Sunday, August 08, 2010

The Constitution as Remedy for Dangers to Republicanism

Drew R. McCoy's The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America is dense and slow reading. Prof. McCoy builds his arguments methodically and reinforces and illustrates each point with copious supportive references and contemporaneous quotes. And although I am only now getting to the “good parts” (I'm about half-way through), I'm pleased to report the book is wonderful.

After explicating and exploring some of the basic components of and assumptions underlying late Colonial era Republicanism, Prof. McCoy begins to explain how those elements expressed themselves in the political developments of the early Republic, beginning with James Madison's advocacy of a stronger federal government – an advocacy that manifested itself in the drafting of the Constitution.

Madison's intellectual framework included largely conventional views on Republicanism. To survive, a Republic required virtuous citizens – independent farmers who owned their own land – and needed to retard, to the extent possible, the development of a landless urban underclass whose members could serve only as subservient employees in the production of manufactures – mass produced fineries and luxuries.

Two additional elements were essential to defer the probably inevitable decay. The first, space, may be familiar to you. As population increased in older areas of the county, making it impossible for all to find land, the surplus population could occupy new land in the west.

The second element may be surprising: Madison and many others viewed international commerce as a crucial factor in the country's ability to succeed in its Republican experiment. Industrious American farmers naturally produced bounteous harvests that left ample surplus for export to Europe. If denied this opportunity, the farmer risked lapsing into sloth and indolence, ultimately reverting to a rude and uncivilized state.

Ironically, the success of the Revolution imperiled the Republican experiment. Following America's independence, British mercantile laws operated to deprive American farmers in the 1780s of their ability to export their surplus. Spain's closure of New Orleans to American trade eliminated that avenue as an outlet. Even worse, the unavailability of New Orleans was discouraging the surplus population of the eastern states from settling in distant territory within the Mississippi watershed, threatening the county with an excess landless populace that would strangle the Republic at birth.

Prof. McCoy argues that a new federal government with greater powers was Madison's proposed solution to these problems:
A stronger national government with the power to raise revenue and regulate commerce would ideally be capable of resolving the foreign policy problems that threatened to prematurely age the county. Such a government could pave the way for western expansion by dealing forcefully with threatening foreign powers like Spain, but even more important, it could fulfill the commercial promise of the Revolution by forcing the dismantling of the restrictive mercantilist systems that obstructed the marketing of American agricultural surpluses. . .

. . . America needed open markets as well as open space to make republicanism work. Perhaps a government strong enough to encourage the proper form of western expansion and force free trade could answer the dilemma of population growth in an agricultural and republican nation – at least for the foreseeable future.
About the illustration, by William Charles, entitled A Boxing Match, or Another Bloody Nose for John Bull (1813):
The artist gloats over naval losses suffered by England early in the War of 1812, in particular the defeat of the warship "Boxer" by the American frigate "Enterprise" in September 1813. King George III stands at left, his nose bleeding and eye blackened, saying, "Stop...Brother Jonathan, or I shall fall with the loss of blood – I thought to have been too heavy for you – But I must acknowledge your superior skill – Two blows to my one! - And so well directed too! Mercy, mercy on me, how does this happen!!!" On the right, his opponent James Madison says, "Ha-Ah Johnny! you thought yourself a "Boxer" did you! -- I'll let you know we are an "Enterprize"ing Nation, and ready to meet you with equal force any day." In the background, on the ocean, two ships are engaged in battle.

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