Friday, 26 September 2014

Federalist No. 2, Part II: The Enlightened

As noted, John Jay was not alone in the fledgling United States in his attachment to the principles of the Enlightenment. If he was not born into it, by the end of his life every one of the Founding Fathers was a member of a socio-economic class that placed great value on education. They were all products of a post-Glorious-Revolution British culture that had been greatly shaped by Enlightenment philosophy, and were taught to venerate the classics (Latin and Greek texts by figures like Cicero, Tacitus, Pliny, Ovid, Aristotle, Socrates and Plato), respect reason, and cultivate a degree of rational scepticism in all their affairs. As the Enlightenment was distinctly European in origin, the Founders also developed a sense of belonging to a larger philosophical movement that crossed the Atlantic Ocean, connecting their efforts to those of scholars and reformers in places like France, the Netherlands, Italy and Scotland. This distinct sense of time and place, of belonging to an intellectual class that transcended geography, greatly influenced the American founding and the debates that spun out of it. It was why men like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison felt comfortable quoting French philosophes, why John Adams encouraged others to familiarize themselves with British republican theory, and why George Washington’s favorite play, which he had performed for his troops during their stay at Valley Forge, was an English drama about a figure from Roman history.

These men knew that their intended audience would recognize the texts they were referring to and more than likely sympathize with the messages contained therein because Montesquieu, John Locke and Joseph Addison’s Cato were all a part of their shared intellectual framework. John Jay was a part of this framework as well, and because he was not much of an innovator, or a philosopher in his own right, he might be said to represent the proto-typical 18th-century enlightened gentleman to a greater degree than his more famous contemporaries. For that reason, and because Federalist No. 2 contains certain phrases or ideas that are absolute hallmarks of Enlightenment thought, it might be taken as a kind of philosophical primer. Consequently, identifying the concepts that Jay made use of in Federalist No. 2, what they meant, and where they came from can go a long way toward understanding what the Enlightenment meant to Americans of the founding generation, and which of its principles they held most dear.

One of the first explicitly Enlightenment-derived concepts that Jay invoked in Federalist No. 2, in the second paragraph, was the social contract theory popularized in the 17th century by English philosopher John Locke. As mentioned in a previous set of posts Locke worked and wrote during a time of political and social upheaval, and many of the concepts that he attempted to illustrate in his Two Treatises on Government were intended to explain or justify the changes to the status quo that were underway in late-1680s Britain. The social contract, he argued, constituted an agreement (either tacit or explicit) between a people and their government wherein the mass of the citizenry agreed to delegate a portion of their sovereignty to a widely recognized ruling party. In exchange for this, the ruler(s) was supposed to provide the people with a degree of security and stability that would not have otherwise been possible for them to achieve on their own. Locke’s articulation of this theory, published in 1689, came at a time when the underpinnings of British statehood and citizenship were being re-examined and they were subsequently quite influential, both in Britain itself and in certain of its colonial possessions. But it bears remembering the Locke was not the sole creator of the theory of a social contract.

Thomas Hobbes, an English political theorist and polymath who was working and writing a generation before Locke, first put forward the concept of the social contract in his 1651 work entitled Leviathan. Like Locke, Hobbes worked during a time of turmoil, in his case the English Civil War, and through his writing attempted to explain the need for a strong, mutually-recognized authority to regulate, control, and punish as needed the at-times conflicting social and political forces that exist within all complex states. Unlike Locke, however, Hobbes was a monarchist. He supported the ideal of absolutism, that the ruler of a state should possess authority over all aspects of that state unchecked by anything more than morality or custom. As he conceived of the social contract, a life of obedience to a monarch or aristocrat was preferable to one lived in anarchy and bare subsistence. Furthermore, he argued, whatever errors were committed by a sovereign against his people was the fault of the latter, for by seeking their monarch’s protection they tacitly sanctioned his actions.

It was Locke who sought to fuse with social contract theory the concept of natural rights, and whose writings went on to influence an entire generation of scholars and statesmen in the colonies of British America. Where Hobbes was inclined to see the delegation of sovereignty from the people to their ruler as essentially unconditional, Locke asserted that certain fundamental rights remained with the citizenry. The legitimacy of a ruler was incumbent upon their not infringing on these rights, and mutually agreed upon violations could justifiably result in full-scale revolution. This was the version of the social contract that Jay invoked in Federalist No. 2 when he wrote, “Nothing is more certain than the indispensable necessity of Government, and it is equally undeniable, that whenever and however it is instituted, the people must cede to it some of their natural rights, in order to vest it with requisite powers.” Not only did Jay judge government to be an “indispensable necessity,” but the rights that he determined were to be delegated to it were “natural rights.”

This is the Lockean language more than it is Hobbesian, perhaps because by the time of Jay’s upbringing and education, absolutism was no longer a political value that enjoyed wide acceptance in the Anglo-British cultural sphere. It had been defeated, first by the Parliamentarians during the Civil War and then by the supporters of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the subsequent Bill of Rights, and a very rights-conscious British political culture had taken its place. It was this common conception of natural rights that was very much in favor among a certain class of British intellectual, and was a particular fixation of the American founding fathers. Jay’s employment of the notion, not emphatically but first and foremost, is telling of how ingrained Lockean social contract theory had become among a significant portion of the late-18th century Anglo-American political and scholarly elite.

