Global Ethics Forum: Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought

(soft music) – Our speaker is
James T. Kloppenberg, and he is the Charles
Warren Professor of American History at Harvard and teaches European and
American intellectual history. Today he will be discussing his recently
published magnum opus, entitled Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in
European and American Thought. – My history of democracy in European and American thought begins with Michel de Montaigne, a French writer who lived
during the wars of religion that convulsed Europe
throughout the 16th century. From his chateau
east of Bordeaux in Southwestern France, Montaigne could see
the roaming bands of Catholic and
Protestant soldiers that made life in the region insecure for decades and
sometimes made it a living hell. If you visit Montaigne’s
chateau today, you get a sense of the
life that he lived. In his study where he
created the book of essays that rank among the
most important writings of the early modern era, you can still see painted
on the beams of his ceiling his watchwords, the
words he lived by. These include the words
that he had inscribed on a medal that he
had cast for himself. One side reads “Je m’abstiens” or “I restrain myself” and on the verso “Que
sçais-je,” “What do I know?” Those qualities,
restraint and humility, lay at the heart of
Montaigne’s personal creed, along with two other values, his emphasis on
autonomy or self-rule and his ethic of reciprocity. Those four values, restraint, humility,
autonomy, and reciprocity, are central to my
argument concerning democracy as a way of life, the conception of
self-government whose history I trace
in Toward Democracy, and that explains
why I am so worried about our current situation. Some of these cultural
preconditions are
especially crucial. Restraint, humility, and
the ethic of reciprocity are required if people
are going to allow their worst enemies to govern
if they win an election. That willingness
is always fragile, and it can be destroyed with
disastrous consequences. Think how rare those
qualities have been. Think how often elections
in emerging democracies just precipitate a
new round of civil war between rival ethnic groups, or rival religious groups, or groups inhabiting
different regions with different
histories or traditions, or groups loyal to
a defeated leader. The second principle
of democracy is a commitment to autonomy, the independence
of the individual who internalizes and follows
legal and ethical norms. Without that
commitment to autonomy, majority rule is not enough because any group of three
can yield a majority of two committed to enslaving
the other one. Yet all of these values, restraint, humility,
reciprocity, and autonomy, like the principle of
popular sovereignty itself, are delicate and
cultural constructs, internally unstable and very difficult
to fit together using the blunt
instrument of politics. As if that weren’t bad enough, successful democracies depend on preserving cultural resources that the struggle
to achieve democracy erodes and sometimes destroys. And to complicate
matters further, the successful
achievement of democracy has often unleashed forces that can endanger the
cultural resources on which democracy depends, a dynamic that we’re watching
play out in our own day. The word democracy, as
I’m sure many of you know, descends from the Greek words
for the people, the demos, and power, kratos. It has always meant
popular government, but for most of Western history it has been a term of abuse, not the almost
universally accepted ideal it has become in recent decades. The word itself entered
European discourse only in 1260 with the translation of
Aristotle’s Politics into Latin, when the Dominican
monks who were charged with purifying
Aristotle’s pagan texts invented the term democracia
for popular government. But widespread
challenges to hierarchy and to the rule of
monarchy and aristocracy, challenges that can properly
be called democratic, because they rested on new
assertions about the capacity of ordinary people, such challenges emerged only
in the 16th and 17th centuries, when the ideas of
Renaissance humanism mingled with radical
varieties of Christianity to shake the foundations
of European culture. From the appearance of
Thomas More’s Utopia in 1516 to the peasant
rebellions of the 1520s and the rapid
spread of Calvinism, revolutionary ideas about the
capacity of ordinary people challenged prevailing
practices of governance. As religious warfare intensified throughout Europe
in the 16th century, the contagious
savagery that inspired Montaigne’s emphasis on
restraint and humility infected much of
European culture. The only alternative
to endless carnage appeared to be
unchallengeable authority. For that reason,
the anti-democratic ideas of royal absolutism came to be the dominant force in both the theory and
the practice of politics. Democracy in Europe and America developed against the backdrop of those murderous
wars of religion and the authoritarian regimes that emerged to bring
order to that chaos. Early modern misgivings
about popular government have to be understood
against the background of violence perpetrated
by ordinary people against other ordinary people
for more than a century. I think that most scholars have neglected that
gruesome history that lies behind the
emergence of democracy, a history of horrific violence, and I think that’s
the reason why we so complacently
dismiss as elitism the misgivings about democracy that were expressed in the
17th and 18th centuries. That might also explain
why scholars today fail to acknowledge
