Excerpts in English from Friare kan ingen vara/Free Man's Burden. The American Idea from Revolution to Reagan – and a little bit more
PROLOGUE.THE REFLEXES OF FREEDOM
Americans angle fish somewhat faster, and move somewhat more restlessly from place to place than we do.
In the United States greed, the cruelty of market forces and a compulsion to smile create a hidden terror which lurks in every alley.
In the early 1950s we lived in a studio apartment down from the railroad station in Södertälje. The big trains went to Stockholm, Alvesta, and Hamburg. The small train backed down into Södertälje Central Station. You got dizzy on the railroad bridge over the canal. Just then the world didn't need to be any bigger than that. My family was a post-war remnant among other remnants in a city that still knew its truck chassis better than its refugees and foreigners. One day some of the remnants moved on, dressed in their brown blazers, flower print dresses, and securely pinned hats. The farewells were matter-of-fact, even lighthearted, between people who had already separated too many times and for whom the old world from now on would always be too small . I would like to think that they wanted to escape from the carefree oblivion and the lack of awareness in the housing projects down from the railroad station, and the eternal pounding of the rails from the trains arriving each morning with the ashes from Hamburg and Munich. For some years, before the "folk-home" carefully bound us to it, I fell asleep to the nightly discussions about the need to travel on. I remember the fragrances more than the melodic words in Yiddish or Polish, the sounds more than the meaning. "Jisroel." "Amejrika." Even long after the others had gone.
It was not necessary to have survived hell, as they had, to dream about paradise. Even over the merely stunned Sweden the youthful, victorious energy and invincibility of America shone as unambiguously as a film by Cecil B. De Mille. The old world had never felt older than this, the new one had never appeared younger. Now appearing, wrote Herbert Tingsten, was "a new Age of Enlightenment, during which America, like France and England before, will be the bearer of progress before all others." In works like Kontakt med Amerika (Contact with America) and Amerika mitt i världen (America in the Middle of the World) the Myrdals depicted America and the Nordic countries as those newly responsible for "the ancient dream of peace, freedom, common sense, good intentions, justice and order for our peoples--for mankind." In the works of Vilhelm Moberg the historical circle of the American task was closed. America was and would remain the chosen land of freedom, the new European darkness merely confirming that the emigrants to Chicago Lake had had the sense to embrace a better world in good time. "It would be strange for me to come back to Sweden," Karl Oscar wrote his sister in Småland. " I am now used to Freedom in all matters . . . "
For some years we received letters with glossy black and white photos of prosperous families on walks in Brooklyn behind over-sized American baby carriages, by and by colored photos of people in front of houses and swimming pools in California, then silence. Perhaps life really had started anew there across the ocean, while we slowly disappeared into the darkness beyond birth. Perhaps it was my family who initiated the silence, disappointed that life "over there" did not seem to have anything greater to offer than big baby carriages and houses with swimming pools. The "Amejrika" of the nocturnal talks had stood for rebirth.
The dimensions of survival had been immaterial. And now – images of trivial continuity, as if the world just had been to the movies instead of carrying out a collective blood bath. The reality and possibility of rebirth had been an illusion. The longing for salvation was overtaken by resignation. With the years conditions of the "folk-home" seemed less and less foreign. Travel restrictions imposed on refugees during those early years were abolished. From the textile mills and factories of Alingsås, Borås, Jönköping, and Västerås one could slowly move towards downtown. A future seemed possible. The remnants, those who were not destroyed, kept together as well as they could and their children became Swedes, as well as they could. For a few short moments in my early life America, and of course Israel too, had existed as the almost sensuous temptation of a life after this, of liberation from, or perhaps reunion with, history.
A slight change of perspective, a turn of the wrist, and the grid over America shifts, two incompatible pictures replace each other, just like when the figures on the cereal packages move; first a fairy with her mouth closed, smiling, then suddenly, a monster with jaws wide open, slobbering. A slight turn and America darkens. On the screen appear the Ku Klux Klan, the slaughter houses in Chicago, the grapes of wrath in California, the political corruption, Al Capone, Joseph McCarthy, Elmer Gantry, the worship of money, the materialism, the lack of culture. Another slight turn, and America becomes God's own country, the land of the enigmatic promise, the land of the future, the hub of freedom and democracy on earth.
In the 1960s the grid shifted with a violent jolt. American freedom rode forth on motor cycles and in cruising cars decorated with the Stars and Stripes, straddled fire-spitting army helicopters over Vietnam, trampled on the corpse of Dr. Martin Luther King, exploded in the angry ruins of the ghetto, in the gun smoke at Kent State, in CIA coups around the world. Marxist models of interpretation were long since ready to offer this black image a theory and a history. By the way, America was from now on only the United States of America, the USA. The name America was usurpatory and presumptuous. It was either North, South, or Central America. America could mean Canada or Mexico or Colombia and was therefor imprecise or unusable. Since the myth of America was false too, and therefore had no right to exist, it could be surgically removed. The American revolution, to the degree that it was even acknowledged as such, was reduced to an insignificant historical oddity in this bicentennial supernova of capitalism and imperialism. Accordingly, its literature and documents were as irrelevant as a yellowed Sears & Roebuck catalogue. The American utopia, from which our emigrant ancestors considered themselves to have laboriously extracted milk and honey, justice and freedom, was transformed into a brutal monster which devoured everything. The great project of renewal of our civilization turned into a horror image of our time and its dreams.
In the sixties there was no longer an "Amejrika" in my life. Dad had given up. Like so many other survivors he no longer had the strength to soften his memories. The letters and pictures from "the other side" were put away and forgotten. The dreams along the ally of mountain ash trees down from the railroad station seemed as distant as the war and the evil that had released them. What was repressed and unresolved became part of the spirit of the age, a kind of collective dissatisfaction with having so quickly and behind stiff blinders produced and consumed ourselves out of what was essentially a spiritual and moral crisis in our culture. America, whose freedom had illuminated our way moments ago, provided us now with attributes of the naive carelessness, well watered suburban idylls, products that bring happiness, a gum chewing lack of history, self-righteous arrogance. The only thing shining was the shimmer of Hollywood. Even among those who still saw the moral dimension in world politics, for whom America in spite of everything represented the least evil, a sense of resignation could be sensed. Arthur Koestler defended the half truth against the lie. And Bertrand Russell, who once wanted the USA to drop a nuclear bomb on the evil empire in the east, ended his life on the barricades of the antiwar movement.
I grew up in a generation which, for a time, actually believed it was possible to put a spell on the triviality and evil of the new era, if yet with a somewhat larger and more revolutionary project than a voyage across the ocean. Our America was a dead-end track, an indiscretion of the West, a betrayal. And that betrayal was also the focal point when America was hated the most, when we exchanged the stars in the banner for swastikas and compared its elected president with Adolf Hitler. We read about every people's right to overthrow a government that had betrayed them, and I don't recall that anyone saw the contradiction in that what we were reading was the founding document of the American republic.
Thus Thomas Jefferson of Virginia floated in and out of our young revolutionary lives. He would not come back to me until the late fall of 1985 when the narrow driveway up to Monticello was covered with red leaves and the view of the blue mountains in the west completely clear.
No other nation has so let its contradictions engage us, so mocked our opinions. Authors and journalists have, in the course of a few years, revised their own images of the USA, written new footnotes to old works, jolted by events that they could never imagine. Sometimes they have gotten up close, seen faces, heard voices, felt the intoxicating wind of endless possibilities over still empty plains. At the next moment they have been suffocated by the intolerance, bored by the unfulfilled dreams, frightened by the emptiness of success, pitied the vulnerability of the individual and hated the self-righteousness of Empire. After a visit to Pittsburgh's coal and steel district in 1901, a socialist like August Palm could curse "the diabolical slavery to which the masses are subjected" and still end his American travel account with the confession that "had I now been only 32 instead of 52, I would certainly have traveled there to seek my fortune because this is a nation with resources, a great country where there are possibilities and no one who has energy and perseverance needs to go under."
In descriptions of America from the 1950s and 1960s the ambivalence became more and more obvious. In 1957 Folke Isaksson wrote: "America is tiring: large, almost boundless, incredibly ugly and rich in overwhelming, cruel beauty, a world of emptiness and hysterical activity . . . the brutality, the friendliness, the self-assurance, the prejudices (and behind them the fear), the simplicity and the extravagance." And Sven Delblanc, the large tired man at the Vietnam meetings in Stockholm, perhaps with the tear gas from Berkeley still burning in his lungs, looked American history straight in the eye and despised it's lack of principles. What kind of tradition of freedom could be invoked at one and the same time by the racists of the John Birch Society and the students in the streets of Berkeley? If the future fascist and the future revolutionary both learned to love the American dream and the myth of the American past, what duality must it then not conceal? "How could this country ever learn to live with the truth of its history?" visiting professor Delblanc asked while the clouds of tear gas lay dense over Telegraph Avenue.
What was it we had thought America would give us?
In the 1850s Fredrika Bremer went to Hemmen i den nya världen (The Homes of the New World), not to look at Niagara Falls (which she did), but to get a view of the future of mankind. A couple of generations later Gustaf Hellström, the journalist and author, traveled to Woodrow Wilson's newly awakened superpower to see the nation that would save Europe from ruin and chaos. "Life," he wrote, "had become meaningful merely through the sudden contact with all this very young vitality, this gum chewing carelessness and beaming love for adventure . . ."
"America is God's last attempt to save humanity," Emerson wrote.
From such heights it isn't difficult to have a hard fall.
Is anti-Americanism the ideology of those who have fallen hard? Is America a mirror of ourselves and our fragile dreams of civilization?
"The truth is of course," Sven Delblanc wrote in 1968, "that what upsets me in the United States is often the enlarged distortion-mirror image of Sweden's shortcomings."
And when we don't like what we see in the mirror we want to smash it.
Gustaf Hellström's image of America turned pitch-black with time: "The thought I entertained when going there--to possibly turn my back forever on a hopelessly broken Europe and instead become a citizen of the great nation of the future--(. . .) that thought had for different reasons changed into a painful illusion, perhaps unnecessarily painful because my expectations had been all too naively blue-eyed."
Authors traveled to America to find the free human being, but discovered that freedom was what you made of it. It was not always a pretty sight. Those who had hoped too much accused America, not the individual. In 1889 Knut Hamsun wrote a scathing attack on "the unspiritual" America, destroyed by individualism, self-righteousness and materialism. Many Swedish writers followed his lead. Those who felt alienated before the emerging society of technology and consumption viewed America as a threat against the remaining European cultural heritage. "Will our country one day really belong to the same group of standardized, spiritually deprived nations as this America?" Sven Stolpe asked in 1940. In contrast to America's "dead, banal, spiritless uniformity," Sten Selander wrote, Europe's civilization stood strong, "simply because we in contrast to America really have an entire social class with inherited and personally acquired education."
This dark view of America grew out of an aristocratic and culturally conservative disappointment in the free individual's inability to deal with his freedom.
The American utopia was reborn out of a popular, radical belief in the individual's ability to take his life in his own hands.
Thus the image of America works in cycles with our view of ourselves and our time. It darkens when our shattered illusions are turned into bitterness and pessimism (and we curse that naive American superficiality!). It darkens when we see America, not for what it is, but for what it ought to have been but never became. It darkens when we measure America according to one standard, minutely calibrated, and the rest of the world according to another standard, not calibrated. It darkens when we compare the materialism, the hypocrisy, the poverty and the class divisions in the United States with our own elusive utopias, not with the actual misery and the actual hypocrisy in other civilizations and other political systems.
Behind the criticism of the United States' and the UN coalition's Gulf War in 1991, these subtle mechanisms of anti-Americanism could at times be clearly seen. It was certainly not anti-Americanism to question the political, military, and economical wisdom of this action, to analyze its motives, to critically examine its morals and interests. But what happened when the criticism took its point of departure in the denial or questioning of the motives and values of our own civilization? When only the hidden and treacherous intents of the Western world were looked at, not its openly reported arguments and justifications. When one wished so intensely to trace all the evil of the war, even the Iraqi invasion in Kuwait, even the persecution of the Kurds, back to America and, finally, to ourselves.
