The Radical Revolution

PrintPrintEmailEmail

But there was a realization that this was what democracy meant: the emergence of ordinary people who by definition have economic interests; that’s what it means have an occupation. To be a shoemaker or a businessman or a shopkeeper is to have an interest, and it’s precisely because they aren’t independent of the marketplace that they have these interests. In a democratic society these people are running the show, and they’re bringing their interests with them; they can’t shed them, they are inherent in their being businessmen. Nobody doubted that. Adam Smith understood it as well as anyone: These kinds of people do not make good legislators because they have private interests. That is why Smith always accepted the landed gentry’s dominance in the House of Commons. They alone could be free of these kinds of interests.

Gentlemen don’t have to exert themselves for their income. But anybody who worked for a living was going to have interests and was going to bring them into the political arena. Some sought to resist this by denying the reality. But others, like Madison, accepted the reality of interests. He said, in effect, “Well, that’s the way it is, but we’re going to deal with it by trying to keep these people out of political leadership by elevating and extending the national government.” That was his solution, and it failed.

I think the intriguing person in all of this is Aaron Burr. Burr was the one aristocrat among the Founding Fathers who never made any claims for virtue. He was just a real American politician.

You’re rather harsh on Madison. You certainly don’t think much of his prophetic powers as a political theorist.

Madison still conceived of public interest that transcends private interest, and in his Federalist Paper number ten he said, in effect, “Look, there are interests everywhere in society; I understand that. What we’d like to do is devise a political structure that will keep these interests from getting into government, or at least dominating government, and the way to do that is to expand the sphere of government so that these interests counteract one another and allow disinterested gentlemen to rule.” His model was always religion; he understood that the secret of America’s success in creating religious liberty and separating church and state, which is what allowed him and Jefferson and those other secular humanists or deists to run the show, was the fact that there were so many religious groups competing with one another that they negated one another, neutralized the state in religious matters, and allowed rationalist thinkers to predominate.

He hoped the same thing would happen in the larger sphere of interest-group politics. Let the interests collide and compete with one another in the society; let’s erect a government on a national level that will be dominated by the likes of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, people who were free of interest. I think he really saw himself as a disinterested person, capable of rising above narrow marketplace interests, and hoped to create a government that would be more or less dominated by his kind of person. Now it didn’t work out quite like that, and I think that was part of the problem of the Federalists in the 179Os. There weren’t enough James Madisons or Alexander Hamiltons or George Washingtons. There were too many Federalists who had interests to promote, even though they were presumably an aristocracy. They were an aristocracy caught up in interests.

I think the intriguing and revealing person in all of this is Aaron Burr. Burr was the one aristocrat among the Founding Fathers who never made any claims for virtue and had no visions of an America based on virtue and republican idealism. The explanation may be that he was a more authentic aristocrat who never needed to justify himself; his father was the second president of Princeton. He had as much aristocratic lineage as anybody in New England.

Burr never had the insecurity of the rest of the Founding Fathers, many of whom had to justify themselves in terms of achievement. In New York and even when he was Vice President, his behavior was very different from that of someone like Jefferson or John Adams. He was always writing letters to people promoting some kind of interest, trying to make money. He was an aristocrat, but he never had enough money to bring it off, and his correspondence is very revealing; it’s full of “See if you can get a job for so-and-so. I owe him something. Burn this letter.” You never find Thomas Jefferson saying, “Burn this letter.” Burr sounds like a ward politician of the 1880s.

As a consequence he comes to be feared by both ends of the political spectrum. Both Hamilton and Jefferson fear Burr long before his ventures in the West. He’s frightening to them because he’s supposed to be the kind of person the Republic will need as a leader. He’s a natural aristocrat, he has a Princeton education, he’s got money, he’s got all the pose and status of a gentleman, yet he’s behaving in this interested way, conniving at land deals and banking deals in New York and persisting even when he gets to be Vice President. He had the gall to wonder if it would be possible for him to continue to practice law while he was Vice President. People talked about Hillary Clinton’s continuing to practice law when her husband became President. Burr was actually hoping to practice law while Vice President. One of his confidants had to say to him, No, it’s improper, you can’t have the Vice President walking into court as an attorney; you would overawe the court.