The Whig Political Theory

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William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham.

The English Whigs were an influential, even revered, group for many of the colonists in America. Their beliefs resonated with ordinary, common people.

The Whigs believed that “the promotion of the people’s happiness was the sole purpose of government.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 20. Further, government was “a wise, a necessary, and a sacred thing,” which restrained the “lusts and passions that drove all men.” Id. quoting Samuel Williams, A Discourse on the Love of our Country (Salem, 1775), 28; John Joachim Zubly, The Law of Liberty (Philadelphia, 1775), 6-7.

The basics of the social contract were fundamental to Whig beliefs. The government officials “agreed to use their superior power to protect the rights of the people,” who “pledged their obedience, but only . . . as long as the rulers promoted the public interest.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 20 citing Dan Foster, A Short Essay on Civil Government (Hartford, 1775).

Many Whig leaders in England became idols for American liberty. William Pitt, the First Earl of Chatham, developed an almost cult-like following amongst a segment of colonists in America. In Bristol County, Massachusetts, one colonist explained: “Our toast in general is,—Magna Charta [sic], the British Constitution,—Pitt and Liberty forever!” Clinton Rossiter, Seedtime of the Republic. The Origin of the American Tradition of Political Liberty (New York: Harcourt, Bruce and Company, 1953), 145, 359-60.

This early American obsession with the Whig ideology would frame the revolutionaries’ beliefs and priorities. Those beliefs and priorities have carried forward to modern Americans.

The social contract certainly has not been forgotten, as many modern Americans are fully aware of the fact that their elected officials can be voted out just as easily as they were voted in.

However, the political theory surrounding the purpose of government perhaps has been lost over the years. The Whig belief that the sole purpose of government is to promote the happiness of the people is an optimistic, hopeful perspective. Many contemporary Republicans, particularly of the Ronald Reagan era, would not be able to disagree loud and fast enough to this Whig belief. Even some modern Democrats may take issue with it, as it is perhaps not nuanced enough to apply to a nuanced society.

While we were quick to import the Whig belief that government’s sole purpose is to promote happiness, should we, as modern Americans be so quick to dismiss it? If the purpose of government is not happiness for all, then what is it?

People Versus Rulers

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Charles James Fox. By: Karl Anton Hickel.

For many colonists and early Americans, politics was a contentious, yet simple subject. Many believed that politics “was nothing more than a perpetual battle between the passions of the rulers, whether one or a few, and the united interest of the people.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 18.

Thomas Gordon, an Englishman and a Whig, wrote that “[w]hatever is good for the People is bad for their Governors; and what is good for the Governors, is pernicious to the People.” Id. quoting John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, Cato’s Letters: Or, Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious, and Other Important Subjects, 5th ed. (London, 1748), II, 249.

These beliefs defined the Whigs, the Americans who identified with the British Whig political party led by Charles James Fox. The British Whigs were adamantly opposed to a strong monarchy. Later, in the 1830s, a movement would emerge in America called the Whig Party, which was opposed to a strong presidency.

The American Revolution developed these views in a uniquely American way. The British Whigs were focused on restraining the power of one of the mightiest empires, led by a monarchy, the world has ever known. They hoped to displace the Tories, the political party who supported the powerful monarchy. Colonists in America who embraced the Whig ideology realized that to prevent such a dilemma from playing out in America, those colonists had to develop new systems and institutions that prevented such a concentration of power in the government.

Despite the colonists progress in creating those systems and institutions, the dynamic that Whigs identified between rulers and their people still resonates today. Many modern Americans believe that government officials will inevitably only cater to the interests of government officials, not the common people. Some say it is human nature and no amount of political theorizing can conjure up a system that prevents it from happening.

One has to wonder, does the American system’s representative nature not curtail that dynamic from occurring? Has America effectively addressed rulers only looking out for rulers?

The Adulation of the Founding Fathers

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Depiction of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson.

Gordon Wood began his 2006 book Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different by stating that “[n]o other major nation honors its past historical characters, especially characters who existed two centuries ago, in quite the manner we Americans do.” Gordon Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, 3.

He continued, stating that Americans “want to know what Thomas Jefferson would think of affirmative action, or George Washington of the invasion of Iraq.” Id.

