Tyranny, one of the early Americans’ greatest fears, may seem to contemporary Americans an unjustified fear. Perhaps that is because the early Americans’ precautionary actions relegated the threat of tyranny to the 18th Century. Perhaps not.
John Adams observed that “[i]t may be thought a wonder how one man could influence such numbers to become such implacable enemies to the liberties of their native country.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 146. Americans realized that a tyrant “did not need to control everyone; they needed to corrupt only a few who in their turn have overawed the rest.” Id. at 147 (internal quotations omitted).
The perceptions of the American people in the early Republic were varied, but some, including John Adams, saw the common people as ripe for facilitating corruption. Adams saw the root of this in the “prevalence of ambition even among the smallest, more insignificant Americans.” Id. Ambrose Serle, a secretary of Admiral Howe and an Englishman, observed that men “would sell their liberty for any little distinction in title or name.” Id. (internal quotations omitted).
One Whig theorized that “only one man in a hundred was needed to keep the rest in sway” and proposed to explain the structure of his theory in a geometric pyramid fashion, with the tyrant at the top and his cronies fanning out below. Id. The theory was supposed to have been executed in England and attempted to be implemented in several of the colonies, albeit unsuccessfully. Id. It began at the top, with the ruler. The ruler had a close council, approximately six individuals, who were “accomplices of his cruelty.” Id. Each of those six individuals then had “a hundred connections, who were plunderers as well, filling “key posts of the government and formed the social bond that holds the country together in the tyrant’s sway.” Id. (internal quotations omitted). Under those six hundred were approximately six thousand, “who fed on the people and lived under the shadow and protection of their superiors.” Id. This structure of tyranny “was tied together by the strongest kinds of links and permeated into the whole society.” Id.
Whether this model of tyranny is accurate or not, the ease in which tyranny could be created and perpetuated is obvious. Adams’ observation that the American people as a collective were ambitious is a prime example and one that appears to still ring true.
However, Serle’s characterization of men and their willingness to exchange liberties for distinction looks to have considerably less evidence. As a collective, Americans place a high value on their liberties, typically sacrificing those liberties for a gain in security, whether that gain is perceived or real.
While tyranny may be generally thought of in terms of a monarchy or a democracy-in-name-only, the Whig model of tyranny could purportedly exist in a legitimate democracy. Whether contemporary America could be subject to such a form of tyranny is a subject for exploration. Considering the influence of the various lobbying efforts on the legislative and executive branches of government, one may question whether some of the most wealthy individuals in America have a perpetual grip on power. This grip, if it in fact did exist, would put most ordinary Americans into the shadows of a tyrannical system they had little control over.
The fears of the early Republic appear to have been unfounded to the extent that a tyranny was not immediately created. The early Americans were successful in preventing tyranny as they recognized it. But a question perhaps Americans should ask themselves is: Has tyranny been created in a different, less obvious manner in contemporary America?