Table of Contents 

PC.GIF     PC.GIF    

Alfred de Grazia:

PUBLIC & REPUBLIC : Political Representation in America

Chapter XI

The Synthesis of Public and Republic


At the beginning of our study of ideas of representation, England was near the end of Tudor absolutism. Elizabeth was Queen of England and mistress of the political, economic, and religious life of her nation as well. The House of Commons known to the first American colonists was still a supplicant, though an honorable one. It had extraordinary privileges as a body, an amour-propre, and a longing for an assignment to represent the national will. But the Crown was reluctant to regard it as more than a group of faithful subjects assembled to petition the Crown on behalf of local interests. The Members of Parliament had in the old days of parliamentary representation been granted only a limited and simple purview of national affairs except on rare occasions. And the use of the Commons for matters mainly administrative and financial gave the members more of a local than a national power. Their position was best suited for resistance and defense against the central government, rather than for proposing an alternative conception of the national welfare. Furthermore, the Members had been "delegates" in most instances, bound to their constituents by instructions. Their situation could not easily be aggrandized to one of responsibility for the affairs of the nation, although at times an unsubstantial propaganda sought to establish that role.

Changes were already on their way during the Elizabethan period, however. While the election system was disintegrating into the form which prevailed until the great reforms of the nineteenth century, the Commons was acquiring an air of corporate integrity with claims to representing the nation. A developing oligarchy was finding its institution. The Crown's efforts to confine local representation to its place were inconvenienced by the infusion of more aristocratic elements into the Commons. It therefore attempted to further redefine the Commons as part of the organic unity of the Crown government, concerned with larger issues, to be sure, but concerned with them as an instrument of the Crown. Whatever success might have attended this assimilation of the Commons was prevented by the rapid development of a religious and commercial class who fixed upon the Commons as its natural weapon against the Crown unity. So, while the representative quality of the awakening Commons was being admitted by the Crown to service as a personal following, it was also becoming the bulwark of the powerful aristocracy (now somewhat colored by the spirit of commerce) against the Crown. The ancient theory that the representative was a delegate broke down under the new political conditions, and was replaced by the theory of virtual representation, which combined the highly important elements of representing the "nation" and freedom from the constituency. Both ideas fostered oligarchy and freedom from local direction.

The revolutionary seventeenth century brought the temporary intercession of a third element. The Levellers, organized around bonds of service in the Commonwealth Army, put forward a theory of representation that ascended in a direct line to the American and French revolutionaries. Their distant enemy was the Crown, distant because it had already fallen, and their immediate enemy was the Parliamentary oligarchy. A century before Burke's attacks on the Radicals, they demanded the "natural rights" of man and recommended reforms of representation based on a psychology of extreme and pious individualism. They might have been completely at home among the Americans of the Revolution, in the France of the French Revolution, among the Radicals of late eighteenth-century England, and among the Jeffersonians and Jacksonians of the first half of the nineteenth century in America. Representation to them was a simple matter of making governmental officials an exact working model of the mass of people in action. A representative ought to be immediately responsible to his constituents, he ought to follow instructions, elections ought to be frequent, the recall and referendum might be used, a constitution ought to restrict the powers of the representatives rather than the powers of the people, any office of power ought to be elective, and the sovereignty and will of the people, expressed through the just principle of the majority rule, had almost a magical quality.

The prevailing theory of representation, in opposing this program, asserted that the English government was essentially a class government, developed out of the traditional medieval representation by estates, with the nobility and clergy represented in the Lords and the knights and burgesses in the Commons. The function of the Commons was to represent all individuals except those specifically represented in the Lords. Since the commons had grown in power, however, and its personnel was recruited in a manner hardly conformable to the theory implied in the old election system, the idea of virtual representation explained how it came about that the select few (many of them already represented in the Lords) might represent the totality of the country in the Commons, Political leadership was said to be a specialized thing, not a mere sampling of the whims of the whole population. Districts were useful for injecting a certain balance into the constitution, but the nation was the community that must be represented in the first instance. A more equal division of the constituencies, an extension of the suffrage, or a more immediate responsibility to constituents could only have a destructive effect on a constitution built upon an age-old representation of the true spirit of the nation.

