Is Our Civic Life Really In Decline?

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These representatives would deliberate, not just decide. That is, they would listen to one another so that their votes would be based on a consideration of the public good, not just on a constituency’s interest. This was a filtering system. To have people represented indirectly would remove from the proceedings the heat and passion that might otherwise cloud judgment. The Federalist papers are full of praise of the “cool” and “calm” virtues of representative government. Public views would “refine and enlarge” when “passing through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the truest interest of their country.”

It is well known that the Founders had only disdain for political parties. It is less often recalled that they also discouraged civic associations from taking any interest in politics. George Washington detested the political discussion societies that sprang up between 1793 and 1798, called “Democratic-Republican clubs,” most of which had strong sympathies with the French Revolution. These clubs seemed to Washington a genuine threat to civil order, presuming, irresponsibly and dangerously, to offer suggestions to the government about what it should decide without having been elected by the people or having sat in the chambers of the Congress to hear the viewpoints of all. The first President spent much of his famous Farewell Address warning his countrymen against the baneful “spirit of party.” He opposed “all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the Constituted authorities.” Such organizations could only “put in the place of the delegated will of the Nation, the will of a party; often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the Community...”

The Founders were not much fonder of a free press than of free associations. The First Amendment set limits on Congress’s power to curtail free speech, but not on the states’. This was originally an act more of federalism than of libertarianism; it protected state legislation against interfering national authority. Opposition to a truly free press was also manifested in continuing adherence to the doctrine of seditious libel. The wrong in criminal libel was not that it harmed the libeled party but that it threatened the public peace when the victim was stirred to violence and revenge. Prosecutions for libel sought to protect the peace at the cost of individual freedom of expression.

The Sedition Act, in 1798, made matters worse, ruling it a crime to “write, print, utter or publish” anything “false, scandalous, and malicious” against the government, the President, the Senate, or the House “with intent to defame ... or to bring them . . . into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States. . ..” The Federalists engineered no fewer than fourteen indictments under the act. At a time when there were only about two hundred newspapers in the country, with less than a quarter of them strongly opposed to the Federalists, this was a substantial assault on the press.

For the Founders, the press was a political instrument. Its independence could be championed or attacked depending on how well it was serving the cause of popular liberty. All agreed that when it operated on behalf of popular liberty, against the king, it was of inestimable value. But operating within a system of popular liberty and elected representatives, it was a danger to republican order.

How did we get from the Federalists’ pinched perception of popular involvement in government to our powerful ideal of the informed citizen? The simplest answer is that the political party was born. Political parties as we know them today—enduring, mass-based organizations dedicated to contesting elections and winning offices—originated in the 1820s. They invented the grand nominating convention, taking nomination out of the hands of congressional or legislative caucuses. They pioneered political campaigning as a vast participatory pageant. They developed leaders more passionately devoted to the party organization than to any ideological principles the party might stand for.

 

The parties spearheaded the rise of a far more egalitarian social order—at least for white males. Other developments contributed to this too. These included the rapid growth of evangelical Christian groups more egalitarian than traditional churches; the birth of powerful, broad-based social movements, notably the temperance movement; and the beginnings of the penny press, whose more accessible, news-centered papers had a wider popular appeal than earlier ones. Meanwhile, changes in the family began to chip away at the power of husband over wife, parents over children, and first-born son over siblings.