The primer of this dark image is cynicism, hypocrisy. "It is a normal trait of hypocrisy that vice is concealed," Alva and Gunnar Myrdal wrote in 1941, maintaining that for just that reason America was everything but hypocritical. "(There) is a tension between living ideals and current reality which is one of the most important aspects of social dynamics." Exactly fifty years later their son Jan wrote: "It is part of the American game that Bush talks about human rights, prays to God and splashes morality around himself. There naked interest is always dressed in such an outfit. Dickens had already written about it." Gunnar Fredriksson as well, with Joseph Conrad, saw through "the whole damn hypocrisy." Karl Vennberg saw greater chivalry in Adolf Hitler than in general Norman Schwarzkopf. Olof Lagercrantz wrote of the USA as the resurrection of the old, evil, colonial Europe: "In the United States poverty and hate are growing. The optimistic mask which the president holds before his face, like the war he has led, is meant to conceal the anxiety which trembles in every street of his country."
Mary Andersson wrote a chronicle in Metallarbetaren (The Metal Worker) 8/91 :
I myself have never liked the American lifestyle or their (sic) artificial unnatural superficial culture. We remember their trigger-happy bombings in Dresden which were followed by the atom bomb which arrived at the same time as we were completely drenched in Coca-Cola which was followed by the Cold War, flanked by mendacious Hollywood films and the cultural occupation of our TV, by hamburgers and Chee-tos served simultaneously with B52s, napalm, anti-personnel bombs and Barbie dolls which were washed down with various cocktails and proposals for the NEUTRON BOMB which made peace activists all over the world choke and protest which instead provoked a free-for-all with even more porno and shoot-'em-up, video violence and one-armed bandits
. . . and in its wake hard rock and Wonder bread, group sex and more hard porno and then AIDS came and then finally we've got him, SADDAM HUSSEIN, who is also a product "made in USA" and so to speak the cherry on top.
This is how anti-Americanism appeared when it had been robbed of its logical and rational restraints, when the civilized self-contempt had been elevated to psychosis. This occidental flagellation remained a complete mystery to people and nations which, during these years, crawled squinting from the darkness of a totalitarian existence. They did not see it for what it really was: an elitist flight from the death of utopias, from the inadequacy of one's own civilization, from the meeting with the shabby landscape of individual freedom. Away from the mirror image of ourselves.
I wanted to look behind the mirror. I wanted to find the source of the bright and the dark image, I wanted to create a room for myself alongside the daily roar of news, to try to understand the continent I had been sent to observe. I wanted to make use of my four years of being stationed in the USA, years when I should visit almost every state, interview hundreds of individuals from the most varied walks of life and environments, be engaged in big problems and small fates, in order to pose different kinds of questions.
I wanted, in Ronald Reagan's and George Bush's America, to search for the traces of those magic decades that formulated and completed the American idea, traces of men like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. I wanted to stand at the crossroads of history where not only the threads of America merge but also those of our own western civilization, where not only the great questions of America are shaped but also our own. Like an astronomer I wanted to search for the great birth, the big bang, that year zero when America begins and the myths are woven.
During my journey communism fell apart. Great European answers to the great questions of 1776 and 1789 proved at last to be incorrect.
This is a book about the American answers.
CHAPTER 6 THE CIRCLES OF FREEDOM
No, great Washington! the day must never dawn
When thou art entombed in earth that slaves must tread upon.
May Freedom in thy people an eternal throne secure!
May thy valor, bliss, and virtue their legacy ensure!
Bengt Lidner, 1783
One horror story of the American Revolution, was Sweden under King Gustav III. As proof of Europe’s corruption and decay, Sweden competed in the same league as Poland, Denmark, and Russia. According to an American pamphlet from the early 1770s, the Swedes had enjoyed freedom but had squandered it through neglect. Now they willingly submitted to the ”caprice and arbitrary power of a tyrant and kissed their chains.”1 What the Americans were referring to was the king’s coup d’état in 1772, the restriction of freedom of the press, the abolition of political parties, and the abrupt end to the Swedish ”Era of Liberty.” This is not to say that the Swedes shared the American view of their newly instituted constraints. For the most part they did not, and the earliest expressions of Swedish sympathy for the American Revolution came from unexpected quarters. On October 18, 1776, Gustav III wrote in a letter to Countess de Boufflers in Paris:
It is such an interesting drama to watch a state create itself that if I were not who I am, I would travel to America to observe at close hand all the particulars of the establishment of the new republic. And who knows what might now happen? Perhaps we find ourselves in the century of America, and perhaps the new republic, although in the beginning better equipped than Rome’s first inhabitants, will plunder Europe just as for two hundred years Europe has plundered America. However that may be, I cannot help admiring their courage and I applaud their boldness.2
When the Countess’s restrained reply arrived a year later, Gustav III may have already reined in his enthusiasm, or he may have been impressed by her letter. In any case, from that time on and forever after, he shared Countess de Bouffler’s rancor toward the American revolutionaries:
The drama which the Americans present to Europe is extraordinary and interesting, but it seems to me that their cause is not a just one: to rebel against one’s country, to fight against one’s brothers, to throw oneself into all the misery that comes from a war, solely because they have been denied a privilege, is a desperate decision which is inexcusable except when one has been persecuted in the extreme.3
A year later, Gustav III’s criticism of French support for the American rebels was undisguised:
The conduct of the French ministry seems to me to have diverged just as much from the principles of justice as from the interests of the nation, as well as from the state maxims, which have been in force for so many centuries. I cannot concur that it is justified to support rebels against their king. This precedent will win far too many followers during a period when there is an attempt to break down all the restrictions of authority.4
Behind Gustav III’s reversal lay practical political considerations (he would rather have seen France intervene in the incipient conflict over the succession to the German throne, with a chance for Sweden to regain German territories), but also a dawning realization about the power of precedent. The documents of the American Revolution had begun to circulate in radical circles, and when the king restricted the freedom of the press, he took particular care to forbid Abbé Raynal’s widespread and influential defense of the American Revolution, Histoire des deux Indes. He had the feeling, rightfully so, that the revolts of a new era were being forged in the wings.
And yet it was practical politics, not the precedent, that primarily shaped the response to the American Revolution in Sweden. Gustav III first attempted to mediate between France and England, continuing to call the Americans ”rebellious subjects,” but he gradually realized the possibility of a French-American victory and the opportunity for Swedish gains. In 1782 negotiations were already under way with the American ambassador in Paris, Benjamin Franklin, for a Swedish-American trade agreement, the first between the former colonies and a neutral state.
In addition, about ninety Swedish officers fought in the French army on the American side. None of them did so for ideological reasons. And none of them seemed to have been smitten with the ideals of freedom, as was the case with so many French officers. The Swedes fought to acquire battle experience, to win favors at the French court, to flee from bad business undertakings and complicated intrigues. And because it was in the interest of the Swedish king. While the enthusiastic descriptions of America brought back by returning Frenchmen greatly contributed to the growth of revolutionary zeal in their homeland, Swedish accounts were restrained. The best-known of the Swedish ”revolutionaries” was Axel von Fersen. He was first adjutant to the French commander-in-chief in America, Count de Rochambeau, and he held an outright antagonistic view of the revolution. At his most benevolent he wrote with clarity and astuteness about conditions in the country, with no trace of personal involvement. About the customs, practices, and morals of the American plebeians he wrote, as we have previously seen, with disgust and contempt. And he could not for the life of him comprehend why Virginia’s slave-owning aristocrats ”were ever induced to form part of a confederation or accept a government founded on perfect equality of rights.”5The Precedent
How dangerous was the American precedent in Gustav III’s Sweden?
The general populace took little notice. The coup d’état of 1772 was authoritarian but popular, particularly among the peasants. The American ideas of freedom, to the extent they heard about them, seemed hardly exceptional. Eighteenth-century Sweden, more than any other European nation, had experimented with liberty. Freedom of the press had been extensive, the party system well developed, royal might restricted, and the parliament powerful. Sweden had periodically been the residence of two of the great philosophers of natural law: Grotius and Pufendorf. As early as 1726 Locke’s Treatise was translated into Swedish. Voltaire called Sweden the freest country on earth. Rousseau admired Swedish laws. Few would have recognized themselves in the depiction of the chains of Swedish slavery presented in the American pamphlets.6 Furthermore, Swedes were more easily seduced by the promises of collective privileges of estate (it was in this way that Gustav III gained support from the peasants and the bourgeoisie) than by the American Revolution’s individualism and uncompromising hatred of privileges.7
The intelligentsia of the Swedish enlightenment viewed the revolution favorably but did not quite see what it had to do with Sweden. Events were reported cheerfully and in detail, odes were dedicated to George Washington, the new Rome was extolled. In a general sense, the War of Independence was a promising sign, a warning to tyrants everywhere. Johan Henrik Kellgren’s Stockholms-Posten, the most pro-American of the established newspapers, said:
May this educate regents and statesmen, as well as teach them not to treat people like slaves when they desire nothing more than to love and be loved like brothers.8
Those who nevertheless wanted to apply the American ideas in Sweden fell mainly into two categories: powerless romantics and bitter conspirators. To the first group belonged a retired officer, Pehr af Lund, a dogmatist whose newspaper Dagbladet: Wälsignade Tryckfriheten was subsequently banned. He published Raynal’s forbidden texts, and as far as it went made use of enthusiastic descriptions of America as disguised criticism of royal power. The knowledge that ”there is one place on earth where man can be free from his chains,” wrote Lund, should ”frighten the despots and hold them in rein.”9 The poet Bengt Lidner also belonged to the romantics; he wrote epic encomiums, filled with pathos characteristic of the period, to the American Revolution:
What? Shall I first sing of how in a lengthy war
Brutus-like Washington arms himself for freedom?
When his own brothers’ yokes weigh down his brothers’
He yanks a bloody scepter from the tyrant’s hand,
From heaven steals a thunderbolt.
To the latter, more dangerous category belonged the noblemen of a Finnish independence movement against Gustav III, which in 1780 had focused around commander Göran Magnus Sprengtporten. Sprengtporten had gone to Paris to seek French service in America, but instead met Benjamin Franklin, and soon he could neither think nor dream of anything else ”but to become Finland’s Franklin and then its Washington.”10 To the extent that Gustav III had reason to fear the American Revolution, it was paradoxically enough for its inflammatory influence on aristocrats. He himself had no doubts that American intrigues were behind the rise of Finnish nationalism. It was Franklin himself, he pointed out in his speech to the estates in 1789, who had awakened Sprengtporten’s ”insatiable ambition... to win fame and praise in the same manner in which he himself had been esteemed for a similar revolution.”11
Gustav III’s continuing uneasiness about the power of the American precedent became evident in 1784 when he forbade Axel von Fersen and Curt von Stedingk to accept an offer to become members of the Cincinnati Order, newly established by George Washington, which was intended for high-ranking officers who had distinguished themselves in the War of Independence. ”I know full well that America today is regarded as independent, yes, even as my ally,” he wrote to Stedingk, ”but the successes that legitimized this enterprise do not justify it.” George Washington himself probably saw through the king’s motive when he commented on the prohibition in a letter to Rochambeau dated August 20, 1784: ”Considering how recently the King of Sweden has changed the form of the Constitution of that Country, it is not too much to be wondered at that his fears should get the better of his liberality at anything which might have the semblance of republicanism...”12
Over time, the growing opposition to Gustav III took on other overtones than American. Interest in developments in America faded; the new constitution attracted only limited interest, the French Revolution attracted more. The harsher political climate in Sweden no doubt also contributed to the silence. In comparison with the French Revolution, the American war soon became a paragon of reason and moderation rather than of radical changes. Men of the Swedish enlightenment were very careful to, on the one hand, promote America at the expense of France, and, on the other hand, emphasize America’s impossibility as a precedent.
