The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America (Published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the University of North Carolina Press) 1st Edition
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Readers learn through the Elusive Republic how major Enlightenment era thinkers like Hume, Rousseau, Voltaire, Smith, and Malthus shaped the world views of Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton. The founders were very much concerned with the ways in which an increasingly commercialized and capitalistic society might corrupt the liberty and civic virtue at the core of classical republicanism. Poverty and social strife in rapidly industrializing England were warning signs for many of the founders, especially Jefferson and Madison, leading many of them to conclude that the preservation of republican liberty depended on free trade and the westward expansion of an agrarian republic. Students of history often learn that this vision contrasted sharply with the Hamiltonian proclivity toward finance, centralized power, self-sufficiency, and manufacturing, and while that is true on a general level, we learn through this book that Jeffersonians had no problem with small manufacturing (indeed we often forget that urban artisans were a major constituency of the Jeffersonian coalition of 1800).
This is an enjoyable read and well worth adding to your collection.
Republicanism was synonymous with the notion of virtuous citizens, that is, those characterized by owning enough land for subsistence as well as excess production for the market, industriousness, disdain for luxuries, and capable of asserting tough-minded political independence. Such highly moral citizens were considered essential to viable republics, which is how the US was conceived. As the author notes, an ongoing concern of leading Americans after the Revolution was to identify the stage of economic development that the US was actually in and/or should strive for. The Jeffersonians wanted America to remain primarily agricultural, which was conducive to and based on virtuous citizenship. The next stage of economic development, large-scale manufacturing for export, including non-essential, luxury items, was considered to have highly detrimental social ramifications, not the least of which was the creation of a huge, nearly impoverished laboring class with attendant anti-social behaviors. Another reason to avoid this later stage was that social and economic decline were thought to inevitably follow.
How the US should develop economically was perhaps the most contentious issue of the 1790s, the first decade of the US government. The two principles in the debate were Alexander Hamilton, the Treasury secretary, and James Madison, at that time a Congressman. Hamilton insisted that the US must industrialize to become a leading nation. He undertook several measures, including dealing with the US debt and creating a US bank, which put the US on a sound, international commercial footing. But Madison contended that the vast land stores in the US would permit the expansion of agriculture into the foreseeable future and would, thereby, continue to be a sound basis for the US economy.
Despite a clear preference for agriculture, Madison was not anti-commercial. In fact, free-trade was a key element of the Jeffersonian platform. Free-trade stimulated farmers to produce for the market and concomitantly was refining by enhancing contact with sophisticated European societies, if only indirectly through the import of goods. The Jeffersonians were not opposed to the domestic manufacturing of "necessities," but did prefer it to be home-based. The full-blown manufacturing system of Hamilton reminded the Jeffersonians of mercantilism, whereby nations controlled trade. A part of such systems was the invariable government favoritism, "stockjobbing," speculation, and various other types of shady financial dealings - this among the elites, not the immoral poor. In fact, such sordidness was held to be a major reason that the Revolution became necessary. Republicanism stood in clear contrast to British corruption.
Americans naively thought that, once independence had been achieved, free-trade with the world's powers would follow. Not so - British prickliness and the ongoing British-French conflict combined to highly restrict American shipping over the next twenty-five years. Those restrictions on American trade led to Jefferson's embargo in 1807 and eventually to a declaration of war against Britain in 1812. Increasing American manufacturing started to get a hearing due to the deprivations of the War of 1812.
Ultimately, the virtuous, agriculturally-based republic that the Jeffersonians envisioned was elusive, if not naïve. They basically delayed what was inevitable. The world stage was too complicated and unfriendly for the US to remain only a farming nation. The Jacksonians too continued some of the Jeffersonian thinking. Of course, the full-fledged industrialization that occurred after the Civil War brought with it much of the urban poverty and labor unrest that had existed in Europe for one hundred years.
The book is a very insightful look at the basics of "republicanism," a concept that resonated in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The commercialism that was seen to be a key part of agriculturally-based republicanism is emphasized - often. While the book is interesting, it suffers from "dissertationitis." It is fairly narrowly focused and endlessly repeats key points. The author could have easily included some supporting data that backed up the notion that trade was essential to farmers. Now, we simply have to take his word for it. While the book is not without its originality, earlier books, like Gordon Wood's The Creation of the American Republic, are more complete looks at American thinking, including "republicanism." Despite any such excesses or shortcomings, the book does add to the understanding of Jeffersonian thinking.