Scholars apparently have varying views as to why modern Americans revere the Founding Fathers, over two centuries after they first acquired their fame. Id. at 4.

Some scholars believe that it is because Americans are concerned “with constitutional jurisprudence and original intent” forming the basis for the Constitution. Id.

Other scholars posit that analyzing the Founding Fathers allows modern Americans to “recover what was wise and valuable in America’s past.” Id.

Another set of scholars explain that Americans look to the Founding Fathers to define the American identity. Id.

As Gordon Wood explained, this was not always the case. Toward the late 1800s and early 1900s, some Americans questioned the wisdom, accomplishments, and place of the Founding Fathers. Id. at 5. Nonetheless, for a significant portion of the 1900s and continuing into the 2000s, Americans look to the Founding Fathers for guidance.

While scholars may disagree as to the underlying purpose for modern Americans to honor the Founding Fathers, it can likely be explained by two points: (1) the Founding Fathers rigorously worked to create the best form of government possible and (2) the Founding Fathers knew adversity, difficulty, and hardship and yet held the country together.

As to the first point, the Founding Fathers engaged in one of the most substantial debates in history as to how a country should be best governed by its people to best ensure their happiness and prosperity. The resulting government was not only revolutionary and coherent, it has facilitated America’s success for two centuries with only 27 amendments to the Constitution being necessary.

The second point weighs a little heavier. The United States has endured many wars, tragedies, and difficulties. Few rival the tumultuous, uncertain times of the Revolution. Regardless, in both stable times and otherwise, America and its leaders have looked to the Founding Fathers for guidance. The logic underlying that goes “If the Founding Fathers could lead a revolution and fight a war against a mighty empire successfully, how would they deal with this scenario?”

All of the scholars’ views as to why Americans honor the Founding Fathers feeds into this point. When Americans ask these questions, like “What would the Founding Fathers do?”, they do so out of a wishful curiosity that leads to no clear answer.

This is a result that would likely please the Founding Fathers. The Founding Fathers did not have a secret to making the right decisions or coming to the right conclusions. They only did so through vigorous debate with each other and unyielding optimism about America’s future. That contentious debate spawned the system, institutions, beliefs, and ideals that define America.

Those debates should rage on with vigor. It is the least that modern Americans can do to repay the Founding Fathers.

Empire of Reason

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Washington Crossing the Delaware River. By: Emanuel Leutze.

The American Revolution is one of the most extraordinary revolutions to have taken place in world history. Not only would it result in the birth of one of the most influential and most powerful nations ever known, but it would also be a revolution with seemingly peculiar triggers.

As Gordon Wood in The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787 explained, “[t]here was none of the legendary tyranny of history that had so often driven desperate people into rebellion.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 3. Daniel Leonard concluded that “[n]ever in history . . . had there been so much rebellion with so ‘little real cause.'” Id.

Some analysts have speculated that Americans had learned “how to define the rights of nature, how to search into, to distinguish, and to comprehend, the principles of physical, moral, religious, and civil liberty,” so as to prevent tyranny before it occurred. Id. at 4. Because of these actions and considerations, some would call America the Empire of Reason. Id.

In 1768, John Dickinson wrote that colonists did not ask “what evil has actually attended particular measures,” instead asking “what evil, in the nature of things, is likely to attend them.” Id. at 5 quoting John Dickinson, Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies (Philadelphia, 1768) in Paul L. Ford, ed., The Life and Writings of John Dickinson (Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Memoirs, 14 [Philadelphia, 1895]), 392, 389.

The spirit of the American Revolution, framed this way, raises questions about how and why the colonists insisted on pursuing a revolution. For example, why were the colonists unified in fearing all forms of tyranny? In modern times, this question seems hardly worth asking, but in the late 1700s, tyranny so permeated the nations of the world that it would likely have felt unchallengeable. Nonetheless, the colonists were persistent in achieving the society they dreamed was possible.

Perhaps the colonists’ actions in these years planted the seeds for future generations of Americans to question everything around them. Whether that is hyperbole or not, it is clear that Americans would become obsessed, and still are obsessed, with defining the contours of their rights and liberties. The project of creating an ideal society with all of its accompaniments can never cease.