This balancing act is evident in Nils von Rosenstein’s thesis on the enlightenment (1793) in which he, on the one hand, voiced his unreserved admiration for the new American constitution, and, on the other hand, was careful to emphasize that the American constitution was ”by its very nature impossible to compare with all predecessors. The intention is by no means that other peoples ought to seek to obtain the same constitution, but that this one, as a constitution for a republic, surpasses all those that we previously know from history.”13
This caution could not prevent the Swedish government in June 1794 from forbidding all printing ”in large or small part, of both the present French constitution and the United States of America constitution, and any written reflections thereof, no matter what type or character they may be.” In the sense that America had existed as a revolutionary example, the power of that example was now crushed. America as a model for Swedish society would henceforth, with minor exceptions, leave the battleground of ideology and social structure and tend toward considerably more earthy fields.14Doubt
It was probably not merely complacency which during this period made Sweden unreceptive to deeper American influences. Why didn’t the American dream make everyone giddy? Because individual freedom was not an obvious item on the agenda. During the 18th century in Sweden, freedom had had clearly corporative overtones. Peasants won freedom not through the abolition of the nobility’s privileges, but through strengthening their own. Social progress in Sweden was not achieved by tearing positions down but by raising them up. Individual freedom was largely identical with individual privilege, i.e., advancement to the nobility. The leap between a croft in Småland and the manor house was not insurmountable. Early attempts in Sweden to create a structure based on individual rights not related to class were thwarted by the struggle of the estates for economic privileges.15
Thus, in 18th-century Sweden, the American ideal of freedom may have had a ring of nobility about it, of aristocratic life-style, of an individualism in conflict with the interests of ”the people.” Freedom for the individual may have been interpreted as new privileges for certain individuals, not as the dismantling of all privileges. Individualism may have been associated with corruption and self-indulgence, not with initiative and independence. Hadn’t individual rights always been a cover for the aristocracy’s demands?16
Thus in Sweden the concept of freedom seems to have been steeped in a strong anti-individualism, which, perhaps more than the increasingly harsh censorship, contributed to the fact that many people doubted the American Revolution’s ideal of freedom. Quite simply, America did not function as a model for a Swedish societal restructuring, but instead, much more clearly, as a last resort for those who wanted to break out of the corporate web of an estate-based society. As early as 1792 Nils Collin, the Swedish pastor in Philadelphia, in a series of letters home wanted to warn Swedes from emigrating to America.17 The climate was said to be less healthful, the infant mortality rate higher, fertility lower, the snakes more poisonous, and the customs much worse. The letters were not only uncompromising anti-emigration tracts, but indirectly also became an attempt to delineate a different, better, Swedish concept of freedom. About Americans, Collin wrote (in a Swedish with, considering the context, a touching sprinkling of Anglicisms):
Selfishness is a prevailing passion that often triumphs over friendship and duty. The manners and way of life are simple and border on vulgarity. The natural, cordial courtesy, which is so pleasant among our simpler people, is lacking here. Everything is coldhearted and ugly. But the main trait in the character of an American is an inordinate love of freedom, or rather, individual power... The reins of government are so slack that they are seldom noticed, and the hand that rules is never seen. All this means that the people do not acknowledge or will not acknowledge any kind of control, and that every man regards himself as an independent prince. One can grow weary of constantly hearing and reading about this noble freedom. Many who are as stupid as they are shameless regard all other nations as slaves. Their imagination always sees phantoms who are coming to rob them of their Goddess. All of the government’s undertakings arouse suspicion. The most equitable laws are breaches of their freedoms and rights; minor and necessary taxes are considered robbery and plunder; well-deserved punishments are unheard-of tyranny. If a fool or rogue shouts that freedom is in danger, then all over America, from north to south, they say that our freedom is in danger, a horrified panic seizes the entire populace, and confusion and anarchy rage everywhere.18
While the American form of government would doubtless lead to anarchy and division in Sweden, the ”Swedish form of government [...] could compete for superiority with the best; no kingdom in Europe is ruled with more order and less force [...] The Swedish people have, more than anything else, united a manly spirit of freedom with dutiful allegiance.”
After an entire lifetime in America, Collin’s image of Sweden gradually assumed mythic proportions. Swedish freedom became for him just as shimmering and fabulous as American freedom ever was for Europe’s fleeing poor. And yet it seems to me that in the midst of his exaggerations he hit upon the dividing line between two incompatible traditions. For many Swedes, the voyage to America would not simply be a flight from hardship and hunger; to an equal extent it was a break with a tradition in which freedom could only be associated with guild, rank, class, party, or folkhem.
To the other tradition, the individualistic one, Sweden gradually built clear bridgeheads. In places where they stood earliest and strongest -- in Småland and southern Östergötland -- one can sometimes imagine a two-way traffic across the sea. The very un-Swedish small-business culture, the stubborn individualism, and the passionate religiosity that developed in the old emigrant communities often seem to have more in common with the American go-getter ideal than with the collective dream of freedom of the Swedish folkhem. Or perhaps a divergent, rebellious, anti-State tradition already existed there, just anticipating an America for its fulfilment.
I only know that in 1846 the old apothecary Carl Gustaf Sundius of Kisa, in the house that we always drive past on the way to our summer house in Ydre, and that now is an emigrant museum and café, started Sweden’s first emigration bureau. And that he cared more about freedom in America than about the pills in his jars. One time he got so worked up by his own excitement that in temperatures of -18°C he abandoned his pharmacy and customers to exhort a farmer from Östergötland who had recently been in his shop about ”his teachings on freedom and the abolition of the yoke.”
Many people emigrated from the Kisa community. Almost every farm has ties to and memories of America. Over the years more letters from America arrived at our neighboring farm in Ydre than would fit into an ordinary seaman’s chest. They now fill several meters of shelf space in the archives of Kisa’s library, and they tell, often laconically and laboriously, of the opportunities and hardships of the great flight.
Since Joel Ekman died several years ago, and finally his brother Sam, who lived out his last years in a mobile home in California and who came home every summer toward the end, no one lives permanently on the farm with the letters. Neither are there any more letters coming from America.
But whenever I walk past that house up to the mailboxes on the road, I often think that the American Revolution, in spite of everything, was more than a ripple on Sweden’s surface. Don’t I see, quite clearly, the circles on the water?The Surge of the Revolution
In another country the circles plowed deeper furrows into the political landscape. Of the two revolutions, sprung from the same time and the same ideas, one led to government by the people and democracy, the other to terror and dictatorship. One resolved political differences with slander and the dueling pistol as its most deadly weapon, the other consumed its own children. One led to President Washington and the Constitution, the other to Emperor Napoleon and restoration; one led to entrepreneurial capitalism and growth, the other to bourgeois reaction and economic stagnation.
Some historical crossroads are crucial. While the American Revolution dismantled and circumscribed the power of the State, the French Revolution chose to strengthen and elevate it. While George Washington dismounted from his horse and dissolved his army, the French Girondists enjoined mobilization and a war of aggression. While the American Revolution institutionalized the mischief of the individual and political diversity, the French Revolution committed suicide in its hunt for the republic of virtue and political unity.
In the French Revolution, power changed hands by means of coups and executions. In the American Revolution power changed hands through a constitutionally prescribed procedure after a critical crossroads, the presidential election of 1800. There were rumblings of a coup then as well; the rhetoric was bloody, and many had good reason to fear for their lives. But the Republican Thomas Jefferson succeeded the Federalist John Adams with no more than modest, completely nonviolent purges of the corridors of power -- much more considerate than what would later become customary. It is true that the Federalist Alexander Hamilton actually was killed, in a duel with Jefferson’s odd vice president, Aaron Burr, but the combatants Jefferson and Adams soon resumed both their friendship and their correspondence. Political opposition was undemonized.
In America, tradition created the symbols of the revolution. Its ideals and heroes were those of the ancient world, its concept of freedom was that of the town meeting and Puritanism, its myths were born of folk experience and religious vision. The revolution itself created few symbols, aside from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and hardly more than a few songs and plays. In France, the revolution systematically replaced all existing traditions and recreated all symbols. The old social barriers were torn down; the guilds, corporations, titles, and privileges were abolished by decree; later on even religion and the old calendar were altered. All traditional authority, both moral and civil, collapsed and was replaced with virtue imposed from the top, i.e., the arbitrariness of terror. Everything was to be changed, nothing would be preserved. In Robespierre’s own words: Tout a changé dans l’ordre physique; et tout doit changer dans l’ordre moral et politique.19
To America, the idea of inalienable individual rights did, after a period of experimentation, bring pluralism and democracy. The people emerged as the constituent power, not as the all-powerful majority. They established limits to political power, instituted their freedoms and rights, and thereafter dissolved into their individually striving constituencies. In France, the individual was accorded the same freedoms and rights, perhaps even more, only to perish as an individual. The French people set no limits to power, but wanted to be one with it. Individual freedom became the Nation’s freedom. The individual’s will became the general will, la volonté générale. In the American Revolution it was up to the individual to master his destiny. In the French Revolution the citizens, and eventually the rapidly diminishing number of political actors and executors of the general will, became a powerless audience to their own performance. In America the notion of man’s unlimited possibilities was born, while in France was born the notion of history’s inexorable passage. The American Revolution strengthened the existing local civil society. The French Revolution weakened it. While the American Revolution sought to reestablish an imaginary golden past, the French attempted to institute the future, here and now.
And yet both revolutions started from the same point, flowed from the same sources, authored almost identical declarations, had the same visions. From America, France’s pre-revolutionary radicals took their proof that the world could be created anew; in their descriptions there was the scent of paradise. ”Soon nothing will be impossible for man,” concluded a French witness. Many saw more than was actually there to see. The ceremonial resignation of General Washington was cheerfully embellished with a jewel-studded crown: ”Suddenly Washington seized the crown, broke it, and threw it in pieces before the assembled people. How petty does the ambitious Caesar seem before this Hero of America.”20 In the course of a few years, America became all that Europe’s awakening radicals had dreamt of. And a bit more.
Quite a few preferred the dream to reality. Brissot, an early rabble-rouser who would eventually land in the forefront of the French Revolution and in due time experience with his own neck how dreams can turn to nightmares, became very upset when one of the French generals of the American Revolution, Marquis de Chastellux, attempted to correct the worst exaggerations about America. ”You wish, sir, to destroy this enchantment... Cruel man!” exclaimed Brissot. ”Even if it were an illusion would you still dissipate it? It would be dear to us, it would be useful in consoling the man of virtue.”21
For Brissot and the early French radicals, America nourished the dream that ideas had a power to raze and build anew. For themselves they could only hope for a morsel along the way. Brissot sighed: ”O hundred times happy America where this reform can be executed to the foundations of every part!”22
In France, the discussion eventually became concrete. Between 1776 and 1786 the texts of the various state constitutions in America were translated and published. The impossible began to assume the shape of the possible. In May 1788, Brissot traveled to America, where he witnessed the debate on the ratification of the Constitution and brought with him back, just in time for the revolution, Americans’ experiences of freedom and power. Before the Estates-General convened in the spring of 1789, he was convinced that France needed a constitution based on the American model and that a special constitutional assembly representing all of the people should be convened. France should be like America. And eventually surpass America.
From the very first crossroads, the two revolutions parted from each other. Regarding the question of how constitutional power should be controlled, the Americans had chosen to mistrust even those who were elected by the people. The people, we the people, had stepped forth as the constituent power; they had hammered out, debated, and approved the rules of American politics and had then voluntarily stepped back to be bound by their own decisions and to respect the limits set by the Constitution. Protection against abuse and concentration of power would henceforth be found in the Constitution itself, through the separation and sharing of power. The people received only that power granted by the Constitution, i.e., the power at regular intervals to vote unwanted or corrupt representatives out of the various centers of government. Or to once again be seduced by them.
Brissot and the French, however, saw only one part of the American doctrine: the people as the constituent power. Not the Constitution as a restriction on the people. Shouldn’t the people constantly stand vigil outside the portals of power, ready with demonstrations and petitions, and maybe even a small riot or two, to keep corruption and abuse in check? In France, the people should indeed rule by constant revolt. Why this American mistrust of the people?
