wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Drew McCoy

The Elusive Republic

The classical republican heritage embraced by the Revolutionaries stressed the close relationship between public virtue—the austere and unselfish devotion to the common good that was on the lips of every patriot in 1776—and private virtue, which was exemplified by the character traits of frugality, temperance, and rigorous self-control. As John Adams explained a few months before the Declaration of Independence, 'Public virtue cannot exist in a Nation without Private, and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics.' It was for this reason that so many republicans greatly feared both commerce and indulgence in wealth as dangerous threats to the success of the Revolution. In one sense, the Revolution can properly be viewed as a reactionary effort, as one historian has put it, 'to bring under control the selfish and individualistic impulses of an emergent capitalistic society that could not be justified'—or at least that could not be justified by traditional moral standards. In the flush years of 1775 and 1776, when thousands were swept up in the spirit of a 'rage militaire,' many of the Revolutionaries were inspired to hope that the American people might indeed conform to the classical notion of virtue and thus become the special kind of simple, austere, egalitarian, civic-minded people that intellectuals had dreamed about for centuries. To these enthusiasts, the ancient republic of Sparta was an appropriate model for a new America, a rude but virtuous society of independent citizen-warriors who demonstrated an unselfish devotion to the collective good because they were shielded from the corrupting intrusion of commerce and luxury. This vision of America, in Samuel Adams's revealing words, as a 'Christian Sparta,' permeated the apocalyptic rhetoric that gave public expression to the spirit of the Revolution.

But there was also an uneasy suspicion (and sometimes recognition) among the Revolutionaries that even predominantly agricultural America was already a relatively advanced commercial society, that Americans were to a great extent an ambitious commercial people with refined tastes and manners, and that under such conditions inflated expectations of classical public virtue might be unrealistic. Steeped in the patterns of classical literature and inspired by a real revolutionary fervor, educated and articulate Americans almost unthinkingly invoked the Spartan formula as an abstract ideal. When they confronted the sobering realities of eighteenth-century America, however, they invariably had nervous doubts about its republican potential.

John Adams probably best exemplifies this uneasy skepticism about the potential for classical virtue in America. By early 1776, Adams was thoroughly committed to both independence and republicanism. After admitting that 'Virtue and Simplicity of Manners are indispensably necessary in a Republic among all orders and Degrees of Men,' he added, however, that 'there is so much Rascality, so much Venality and Corruption, so much Avarice and Ambition such a rage for Profit and Commerce among all Ranks and Degree of Men even in America, that I sometimes doubt whether there is public Virtue enough to support a Republic.' The 'Spirit of Commerce' was rampant in America, especially in Adams's own New England: since 'even the Farmers and Tradesmen' were 'addicted to Commerce,' he seriously doubted if a positive passion for the public good could ever be superior to the indulgence of private and egoistic passions, especially the pursuit of wealth. During the debates over non-importation in 1775, he was appropriately concerned with the question of just how long, realistically, his countrymen would tolerate a suppression of their foreign commerce:
How long will or can our People bear this? I say they can bear it forever. If Parliament should build a Wall of Brass, at low Water Mark, We might live and be happy; We must change our Habits, our Prejudices our Palates, our Taste in Dress, Furniture, Equipage, Architecture, etc., but We can live and be happy. But the question is whether our People have Virtue enough to be mere Husbandmen, Mechanicks, and Soldiers? That they have not Virtue enough to bear it always I take for granted. How long then will their Virtue last? till next Spring?
Later, during the war, when his countrymen persistently demonstrated a want of classical forbearance, Adams similarly doubted if they would agree to the remedy of a public enforcement of republican austerity. 'There is such a charm to the human heart in elegance,' he sighed; 'it is so flattering to our self-love to be distinguished from the world in general by extraordinary degrees of splendor in dress, in furniture, equipage, buildings, etc.' The psychological roots of the infatuation with luxury that eighteenth-century writers had examined at such length seemed to infect the souls of all men, even those of an agricultural people who aspired to emulate the ancient Spartans. Adams had ambivalent, at times contradictory, feelings about the character of the American people. In the final analysis, though, he saw clearly that they were not Spartans in any classical sense, and that American society was not as 'young' and primitive as traditional republicanism demanded it to be. If America was to be a republic, it appeared that commerce and its consequences would have to be integrated into a more relevant and realistic conception of republicanism.

Although the Spartan brand of virtue often seemed merely impractical in a relatively advanced commercial society, it could also, if viewed from another perspective, be regarded as wrong in principle and thus unrepublican as well. In a speech 'On the Fall of Empires,' delivered to the Continental Congress in May 1775, William Moore Smith noted that, ironically, the famed Lycurgus, ruler of ancient Sparta, had destroyed liberty in his attempt to prevent the accumulation of wealth and luxury that he thought would subvert it. This tragedy brought to light a vexing dilemma, particularly relevant to the American situation. The crucial point, Smith asserted, was that true liberty was impossible without a security of property in its broadest sense. Smith's listeners hardly had to be reminded of this point, since the crux of the colonial dispute with England was an assertion of precisely this right to dispose freely of the fruits of one's industry. Even Samuel Adams, a leading promoter of the Spartan vision, had stated the matter quite clearly in 1768, speaking for the Massachusetts House of Representatives: 'It is acknowledged to be an unalterable law in nature, that a man should have the free use and disposal of the fruit of his honest industry, subject to no controul.' Where property was thus secure in a republic, however, honest labor inevitably produced an accumulation of wealth, which too often brought with it the debilitating luxury and other evils destructive of virtue and liberty.

Preventing the completion of this vicious cycle by arbitrarily denying men the right to their property was patently unjust, so Smith looked for another way to resolve the dilemma. Wealth should not be excluded, but if the use of it was judiciously regulated perhaps it was not necessarily incompatible with republicanism after all. Speaking of Mandeville's well-known defense of commerce and luxury. Smith admitted that it could never justify vicious luxury or an insipid indulgence in sensual pleasure.