical appeal, and turned to generalization that carried far beyond liberalism. The Rousseau school became advanced radicals, aiming at the regeneration of society as a whole, seeking political justice by a universal appeal to reason. This explains the breadth and suggestiveness of their thinking, as well as the smallness of their immediate achievement. In seeking much they overreached accomplishment, for they had behind them no disciplined, class-conscious group, pursuing definite ends. But in outrunning their own time, they became leaders of later times; and the unfulfilled program of Rousseau carried over to become the inspiration of later humanitarianism.

The creative impulse of French romantic philosophy was a passionate social idealism. A disciple of Locke, Rousseau went further than his master and translated politics and economics into sociology. That a juster, more wholesome social order should take the place of the existing obsolete system; that reason and not interests should determine social institutions; that the ultimate ends to be sought were universal liberty, equality, and fraternitysuch in brief were the main conceptions of his philosophy. "Regard for the general good" must be accepted as the sole test of laws and institutions. He attacked the problem by way of psychology, essaying a revaluation of human nature. Incalculable harm had been done, and grave mistakes made, Rousseau believed, by the old slanderous interpretation; to assume that every man is a knave, governed solely by self-interest, was an assumption contrary to fact. It was a generalization deduced from certain acquired characteristics. If in a competitive society men prove to be selfish, ambitious of power and distinction, brutal in seeking egoistic ends, the blame attaches to a vicious social system that has debased them from their natural state. In a state of nature men are kindly, rational, sociable; but in society the great rewards fall to the selfseeking A ruthless social order is forever perverting the natural man; whereas if social rewards were bestowed on the socialminded, the innate sense of justice would speedily modify and conrol the impulse to egoism. The solution of the vexing social problem, Rousseau concluded, lay in a return to a state of nature, where under the determining influence of wholesome environment the individual should develop naturally, unperverted by false standards and unjust rewards.

French radicalism, then, was driving in the same direction with ,,English liberalism, but it - went much further. Both desired a loosening of the machinery of centralized power as represented by the political state-, but whereas English liberalism protested against a paternalism that diminished its profits, French radicalism struck at the principle of centralization. Political institutions it regarded as artificial agencies for the purposes of exploitation-the state was little more than a tax machine; whereas the living source and wellspring of every true civilization is social custom, voluntary association, free exchange. The root of French radicalism was anarchistic, and its ideal. was an agrarian society of free-holders. .It would sweep away the long accumulated mass of prescriptive rights, the dead hand of the past, and encourage free men to create -a new society that should have as its sole end and justification, ,,the common well-being. A pronounced individualism characterized both movements, French and English; but in the one case it was humanitarian, appealing to reason and seeking social Justice,in the other it was self-seeking, founded on the right of exploitation, and looking toward capitalism.

During the period with which we are concerned, American thought, become militantly self-conscious but still vague and inchoate touching any ultimate program, drew inspiration from both sources; but the deeper, controlling influence came finally to be English rather than French. The common doctrine of decentralization fitted American conditions, but to many Americans decentralization, whether social or political, had proved unde sirable. The common doctrine of liberty accorded with the passions released by the Revolution, conceptions of equality and fraternity found little response in a middle-class, competitive world. On- the contrary, the English doctrine of economic individualism made universal appeal. In presence of vast, unpreempted resources, the right of every man to preempt and exploit what he would, was synonymous with individual liberty. Any government which should endeavor to limit such exploitation would be bitterly assailed; and if the small man were free to enjoy his petty privilege, the greater interests might preempt unchallenged. The total influence of old-world liberalism upon the America of post-war days was, therefore, favorable to capitalistic development and hostile to social democracy. Until the early years of the nineties the democratic spirit of French radicalism was little understood in America, and the field remained free to the English middle-class philosophy, which appealed equally to the agrarian and the capitalistic groups.

II

THE POLITICAL SITUATION

Against this background of ideas, the political tactics of the year 1787 are sufficiently comprehensible. Two major problems had been settled by the war, namely, that henceforth the exploitation of America was to remain the prerogative of Americans, and that in the new country there was no place for a king or a titled aristocracy. But with these preliminaries settled, the problem remained to determine the form and powers of a national government. Should that government be entrusted with coercive sovereignty, or should it remain the titular head of confederated sovereign commonwealths? The latter solution had been accepted accepted during the period of war, and in proposing abolition of the Articles of Confederation and the substitution of a new instrument, the burden of proof fell upon the advocates of the new. How the problem was met and the solution achieved by a skillful minority in face of a hostile majority is a suggestive lesson in political strategy. It is a classic example of the relation of economics to politics; of the struggle between greater property and smaller property for control of the state.