Consequently, it is only fair to say that the Empire of Reason is still alive and well.

The Setting Sun of the Founding Fathers

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John Adams.

As the 1800s progressed, the era of the Founding Fathers was coming to an end. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams would outlast most of the Founding Fathers, only to die on the same date: July 4, 1826. The Founding Fathers would leave a profoundly different country than the one they created.

Common Americans had created the sense that the United States was “a land of enterprising, optimistic, innovative, and equality-loving” people. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 733. The entrepreneurial, ambitious American spirit was born and permeating the entire country.

Particularly after the resolution of the War of 1812, manifested in the Treaty of Ghent, Americans began to feel a permanent independence from Europe and a separation from European ideals. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 735. Americans began to look at themselves as worthy of analysis, introspection, and recognition.

Thomas Jefferson believed that, as of 1823, America would serve “as a light to the world showing that mankind was capable of self-government.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 737 citing Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 4 Nov. 1823, in Ford, ed., Writings of Jefferson, 10: 280. Jefferson confessed that his ideals for America “may be an Utopian dream, but being innocent, I have thought I might indulge in it till I go to the land of dreams, and sleep there with the dreams of all past and future times.” Id. at 738 citing Thomas Jefferson to J. Correa de Serra, 25 Nov. 1817, in L and B, eds. Writings of Jefferson, 15: 157.

Jefferson’s dream of America may not have been achieved in exactly the way he imagined, but the country was becoming a player on the global stage. Americans had shown that they would not be a British colony, twice, and that Americans would create their own spirit which was loosely based on Europe and the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome.

With the success of America increasing, the specter of slavery began to loom over the country. It presented an ideological divide for the North and South, but it also economically divided the country. In retrospect, the Civil War seemed inevitable, but as the sun was setting on the Founding Fathers’ America, there was hope that a major conflict could be avoided.

The Happiest People Upon the Earth

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Benjamin Franklin. By: Joseph Siffred Duplessis.

At the beginning of the 1800s, the American economy was becoming an unconventionally successful economy. Domestic commerce was “incalculably more valuable” than foreign commerce and “the home market for productions of the earth and manufactures is of more importance than all foreign ones.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 707 quoting Nathan Miller, The Enterprise of a Free People: Aspects of Economic Development in New York State During the Canal Period, 1792-1838 (Ithaca, 1962), 42.

Meanwhile, a middle class was emerging in the United States. In the 1780s, Benjamin Franklin predicted “the almost mediocrity of fortune that prevails in America . . . [made] its people to follow some business for subsistence,” which made the United States “the land of labor.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 709 quoting Benjamin Franklin, “Information to Those Who Would Remove to America” (1784), Franklin: Writings, 975-83. This new middle class was gaining “a powerful moral hegemony over the society, especially in the North.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 709.

Both Benjamin Franklin and J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur hoped a society could exist that lacked “both an aristocracy and a lower class.” Id. at 711. As Charles Ingersoll observed in 1810, “Were it not for the slaves of the south, there would be one rank.” Id. quoting Charles Jared Ingersoll, Inchiquin, the Jesuit’s Letters (1810), in Gordon S. Wood, ed., The Rising Glory of America, 1760-1820 (New York, 1971), 387.

These developments would lead to some to conclude that the Americans in the North were “probably the happiest people upon the earth.” J.M. Opal, Beyond the Farm: National Ambitions in Rural New England (Philadelphia, 2008), 135, 136.

These early years of the Republic, where prosperity was so widely spread that a seemingly universal middle class existed is of course a bit of an exaggeration in that there were poor and rich segments of society. But, on the other hand, the fact that so many individuals during that time commented on the subject reflects that it was a phenomenon occurring. A more cohesive, more uniform society was emerging. It was a society free from the highest highs and lowest lows that had come to characterize Europe.

Since those early years, there has been a fluctuation in the strength and size of the middle class. One thing has not changed, however. The notion of a prosperous middle class has come to be an aspiration for all Americans. The early aspirations of Benjamin Franklin and other Founding Fathers transformed this dream into a reality. That reality is one that Americans hope to carry forward for many generations to come.

