The Radical Revolution


The ones who saw what was happening. Jefferson, for example, was very optimistic, as late as 1820 he thought that every person alive would eventually die a Unitarian. He saw the society becoming more like him, and he couldn’t have been more wrong. The Founding Fathers were at most deists—they believed God created the world, then left it alone to run—but they were a very thin veneer on their society, and I think they misinterpreted what was going to happen. They certainly never intended to create the kind of evangelical Protestant world that emerged by the 1820s in the Second Great Awakening. This is true, I think, even for those who are always associated with Puritanism, like John Adams, for whom the Second Great Awakening was an unanticipated consequence, and for someone like Jefferson, for whom, when he finally caught on to what was happening, it was absolutely a horror show. It was just unbelievable; he could only blame the New England Puritan Federalists, who he decided had caused it all. This of course didn’t help him explain the rise of evangelical Protestantism in Virginia.

And we’re still the most religious of the industrial societies.

I think that’s because we are a society in which ordinary people continue to dominate the culture to a greater extent than in the societies of Western Europe. Our religiosity is a function of the democratic cast of our culture, which is, of course, the source of our vulgarity, our materialism, and all the other things that lots of people don’t like about America.

We are indeed a materialistic capitalist society. That can be seen pejoratively, or it can be seen as a sign of equality. There’s something peculiarly egalitarian about the cash nexus.

No gentlemen, right?

No gentlemen. And that’s important. The whole phenomenon of the gentleman is important because it’s about a lot more than just manners. The gentleman was not only somebody who knew how to behave but also somebody who knew how to rule. I think the idea of the gentleman and what happened to it is a fantastically interesting subject. The eighteenth century was the high point of the Anglo-American culture of the gentleman. It was a concept of increasing importance from the Renaissance on, and in the eighteenth century people were really wrestling with it. Jane Austen was fascinated with the subject; all her novels consider the definition of a proper gentleman. I think this examination was also occurring in the Colonies, where there was less and less emphasis on blood, family, and wealth as being the proper measure of a gentleman and more on moral behavior, which made it possible for the Founders, who had by English aristocratic standards very little wealth and who could make very little appeal to the criterion of blood, to aspire to gentility.

What made someone qualify as a gentleman?

A certain amount of wealth, giving one independence, was a prerequisite. Jane Austen, along with many other people, thought of a gentleman as someone who had, at a minimum, so many hundred pounds of income; Darcy had ten thousand pounds a year. Such an income would certainly constitute independence. Of course, you could not be a shopkeeper or manual laborer, but the more controversial question was, What is the relation of the professions to gentility? This was a period of transition in the ideal of gentility and the conception of the professions, but members of the professions were for the most part still regarded as primarily gentlemen, not as professionals. This is, of course, very confusing for historians, because we look at the period and notice growing numbers of lawyers and doctors, and we assume they’re like modern professionals, but it’s a mistake to anticipate the future.

Someone like Benjamin Rush was a doctor, but first he’s a gentleman, then he practices medicine, and he doesn’t practice the way a modern practitioner would. He’s not at the hospital ten or twelve hours a day; he has a lot of time for doing the kinds of things that people in Jane Austen’s world did, which is to visit and be genteel. And the same is true of lawyers. They’re not working so many billable hours to get their salaries from their law firms; they are much more independent and leisured than that.

And you believe that the purpose of such leisure is to allow a gentleman to specialize in the art of ruling?

That’s the traditional view. Jefferson took it very seriously; so did Franklin. They felt they had a responsibility to devote themselves to philosophy, the arts, or public service. Now in the old order people were deferred to because they had power; they could command those who were in a condition of dependence and reward them with patronage, or wealth, or whatever. The Founding Fathers, despite their reputation for hardheaded realism, were naive enough to believe that the people would follow and obey them simply because they were more talented, and because they had been elected. They had tremendous confidence in elections; the people, having chosen them, would naturally follow their leadership.