The strategic position of the large property interests in the year 1787 was favorable to a bold stroke. In the northern and middle states the controlling influence was wielded by a powerful money group that had been slowly rising during pre-R evolution a ry days, and had greatly increased its resources and augmented its prestige as a result of war financing and speculation in currency and lands. They at once assumed the leadership which before had belonged to the gentry. Like all eighteenthcentury realists they exhibited a frank property-consciousness that determined all their moves. With them affiliated such members of the older gentry as remained, the professional classes, ambitious Revolutionary officers who had set up the militant Order of the Cincinnati, together with a numerous body of the disappointed and the disaffected; the net result of which was a close working alliance of property and culture for the purpose of erecting a centralized state with coercive powers They were powerfully aided by two outstanding charcteristics of the eighteenth-century mind: an aristocratic psychology which was deeply ingrained in the colonial through the long .unchallenged rule of the gentry; and the universal belief in the stake-in-society theory of government, evidenced by the general disfranchisement of non-property-holders. Property had always .ruled in America, openly. and without apology, and the money ,group could count on a spontaneous response to its demand that property should reorganize the feeble central government and set up one more to its liking. In the South this reorganization was unnecessary, for the planter aristocracy, in siding with the Revolution, remained masters of their society, and the money group had not risen to challenge their supremacy. It remained only for the northern interests to join forces with the planters to bring the great property interests of the country under one banner.

The status of the small property holders, on the other hand, was much less happy. They were in possession of many of the state governments, and were strongly wedded to the Articles of Confederation; but they were deep in populism and their agrarian measures offered rallying points for a powerful opposition. They lacked disciplined cohesion and were wanting in a broad program. The militant mood of Revolutionary days had given place to suspicion and disillusion, and their fighting strength was greatly weakened. They were suffering the fate of all post-war governments. The widespread depression was attributed to populist policies, and all the evils from which the country was suffering were laid at the doors of agrarian legislatures. Under such conditions the political strategy of the money group was predetermined. The issue was ready-made. Astute politicians like Hamilton seized the opportunity and crystallized the discontent by the ingenious argument that the trouble was too much agrarianism, that agrarianism resulted from too much democracy, and that the inevitable end of too much democracy was universal anarchy. The root of all the troubles, it was asserted, was the pernicious slackness of the Articles of Confederation which prevented a vigorous administration. There could be no prosperity until a competent national government was set up on a substantial basis.

The inevitable consequence was that the ideal of popular demoThe aristocratic prejudices ratic rule received a sharp setback. ices of the colonial mind were given a more militant bias by skillful propaganda. Democracy was pictured as no other than mob rule, and its ultimate purpose the denial of all property rights. Populistic measures were fiercely denounced as the natural fruit of democratic control; all America was in danger of following the destructive example of New Hampshire and Rhode Island. "Look at the Legislature of Rhode Island," exclaimed a speaker in the New York Constitutional Convention, "what is it but the perfect picture of a mob!" The virus of democracy was a poison that destroyed the character of the people as well as government; was not the fate of Rhode Island a warning to the rest of the country? Here is a picture of that commonwealth, drawn by an English gentleman before agrarianism had done its worst.

The government of this province is entirely democratical, every officer, except the collector of the customs, being appointed . . . either immediately by the people, or by the general assembly. . . . The character of the Rhode Islanders is by no means engaging, or amiable, a circumstance principally owing to their form of government. Their men in power, from the highest to the lowest, are dependent upon the people, and frequently act without that strict regard to probity and honour, which ought invariably to influence and direct mankind. The private people are cunning, deceitful, and selfish: they live almost entirely by unfair and illicit trading. Their magistrates are partisan and corrupt: and it is folly to expect justice in their courts of judicature; for he who has the greatest purse is generally found to have the fairest cause. . . . It is needless, after this, to observe that it is in a very declining state. 3

 

"Under the Articles of Confederation," comments a recent ,student, "populism had a free hand, for majorities in the state legislatures were omnipotent. Any one who reads the economic history of the time will see why the solid conservative interests of the country were weary of the talk about the 'rights of the people,' and were bent upon establishing firm guarantees for the rights of property."4 The money-economy had made up its mind that such government as that of Rhode Island could not longer be tolerated. An example must be made of such hotbeds of anarchy; if reason would not be listened to, force must be used. An ardent Federalist, judge Dana of Massachusetts, offered a possible solution:

This state [Rhode Island] will not choose delegates to the convention, nor order on their delegates to Congress. I hope they will not, as their neglect will give grounds to strike it out of the union, and divide its territory between their neighbors. . . . According to my best observation, such a division of this state would meet the best approbation of the commercial part of it, though they are afraid to take any open measures in the present state of things, to bring it about. Their interest must dictate such a measure; they never can be secure under the present form of government, but will always labor under the greatest mischief any people can suffer, that of being ruled by the most ignorant and unprincipled of their fellow citizens. This state is too insignificant to have a place on an equal footing with any of the others in the Union, unless it be Delaware. Therefore a bold politician would seize upon the occasion their abominable antifederal conduct presents, for annihilating them as a separate member of the Union.5

 

"It is fortunate," wrote General Varnum to Washington, confirming judge Dana's analysis of the economic divisicns of Rhode I Burnaby, Travels through the Middle Settlements in North Imerica in the Years .T759 and 176o. 4 Beard, The Supreme Court and the Constitution. 5 Austin, Life of Elbridge Gerry, Vol. If, pp. 66-67. Island, "that the wealth and resources of this state are chiefly in possession of the well affected, and they are entirely devoted to the public good."

It was Shays's Rebellion, that militant outbreak of populism that set all western Massachusetts in uproar, and spread to the very outskirts of Boston, which crystallized the anti-democratic sentiment, and aroused the commercial group to decisive action. With its armed attack upon lawyers and courts, its intimidation of legislators, its appeal for the repudiation of debts, it provided the object lesson in democratic anarchy which the "friends of law and order" greatly needed. The revolt was put down, but the fear of democracy remained and called aloud for stronger government. "We see the situation we are in," exclaimed a Boston member in the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention. "We are verging toward destruction, and every one must be sensible of it." Shays had failed, but with political power in the hands of agrarian legislatures, friendly to debtors, what dangers must not the future bold in store? Was it not the patriotic duty of the sober conservators of society to set up betimes a strong constitutional defense, before the rights of property were swept away by the fierce tide of democracy? Writing to Washington under date of October 23, 1786, General Knox argued:

On the very first impression of faction and licentiousness, the fine theoretic government of Massachusetts has given way, and its laws are trampled under foot. . . . Their creed is, that the property of the United States has been protected from the confiscation of Britain by the joint exertions of all, and therefore ought to be the common property of all. . . . This dreadful situation, for which our government have made no adequate provision, has alarmed every man of principle and property in New England. They start as from a dream, and ask what can have been the cause of this delusion? What is to give us security against the violence of lawless men? Our government must be braced, changed, or altered to secure our lives and property. We imagined that the mildness of our governmerit and the wishes of the people were so correspondent that we were not as other nations, requiring brutal force to support the laws. But we find we are men-actual men, possessing all the turbulent passions belonging to that animal, and that we must have a government proper and adequate for him. The people of Massachusetts . . . are far advanced in this doctrine, and the men of property and the men of station and principle there, are determined to establish and protect them in their lawful pursuits. . . . Something is wanting and something must be done.6

6 Brooks, Henry Knox, pp. 194-195-

During these years of unrest the problem of a new fundamental law was carefully studied by the anti-agrarian leaders and solutions suggested. A remarkable change had come over their thinking. They discarded the revolutionary doctrines that had served their need in the debate with England. They were done with natural rights and romantic interpretations of politics and were turned realists. They parted company with English liberalism in its desire for a diminished state. Their economic interests were suffering from the lack of a strong centralized government, and they were in a mood to agree with earlier realists who held that men are animals with turbulent passions, and require a government "proper and adequate" for animals; and in view of local agrarian majorities, a proper and adequate government could not be had without a strong centralized state. The solution, they were convinced, lay in a return to some form of seventeenthcentury republicanism, possibly modeled after Harrington, but with further checks upon the power of the democratic branch of the legislature, and a stronger executive. Hobbes with his leviathan monarchy had gone too far, but he had, at least, understood the need of a strong state; and a strong state, subservient to their interests, the business and landed groups were determined to set up as a barrier against a threatening agrarianism.

The great obstacle to such a program was the political power of the farmers, bred up in the traditional practice of home rule, jealous of local rights, and content with the Articles of Confederation. These home rulers Would not take kindly to any suggestion of a centralized state, even though it should be epublican in form. The thing must be done skillfully, if it were to succeed. To nullify where they could not override the political power of the agrarians, therefore, became the practical problem of the money-economy. The fear aroused by Shay's Rebellion provided the strategic opportunity, and the best brains of the country suggested the method. The struggle had begun which was to provide a new fundamental law for the United States.

1. Second Treatise on Civil GovernmentChapter IX.<

2.Ibid.,Chapter XI.

3. Burnaby, Travels through the Middle Settlements in North America in the years 1759 and 1760

4. Beard, THe Supreme Court and the Constitution.

5.Austin, LIfe of Elbridge Gerry, Vol. II, pp.66-67

6. Brooks Henry Knox,pp.194-195