The Republicanization of America

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Benjamin Rush. By: John Witherspoon Peale C.

The United States, as the 18th Century transitioned into the 19th Century, introduced to the world a host of ideas and beliefs that strayed from the Enlightenment period. The North American Review, in 1816, concluded that America was unlike any other country “in the points of greatness, complexity, and the number of its relations.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 721 citing North American Review, 3 (1816), 345-47.

America was also becoming the standard bearer for progress. The principles emerging in society emanated from the people themselves, “free from all sorts of artificial restraints, especially those imposed by government.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 721 citing Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York, 1992), 360.

One example of the shift away from the ideals of the Enlightenment period is Dr. Benjamin Rush’s work “in seeking the universal theory that would purge medicine of its complexities and mysteries.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 725. He believed that the Old World’s medicine could be “sufficiently simplified and republicanized” so that all members of society would be capable of treating themselves. Id. He carried the simplification to the furthest logical extent possible: that all diseases came down to fever, “caused by convulsive tension in the blood vessels,” which could only be treated by blood-letting. Id.

Obviously, this extrapolation of American thinking applied to the medical field was a colossal failure. However, it showed the extent of the permeation of American ideals into society. Even the most closely held beliefs, or the sturdiest foundations underlying society, were questioned by Americans.

This was a crucial, if unintentional, development for the United States. Rather than tailor American society and institutions to those of Europe or anywhere else for that matter, Americans tailored the society to its people.

This people-centered approach would reap rewards for the coming centuries of Americans. Institutions, norms, and the government would all bend to the will of the people. That responsiveness has ensured that the government is able to adapt to the changing times, which is just one prerequisite for any country to survive over the course of two tumultuous centuries.

The Most Sublime Gift of Heaven

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Samuel Blodgett. By: John Trumbull.

In the early 1800s, America underwent a campaign of infrastructure building. The building of new roads, bridges, and canals were done in a spirit of “national grandeur and individual convenience.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 730 quoting Charles G. Haines, Considerations on the Great Western Canal (Brooklyn, 1818), 11.

In 1806, Samuel Blodgett, an economist and architect, concluded that commerce held together the Americans. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 730. Blodgett believed that commerce was “the most sublime gift of heaven, wherewith to harmonize and enlarge society.” Id. quoting Samuel Blodgett, Economica: A Statistical Manual for the United States of America (Washington, DC, 1806), 102.

Blodgett believed that if America were to surpass Europe, it could not be done with the policies of Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists. Id. Instead, it had to be done with the Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson. Id. Blodgett believed that only the Republican policies had the “capacity to further the material welfare of” America’s citizens. Id. citing Samuel Blodgett, Economica: A Statistical Manual for the United States of America (Washington, DC, 1806), 102.

If commerce is the “most sublime gift of heaven,” as Blodgett said, then the manifestation of commerce in the United States as being carried out with the spirit of “national grandeur and individual convenience” is the reason that America has economically surpassed the individual states of Europe. Since the days of the early Republic, Americans have taken actions that both contributed to their individual benefit and have had the aggregate effect of creating national grandeur.

In this sense, America has distinguished itself both historically and currently from other countries. Many countries, for example the Soviet Union in the past and China currently, have attempted to create national grandeur not through individual innovation but through government involvement. In doing so, those other countries have created the facade of success and grandeur that they hope to achieve. That is not to say that those countries have not developed sophisticated, successful economies. But the sustainability of those countries’ economies is debatable.

One of America’s best qualities is that it has had prolonged economic success. Of course, there have been tumultuous times, like the Great Depression, and the so-called “Great Recession” and the panics and scares that are all but forgotten in modern times.

However, America from the earliest days has encouraged individual success through its institutions, its culture, and its laws. The American people have believed in that opportunity and have taken risks, worked hard, and created an economy characterized by its national grandeur. Preserving the institutions, culture, and laws that foster such grandeur is crucial for America’s continued success.

An Outraged America

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The United States Capitol Building, showing damage inflicted by the British during the War of 1812.

In March 1816, Congress passed a Compensation Act, “which raised the pay of congressmen from six dollars per diem to a salary of fifteen hundred dollars a year.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 718-19. This was the first raise in the pay for congressmen since 1789. Id. at 719.