just how revolutionary the ideas and experiments with limited or partial
popular government were in the context of
those wars of religion. American historians in the
middle of the 20th century took for granted that
the story of America was, among other things,
a story of democracy. Today, many American
historians assume the opposite. In one recent study, the
only democratic communities in early America are to be
found aboard pirate ships. It is now standard
for historians of
18th-century America to lament the shortcomings
of the Revolution and to treat the Constitution
as a retreat from democracy. I think those judgments
are unbalanced. The history of early America contains a history of democracy, and it’s not a story of triumph, but neither is it a fiction. It is instead the
history of struggles between people with different and often incompatible ideas about autonomy, reciprocity, authority, and community, and, perhaps above
all, about salvation. In the early 17th century few of those who engineered
the institutions and practices of popular government on
either side of the Atlantic thought of themselves
as democrats. They associated that idea
with the absence of restraint, with the degradation
of government, and with the indulgence of sin. Even so, some of the
first English settlers
to North America embraced for religious reasons
the doctrine of self-rule that had led them to emigrate
from Anglican England and establish their own
communities of saints in the harsh climate and
isolation of New England. Puritans such as Roger
Williams and Thomas Hooker set up self-governing colonies in places like
Providence and Hartford to escape the authority
of the Church of England and that of people
such as John Winthrop, the governor of Massachusetts, people who were just
as firmly committed to the idea of
divine sovereignty as Williams and Hooker were to the idea of
popular sovereignty. It’s sometimes forgotten that some of the
towns and colonies established in the first
half of the 17th century self-consciously chose
the word democracy to describe the
form of government they were putting in place. Whatever we might
think of such colonies, which excluded women from
positions of authority and permitted slave-owning, these new settlements
conceived of themselves as democracies. And I think we’re
missing something if we fail to pay attention to the reasons why
they used that word. Struggles developed
within these colonies almost immediately, and important differences
separated New England from the colonies
to their south. But all of England’s
North American colonies developed forms of self-rule in their legislative assemblies, even those that lacked the particular institutions
of town meeting that were so pivotal
in New England. When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United
States in the 1830s, he called the New England
town the cradle of democracy. I think he was right. At roughly the same time that these New Englanders
were experimenting with forms of self-government
in the 1630s and 1640s, the ideas of religious
dissenters back home were plunging England
into civil war. The English Levellers, as they
were called by their enemies, argued for replacing monarchy with forms of popular government that were similar in
important respects to the experiments bubbling
up across the Atlantic. Whereas democrats in New England became the leading
figures of new colonies, such as Providence and Hartford, the ideas promulgated
by the Levellers led to the execution
of King Charles I and the bloody struggle
in the English Civil War that eventuated in
the protectorate
under Oliver Cromwell. The Leveller leaders
were imprisoned, put to death, or otherwise marginalized
as dangerous radicals. When the monarchy was restored
in 1660 under Charles II, the story of popular
government in England pretty much came
to an end until, well, until today, when the monarchy, against all
odds, is as popular as ever. Not until the 20th century
was the word democracy used in mainstream
English political life as anything but an epithet. My study of democracy provides extensive analysis
of the writings of many prominent theorists
and many less well-known people who struggled to flesh out
the meanings of democracy as it developed over
a long period of time on both sides of the Atlantic. I examined the staccato process whereby ideas and proposals
emerged and were debated, experiments with
democracy were conducted, sometimes deliberately,
sometimes inadvertently, or for different purposes, and the results
were then assessed, sometimes positively and
just as often negatively. To reiterate, radical
ideas about self-rule, ideas advanced in
England by the Levellers, by James Harrington,
later by John Locke, who was harried into exile, and by Algernon Sidney,
who was put to death, those ideas were decisively
rejected in England. But in England’s North
American colonies such ideas were
not only embraced, as they were by John Wise, they were also institutionalized and they were defended
against royal authority. Those were the ideas that
later became the armature of 18th-century American
resistance to Britain. In short, the seeds of
America’s democratic Revolution were planted long before
the 1760s and 1770s, long before Alexander
Hamilton met Aaron Burr. Those seeds developed
into different forms depending on the
institutional soil and the cultural climates prevailing in the
different colonies, but they all pointed in the
direction of self-government. The cluster of
ideas characterized as the 18th-century
Enlightenment certainly fed that
process of growth. My analysis of the Enlightenment places America’s
