The Idea of America

Alasdair MacIntyre

  • Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence by Garry Wills
    Athlone, 398 pp, £12.50, September 1980, ISBN 0 485 11201 9

Garry Wills has two distinct aims in this book. He wishes to demythologise American beliefs about the Declaration of Independence in order to discredit the view that the United States is founded upon an idea, upon a set of moral beliefs. In so doing, he is trying to refute, not only external commentators such as G.K. Chesterton, who wrote that ‘America is the only nation in the world founded upon a creed,’ but more importantly a central American tradition whose hero and spokesman is Lincoln. Lincoln is for Wills the prototype of the political moralist who is prepared to appeal to the Declaration against the status quo, even the constitutional status quo. From this moralism, so Wills believes, spring many of the evils that the United States, its aims sanctified in its own eyes by its high principles, has brought upon the world and itself. Yet it is, on Wills’s view, a moralism deeply alien to Jefferson’s own beliefs and intentions as embodied in his drafts of the Declaration.

Wills’s second aim, therefore, is to decipher those beliefs and intentions and to recover what he believes to be the lost truth about Jefferson’s philosophy. Jefferson was not, as so many have believed, a Lockean individualist. The influence of the French Enlightenment is far less important than some have insisted. The Jefferson of the Declaration was, in fact, a close disciple of the Scottish Enlightenment, influenced by Reid, Smith, Hume, and above all by Francis Hutcheson. This conclusion emerges from what is presented as a study of Jefferson’s reading and writing joined to a detailed analysis of the 18th-century meanings of key expressions in Jefferson’s draft. In so concluding, Wills sets himself against the scholarly tradition on these matters: Carl Becker, Adrienne Koch and Daniel Boorstin all receive short shrift. But the most distinguished and authoritative of all exponents of a view of Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration which is quite incompatible with Wills’s account receives the most discourteous rebuff of all – at least in this capacity. I mean, of course, Thomas Jefferson.

On 9 May 1825, Jefferson wrote to Henry Lee about the Declaration that ‘neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind and to give that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonising sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, letters, printed essays or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.’ It was intended, Jefferson goes on, ‘to place before mankind the common sense of the subject ...’

In the one paragraph which he devotes to this letter, Wills notes the main point that it makes without noticing the bearing of that point on his own project: ‘He is deliberately citing works of general regard, rather than a set of specific influences on him.’ Indeed he is, and he is telling us not to look for the antecedents of the Declaration in ‘specific influences on him’, but in ‘works of general regard’. It is perhaps significant that Wills omits from his quotation the first sentence quoted, since that strengthens the case for holding that Wills’s whole project is misconceived.

Wills’s ability to sidestep important issues is also demonstrated in his discussion of the phrase ‘the pursuit of happiness’. For having in Chapter 11 spoken of ‘the casual nature of Jefferson’s references to Locke’ in order to stress that it is not Locke but Hutcheson and the Scottish 18th-century philosophers to whom Jefferson is indebted, he then allows in Chapter 17 that Hutcheson’s account of the pursuit of happiness is itself derived immediately from Locke’s account in the Essay. And this suggests strongly that Wills has confronted us with a false dilemma: at the most, Wills has shown that Jefferson was influenced by both Locke and Hutcheson, and not that his new account of Hutcheson’s influence displaces older accounts of his indebtedness to Locke. But even this is too charitable to Wills.

Wills recognises that the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment who influenced Jefferson did not all by any means agree with one another. Yet he never accords some of these disagreements their true importance. Wills is a historian of ideas in the tradition of A.O. Lovejoy. That is to say, he is preoccupied with intellectual pedigrees and inheritances at the expense of questions of truth and falsity, reasonableness and unreasonableness. He is deeply concerned to show that Jefferson took his theory of the moral sense from Francis Hutcheson: he seems not at all interested in whether the theory of the moral sense is true. He seems, indeed, not even to be interested in how it fared in the intellectual arguments of the 18th century. And this lack of interest obscures from him an important discovery that he almost made.

