The Radical Revolution

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Those who doubted this became the Federalists as they emerged in the 179Os. John Adams is the archetype; his famous exchange with Jefferson late in his life explored this issue. And I think Adams has the better of the argument. Jefferson remained a Pollyanna, naive about the sociology of democracy. Adams in effect said: “Don’t kid yourself, Mr. Jefferson, the people who get elected aren’t going to be the best and most talented. They’re going to be the prettiest, the most handsome, the wealthiest, the people who can attract the attention of a television audience with the best sound bite.” Jefferson remained committed to the revolutionary dream that talent would win out.

You talk about America as the first commercial society, a political order sustained by the new idea that men’s calculations of their own economic interest constitute the sole social bond.

That’s why I think our revolution was so radical. Obviously commerce had existed from the beginning of history, and so one gets into all kinds of arguments with people who will say, “Well, look, there was commerce already.” But a commercial society doesn’t mean merely one in which commerce occurs. In the North—the South remained closer to the eighteenth century, and I think this helps explain the sectional split—you have a society that increasingly comes to regard the business of America as business, buying and selling, with exchange for monetary gain as the basic adhesive of society. And it’s that preoccupation that startled Tocqueville and everybody else who came here. Observers with traditional attitudes came and condemned, because the cash nexus is not supposed to be a nice way to tie people together. We are indeed a materialistic capitalist society.

That can be seen pejoratively, or it can be seen in another way, as a sign of equality. There’s something peculiarly egalitarian about the cash nexus. From the nineteenth century up to the present, we have come to regard the cash nexus as an unjust and wicked way to tie people together. But in the context of the old order the cash nexus was regarded as an egalitarian achievement, as a better way to connect people than through blood or patronage, who your father was or whom you married. It seemed better for a person to be assessed in terms of “What can I buy?” or “What can my money buy for me?”

 

Well, it certainly wasn’t Jefferson’s intent. How did the Revolution produce such a pure, expansive, inclusive commercial regime?

It destroyed the older ties and discredited them in a way that has simply never happened in England. The Revolution made blood and patronage ties dishonorable in this new world. There were attempts made to construct new Utopian arrangements, with varying degrees of success, but ultimately they weren’t sufficient. What emerged to fill the vacuum, to tie people together, was commercial exchange, and this came about because this was what ordinary people were doing, and they thrived in this kind of environment. They didn’t need justifications for relationships that the Founding Fathers might have needed. They certainly didn’t feel the need for old-fashioned republican virtue; they simply wanted to get ahead, and pursue happiness. They took Jefferson’s pursuit of happiness quite literally.

The way you do that is by making money. In that sense a commercial society is a victory for those very ordinary, selfinterested people, the kinds of people who political philosophers from the beginning of time have said are ill equipped to run any government. They’re too self-interested, too preoccupied with the pursuit of their private interests.

Interestedness plays a very big role in your book, and this brings us back to the gentleman. Gentlemen are by definition disinterested, and their disinterestedness is the justification for their political authority. The gentlemen remained a powerful force in every other European society; the old order survived. The American victory over the gentlemen was the least savage—we weren’t guillotining them—but in some sense it’s the most complete.

Yes. Except in the South there was no traditional aristocracy left. And that’s why there has never been a real working-class movement in America. Everybody claimed to work; everybody was saying, “Yes, I’m a workingman too.” It was very difficult for a separate group of workingmen to establish their autonomy. There’s no labor party that can develop when everybody says, “I’m a laborer.” No socialist movement or workingman’s movement can develop without the aristocracy at the other end to act as a foil. Now, obviously, the notion of disinterestedness doesn’t die out entirely, and in fact it re-emerges later in the century, with members of the professions and academics and scientists coming to claim some of the disinterested qualities of gentlemen. But the ideal was much diminished when compared with what had existed earlier. Interest seems to conquer all. That’s what Tocqueville saw, and that’s what any outside observer would have seen, this dominance of interest in the culture. Many Americans would not have accepted this description of their society and would have been horrified by the notion that they were concerned only with interest.