democratic Revolution, and perhaps even
more controversially, America’s democratic
Constitution, in the framework
of European ideas that informed the
Americans’ thinking, including the ideas of
that notorious radical, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau was much more
influential in America than has been recognized, and that’s one of the
principal arguments of my book. When Rousseau proposed actual, rather than hypothetical,
constitutional arrangements, as he did when he was invited to write frameworks for
Poland and for Corsica, he envisioned regimes of
representative democracy. He intended his idea
of the general will, which is often caricatured as a blueprint for
totalitarianism, merely to clarify the difference
between the common good, by definition, what is
in the public interest, and the momentary
will of the majority, which he called the will of all, which has to be measured against
something more permanent, something more enduring, something more
like a constitution than a public opinion poll. The constitutions that Rousseau proposed for Poland and Corsica were more similar to
than different from those that emerged from
the English colonies that separated from
Britain in 1776 and the document produced by
the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. The templates for the
United States Constitution were forged during the
years of the Revolution, when each of the colonies
either revised its charter to establish its own form
of democratic government or wrote a new constitution. In tribute to his
indispensable contributions to the debates that led up
to this break from England, it was John Adams
who was selected to write the constitution
for Massachusetts, which remains 237 years later the fundamental law
of the commonwealth, and it was this document
that became the template for four of the other
constitutions that
were then written. The constitution
that Adams framed, as he himself wrote proudly, was “Locke, Sidney, and
Rousseau reduced to practice.” Its purpose was to
promote the general will. Disagreements among Americans ran deep in the 1780s. There was widespread
dissatisfaction with the flimsy
union created by the Articles of Confederation that prompted the calling of
the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Scholars in the last
century have disagreed about how we should
understand that Constitution almost as vigorously as
Americans disagreed over it during the debates
over ratification. But I think the best studies of recent years show that the Constitution
cemented, rather than betrayed, the new nation’s
commitment to democracy. The two leading architects
of the Constitution, James Madison of Virginia and
James Wilson of Pennsylvania, from first to last
saw themselves as working for the creation of a democratic
form of government. But they believed that a
democracy could survive only if the dual
dangers of democracy, unrest leading to anarchy or the reestablishment
of tyranny, only if both of those
could be harnessed by democratic means. From Madison’s perspective, the various checks and
balances of the federal plan, and especially the
various filters that operated from
the local to the state and then the national
government, would do just that. Those institutions
would provide, as Madison put it in
the first speech he gave in the Constitutional
Convention, “The only defense against the
inconveniences of democracy “consistent with a democratic
form of government.” This was Madison’s first speech at the Constitutional
Convention. “What we want,” he says, “is a form of government
that provides a defense “against the
inconveniences of democracy “consistent with a democratic
form of government.” Representative
democracy would ensure that only those whom
Madison called virtuous, by which he meant people capable of seeing beyond
narrow self-interest
to the common good, only those people would
be chosen to serve in positions of authority. One of the principal objectives
of my book is to establish, or I would say more
accurately to reestablish, the essentially
democratic nature of the American Revolution
and the US Constitution. For the first century
after its ratification, no one in the United
States or Europe doubted that the United States was the first democratic nation. I think we need to pay
attention to the reasons why they made that judgment rather than assuming that we
were right and they were wrong. Few scholars have realized
that in Pennsylvania at the Constitutional
Convention in Philadelphia Madison’s principal
ally, James Wilson, wrote the most decisive
and influential speeches in favor of the Constitution with a copy of Rousseau’s
Social Contract at his elbow. The purpose of the Constitution, as both Madison and
Wilson said over and over, was to secure justice
through democracy. They envisioned a
form of government that would not empower
self-interested individuals or enable majorities to form
around particular interests, but would instead provide
the cultural resources as well as the
institutional framework necessary to enable
citizens of the new nation to defend democracy
against its dangers. Representative democracy
would provide the best means to the end that
Rousseau and Wilson called the general will, and that John Adams and
Madison more often called the common interest
or the public good. I’ve noted that de
Tocqueville’s analysis of American democracy is
important to my argument. De Tocqueville owed deep debts to his New England informants during his stay in Boston, and his conception
of American democracy depended on those
New Englanders’ own
ethic of reciprocity, a sensibility that they