On the other hand, there was a lengthy debate about whether the people even had the right to create their own constitution. Long after the Estates-General in Paris had been transformed into the National Assembly and the people had become a main actor on the stage, there was still among the delegates a widespread attitude that the constitution had to be approved by the king in order to be valid, that the king was a legitimate counterpart to the people. The king himself would obviously tolerate no other attitude. Royal power stood against popular power. Did the people have to negotiate with the king for their own constitution? That was one of the ”French questions” that the American founders never had to contemplate.
Perhaps this was why the French Revolution, almost from the very beginning, rejected the American Revolution’s most important experience, i.e., that all political power, including that of the popular majority, must be regulated and limited, that the people’s freedom could be threatened by the people themselves, that the people and the state should not become one. In a country where the king and the state, until quite recently, had in fact been one, it was apparently impossible to imagine a constitutional solution based on the American model. It was not a matter of balancing the people’s power, but of giving the people all the power, at the expense of the king. No sharing of power, no limits should come between the rights of the people and the people themselves. While the American Constitution of 1787 recognized that the people could and ought to have diverse and opposing interests, the French constitution proceeded straight toward a system which, in Brissot’s words, presumed ”unity of interests and truth of principles.” The French people could have only one national will.
Toward the end, i.e., in 1794 while he was in hiding from Robespierre’s guards, Condorcet, leader of the Girondists, wrote a book in which he criticized the American Constitution’s principle of the separation of powers because it ”disfigures the simplicity.”23 Why couldn’t the Americans also follow the principle of ”identical interests”? According to Condorcet, man was developing toward total perfection, morally, intellectually, and physically. Complete equality between individuals, classes, and nations would soon prevail. Who needed such intricate constitutional systems, the intention of which was the mistrust of one’s fellow man? On March 27, 1794, Condorcet was seized by the police of ”the general will,” and on March 29 he died in prison, perhaps in despair that the perfect human being had not come to his rescue.
Much later John Adams would add an angry comment to the margin of Condorcet’s text: ”Is it possible that a philosopher who understood human nature, had read history, and knew anything of government, free or arbitrary, should have written this? What is his idea of an identity of interests? An equality of rights? Is an equality of rights anywhere more explicitly asserted than in the American Constitution?”24
In the National Assembly’s debate on a new French constitution during the fall of 1789, the two revolutions faced each other for one last time. The ”American” point of view was represented by Jean-Joseph Mounier, the emergent French view by Abbé (Emmanuel-Joseph) Sieyès, the leading theoretician of the revolution. Mounier was the son of a clothing merchant in Grenoble. During the pre-revolutionary events of 1788 he acquired experience with cooperative nobility. He was elected in 1789 as a representative of the Third Estate at the Estates-General meeting in Paris, where he became one of the driving forces behind the famous Oath of the Tennis Court.25 Sieyès was the son of a minor government official. He set his sights on the church as a career, had constant experiences with uncooperative nobility, and was elected in 1789 to the Estates-General and eventually, together with Mounier, to the constitutional committee of the National Assembly.
At first the two men agreed on many things, such as the abolition of aristocratic privileges. ”Aristocracy is the worst form of government,” wrote Mounier. ”It degrades the public character.”26 Both were constitutionalists, i.e., they wanted to establish a legal social order that would apply to everyone. Both supported the far-reaching decree from the night of August 4, 1789, when the French system of privileges was declared abolished. Both wanted to have a connection between property and the right to vote. Both worked on drafting the revolution’s great document, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, of August 26, 1789. They were in general agreement about the objective although deeply divided about the means. For a short time they stood side by side on the barricades of the revolution. Then a chasm opened between them and between the French and American revolutions. Mounier’s opinions became impossible, while those of Sieyès became the rules of society. Mounier was cast out as an enemy of the revolution, while Sieyès went on to a brilliant and sensationally long-lived career.
Mounier believed that the Third Estate, i.e., the bourgeoisie, should try to come to a settlement with the nobility. Abbé Sieyès maintained that the Third Estate was the Nation: ”What is the Third Estate? Everything.” Mounier wanted a constitution in which power was shared by a popularly elected house of representatives, an elite-elected senate, and the royal house. Abbé Sieyès supported the principle that the will of the people must be one and undivided. Mounier wanted to abolish the aristocracy’s inherited power but give the king a share in the constituent power. Sieyès wanted to give all constituent power to the National Assembly. Like John Adams, Mounier and his followers argued for a strong executive power and a restricted aristocracy; the people had more to fear from the aristocracy than from the king. The wealthy and powerful should be separated in their own chamber, the senate, because otherwise they would come to corrupt and control the popular chamber. Their influence should thus be balanced by a king with veto power. Because man loved power and domination, maintained the Mounier phalanx, a single center of power, a pouvoir unique, would ”end up devouring all.”27 Mounier took his arguments from the American Constitution. Abbé Sieyès, like Condorcet, continued to be deeply skeptical toward it.
In the beginning the National Assembly leaned toward Mounier. It did not want war with the Crown; it could not yet envision a society without a king. During the ten-day-long debate, however, the assembly swung completely to the other side. Militants from the streets of Paris filled the galleries, hissing and booing, eventually only at the Mounier side, which was now called les monarchiens, the monarchists – with ever increasing hostility. When Abbé Sieyès attacked Mounier in a clever speech, the revolution had already chosen its path: no division of power, no veto power for the king. The National Assembly’s power had to be supreme; no king or senate would be allowed to question its decisions, let alone veto them. The National Assembly was the general will. And the general will was the law of society.
The vote of the National Assembly was catastrophic for Mounier. On the all-important issue of division of power he lost ten to one. On the issue of the king’s power his loss was not as great, although he voted against the king himself, who found it politically safer to be against the veto. By the end of 1789, Jean-Joseph Mounier, the hero of the Tennis Court, opponent of the nobility’s privileges, co-author of the great Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and friend of the American Revolution, became an opponent of the revolution. Ideas that in America were regarded as expressions of freedom and patriotism, in France were to be regarded as intole-rable and, in the long run, irrelevant.
Thomas Jefferson was the American ambassador in Paris when the revolution broke out, and he participated discreetly but actively in the discussions and preparations for the writing of the Declaration. The idea for a separate catalog of rights as an appendix to the constitution was in fact an American notion, and it was presented to the National Assembly by Lafayette, Washington’s friend and comrade-in-arms, and now the leader of the National Guard in Paris. Jefferson read all of Lafayette’s drafts and added his own comments and suggestions.28 The constitutional committee of the National Assembly even requested a formal consultation with Jefferson, but he diplomatically declined. Prior to the final debate on August 26, Lafayette, Mounier, and several others gathered at Jefferson’s home to agree on a unified stand. Jefferson would later describe the dispassionate six-hour discussion of practical politics in romantic terms: ”I was a silent witness to a coolness and candor of argument unusual in the conflicts of political opinion; to a logical reasoning and chaste eloquence, disfigured by no gaudy tinsel of rhetoric or declamation, and truly worthy of being placed in parallel with the finest dialogues of antiquity, as handed to us by Xenophon, by Plato and Cicero.”29
The result was a declaration which, in certain articles written by Mounier, protected the rights of the individual, but in others, written by Sieyès, protected the Nation. The first articles were reminiscent of the Declaration of Rights ratified by Jefferson’s Virginia in 1776. They were ”American” articles, which established that man had natural, inalienable rights, including ”the right to freedom, property, security, and dissent against oppression.” Articles three and six had a different tone. In practice they invalidated the ”American” articles; they were written in a different spirit, according to a different tradition, and by a different pen. The ”American” articles are the Declaration’s great, universal, often quoted, and still inspiring articles. Articles three and six are Sieyès’s articles, the French Revolution’s guiding articles, the paragraphs of terror:
Article 3: ”All power is derived from the Nation: no group, no individual may exercise authority which does not expressly emanate therefrom.”
Article 6: ”The law expresses the general will...”
As the revolution developed between 1791 and 1794, the ”American” articles quickly became irrelevant; natural law was superseded by ”the general will.” Anyone in France who was found to stand in opposition to the Nation and ”the general will” also stood in opposition to Nature and therefore had no ”natural” rights. Whoever in this instance represented the Nation and ”the general will” had an unlimited mandate to liberate, condemn, and annihilate. The representatives of the Nation were the Nation.
In October 1789, when the Parisian mobs advanced on Versailles to seek justice from the king, Robespierre formulated the legal position: ”It is not for any power on earth to explain the principles on which the Nation rests or to oppose its will.” The French declaration of rights founded a faith rather than a society.
The freedoms and rights of the individual were painstakingly included in the French constitution of 1791, only to immidiately be circumscribed by the State. In certain situations might was right, and a principle worth little more than the paper it was written on.
Not so in America.
If the ”American” articles were inspired by John Locke and a vision of the free individual, Sieyès’s articles were inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and a vision of the unrestricted State. From Rousseau came the idea of the people as an entity, a single organism, a single ”general” will, la volonté générale. When representing the general will the State turns into ”a moral person whose life is in the union of its members, and if the most important of its cares is the care for its own preservation, it must have a universal and compelling force, in order to move and dispose each part as may be most advantageous to the whole. As nature gives each man absolute powers over all its members, the social compact gives the body politic absolute power over all its members also.”31 Regarding the character and origin of the general will, Rousseau said mysterious things. It could not be the result of ”everyone’s will,” i.e., the vast sum of small wills. The small wills were often flawed, did not see what was best for them, and were easy to manipulate. The general will was instead a kind of distillation, the result of a process in which the small wills had been cleansed of their private misconceptions. ”But take away from these same wills the pluses and minuses that cancel one another, and the general will remains as the sum of differences.”32
The general will, in Rousseau’s view, is always right and always furthers the general good. It arises in its pure form only if citizens are kept politically isolated from each other so that they, without being influenced by others, can evaluate ”adequate information”. ”But when factions arise, when partial associations are formed at the expense of the great association, the will of each of these associations becomes general in relation to its members, while it remains particular in relation to the State... It is therefore essential, if the general will is to be able to express itself, that there should be no partial society within the State, and that each citizen should think only his own thoughts.”33
Rousseau’s writings are ambiguous and filled with reservations. It’s possible to find quotes that seem to free him of responsibility, but there is no longer any doubt that it was the formulations in The Social Contract, taken to their extreme by Sieyès, which gradually obsessed the French Revolution. In 1791 Robespierre wrote the following ”Dedication to Rousseau”:
You divine man, you have taught me to know myself. While I was still young you made me realize the dignity of my nature and reflect on the great principles of social order. The old building is collapsing, the portals of a new one are rising from the ruins, and it is thanks to you that I have been able to add my own stone to it.34
It was apparently Rousseau who in 1794 inspired Robespierre to decree a new civil religion in France, the worship of a Supreme Being, complete with festivals and ceremonies. Rousseau wrote about the feeling of kinship, ”without which it is impossible to remain a good citizen or faithful subject”. Robespierre wanted to purify individuals of all that still separated them from the State, to make them into inseparable parts of the whole. Rousseau wrote with caution. Robespierre acted without inhibition. With a moral proclaimed and put into practice by the State, the last protections for the rights of the individual were undone in France. The people possessed the key to virtue; ”moral proofs” were to decide issues of life and death. The inner voice of ”The Nation”, released from the laws and institutions of the republic, elevated above individual liberties and natural rights, became the siren that lured the French Revolution to its ruin.
For the American Revolution, Rousseau did not exist except as a distant name. Early visions of the virtuous republic and the infallibility of the people were nurtured by other, less intoxicating sources. Ideas about the collective omnipotence of the people were tried (Pennsylvania, 1776) and rejected. Rousseau would probably never have had a chance, much less risked being over-interpreted. In France, on the other hand, the Rousseau-esque temptation must have seemed overwhelming. The good society was made visible beyond a simple castling maneuver, a transition from the absolute rule of the monarchy to the collective rule of the people. Evil power would be fought with good power.
