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.

Joyce Appleby

Capitalism and a New Social Order

Thomas Paine, who traveled from revolution to revolution with a valise filled with designs for an improved iron bridge, was the prototype for a score of others. Joel Barlow wrote poetry, philosophical tracts, and pamphlets on internal improvements while he went about Europe hawking land in America's West. Jefferson and Madison once proposed buying a male merino sheep for every county in Virginia. Robert Fulton patented a machine for sawing marble, one for spinning flax, and another for twisting hemp into rope. He also developed the submarine, a steam engine, and a torpedo boat for which he is remembered. Less well known are his political publications, among them an essay 'to the Friends of Mankind' which begins by announcing that the interests of men and nature in all countries is universally the same: to wit, 'to live in peace and Cultivate the material enjoyments of life.' Nothing is truly political and honorable, he went on to explain, but a studious cultivation of the mental and corporeal powers and 'a free circulation of the whole produce of Genious and labour.' Among other things that fall to the duty of a good Republican, Fulton concluded, was to teach youth just ideas of individual and natural rights and not to teach them that 'particular men are their Superiors' or that it is good 'to resign their rights on earth in order to gain possession of heaven.'

Because so much has been made of the Puritan work ethic in America, it is worth pointing out that the Republicans did not extol those pristine virtues of thrift and frugality. What opened before their eyes was the prospect of the widespread enjoyment of comforts. Indeed, the word comfort sprang into use in these years. Luxuries conjured up an aristocratic economy of elite consumption and plebian toil while necessities brought to mind the penury of age-old limits. Comforts, on the other hand, could be generally aimed at and enjoyed without harm to others. In 1785, when Jefferson and Adams were both in Europe negotiating commercial treaties for the United States, Jefferson actually corrected Adams' draft treaty with Spain, by substituting 'comforts' for 'necessaries.' Workers should have such an equivalent for their labor 'as to enable them to live with comfort,' Republican George Logan wrote. An anonymous Republican hailed the United States as 'this land of comfort, where, blessed with health, and being industrious, no one needs despair of a comfortable livelihood at least.' The Democratic Society of Philadelphia called for the promotion of necessary manufacturers as long as they were 'consistent with an economy of full employment and comfortable support for all American citizens.' Nor were Republican editors, even those in rural communities, reluctant to dazzle their readers with images of ever-increasing wealth. 'Industry,' one wrote, 'secures the enjoyment of health, strength, and happiness. Under its influence, nature new decks herself in the gayest attire...cities rise, forests are transformed into fleets. Men visit their fellow men, and the necessities of one clime are supplied by the superfluities of another. Increasing luxury gives spring to invention.' 'Agriculture where territory is not wanting is the hand-maid of opulence,' wrote another. Thus did the age of limits yield in the imagination to a vision of prosperity, and it did so long before the steam engine and the dynamo disclosed their wonderful powers.

From the Republican New York Journal came the endorsement of agriculture as the parent of commerce: 'Both together form the great sources from which the wants of individuals are supplied.' Despite these panegyrics to industry, it was moderate toil the Republicans aimed for in apparent conformity to American work habits. According to the Duc de La Rochefoucauld, who traveled extensively through the Northern countryside in 1795 and 1796, nonchalance was the most characteristic American trait. Not even on the frontier, he said, did farmers work more than four days a week. 'Necesary unremitting labour is a form of despotism,' according to Cooper. Speaking to one another as fellow human beings, the Republicans abandoned that didacticism that figured so prominently in Federalist social commentary. The hope of a widely diffused prosperity also colored Republican writings on competition. 'A liberal mind cannot for a moment harbour the idea that every new artisan is a base plotter of the destruction of his competitor,' the Republican editors of The Farmers Register charged, going on to justify their starting a second country newspaper on the grounds that 'it is only by competition that a town or city can flourish. The united efforts of rival artisans give energy to trade; the public becomes better served and places gradually rise in importance with the celebrity of their manufacturers,' a position they concluded, so self-evident that it needed no illustration.

At the most general level, the Republicans' expectation of a sustained prosperity based upon an ever-expanding global exchange of goods undercut the Federalist rationale for energetic government. It was no longer needed to protect the weak from the strong, the hungry from the hoarders, the survival of the whole from the selfish acts of the few. An increased level of productivity had solved that ancient problem. Nor in Republican thinking was government heeded to direct economic activities to secure a larger share of a finite pie in an age of commercial expansion. This was what the English example offered and the Republicans feared. As one newspaper writer noted, Great Britain had enjoyed a long period of economic growth, but 'the body of the British nation live in a state of abject dependence upon the potent few. The hard earned wages are wrung from the hands of the laboring part of the community' to support the government and pay the interest on a national debt that only grows larger. Here is a critique of the British funded debt that owes nothing to the classical republican obsession with political corruption. The Republicans interpreted the mercantilist goals of national wealth and power as parts of another scheme of the few to wrest natural and equal rights from the many. A similar reinterpretation of the threat of luxuries also came from Republican pens.

Moralists had long inveighed against luxuries, seeing in them but the tip of the iceberg of self-indulgence. An old staple in the Sunday fare of sermons, such indictments of luxury were frequently but thinly veiled attacks on social mobility. Sharing the upper-class attitudes of their substantial parishioners, many American ministers viewed the popular consumption of such things as imported fabrics as leading to a dangerous blurring of class lines. Jeffersonians also attacked luxuries, but from a very different perspective. Madison developed their line of attack in a series of articles for the National Gazette. Silverplated candlesticks and printed velvets, as Cooper had said, required forced markets, that is to say, artificial tastes. According to Madison, the making of luxuries skewed manufacturing toward the pocketbooks of the wealthy few, leaving the economy's productive base vulnerable to changes in fashion while at the same time creating the hordes of dependent factory operatives who turned out the lace ruffles and silver knee buckles for the rich. Far better the Republican argument went, to promote the production of grains and raw materials, which served the interests of ordinary people around the world and depended upon no government favors for its promotion, no body of experts for its dextrous management.