The system of land ownership and the great prestige of the land colored all thinking about representation. Power pertained directly to the land in voting and districting, while borough-mongering landlords brought additional power indirectly to the possession of land. When land began to be devalued relative to other types of more movable property, the representative system had to make allowances. The effect of the intrusion of commercial interests into the affairs of state which characterized the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was felt not only in the open conflict between landed and commercial property over qualifications for office; it was expressed more meaningfully for history in the unconscious opening of minds to the idea of individual or personal representation. The Reformation was not complete nor the economic revolution consummated until representation, too, was reduced to the level of individual values. The Radicals, though constantly in conflict with the great commercial interests and the traditions of land representation, owed to these interests and traditions the creation of the special environment in which they might play a part.

America, more than England, provided conditions which stimulated the new controversy over representation. There free land put the landed interests on the defensive rather early in the game, although arguments for disproportionate representation of the land sundered the air well into the nineteenth century. Representation of commercial property, however, became a matter for serious concern, and the history of American representation is most instructive for its working out of representative relationships between movable property and personality.

Emerging from a century characterized by an idea of universal equality, we cannot easily understand how the powerful new commercial class could have felt itself secure with a theory based on movable property and slogans of individualism. The new elite was not, however, immediately conscious of the loss of strength in the ideas it had inherited from the old landed-class system. It thought wealth based on individuals could be a force in a representative system based on individuals. In fighting one idea of representation, which argued for a historical continuity of power and the representation of the whole people by relatively uncontrolled exponents of the old vested interests, it set up an alternative attended by the potentially dangerous ideas of the control of representatives and the grant of all power only to those so controlled.

Tardily, it occurred to the commercial class that movable property was as difficult to represent as it was easy to move, transfer, and circulate. The class system, evident in the Federalist idea that "the best shall lead," did a notable job of repressing the difficulty in the beginning. John Adams, for example, saw nothing amiss in the doctrine of instructions in the early days of the Revolutionary period when "natural" leadership controlled the town assemblies. In addition, there was the idea of "no taxation without representation," an idea deriving from most respectable ancestors and seemingly capable of transfer with good effect to the position of the commercial class. But taxation of wealth in general was capable of infinite variation, interpretation, increase, and revaluation, whereas the taxation of land had limited possibilities.

The Puritan idea of representation demanded a force of conscience, a untidy of thought impossible in the expanding and rapidly changing economy and society of the free colonies. Exclusive representation of the land would have destroyed a primary object of the Revolution and would almost immediately prove useless because land was everywhere available. Representation by estates was absurd where the estates did not exist. A specialized ruling class in Burke's sense had not developed to a high state of perfection. The political class was weakened by the loss of many leaders who had been Loyalists, and the remainder was already diminishing in influence. Even a fairly limited suffrage held its terrors, for, where the possession of land held little charm, a land qualification was no barrier to the introduction of leveling, individualistic, and antiauthoritarian elements through the suffrage. And the limits of the suffrage were slowly disappearing.

The plain truth was that there existed no reliable classification of the interests of society upon which a generally satisfactory system of representation for the commercial classes might be predicated. Fixed-interest representation, though it occurred to Hamilton and John Adams, was hopeless. It would have marked the Federalist system for disaster. Individualistic representation, the atomistic, collective representation of the whole people through the majority principle, was already exhibiting its unfriendly tendencies toward the propertied and commercial classes. So the new idea of representation developed. It took from the Middle Ages the idea of estates representation, transmitted via Montesquieu and Adams as the system of checks and balances; to this was added some advanced social thinking by Madison and Hamilton, who were fully aware of the constant shifting of conflicting interests in the new society of the commercial revolution. The Constitution which it presented to the new nation was in one sense a step on the road to direct representation, but in a larger sense, was a rather complete attempt to work out a theory of a society that admitted the role of conflicting interests and the necessity for protecting the forces in that society from one another. The Constitution was a victory, and a considerable one in view of the complications of state sovereignty, for the idea of representation was born of a psychology which saw society as a sphere of competition and conflict.

Yet the triumph had scarcely been registered in law when the leveling conditions of the new society had postulated an idesentation which existed and claimed to see in it the working out of the natural laws of competing groups. They dropped the tribal elements of direct representation, its beliefs in the sanctity of the majority and the efficacy of the mass working directly in government, and substituted the idea that the representative's task was to consult with all groups and compromise their differences as best he might, bearing always in mind that no solution was final, no absolute right existed, and the majority will was a fiction, useful at best for building morale.