Among the somewhat more abstract Enlightenment values that Jay employed in Federalist No. 2 was that of universalism. Less a single principle and more a related set, Enlightenment universalism was really a reaction to the perceived narrow-mindedness and sectarianism of the previous two centuries of European history. For large portions of the 16th and 17th centuries wars had raged across the continent along mainly religious and dynastic lines. Conflicts that pitted Protestants against Catholics, or even different sects of Protestants against each other, supporters of this royal family against that one, or any number of other divisions based in faith or feudal allegiance played themselves out across the bloody decades with little sign of stopping. The scholars who brought the Enlightenment about did so in part as an attempt to alleviate this cycle of bloodshed by bringing logic and reason to bear in the realm of human relationships. The philosophies that they authored and promoted possessed a Universalist outlook because they all tended to embrace a loose set of basic principles.

These included, at their heart: a belief that there was but one world whose nature is the subject of structured laws that are discoverable by the human intellect, and that these law operate on all things uniformly (be they rocks, trees, animals or people); that an understanding of these laws could become the basis for stable, just, self-perpetuating human societies; that all humans are fundamentally the same in all times and places, and possess an equal capacity for self-improvement and virtue; that certain human aspirations, like happiness or freedom, are universal, and that if the search for them is guided by logic and reason their attainment will bring about peace and progress. Guided by these principles the purpose of the Enlightenment was always to promote peace and cooperation, and cultivate an understanding of humanity as united in its aspirations, flaws and potential. If knowledge was universally attainable, its supporters argued, how could any single church claim a monopoly on revelation? If all people were guided by the same fundamental goals, what was the purpose of war but to impede their achievement?

This seemed to be the tone with which Jay approached Federalist No. 2, particularly in paragraphs five and seven. In the former, he described Americans as, “One united people; a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs.” While America was, in the 1780s when this was written, far less ethnically and religiously diverse than it is now, Jay’s statement on the matter is still technically inaccurate. Admittedly dominated culturally, politically and economically by people of British descent, the United States of 1787 also contained sizeable populations of German, French and Dutch settlers, merchants, artisans and farmers. Most of them spoke at least some English, but a great many conversed exclusively in their mother tongues, and would continue to do so into the mid-19th century. As to their religion the majority were Protestants but belonged to any number of sects, including among their numbers Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Dutch Reformed, Congregationalists, Quakers, and Moravians. In addition, there were also sizeable numbers of Catholics and Jews, as well as assorted transient populations of Muslims, Hindus and others (mainly travelling merchants or sailors). Their attachment to the “same principles of government” is another matter again. It’s worth keeping in mind the well-worn statistic that during the time of the Revolution in the 1770s approximately a third of the population remained sympathetic to the crown. Because these people didn’t just evaporate when peace was declared in 1783, it stands to reason that a decent portion of the population of the United States in the 1780s were either ambivalent or actively hostile towards the republican status quo that seemed to have settled over their homeland. Bearing these facts in mind, and that Jay himself was of exclusively French and Dutch stock, it would seem a rather strange thing for him to insist that Americans were a totally united people in 1787.

Paragraph seven, however, perhaps sheds some light on from where Jay’s conception of the American people was derived. In it, he wrote that, “To all general purposes we have uniformly been one people; each individual citizen everywhere enjoying the same national rights, privileges, and protection. As a nation we have made peace and war: as a nation we have vanquished our common enemies: as a nation we have formed alliances, and made treaties, and entered into various compacts and conventions with foreign States.” Where before he invoked ethnicity and religion, signs of overt difference between communities, here he touched on matters more ephemeral. Rights, privileges, shared experience; these were what bound Americans together and signified their membership in a common nationality. Americans were the same, Jay seemed to be saying, because they enjoyed the same legal rights, and because they acted in concert towards common goals. They fought together, tasted victory together, and made peace together; in their fundamental essence this made them one people. This seems much more in keeping with the Universalist vision of the Enlightenment, whereby emphasis was placed more on the way people acted than the language they spoke or the faith they belonged to. Keeping this in mind, Jay’s comments in paragraph five might be interpreted in a less literal fashion. Most Americans in the 1780s were of British descent, spoke English, were Christians of some stripe, and were in favour of republican government. That this was true across such a large expanse of territory, relative to Europe, must no doubt have seemed extraordinarily fortuitous. Whatever differences did exist, and which John Jay was certainly aware of, could be smoothed over by the binding experience of the Revolution, and years of experience in united government.

The last element of Federalist No.2 of overtly Enlightenment derivation that I’d like to draw attention to is Jay’s rhetorical use of the word “Providence.” Because Enlightenment thinkers fixed on reason and logic as the basis for most of their discussions of politics, education, statecraft and philosophy many of them tended to avoid using orthodox religious language. They generally didn't ascribe events to the will of God, and if they discussed the divine at all did so in a very measured way. Providence, in this context, acted almost like a euphemism. Whereas invoking God might have seemed to some to be endorsing a religious principle that was rooted in illogic, Providence, as a sort of vague, non-personified will or force, was abstract enough to pass muster. In Federalist No. 2 Jay used the word Providence in this sense on three occasions: in paragraph four, describing how the American people had been blessed by a wide expanse of fertile land; in paragraph five, being the reason why Americans were so similar in their qualities and manners; and in paragraph six, guiding them towards a united political future. This is classic Enlightenment phraseology, and more to the point was typical of the political and social class to which Jay belonged. To take the first three presidents as examples, George Washington mentioned Providence in his army resignation speech in 1783, and in three of his eight State of the Union Addresses. John Adams used the word in both of his Inaugural Addresses and in three of his four State of the Unions, while Jefferson invoked it in the Declaration of Independence, one of his Inaugurals and three out of eight State of the Unions. By comparison, in none of these documents was the word God used even once. This is telling, not only of late-18th century American religiosity, but of the common philosophical bona fides that permeated the founding generation. 

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