Wills is clearly right on some central issues. He is right in Chapter 14 when he shows that Jefferson did agree with Francis Hutcheson both in defending the concept of a moral sense and in making the utility of actions the test of the it virtue. And he is also right in Chapter 12 when he argues that Jefferson’s concept of self-evident moral truths can most plausibly be construed as the adoption of certain positions of Thomas Reid. What he then proceeds to ignore is that if what Reid asserted and argued for is true, then Huleheson’s moral philosophy is false, and vice versa. Wills ought to have noticed this. For he recognises both how closely Hutcheson followed Hume and that Reid was intent upon refuting Hume. I suspect that it is the absence of more than cursory references to Hutcheson in Reid’s published work that misled Wills: but the incompatibility of Reid’s views with Huteheson’s would have been plain enough to anyone who had seriously inquired which view if either was true. In any case, Reid made his disagreements with Hutcheson explicit in his lectures at Glasgow: see Peter Kivy’s edition of Thomas Reid’s Lectures on the Fine Arts (1973).

The conclusion is inescapable: either Jefferson changed his mind or he never noticed the problem. There is no evidence that he changed his mind, and it turns out that what Wills has actually shown without recognising it is that Jefferson was, so far as philosophy was concerned, an inconsistent eclectic – the greatest of inconsistent eclectics certainly, but no less inconsistent and no less eclectic for that. So it is unsurprising that Lockean, Hutchesonian, Reidian and other views are all there together in Jefferson’s notebooks and in his mind. And it is perhaps not very important for our understanding of the Declaration to have discovered this. For in his drafts of the Declaration, as Jefferson clearly and truly told us, what he was articulating was not his own mind, but the Common mind. Yet in so doing his sense of the common mind may have been partly informed by his own incoherences. And the question therefore arises – Wills unintentionally forces it upon us – of whether what has been mistaken in the political tradition which Wills is bent on discrediting was not, after all, the claim that America is founded upon a moral idea. Perhaps it is founded upon a moral idea, but upon one that is false. This is a possibility that Wills never considers, and it is instructive to ask why.

Wills is a refugee from the tiny heartland of modern American intellectual conservatism, the circle round the National Review. That conservatism would not exist but for the dramatic wit of William Buckley, a wit which has choreographed into a not too discordant and blundering ballet a motley cast of themes and characters. Wills’s lively account, in his autobiographical Confessions of a Conservative (1979), of the conflicts in a group that has included Willmoore Kendall, Frank Meyer, James Hum ham and Russell Kirk perhaps overstresses the origin of these conflicts in individual idiosyncrasies. For conflict and contradiction are at the heart of the principles of American intellectual conservatism. Some of its adherents are would-be followers of Burke in their defence of tradition: but the tradition which they aspire to defend has the Declaration at its core. And the Declaration embodies just the kind of theory of natural rights against which Burke invoked tradition. (It is no accident that it was Burke’s enemy, Tom Paine, who was at Valley Forge.) All its adherents define their position in opposition to liberalism: but their own politics combines the political liberalism of an 18th-century Whig with the economic liberalism of a 19th-century Manchester businessman. As anti-communists, they want a government strong enough to mobilise national resources and national energies, and highly enough regarded to mobilise national loyalties for a protracted struggle; as anti-socialists, they want to discredit the abilities of government, to limit government intervention and to make people suspicious of government. One cannot be politically dismissive about American conservatism, for it has in recent years reconfirmed the proposition that incoherence can be politically effective, particularly in pulling together a diverse and incoherent coalition of the discontented. But the temptation to be intellectually dismissive is very great.

It ought to be resisted, because the contradictions of American conservatism – like those of American liberalism and American radicalism – are important symptoms of the contradictions of America itself and of the American idea. The United States has from the beginning drawn political sustenance from two incompatible traditions. It has tried, on the one hand, to embody distinctively republican ideals, looking back to both Greek and Roman as well as to later models. At the heart of republicanism is a notion of political community as constituted by a vision of a common good, a good through service to which individuals discover and achieve their own good. Republicanism requires a virtuous people as well as a legislature, an executive and a judiciary. Republican government is the self-government of that people, a ‘we’, not a ‘they’ or an ‘it’. But the United States has also been dedicated to individualist ideals, to a view according to which there is no common good except that derived from the summing of individual wants and satisfactions. Government, on an individualist view, is a necessary evil, necessary because each individual needs to be protected from the tendency of others to make him or her the instrument of their appetites, evil because government itself always threatens to restrain the individual illegitimately. Government is seen as an ‘it’ or a ‘they’, always apt to invade our rights.