Robert Wright, a Congressman in 1816, and previously a United States Senator, said that in the old days, congressmen “lived like gentlemen, and enjoyed a glass of generous wine, which cannot be afforded at this time for the present compensation.” Id. quoting C. Edward Skeen, “Vox Populi, Vox Dei: The Compensation Act of 1816 and the Rise of Popular Politics,” JER, 6 (1986), 259-60.

Rather quickly, analysts and the public realized that Congress had effectively doubled its pay. Kentucky congressman Richard M. Johnson concluded that the Compensation Act brought more discontent than any other law up to that point in history. Thomas Jefferson agreed with him. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 719. Jefferson’s popularity amongst his fellow Republicans soared, as they all “resented paying taxes to pay for what seemed to be the high salaries of their public officials.” Id. citing Thomas Jefferson to De Meunier, 29 April 1795, in Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Works of Thomas Jefferson: Federal Edition (New York, 1904), 8: 174.

The public made their outrage known. There were public meetings throughout the country, there were publications strongly criticizing Congress for its work, and in Georgia, “opponents even burned the members of Congress in effigy.” Id. at 719-20 citing Skeen, “Vox Populi, Vox Dei,” JER, 6 (1986), 261.

Congress’ reputation took a bit hit. Then, “[i]n the fall elections of 1816 nearly 70 percent of the Fourteenth Congress was not returned to the Fifteenth Congress.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 720.

The ordeal with the Compensation Act of 1816 was the first hint of what was to come with Americans’ behavior and perspective toward the actions of their government. Accountability became paramount. Participation became mandatory.

It seemed clear that the days were over of the government being separate from the people and conducting its business in a sort of vacuum. Americans were taking matters into their own hands and sending a clear message to elected officials: do what is best for the country and its people, or you will not be re-elected.

This is a message that is reinforced continually in American history, up to the present day. But many modern Americans may take for granted that it was not always the case. The acts of the early Americans, particularly in reaction to the Compensation Act of 1816, ensured that the country would develop opinions about the government, which in turn would lead to accountability. That accountability has inevitably served to perpetuate the health and wellbeing of the Republic.

The Emerging Middle Class and Entrepreneurial Spirit

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Albert Gallatin.

Albert Gallatin knew as early as 1799 that the United States “had become commercially and socially different from the former mother country” England. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 704. At that time, Gallatin was a Congressman, but he would later serve as Secretary of the Treasury from 1801 to 1814.

In realizing that America was different, he said that Britain had “trades and occupations” that were “so well distinguished that a merchant and a farmer are rarely combined in the same person; a merchant is a merchant and nothing but a merchant; a manufacturer is only a manufacturer; a farmer is merely a farmer; but this is not the case in this country.” Id. at 704-05 quoting Annals of Congress, 5th Congress, 3rd session (Jan. 1799), 9: 2650.

He said that if one were to venture into the middle of America, that individual would “scarcely find a farmer who is not, to some degree, a trader. In a grazing part of the country, you will find them buying and selling cattle; in other parts you will find them distillers, tanners, or brick-makers. So that, from one end of the United States to the other, the people are generally traders.” Annals of Congress, 5th Congress, 3rd session (Jan. 1799), 9: 2650.

This meant that Thomas Jefferson’s dream of Americans being a nation of agriculture and avoiding the industrialization that Europe had experienced was not a dream to be realized, even after the transformative War of 1812.

While this may have been troubling to Jefferson, Gallatin’s observations showed that Americans were developing a collective entrepreneurial spirit. Trading became an integral part of the American economy.

Part of this was inevitably by necessity, where some had to supplement their income by engaging in trading that perhaps they did not have experience in. On the other hand, part of this change from England must have been that there was a wealth of natural resources and a middle class emerging in America.

This early development after the War of 1812 should sound familiar to most modern Americans. First, although the middle class may change in size and wealth generation-by-generation, it has continually existed since the early Republic. Second, and most notably, Americans still carry an entrepreneurial spirit with them. Many would cite that entrepreneurial spirit for the success of America. It is certainly a factor.