An interesting thing about this idea was its close relationship to the economic theory of the old English Liberals of a century before. In fact, though it resembled the Hamilton-Madison idea of representation in its attention to the compromising, nondiscriminating, mobile role of the representative who, like the entrepreneur, was a broker buying low and selling high, not particularly responsible for the goods he handled but working out their consumption in the market place as best he might. Political values, like value in merchandise, would come from the competition among the producing groups. Why such a theory was not worked out for political life so well as it was for economic life gives rise to an interesting speculation. The question probably relates to fundamental differences between economics and politics which existed even during the halcyon days of economic liberty and political feebleness. The strong undercurrent of direct representation, fed from many sources in community sentiment, would never permit the widespread admission that morality was absent from politics or that it might come about automatically, even though everyday politics affirmed the idea as a working principle.

More within the realm of the permissible in American public thought were the ideas of representation held by the enlightened individualists. These men felt that progress in political values existed, and would come through individual efforts aided by reason. They inclined toward minority representation because they considered only minorities to be possessed of guiding and independent minds. Some accepted the representative system as it stood, but were deeply concerned that the "better citizens" engage actively in politics in order to get "good" representation. Their efforts were behind many non-basic reform movements that took place sporadically in American politics over the last century. But much of the direction in the reform movements came from men who were developing the distinctly American contribution of the representative, elected executive. Through the executive, they sought the trilogy of political reason: the national interest, planning, and efficient administration.

Other enlightened individualists took up the idea of proportional representation. They hoped to promote thereby the participation of more capable and avant-gardiste leaders in politics. They hoped at the same time to protect the minorities from which political virtue sprang. They regarded representation as the perfect proportioning of interests in the legislature to their proportion in the population at large, and their publications often dwelt lovingly over the neat figures which various plans for proportional representation provided for carrying out this idea. Although proportional representation tended toward interest and group representation, the proportionalists opposed the idea of fixed-interest representation because it would destroy their dearest prize, the integrity of the individual against society.

Fixed-interest representation, which has been treated as sometimes interchangeable with pluralism, contended on the other hand that the countering of the individual against society was unrealistic and dangerous in its effects. In the first place, man is man only as a member of his groups. He lives in, by, and for his groups, and no efforts of an individualistic psychology can change the truth of social life. The principal problem, they claimed, was not to repress the group which was the source of community life but to ensure that it work for the individual as well. They might point back to the recognition of fixed interests by some of the Constitutional fathers, whose pluralism was probably considerably greater than they were able to reflect in their practical system. They pointed to the political party as the unacknowledged managing group, emptied of human content because of the individualistic myth.

To the enlightened individualists who proposed proportional representation as a compromise between groupism and individualism, they again declared that an insufficient psychology was being employed, for voluntary sporadic activity, even though it might eventuate in greater fixed-interest representation, was exactly the thing to be avoided. The rise to power of unrecognized pressure groups in America was an example of how ill-adapted individualistic conceptions of representation were to deal with the necessities imposed upon politics by modern life. Negative regulation was futile, and to organize representation around irresponsible individuals was perhaps worse than to organize it around geographical constituencies.

Although the climate of American opinion was most uncongenial to pluralistic representation, nevertheless, especially during the period of the New Deal, a number of partially conceived steps in its direction were taken. The Duffy Bituminous Coal Act, the Cotton and Tobacco control acts, the N.I.R.A., the War Labor Boards, the S.E.C., the O.P.A., and the A.A.A. all brought elements of group representation into the national government, in several cases taking in business units and associations whose actual political power hitherto had grown almost to the stature of functional federalism.

The distinction between corporatism and administrative pluralism was not made evident to public discussion, however. Unlike corporatism, administrative pluralism restricts the power of the represented interests to advice. It compartmentalizes the representation into different bureaus, each of which deals only with facets of the total problem of representation. That is, an administrative advisory committee will deal typically with only one or a few issues concerning the represented interests, leaving other problems to industrial selfgovernment, traditional governmental regulation by law, unilateral agency administration, or even to advisory committees in other federal agencies. It often treats one fixed interest functionally or vertically (e.g., managers of steel plants), while treating its opposing fixed interest traditionally or horizontally (as with general advisory committees on labor). Administrative pluralism multiplied in both state and federal governments during the post-World War I period. Large grants of power of private groups, i.e., corporatism, remained generally suspect.

These, then, are broad chapters of the movements of American ideas most pertinent to the study of representation. Historical chapters are always in a large sense unrealistic, and that handicap has been avoided as much as possible. Such chapters are slices of a process that is incapable of being broken off and recommenced de novo. Each one contains its past as well as its future. The forbidden apple, when it dropped into the hands of Eve, had a brief and measurable physical history which was later defined by Newton. Its social career, as any theologian will explain, has continued to this day with rather bewildering consequences.

PC.GIF     PC.GIF    

 Table of Contents