Historians still disagree about Rousseau’s intellectual responsibility for the revolutionary terror. Some cite from works that seem to contradict the theses of The Social Contract; others maintain that Rousseau was consistently misinterpreted by Sieyès and company. Nevertheless, as the French historian Mona Ozouf has pointed out, among French philosophers ”only Rousseau abandoned all consideration of what was possible, and that abandonment is one of the reasons why the Revolution was all his from the beginning.”35Divorce
For a short time the American Revolution lived on in France. Less as a model than as a milepost to surpass and leave far behind. In the Jacobinical enthusiasm a clear tone of superiority could soon be detected. What did a civilization like France in the long run have to learn from a country that just recently, and with French assistance, had abandoned the colonial stage? By necessity, the new had to be better than the old. The American constitutions were full of flaws; the French National Assembly had overlooked nothing. The French Declaration was universal, valid for all people, under all forms of rule, for all times. The American Declarations were provincial, specific and limited in time. America was inspiration, France was perfection.36
In America, enthusiasm for the French Revolution was surprisingly slow to abate. A kind of French-inspired millenarianism held sway during the entire decade of the 1790s. Religious prophecies about the downfall of papism were further nurtured by Napoleon’s battle against the ”despots” of Europe. As late as 1795, a Calvinist pastor in Massachusetts prophesied that all of France would soon go over to the true teachings.37
When conflicting American views gradually became apparent, they focused less on France’s domestic policy than on its foreign policy. The circles of Thomas Jefferson argued for support to France in the war against England; President Washington and the circles of Alexander Hamilton argued for strict neutrality, eventually for a rapprochement with England at France’s expense. Over time they would also differ in view regarding the ends and means of the French Revolution.
Jefferson, who returned to America in the fall of 1789, had become radicalized during his years in Paris. It was there that he wrote that the tree of liberty sometimes needed to be watered with the blood of patriots; it was there, under the influence of feudal land ownership, that he developed far-reaching criticism of the rights of inheritance and the validity of laws across generational boundaries; it was there that he derived support for his initial mistrust of American presidential power. He reported enthusiastically on the first events of the French Revolution and long defended its continuation. ”I will agree to be stoned as a false prophet if all does not end well in this country,” he wrote on the eve of the sweeping decree of August 4, 1789. ”Nor will it end with this country. Hers is but the first chapter of the history of European liberty.”38
Caught by his own prophecy he later pronounced himself sympathetic to the Jacobins, to the dethronement and execution of the king, and to the terror: ”In the struggle [against despotism] which was necessary, many guilty persons fell without the forms of trial, and with them some innocent. These I deplore as much as anybody, & I shall deplore some of them to the day of my death. But I deplore them as I should have done had they fallen in battle. It was necessary to use the arm of the people, a machine not quite so blind as balls and bombs, but blind to a certain degree... The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood?”39
From his failure as a prophet, Thomas Jefferson eventually drew a conclusion that significantly contributed to the American myth: Europe was hopelessly weighed down by its historical inheritance. A true revolution of liberty was only possible in America.Bread
What Jefferson and Adams saw in Europe, and what made them both eventually despair of Europe’s future, was the nameless masses, the social hopelessness, the powerlessness as a way of life. In America, ”the people” consisted of individuals, interests, parties, and differences of opinion. In France, ”the people,” when finally visible, were a discontented, furious, insatiable, indivisible social force, les enragés, les malheureux. In America the revolution promised liberty. In France the revolution had to promise not only liberty but also bread. The American Revolution was fought for the right to pursue happiness (and to fail in doing so). The French Revolution promised happiness served up on a platter. The right to liberty was overshadowed by the right to food. The struggle for necessity took precedence over the rule of law, the republic of opinion over the republic of constitution. ”Out of pity, out of love for humanity, be inhuman!” quotes Hannah Arendt from a letter to the National Assembly typical of the times.40 What began as an attempt to establish a constitution for political liberty ended as an attempt to abolish material want by means of the State’s dictatorial power. Out of the revolt of fettered small landowners against feudal power and aristocratic privileges arose the demand of the landless masses for free room and board and social revenge.41 Increasingly unrealistic revolutionary leaders promised increasingly unrealistic things using ever more surrealistic methods.
At the moment when the French Revolution took on the task of solving not only the problem of political liberty, but also the problem of poverty, it severed the last remaining ties to the revolution in America. It was an historic crossroads with no turning back. Up until that time, the goal of revolutions had been political liberty, the abolition of privileges, the creation of a constitutional republic. The Enlightenment had given birth to man’s dream of becoming master of his own fate, to begin his life anew, without regard to origin or social inheritance.
But to abolish poverty?
In America the issue was never even broached. The only social problem that was fleetingly touched upon with any consciousness of guilt by the American Revolution was slavery. During the period before independence there were approximately 400,000 black slaves and 1,850,000 whites in America; close to one-fifth of the population thus deprived of any form of freedom, any form of property, any possibility of controlling their own lives, many in deep material misery. As individuals and a social force, however, they remained invisible, far more invisible than the Paris sans-culottes. The American Revolution was the only revolution, Arendt writes, ”in which compassion played no role in the motivation of the actors”. For the men of the revolution, slavery was at most a bad political conscience, not a question of solidarity and social justice (many felt that the slaves were well off and would fare worse as free men). Slavery could be discussed from a purely moral point of view, without pressure from any revolting slave masses. When Jefferson wrote that he trembled ”at the thought that God is just,” he clearly realized that the continued existence of slavery would institutionalize double morality and political hypocrisy in America. A problem for Jefferson only however, not for the slaves.
On the other hand, slavery was neither a big problem for America’s European admirers of the time. The indignation they felt at the sight of their own poverty-stricken masses had still no counterpart in depictions of the horrors of slavery. America was viewed as a continent without poverty, without any social problems to solve. In America there might be want but no starvation, there might be poor people but no beggars, material scarcity but no material hopelessness. The lack of property was an individual problem, not a social or class problem. Nineteen out of twenty million Europeans live worse than the poorest American, wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1787.
Thus, the problem of poverty in America continued to be a matter of political liberation, not of material satisfaction. Need was never allowed to invade the Constitution. The curse of the poor, wrote John Adams, is not starvation but darkness, not physical but spiritual want. The documented economic and social gaps in early America never created, as they did in Europe, a feeling of class identity. The rich in America never tried to assert their right to rule, the poor never viewed themselves as a class with historical agendas and demands. The goal of the revolution was to make the individual visible, to give him the right and the opportunity to step into the public arena, not to guarantee him material abundance. What agitated and drove American’s founders was powerlessness, not the lack of bread.
The American founding fathers were wiser than the French. Their view of man more realistic, their fear of undivided power legitimate, their concern for the rights of the individual genuine. Where Robespierre saw the ocean of the Nation, the Americans saw the faces of ambition. Parties and factions were for Madison an expression of the diversity of voices and opinions that had to exist ”as long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it.”42 It might also be said that the Americans were spared the political temptation of penury. It was, writes Hannah Arendt, as if their revolution was carried out in an ivory tower. ”There were no sufferings around them that could have aroused their compassion, no overwhelmingly urgent needs that would have tempted them to submit to necessity, no pity to lead them astray from reason... Their sound realism was never put to the test of compassion, their common sense was never exposed to the absurd hope that man, whom Christianity had held to be sinful and corrupt in his nature, might still be revealed to be an angel.”43
Historically speaking, there were no precedents for disregarding the politically explosive force of material need. The Americans’ thoughtful, dispassionately searching design for society seemed unrealistic, almost irresponsible, when viewed from Europe’s social barricades. Freedom could not remain a political abstraction when its material limits were so obvious. When Karl Marx fully introduced poverty and exploitation as revolutionary forces of history, the American Revolution lost the last remnants of its collective capacity to inspire.
” The sad truth is that the French Revolution, which ended in disaster, has made world history,” concluded Hannah Arendt, ”while the American Revolution, so triumphantly successful, has remained an event of little more than local importance... Nothing we might say today could be more obsolete than to attempt to liberate mankind from poverty by political means; nothing could be more futile and more dangerous.”44Resignation
Eventually even Americans stopped believing in the universality of their revolution. In the France of the ancien regime, Jefferson saw so much ignorance, superstition, poverty, and oppression of body and soul among the masses that ”their redemption from them can never be hoped. If the Almighty had begotten a thousand sons, instead of one, they would not have sufficed for this task. If all the sovereigns of Europe were to set themselves to work to emancipate the minds of their subjects from their present ignorance & prejudices, & that as zealously as they now endeavour the contrary, a thousand years would not place them on that high ground on which our common people are now setting out.”45 The freedom to govern oneself demanded independent, informed men, while the same freedom in the hands of ”the Canailles of the cities of Europe would be instantly perverted to demolition and destruction of everything public and private.”46 John Adams remained firmly convinced that a free republic in France ”was as unnatural irrational and impracticable; as it would be over the Elephants Lions Tigers Panthers Wolves and Bears in the Royal Menagerie, at Versailles.”47
After the great terror in France, the American Revolution closed itself off from the rest of the world, became self-sufficient, then gradually provincial, and with time anti-radical. Its attraction would henceforth lie in its role as a place of asylum. The message it conveyed to Europe was not that the future was imminent, but that the future lay somewhere else.
Viewed from the heights of the European dream castle, the American Revolution was a betrayal, an experience of political delimitation that, in its definitive finality, cut more deeply than the French Revolution’s visionary catastrophe. The French Revolution had illuminated the road of Politics. It had, quite naturally for a pioneer, gone slightly astray; it may even have gotten lost. But the road and the direction were correct. The American Revolution, on the other hand, had seen darkness at the end of the road and had cut short its journey.
In America no vision was ever formed of classes as bearers of a collective destiny; nor was there the idea that Politics could solve God’s leftover problems. America became the prosaic insight about ”the frustrating limitations” of politics and the relative insignificance of intellectuals.48 American reform movements would not be impossible, merely difficult to start, and when they did arise they would sweep across the continent in unforeseeable, emotionally charged waves, beyond the grasp of the well-disciplined social and political categories of the European vision.
In the end, both the American and French revolutions created the same type of movement. First forward and then back. First toward the virtuous citizen and the good republic, then back toward the starting point and beyond. France retreated to its hierarchical past; America to its local, individualistic, anti-government societal order, which had prevailed before the revolution.49
CHAPTER 7: THE TERMS OF FREEDOM
The freedom then of man, and liberty of acting according to his own will, is grounded on his having reason… To turn him lose to an unrestrained liberty, before he has reason to guide him, is not the allowing him the privilege of his nature to be free, but to thrust him out amongst brutes, and abandon him to at state as wretched and as much beneath that of man as theirs.
It was not by accident that Ronald Reagan, the master of symbolism, had chosen the setting for his last appearance tour as President of the United States: Charlottesville is only two hours by car from Washington, D.C., and along highway 29, past central Virginia’s rolling grassy hills, prosperous manor houses, and red brick churches, American history rolls backwards toward its roots.
Just south of Dulles International Airport, under the growing encroachment of the voracious suburban tentacles of metropolitan Washington, the battlefields of the Civil War spread out. Traces of the convoluted death throes of the Confederate armies are meticulously marked off with monuments, statues, and cannons. Farther south, where the capital’s elite still invests in fields and horses within a respectable commuting distance from power, the two ideologues of the revolution and the constitution, respectively, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, lived and worked within reach of a day’s trip.
For some years, small tourist buses have been running to Madison’s estate, Montpelier, from a nearby ticket office and souvenir shop. But those who hope to catch a glimpse of the former owner’s spirit along the impressive approach through the deciduous forest and meadows will be deeply disappointed. Like so many of the other American founding fathers, Madison lived beyond his means, wound up deeply in debt, and left behind a bankrupt estate. The main building, only recently reopened to the public, is a shell in which generations of successive owners have rattled around capriciously and irreverently. In the best cases, the rooms are empty and shabby; others are wallpapered with pictures of prize-winning horses or decorated with tasteless, reckless art deco.
In Charlottesville, on the other hand, the magic remains. Like a mounted gemstone, the University of Virginia is situated in the midst of a charming, meandering town center -- the university that Thomas Jefferson himself founded, designed, and led during the last years of his life, and which Madison continued to administer for several years thereafter. It is a classic campus, where individual student rooms, stylish classroom buildings, bright auditoriums, and brimming libraries frame a soft lawn shaded by the dense foliage of oaks and ash trees. At the main end of the lawn a pantheon-like rotunda with a domed roof rises up, which can be entered through a classical pillared portico. Red brick against white marble. Graceful arches against silent arcades. Cover and openness. Outside the low student dormitories are stacks of wood for the winter. On warm autumn days the students sit in groups on the wide marble steps outside the rotunda or in the shade of the oaks or in the little amphitheater with the green grass growing between the stones.