Republicanism is nourished by our experience of other forms of community in which individuals find themselves through serving some common good: churches, families, schools, hospitals. Individualism is nourished by our experience of the competitive marketplace. And necessarily individualism continually undermines republicanism. Locke and Sidney defeat Aristotle and Cicero. If the United States is founded upon an idea, it is an idea that involves theoretical contradiction and practical incoherence. Nowhere are these contradictions and incoherences more visisbly acted out than in the career of Richard Nixon.

It was Wills’s great achievement to show this in his one first-rate book – Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man (1970). That Nixon was, had to be, an aberration came to be an article of faith for almost everyone. What Wills showed instead was that Nixon was the embodiment, the culmination, of the conventional categories and aspirations of liberal individualism. And yet Nixon had been, however temporarily and with whatever reservations, the candidate for whom the conservatives had voted. Part of Wills’s book had appeared in the National Review, but well before the book was published he had broken ranks. Nixon was one of the most pathetic and yet sinister of attempts to embody the American idea. And Wills responded, not, as his hitherto fellow conservatives did, by insisting that Nixon had misrepresented and betrayed that idea, but by insisting that the United States is not founded upon an idea at all, and that the very idea of an idea is at odds with American political reality.

The recurrent liberal illusion is to see elections as occasions when individual choice is translated into government policy. Both in Nixon Agonistes and in The Confessions of a Conservative Wills argues cogently, not only that the liberals are mistaken, but that even the sophistication of political scientists such as V.O. Key and Harry Jaffa has not prevented them from overrating elections as agencies of change.

‘Elections settle questions of legitimacy, not policy,’ he writes in the Confessions. ‘They tell us who will govern, not how they will govern. They settle the rotation order among our rulers.’ How rulers govern depends upon ‘the interacting élites that guide and direct our society’. Change comes when the élites decide that the only way to deal with a problem is to enact some proposal originally considered extreme in order to cut it down to size. ‘Change after change – the minimum-wage law, the voting-rights act – has been admitted into our politics in order to be “tamed”, not enshrined.’ The model politician for the person who understands politics is not Burke, who is for Wills just one more theorist, but Sir Robert Peel. So now the true conservatives are, on Wills’s view, not the theorists of the National Review, but those who settle for less and accept the system. It is Bagehot whom Wills quotes with most approval.

What is mistaken in all this? It is significant that when Wills ceases to be a critic and gives us his own positive view, he cannot find any American exemplification for his ideal, but has to turn to England for a hero. The notion that the political attitudes of Sir Robert Peel make sense outside the specifically English political system is bizarre enough to be charming. But if one asks seriously why Peel’s adaptive attitudes fall so neatly into place in an English context, but not in an American, the answer turns out to have a good deal to do with the fact that England never did have a Declaration of Independence. The constant return in American political history to an appeal to the principles of the Declaration may indeed always have been liable to infection by illusion: but Wills never notices the importance of the fact that even American liberal illusions are highly specifically American and not merely liberal.

Wills’s project of demythologising our beliefs about the Declaration is therefore very much of a piece with the rest of his political theory. And the defects of the project are closely related to the defects of that theory. Wills tries to situate the Declaration – at least in Jefferson’s drafts – so securely in its original context that it will not be able to invade our political consciousness in the way that it has done before. If he were to succeed, he would certainly reinforce that rule of the contemporary élites which he regards so highly. But he would do so by also reinforcing that loss of hopefulness which is the central fact of contemporary American politics and which marks so large a contrast with the American past. For the continuity of that past has been a continuity of hope for the future, a hope embodied in countless prophetic declarations from John Winthrop’s ‘We shall be as a city upon a hill’ onwards. And of these declarations the Declaration is – and in spite of Wills’s argument remains – the chief. Its mode of prophecy is indeed peculiarly Jeffersonian. And in supplementing previous scholarship Wills has put us in his debt. But his overall account of the Declaration, like his overall account of American politics, is an important part of a new and ingenious conservative myth, and not an exchange of myth for reality.