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Alfred de Grazia:

PUBLIC & REPUBLIC : Political Representation in America


The American Colonial Development

The American counterparts of the Levellers of England had, from the beginning of colonial settlement, more opportunity to put their ideas into effect. Over a period of two centuries and a half of American colonialism the idea of direct representation moved steadily ahead. Yet so many obstacles lay in its path, so strong were its opponents, that the eulogies of it by the English Radicals in the late eighteenth century seemed to have been hasty and over sanguine. Several important conceptions of representation had to be defeated before the "pure" idea of direct representation of the public could do its work. The long contest among the contrasting ideas forms the structure of the next two chapters.

The origin of colonial political ideas is only partly explainable in terms of the Puritan theology and the charters granted the settlers by the prerogative of the King.[1] Although the conduct of the Puritan leaders may have at times been almost a frank admission that their stature was that of the prophets of Israel (and that of their descendants perhaps even closer to God), a Roger Williams could see in them the blasphemous aristocracy of the Presbyterian Parliament, and a Charles II could detect the presumptuous bigotry of those who had condemned his father to death. The charters whose authority had founded the Virginia and New England colonies were typical of the great corporation charters of the period -- liberal to stimulate the adventure which the Crown found profitable, loose to fit the conditions of an unfamiliar life, and democratic only to the extent that they envisaged a democracy of ownership among principal shareholders in the corporation.[2]

The stresses and strains of the struggle between Crown and Parliament, and between Parliament and People, were affecting the framework of reformed Biblicism and corporate mercantilism. Moreover the influence of the nobility and the unbounded prestige of landholding were victims of the colonizing process in the early days. The peerage of England had little to gain from the harsh life of the first colonies, which put a premium on steadfast religious faith and hard work. Dear land, cheap labor, and The King's Church, all of which are conditions under which a nobility might thrive, were missing in the northern colonies, and the first two conditions were absent everywhere. Primogeniture eventually weakened and died; movable possessions, which derived much of their value from the cost of transporting them across thousand of miles of ocean, counted increasingly as the measure of social position. A century before the English period in which Lecky still ascribed part of the great influence of the English nobility to the laws of tenure, the colonial governments were giving away tracts of land to anyone with a little money and an intention of developing them.[3]

The consequences of the cheap value of land in relation to that of movable property, in so far as they concern ideas of political representation, are these: with mobility, high value of labor, and absence of an influential hereditary nobility, the idea of natural rights can flourish, for man becomes the measure of value in the society; moreover, while ownership of land is still a basic value of representation, it cannot completely overawe the representative system by its socioeconomic effects; the ideas of representation constituting the concept of mass or direct democracy which were stifled in the English social and economic system find a free air in which to circulate; and those ideas of representation which were attacked as contemptible by Burke, Ireton, North, and Samuel Johnson were attacked complainingly by their counterparts in the new world Winthrop, Hutchinson, and Leonard. Winthrop rued the absence of household servants in Massachusetts while vagrants roamed the English roads. In American colonies, wealth went on the defensive rather quickly.

Early then, were found those historical circumstances best designed for the promulgation of the doctrines of direct democracy in American representation: a small population of self-sufficient individual religion; an evaluation of personal property unusually high in relation to real property; and a population principally of humble origins. Working alongside the representative principles of the direct democrats are two other definable combinations of ideas. One is primarily the contribution of the Puritan mind. That mind was religious to the point of theocracy; it consigned to religious leadership the moral problems of government and tended to emphasize the magisterial and administrative role of government. More concerned with duties than with rights, it insisted on a high degree of responsibility, conscience, and conservatism in the government of men. It was paternalistic rather than derogatory of the rights of men. John Cotton and John Winthrop may be taken as its typical exponents.

The other combination of ideas of representation is a further development and clarification of the economic and political ideas of the commercial middle classes. This combination had much more opportunity for free exercise than it ever had in England, and it contributed the idea of "no taxation without representation." It concerned itself with the accumulation of political rights in the defense of newly achieved property rights. From Locke it accepted both the idea of parliamentary supremacy and the right of revolution, both of these rights being essential for the protection of the natural right of property. It found a certain congeniality with the conservative, administrative mind of the Puritan when the time came to elaborate a framework of government, for it could not accept the complete extension of the atomistic theory of natural rights which is conducive to mass democracy. On the other hand, by its insistence on direct and delegated representation of its specific interests, it could find temporary agreement with the delegation theories of the direct democrats, an agreement which was lost once the war against British sovereignty was won.

The function of this chapter, therefore, is to describe the ideas of representation found in the American colonies among (a) the direct democrats, (b) the theological conservatives, and (c) the commercial middle classes.

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