I imagine that they are pondering the big questions.
For Thomas Jefferson the creation of the University of Virginia was a last attempt to rescue the vision of society which he saw rapidly slipping out of his hands. The education of the people was the key to the republic; knowledge made the difference between individuals and citizens. Thus, like a pyramid out of the depths of the people, a public school system would be built in Virginia, the like of which America had never seen. The foundation would be composed of thousands of small, simple wooden schools, hammered together by the local citizens themselves, with three years of free basic education for all, poor as well as rich, financed through voluntary work and a small local tax. Those with the best heads for learning, regardless of birth or income, could climb higher, to regional high schools financed by fees or to vocational schools -- the poor with the help of public scholarships. At the very top of the pyramid was the university, the ultimate front line of knowledge. There the collective wisdom of the republic would be crystallized, refined, and finally employed for the general good.1
The battle over the great educational reform in Virginia was Jefferson’s last fight. He was almost eighty, but he had never thrown himself into anything with more feeling than he did now.2 From his study in Monticello he wrote law proposals, memoranda, detailed teaching plans, and letters to politicians entreating them to put the system into operation. ”I have only this single anxiety in the world. It is a bantling of forty years’ birth and nursing, and if I can once see it on its legs, I will sing with sincerity and pleasure my nunc dimittas.”3
For the most part, Jefferson fought in vain. Politicians in the state capital of Richmond no longer held in high regard the old man of Monticello, The Sage. Tobacco was more highly valued. And strong slaves were too. Some dared to joke about his detailed course outlines and old-fashioned choice of words. He was called, with some contempt, ”the prince of philosophers.” ”A Citizen” wrote that Virginians ought to beware of Jefferson’s airy fantasies, and that such a brilliant mind could conceal ”the greatest and most unaccountable eccentricities.”4 Basically, there was clearly a fear of Jefferson’s democratic radicalism and an unwillingness on the part of the wealthy to finance schools for the poor. By an overwhelming majority, Jefferson’s university along with his grammar schools were voted down in Richmond’s legislative assembly, the House of Delegates. Free education for the poor turned into the munificent sum of $45,000.
Several days later the university was rescued by the other chamber of the state legislature, the Senate, but not the grammar schools or regional high schools. The University of Virginia became a pyramid without a base or middle section, floating in the air above a slave society in which education would long be equated with race, money, family, and wealth. Of Jefferson’s educational project remained only America’s most beautiful university.
On warm autumn days when the stairs are crowded with students, I have been able to sense Jefferson’s political vision here more clearly than anywhere else. And in the next instant, just as clearly, realize that the vision, now as then, is floating freely in the air.
No, it was no coincidence that Ronald Reagan, on the morning of December 16, 1988, landed with his helicopter squadron on the football field of the University of Virginia. The peeling roof of venerable Cabell Hall had finally been repainted, the gilded details on the auditorium walls had been given a much-needed renovation after years of begging for attention, and in spite of the cool weather more than 4,000 curious spectators had gathered on the vast lawn. The narrow streets and winding lanes outside were rigorously blocked off, police sharpshooters had been placed on the beautiful rooftops, a few dozen protesters with Nicaragua posters had been moved out of sight without incident. The White House had ordered a royal-blue carpet for the president to stand on in the refurbished auditorium. The lectern, embellished with a seal and decorated with flowers, was flanked as usual by the discreetly placed glass screens of the teleprompters. The president’s gaze could skillfully wander between them as the text silently rolled by. His hoarse voice would again caress the words, prolong the pauses, demonstrate precise timing. Ronald Reagan never improvised his speeches. Every word, every intonation had a purpose. On this occasion as well.
One vision would borrow a last light from another, an outgoing president would receive history’s extreme unction.
The name Jefferson was dropped in the very first sentence: ”a tall, fairheaded, friendly man who, from the hill where he lived, watched this university take form.” His intelligence and greatness were captured in an anecdote. ”’There had not been such a collection of talent in that place’, said John F. Kennedy to a group of Nobel laureates in the State Dining Room of the White House, ’since Thomas Jefferson dined there – alone.’”5
Then the setting was loaded with significance: ”No speaker can come to these grounds or see ’the lawn’ without appreciating the symmetry, not just of the architecture but in the mind that created it.” In the balance between the circular and the linear (his speech writers had really laid it on thick) Reagan saw a Jeffersonian message about balance between the lawful obligations of government (internal order and outer defense) and the tendency of government to encroach on the rights of individuals, ”to take the fruits of their labor and reduce them ultimately to servitude.”
” We have seen the growth a new populism in America, not at all unlike that of Jefferson’s time.”
Pause. His eyes came to rest between the teleprompter screens.
” We have seen the growth of a Jefferson-like populism that rejects the burdens that are placed on people by excessive regulation and taxation, that rejects the notion that judgeships should be used to further privately held beliefs not yet approved by the people, and, finally, rejects too the notion that foreign policy must reflect only the rarefied concerns of Washington rather than the common sense of the people.”
In December 1988, Eastern Europe had not yet fallen, and neither had the Wall, but Ronald Reagan was astute enough to talk about a democratic world revolution, ”comparable to the Newtonian revolution in physics,” about revolutions that sprang from ”the Jeffersonian idea that freedom is indivisible.” Economic freedom could not be separated from political freedom; the market could not be separated from democracy. With Thomas Jefferson at his side, Reagan rode triumphantly out onto the crumbling battlefield of ”real socialism”.
Finale in three movements:
” We are moving away from war and confrontation toward peace and freedom. And toward a future beyond the imaginings of the past.
” The issue beroe the world is still the same as the one that Jefferson faced squarely and so memorably. Can human beings manage his own affairs -- is self determination and popular, representative government possible?
” A great future is our’s and the world’s if we but remember the power in those words Mr. Jefferson penned, not just for Americans, but for all of humanity: ’…that all men are created equal, that they have been endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.’”
In this way, Ronald Reagan clothed his last political vision in the shimmer of Jefferson’s magic.
He had just sat down wearily at his desk to record observations from his morning stroll in the garden when the guest was shown in.
Neither of the men seemed at all surprised.
” Please forgive my semi-recumbent position,” said Jefferson. ”This damned December weather. It will be the death of me.”
He pushed his polygraph aside, turned the swivel desk, laboriously swung his legs down from the reddish-brown Windsor chaise longue, and directed his searching, light-gray eyes at the man wearing the brown suit and the big smile. Even in a seated position, it was evident that he was a stately figure, nearly six feet tall, with a lanky body, broad shoulders, white hair and a lined face, but with a hint of mischief that probably stemmed from his freckles.
” I saw your entourage invade the city down there,” he said after a moment. ”I wondered whether we might be at war.”
” Well, you know,” replied the guest with a disarming air, cautiously leaning against the opened writing desk inside the doorway, ”I must say that I had no idea you still hung around here. There wasn’t anything about this on the schedule, just a photo op on the stairs outside, a quick tour of the house, and then a few last spontaneous remarks for the TV cameras.”
He stuck his hand in his right jacket pocket and fished out a stiff note card with clearly printed remarks. ”Is this OK? I wrote it myself. ’Monticello is to the American Dream what the White House is to the president of the United States: a place to come alive in, a place where...”
” Let’s talk about freedom and self-rule,” interrupted Jefferson impatiently, reaching for his cane. ”And get rid of those ruffians standing at the door.”
Soundlessly the bodyguards slipped away, a bottle of Madeira and two glasses were discreetly brought in, and the guest was waved to a seat on the other side of the desk.
” So you heard what I said in Cabell Hall?”
” Yes, I heard what you said. I’ve heard everything that you’ve said.”
” As you can see, I’m fond of quoting you.”
” Yes, yes. You all do that.” Jefferson slowly twisted around so he was sitting upright in this chair and leaned demonstratively on his cane. ”You hound me with my own words, you manipulate the myth about my character, you put me up on barricades that I never erected, you make me the symbol of issues that I never believed in, let alone fought for. You have forced me to supply arguments for secession and civil war, for self-absorption and isolationism; you have put my name on a freedom that was slavery, on a democracy that was tyranny. My restless observations, my unorganized ideas, my voluminous correspondence, my free-flowing visions have been an eternal curse to me, and, let me add, of great damage to America.”
Jefferson fell abruptly silent. His gaze had wandered up over the guest’s shoulder, out through the window, out toward infinity. It seemed as if he was already somewhere else, that he had said what he wanted to say, that there was nothing to add.
Then with a jerk of his head he fixed his eyes on Reagan.
” But you -- you’ve been damned cunning, the most cunning since young Andrew Jackson, who I never believed in, by the way. You seem to cut right through history, you’ve dared to let the ideas sweep away the trivialities of politics, you’ve talked about revolution and a new resurrection, about America as an idea, about taking power away from the state and giving it to the people. You’ve put my words in your mouth as if you truly believed in them, believed that America could be led back to its roots, to the individual, to the republic, to self-rule. You’ve talked about America’s soul, and occasionally it has seemed to me that you have found it.”
He paused. Outside the door the bodyguards could be heard hissing commands into their button-sized walkie-talkies. The house was creaking restlessly with the waiting presidential entourage.
” And still...”
Jefferson laughed and poured the wine into the glasses. ”Still I think we are political enemies.”
Reagan automatically smiled back but let go of the wine glass, which he had been about to pick up. ”I hope you will forgive me,” he then said gently, almost ingratiatingly, ”but I’m convinced that you’re mistaken.”
With an imperceptible, habitual movement, he turned up the volume on his right hearing aid, pulled out a stack of note cards from his left jacket pocket, discreetly skimmed through them, and then gently leaned toward his host, ready for battle. The pale December sun shining through the finely mullioned south window cast a complex pattern of shadows across the ingenious wooden construction of the desk standing between them, a polygraph with two pens, coupled by a parallel spring mechanism, which made two copies of every letter and note. From the very outset, a copy was made of Jefferson’s world view.
” I realize,” said Reagan, noticing for the first time that Jefferson was wearing a pair of small reading glasses, ”that we are quite unlike one another in terms of personality and temperament, that my knowledge cannot measure up to yours, that in my whole life I probably haven’t read as much as you did as a teenager, that I would rather watch a good Western than read European philosophers. I’m a simple man, descended from poor Irish immigrants. You’re a landowning aristocrat who still, if I understand correctly,” he lowered his voice and glanced around, ”owns slaves.”
” Let me explain,” said Jefferson, blushing.
” No, that’s not necessary. I know all there is to know about how we can become prisoners of our system. I know everything about how grand ideas can be snared by petty circumstances. The important thing is that we have never let our visions be crushed by reality. You’re an American myth, not because you did everything right or were always consistent and stuck to your principles, but because you symbolize our, America’s, better self, what we want to be, could be, ought to be.”
Reagan didn’t need to resort to the notes on his cards.
” Don’t you see, it’s to your America that I want to return, to an America where we, as Tom Paine once said, have it in our power to start the world over again. Wasn’t it your dream to let people start anew, over and over again?”
Jefferson nodded mutely.
” Well, that happens to be America’s dream too. I’ve just given it a new voice and a new life. From your words I’ve woven the old vision again.”
” I wanted to go farther, much farther.” Jefferson’s voice was now barely a whisper.
” Yes, and sometimes you went too far. It was stupid to want to remake the laws every twenty years, to rewrite the Constitution, to fiddle with the inheritance laws. You were talking to deaf ears then, and no one remembers it today.”
Reagan sensed a slight psychological advantage but instinctively toned it down. ”I think we have both sometimes let our ideas pull us toward what is unrealistic, but at the same time, deep down, we have both been able to distinguish between practical politics and vision. Thank goodness you didn’t let ideologies prevent you from finalizing the Louisiana Purchase, and I didn’t let ideologies come between me and Gorby.”