correctly understood to be descended from
earlier Christian and classical republican ideals and that they explained
to Tocqueville lay beneath the institution of
the New England town meeting. That sensibility was
shared by Abolitionists, by champions of women’s rights, such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe,
Margaret Fuller. The sensibility of those
antebellum reformers with its emphasis on
the ethic of reciprocity reached a crescendo in the
presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln understood better than
most of his contemporaries the underlying
premises of democracy, and his words are just
as powerful in 2017 as they were during
his lifetime. In one of his first
public speeches before the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield,
Illinois, in 1838, Lincoln condemned
the brutal murder of an innocent black man
by a pro-slavery mob. He warned that such lawlessness threatened what Lincoln called America’s as yet
undecided experiment, testing the capability of a
people to govern themselves. Initially, Americans’ shared
animosity against Britain had enabled Americans to
project their hatreds outward. But now, what Lincoln called the basest principles
of our nature had returned in the
crusade to preserve, and even expand, slavery. The passions being whipped up on both sides of that struggle
now endangered the nation. Lincoln’s own ideas about race evolved painfully slowly
over the rest of his life until he reached a conviction concerning the evil of slavery that Frederick
Douglass described as zealous, radical, and determined. No matter how determined
Lincoln became to end slavery, he always tried to
balance his own ideas with his understanding of the convictions
of white Southerners. In his first inaugural he pleaded with the
South not to secede but instead to continue
to debate slavery. He concluded with
the familiar appeal to what he called the
better angels of our nature, the commitment to reciprocity, the commitment
violated by slavery, that he thought all
Americans could come to share across the color line. Even in the greatest
of his speeches at Gettysburg, and then
in his second inaugural when the outcome of the war
had finally become clear, Lincoln refused the
gloating triumphalism of most Northerners. Instead, he pledged to bind
up the nation’s wounds, to achieve and cherish
a just and lasting peace by acting with malice toward
none and charity toward all. For Lincoln, finishing
the work of the war did not mean continued violence, vengeance, or retribution, but the slow, steady work
of rebuilding the nation on a broader
foundation of justice, a foundation that would now
include those so long excluded. In the disheartening retreat from democracy
after the Civil War, white Americans in the
North as well as the South revealed the depth
of their racism. They also revealed that their commitment to
the ethic of reciprocity that was prized by the Whigs, by de Tocqueville,
and by Lincoln was rooted in soil far
too rocky to survive. The wounds that opened during the United States
Civil War have not healed. The divide between the Confederacy and the Union remains the principal
cultural divide in the United States today, the divide that continues to
shape our political discourse and that threatens the
ethic of reciprocity in American democracy. If you trace the lines of the most vociferous criticism of the 21st-century
Democratic Party in general, and of former President
Barack Obama in particular, those lines lead back
to the Confederacy. The Civil War had tragic
and lasting consequences for American democracy. In its aftermath the suffrage and civil
liberties expanded in the North and contracted in the South. Slavery was abolished, but forms of racial segregation were reconfigured
and reinvigorated until the Civil Rights
Movement at last forced the nation to dismantle
the regime of Jim Crow. The American Civil War poisoned the ethic of reciprocity
on which democracy depends. It sanctified the liberty
of some individuals, notably white men, at the expense of others. Like all civil wars, it left a legacy of
hatred and distrust that has made further
progress toward democracy less likely rather
than more likely even today, a century
and a half later. Democracy begins in bloodshed and it comes to life
only through conflict. In the Atlantic
world from the 16th through the end of the
19th century at least, when that conflict has taken
the shape of civil war, it has meant if not the end, then at least the
indefinite suspension, of the trust on which democracy must rest. Montaigne was right to emphasize the importance of
restraint and humility as well as autonomy
and reciprocity. In the absence of
those qualities, he believed that individuals
would prize freedom only to dominate others and democracy would
be impossible. In such circumstances only absolute authority
could ensure peace. When we look at the
history of democracy in Europe and America, it is apparent that
the struggles to
achieve self-government have often generated conflicts that have weakened the
cultural conditions necessary for
democracy to survive. In America our current
culture of hyper-partisanship tends to reinforce the
destructive tendencies toward self-righteousness, dogmatism, and intolerance, and to threaten
the sensibilities on which democracy depends. To conclude with the title
of my book’s final chapter, that dynamic has been the
tragic irony of democracy. (audience applauds) (soft music) – [Announcer] For
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Maurice Vega

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