Jefferson’s lucid eyes sparkled at this comparison. The purchase of Louisiana from Napoleon in 1803 and the expansion of the nation’s territory many times over, without consulting Congress in advance, was probably his most important political act as president. When the opportunity presented itself, the great critic of federal power in Washington had used it with as much finesse and power as Machiavelli’s prince ever had. Did this damage his credibility? Hardly. Did it confuse the historians? Perhaps. Yes, he did see the parallels with Reagan.
” Try to understand that things have changed,” said Jefferson at last, looking weary once more. ”I saw my vision wither and die during my own lifetime. I saw a new generation of money-hungry, status-seeking, uneducated individuals take over the country and the politics. They laughed at a classical education, they turned politics into a circus and marketplace. I saw a new aristocracy emerge, based on bank connections and capital-rich enterprises. I saw trade and manufacturing assume power over plundered farmers and destitute craftsmen. I saw the individual separate from politics, the republic separate from democracy, morality separate from opinion.”
Reagan felt a pang of uneasiness. The vocabulary was arousing hostile instincts. He knew that Jefferson’s radicalism could be unpredictable. It was important to steer the conversation properly, to get back to the common denominator.
” There’s no denying that your political aims failed,” he said finally, trying in vain to catch Jefferson’s eye. ”But the myth. Your myth lives on. Without you the American dream would be completely different today. Without you Hamilton’s imperial visions would have triumphed; the strong state would have taken the place of the strong individual; we would have had freedom based on the conditions of the state, not a state based on the conditions of freedom; we would have had a centrally governed monarchy, not a union of independent states; we would have...”
” Hamilton was the one who triumphed, not me,” interrupted Jefferson drily. ”America paid tribute to me with words, but honored my enemy with deeds. America was born in a vision of individual freedom and self-rule, but it was built on a foundation of slavery, capitalist power, and political corruption. For the longest time I believed that my principles would triumph, that education, knowledge, and the experience of freedom would rescue the good republic, but...”
He fell silent and let the bitter conclusion hang in the air. Reagan leaned closer, as if to catch what was not spoken, and he was suddenly aware of the smell of horses and sweat from the landowner clad in work clothes on the other side of the desk. Beneath Jefferson’s simple, hand-woven blue wool coat there was a glimpse of a white flannel shirt buttoned at the neck; his breeches of gray corduroy were worn out at the knee, his light gray wool stockings were not the most elegant, and there seemed to be traces of dried clay on his handmade shoes. The bright study exuded the smell of leather and noble wood, of civilization and refinement, of the practical art of invention and eternal wisdom. Around Jefferson, however, there was a strong sense of earth, work, and mortality. Reagan shrank back involuntarily, as if history had suddenly opened and threatened to swallow him up, and he listened discreetly for the sound of the press and security entourage outside.
” Well,” he said with feigned cheerfulness, ”there’s still hope for pessimism. I’ve been told that you were the one who made optimism the national attitude of Americans. That you possessed an ardor and enthusiasm that defied all doom-sayers and statistical reports about so-called reality. It’s the myth of you that continues to convince Americans of their inner goodness and outer greatness. It’s the myth of you that makes American politics different from European politics, thank God. And always will, if I have anything to say about it.”
Jefferson gazed out the window, as if he were far away.
” The intellectuals in Washington laugh at me, they point at the difference between rhetoric and reality, they joke about my campaigns against the federal bureaucracy, they throw statistics at my visions, they think I’m a little... you know.” He tapped his forefinger against his temple. ”They think that America is built on realism and pessimism.”
The sun reflected off the slender brass telescope in the window. What was the old man studying? The fields? The stars? The mountains to the west?
” You of all people, Jefferson, know that they are wrong.”
” What you in posterity have forgotten are the conditions of the vision,” replied Jefferson slowly. ”The limited power of the state was merely one of the prerequisites for self-rule by the people. Man himself was another one, and more important. When the politicians in Virginia squelched my school reform, when a child’s work became more important than a child’s education, when individual property became capitalistic power, when independent producers became the wage slaves of manufacturing, that’s when self-rule also died as a practical possibility. The rest is myth, illusion, and smoke screens.”
” I think you’re underestimating the people,” replied Reagan, a note of tense impatience in his voice. ”I suspect that you have tried to create man according to your own prototype, not man as he really is. You gave Americans the freedom to manage their own inalienable rights, but you seem to be ashamed of the results. You became the father of populism in America, but you complain when populism expresses the will of the people, when men would rather strive for material happiness than education and knowledge, would rather play than ponder, would rather rest than rule, would rather read Genesis than Darwin.”
” I never meant for freedom to dig its own grave.” Jefferson’s voice suddenly sounded thirty years younger. ”I wrote that a government that is exclusively entrusted to the representatives of the people will eventually degenerate. It is only man himself who can act as a safeguard for the benevolence of power. And not even man can do this if his soul is not improved, his thoughts developed, his knowledge increased. On that point I was once an optimist. I am no longer.”
” You can’t escape your responsibility, Jefferson. You were the one who wanted to decentralize at all costs; let the local populace protect society, let parents, not central bureaucracies, take care of schools. You were the one who said that a simple farmer had a better judgment in moral issues than a professor.7 You were the one who feared the power of Washington and wanted to give it to the individual states, even including the right to invalidate or nullify the union.”8
” I was wrong.”
Reagan seemed not to hear. Maybe he really didn’t hear.
” Just six months before your death (pardon me for reminding you) you launched a strong attack on federal power, you even criticized the fact that it was building roads and canals, that under the guise of concern for ’the general welfare’ it had started to take improper liberties.9 In my inaugural address in 1981 I could have used what you wrote word for word.” He scanned one of his cards. ”Government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem. From time to time we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, of, and by the people. But if no one among us can govern himself, then who among has the capacity to govern someone else?”
” I approved of that,” admitted Jefferson. ”I have approved of much of what you have said. Your rhetoric has been both very great and very false. You have allowed America to catch sight of its historical roots and ideals, only to show in the next instant that they were a mirage, a movie. You gave a powerful performance, but you left the people alone in the theater when the lights came up and the tears dried.”
Jefferson saw that his words were having an effect. When he continued, his voice was sharp.
” You have used my words to create a picture of power where power is no longer found, and to conceal power where it actually exists. You have attacked political power, but have been blind to economic and private power. You have mistrusted those elected but have had unlimited faith in those not elected. You have scourged the inefficiency and wastefulness of government but have been completely blind to the private cheating and financial corruption among your friends and advisors. You have spoken warmly of the individual but have flung him out into the cold. Solitude, Mr. President, is not self-rule.”
Reagan didn’t answer. Perhaps he didn’t understand. During his entire political career he had spoken Jefferson’s language and felt genuinely close to him. In 1964, in his TV speech supporting Barry Goldwater,10 he was already expressing himself in typical Jeffersonian phrases. The choice in our time, Reagan had said, was no longer between right and left but between a society with maximum individual freedom within a framework of law and order, on the one hand, and ”the ant heap of totalitarianism” on the other. ”Either we accept the responsibility for our own destiny,” he continued, ”or we abandon the American Revolution and confess that an intellectual belief in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.” Hadn’t he, with the forefathers of America behind him, attacked unchecked majority rule and pointed out that Jefferson’s inalienable rights had to be respected ”even if the individual stands outvoted by all of his fellow citizens.” For this he was called conservative, even reactionary. But in that case, wasn’t the American Dream reactionary too? And Thomas Jefferson.
” And what about man?” continued Jefferson, as if he had been waiting out Reagan’s thoughts. ”When I talked about self-rule, I took for granted the independence and strength of the individual, I took for granted citizenship, knowledge, and political involvement. My self-rule was based on the strong individual: the planter, the builder, the scientist, the inventor. Your self-rule is based on the weak, the apolitical, the powerless. My self-rule wanted to build power from below, your self-rule puts the individual into the hands of new powers. My self-rule did not presume that an individual is outside of politics, it presumed the republic, res publica. You have formulated a false sense of power for the powerless individual. You have polished the shell to a shine, but the core, Mr. President, the core is shriveled up.”
” But our words are almost exactly the same!”
” Yes, and that’s precisely why your words sting my conscience, because what you today are selling as Jeffersonian self-rule is in reality an arrangement that sends the weak, powerless, and ignorant out into the jungle. To follow the law of the jungle. Or to perish.”
” But that’s just not true!” Reagan indignantly placed his right hand on his breast, as if he wanted to call all of America to be his witness. ”There are rules of play. There’s a constitution. There are courts of law. There are freedoms and rights. There is opportunity. There is a division of power. There is no better system in the world for individual self-rule than what you yourself took part in creating. Why this pessimism? To be quite honest, I don’t understand you, Mr. Jefferson.”
Jefferson pulled his coat tighter, as if he were cold.
” Would you like to see my library?” he asked after a moment’s silence, standing up with surprising vigor. Without waiting for a reply, he walked with the aid of his cane over to a side door, which led to the east wing of the house. To his immediate right, on a sun-warmed glassed-in terrace, rows of newly cultivated plants of various types were on parade, replete with meticulous labels. In one corner stood a carpenter’s bench and a big wooden drum on which blueprints and several tools had been spread out.
” My workshop,” explained Jefferson. ”I’m working on building a machine that will shell corn. It already saves twenty work days, but I want it to be driven by a waterwheel, not by horses. In the pots there are tomatoes from France and cucumbers from Pennsylvania. And Italian artichokes that a good friend smuggled in last year. He turned around. ”Are you interested in cultivation, Mr. President?”
” Only of my vices,” replied Reagan with a disarming jest.
” A man who does not cultivate is not free,” said Jefferson gravely, and he led his guest into the library.
History can tell us a great deal and in precise detail about Jefferson’s library. In the spring of 1815 there were 6,487 volumes, among which, as former Monticello slave Isaac (Jefferson) could testify, were ”an abundance of books [that Old Master]was always looking up things in.”11 At one time the books occupied 90 square meters of wall space and filled 25 cubic meters of the volume of the house. They overflowed from the library into the halls and wardrobes, they were stored in bed alcoves and passageways, and they were stacked up on windowsills and the floor.
Jefferson had bought books throughout his adult life, books for himself and books for others. During his time as ambassador in Paris, according to his own statement, he went through every single bookstore in the city; he had standing orders at the finest booksellers in Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Madrid, and London; he bought medieval manuscripts, ancient classics, travel accounts, memoirs, philosophy books, and encyclopedias; in addition to English and American books, he bought books in French, Spanish, Greek, Latin, Portuguese, and Italian. He himself claimed that he probably had the finest collection of books relating to America and the New World. No later research has contradicted him on that point.
In the late autumn of 1814 when the British invaded Washington and burned down the Capitol and the newly constructed public library, Jefferson was shocked at ”the victory of vandalism over science,”12 and he offered his own library as a replacement. Based on the prevailing bookseller price of the day of 10 dollars for a folio, six for a quarto, three for an octavo, and one dollar for a duodecimo, Jefferson owned books with a total value of $23,950, which is the price that the American Congress offered for their purchase. By all other calculations, the collection was priceless.
The offer to buy Thomas Jefferson’s library was not received with gratitude. It was almost not received at all. The purchase was four votes away from being killed by the House of Representatives. The books were described by one speaker as ”good, bad, and indifferent; old, new, and worthless; in languages which many can not read, and most ought not.”13 The old Federalists, those who in the election year of 1800 had lost power to Jefferson’s party, still hated him and would contest the purchase, regardless of price or content. Now they complained about the price (which would ”bankrupt the treasury and beggar the people”) and the content (”unfidel philosophy” which would ”disgrace the nation”).
In May 1815, Jefferson’s books began their journey from Monticello to Washington wrapped in paper, packed in the same plain, tottering pine bookshelves that they had formerly stood on, with the fronts nailed shut. They were arranged and cataloged according to the current system (Bacon’s), although with a great deal of room for personal sub-categories. ”It is the choicest collection of books in the United States,” wrote Jefferson without pretension, as the tenth and last freight wagon rolled away from Monticello. ”I hope it will not be without som general effect on the literature of our country.”14
Even during the more than ten years that he lived without his library, he read a great deal, although less and less poetry and with a growing incomprehension of contemporary belles lettres. During his last eleven years he managed to replace close to 2,000 titles of the library he had sold. He re-purchased the ancient classics until he had almost a complete collection, although it was ”very careless in the editions,” as one visitor pointed out. Now he read them more for their linguistic rhythm and beauty than for their philosophical abstractions, more for the discussions of morality and human behavior than for their treatises on politics, more for their practical advice and wisdom about life than for their theories and metaphysics. He considered Plato boring and Aristotle politically useless. America no longer had anything to learn from the republics of antiquity.
” I cannot live without books,” he wrote to John Adams, seeking the aid of his old textbooks to look for quotations and notes. For a schoolteacher who had requested a sample of his handwriting, he found some freely translated lines of Horace:
Now what man is free? The wise man who rules himself, afraid neither of poverty, death, or prison; who has enough strength to check his passions and scorn honors; who is self sufficient; who offers to external accident no hold and whom chance cannot catch unaware.
For Jefferson, books continued to be an irreplaceable part of the good life, and a prerequisite for it. The good life was the encounter between curiosity and knowledge, between passion and self-control, between youth and experience. In books, life encountered its own conditions, formulated them, and learned to influence them. From books, Jefferson gained not only knowledge and arguments but also strength and faith in the future. His mind remained that of a youth, even when his legs could no longer support him. In a textbook he rediscovered and read with approval Horace’s life motto: Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.15
On the basis of this one man’s passion for books and knowledge was built what was to become the Library of Congress, which with time would grow into the world’s largest library. For a long time Jefferson’s own catalog system was retained intact. Furthermore, the books that had belonged to Monticello were easy to find because they were marked with a ”J” in the catalog, which a young member of Congress, Abraham Lincoln, to his joy, noted proudly thirty years later.16
Several years after that, in 1851, the Library of Congress was ravaged by fire, and most of the books from Monticello were destroyed.”This is the basis for self-rule,” said Jefferson, sweeping his hand over the tightly packed shelves. ”Here stands the collected knowledge and experience of our civilization. There are no mistakes here, or delusions, or false hopes. Here dwells the hope for goodness, the love of life, and the dream of freedom.”
He went over to a simple reading desk that stood next to the window facing the courtyard in front of the main entrance. Dark shadows were moving about outside. The sun flashed on black limousines. He gently touched the open book on the desk. ”I’m reading Locke again. I’m asking him, once again, ’Is freedom really possible?’”
Jefferson took his small reading glasses out of his coat pocket, held them in his left hand like a lorgnette, bent his head, and read aloud: ”The freedom then of man, and liberty of acting according to his own will, is grounded on his having reason, which is able to instruct him in that law he is to govern himself by, and make him know how far how far he is left to the freedom of his own will. To turn him lose to an unrestrained liberty, before he has reason to guide him…”17
” Why dig for freedom in books?” interrupted Reagan impatiently. ”Open the window! Travel through America! See freedom made reality by thousands upon thousands of small businessmen, builders, and pioneers; by immigrants from all over the world, by our boys fighting for democracy on earth. Look at the children of your own spirit, Jefferson. You have nothing to be ashamed of! We all still have the right to dream the dreams of heroes!”
The old man seemed to be lost in his reading. A clock struck somberly somewhere in the house.
” Tell me,” urged Reagan, ”what’s wrong with a freedom that has held off tyranny for two hundred years, that for two hundred years has nourished people’s dreams and ambitions? Isn’t America still a shining city on the hill? What greater freedom could you want?”
” To turn him lose to an unrestrained liberty, before he has reason to guide him,” Jefferson continued his reading as if he had not been interrupted, ”is not the allowing him the privilege of his nature to be free, but to thrust him out amongst brutes, and abandon him to at state as wretched and as much beneath that of man as theirs.”
He turned around to face Reagan and lowered his glasses. ”I never used to concern myself with reason. I believed that School, Education, the spirit of the times, the moral development of the mind, had led us to a safe point in history. I was, precisely as you say, a great optimist. I had the privilege of living before the epoch of the great ideologies, and the privilege to die believing that America’s fundamental institutions would be the library and the university. With the ascent of ideologies my faith in the power of individual reason vanished; with my death America’s faith in knowledge vanished.”
A helicopter could be heard thundering past, and the commotion outside the window intensified.
” And without knowledge and reason, Mr. President, there is no freedom and no self-rule. Only a life among monsters.”
Reagan looked at his watch. He seemed to have tired of the conversation. To his ears, Jefferson sounded like all the other intellectual eggheads in Washington. Pessimistic and basically incomprehensible. For the most part, un-American.
” I see that you’re upset about the decline in morality, about the high illiteracy rate, about the fact that Americans may prefer pizza to politics, about what you might label excessive materialism, but, for God’s sake, you can’t deny that America is still seething with vitality, that self-rule is still a possibility, that knowledge and reason, in any case, are not considered a handicap, that religion and fear of God still guide Americans. Have you turned into a socialist?”
” I see that you’re in a hurry, Mr. President,” said Jefferson. ”Let me very briefly recount an episode from my own life.”
Reagan nodded, maybe it would be an anecdote he could use in the future.
” I had a younger sister, Lucy. I didn’t know her particularly well. She was married young to a cousin of ours, Charles Lilburne Lewis, and while I still occupied the White House, her family moved to a plantation near the Ohio River in Kentucky, which was then virgin wilderness, of course. Several years after I returned to Monticello, she died, and I expected to hear no more from that branch of the family.”
He paused for effect, went over to a little octagonal table by one of the windows, pulled out one of the drawers that precisely fit into each side, and took out something that seemed to be an old protocol of court proceedings.
” Not quite two years later,” he continued, turning around, ”I received word that two of Lucy’s surviving sons, my own nephews, my own flesh and blood, on the night of December 15, 1811, had brutally slaughtered one of the family slaves, a man by the name of George, with an axe. Inside the plantation’s slaughterhouse, to make it proper. The whole thing was discovered, of course, and both my nephews, Lilburne and Isham Lewis, would undoubtedly have had to pay for their crime if Lilburne hadn’t taken his own life and Isham hadn’t cowardly managed to flee.”
Jefferson weighed the protocol in his hands, as if to muster strength.
” What hurt the most,” he said gently, ”was not the crime.”
” I assume that they had their reasons,” Reagan ventured diplomatically.
” No, they did not have their reasons,” snapped Jefferson. ”Would you like to know why they murdered him? They murdered, stabbed, chopped up the slave George because he had accidentally broken a pitcher that belonged to my dead sister. They murdered out of passion, out of hatred.”
With his right forefinger he hammered the bitter words out of the court papers, as if he wanted to bore through them.
” So you see, they had no reason. But they had everything else: education, property, good connections. They were the kind of men for whom I thought self-rule was a natural matter. Men like myself. And yet, not one ounce of morality in their actions, not one speck of goodness. Of what I once regarded as the unwritten prerequisites of self-rule, there was nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
Jefferson put the papers back in the drawer.
Reagan seemed not to understand. ”God knows, things like that happen now and then. That’s no reason for you personally to feel responsible. There are rotten apples in the best of families.”
” Yes,” whispered Jefferson, ”there are rotten apples in the best of families, and that’s why Hamilton and Madison were right and I was wrong. Nothing exists that could be called a moral mind, an instinct to do good. All power, even a small power, perhaps a small power most of all, can turn evil and destructive. Madison saw what I didn’t want to see, that man’s passions must be fenced in, that all ambitions, even those that seem good, must be set to combat each other, that not only fear of the state but also fear of the individual must be built into our system.”
” That last part sounds un-American.”
” Only in the eyes of American populism.”
” But you’re the father of American populism!”
Jefferson didn’t reply.
” And I assume there’s not much you can do about that,” added Reagan.
After his speech at the University of Virginia on Friday, President Ronald Reagan, under heavy media coverage, paid a surprise brief visit to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
Monticello, ”the little mountain,” which was designed and built by Jefferson himself and where he spent the last seventeen years of his life, is visited by hundreds of thousands every year and is considered one of the great symbols of the American dream.
Built on top of a steep hill, Monticello gazes straight out over what was once the American wilderness. The house was constructed like a Roman patrician’s villa with a Parisian-style cupola and Greek pillared porticos to the east and west. It is surrounded by fruit orchards and vegetable gardens, which farther down give way to a dense oak forest, bordered by fields and murmuring streams.
In spite of the democratic symbolism, Monticello is a distinctly aristocratic building, esthetic right down to the smallest windowsill, enthroned atop an underworld of kitchens, workshops, and residences for house slaves, none of which is visible from the outside. The upper sphere conceals the lower one. An unknowing visitor might be led to believe that Monticello totally lacked economic foundations. Incidentally, the hallway is done in Ionic style, the dining room in Doric, the parlor in Corinthian, and the dome is Attic.
The furnishings and details all bear Jefferson’s unmistakable stamp. The hall is filled with fossils, minerals, mounted animal heads, and a gigantic clock whose counterweights reach down through the floor to the underworld. Also typical are the connected double doors in the hall: one door opens or closes the other by means of chains under the floor. In the dining room visitors are delighted by the mechanical dumbwaiters that Jefferson had installed and a little elevator from the wine cellar to the dining room, with space for one wine bottle at a time.
Monticello was bought and restored through an extensive national collection campaign in the 1920s, with support from both the right and the left. One of the campaign leaders, a Republican businessman, advertised that Monticello would be ”an active instrument in the relentless war against the radicalisms of our time.”
Monticello is a monument which, more than anything, reflects the political and personal duality of its builder. Here the great democrat had a house built with slave labor, here the incurable revolutionary lived in more exalted and aristocratic isolation than many kings and noblemen, here the forefather of populism established an elitist monument to good taste and noble beauty.
Monticello is the enigma of Thomas Jefferson in all its mystery.
President Reagan spent a total of half an hour at Monticello. He paid particular attention to Jefferson’s study and library. To the waiting TV cameras, which were placed in front of the east portico, decorated with red-white-and-blue bunting, he gave a last, masterful performance of political scene-setting: Ronald Reagan visiting the forefather of freedom.
He let the reporters’ questions drown in the roar from the motorcycle cortege. Someone picked up one last sentence, hardly worth quoting, before the limousine door slammed:
” Thomas Jefferson lives.”
1. See Thomas Jefferson’s letter to Peter Carr, Writings, 1346 ff, and Dumas Malone, The Sage of Monticello (Boston: Little Brown, 1981), 269 ff.
2. Malone, 269.
3. Malone, 270.
4. Malone, 272.
5. Ronald Reagan, transcription of a speech given in Charlottesville, Virginia, December 16, 1988.
6. ” Notes on the State of Virginia,” Writings, 274.
7. Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787, Writings, 902. ”State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.”
8. In the so-called Kentucky Resolutions of October 1798, Jefferson, then facing emerging political opposition, formulated the theory that the individual states had the right unilaterally to determine the extent to which federal regulations would be valid in the state, if at all. The demand for the right to nullification was later developed into a demand for the right to secede.
9. See one of Jefferson’s last great letters, to William Branch Giles from December 26, 1825, Writings, 1509 ff.
10. ” A Time for Choosing” or, as it has also been called, ”The Speech,” was given on October 27, 1964, right before the American presidential election (Lyndon Johnson vs. Barry Goldwater). The speech is thought to have laid the foundation for Reagan’s political career. Quoted from Paul D. Erickson, Reagan Speaks: The Making of an American Myth (New York: New York University Press, 1985), 124 ff.
11. Malone, 169.
12. Thomas Jefferson to Samuel H. Smith, September 21, 1814, Writings, 1353.
13. Representative Cyrus King from New England, quoted from Malone, 178.
14. Thomas Jefferson to Samuel H. Smith, quoted from Malone, 181.
15. ” Seize the day that exists, do not wait for the day that will come.”
16. Douglas L. Wilson, ”What Jefferson and Lincoln Read,” The Atlantic, January 1991. Lincoln was a member of Congress between 1847 and 1849. He became president in 1860.
17. Jefferson is reading from John Locke, Second Treatise Concerning Civil Government, section 63. (Britannica Great Books, Vol. 35, Chicago 1952).
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