Hermits Rock

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A habit of thinking

Joel Barlow, in his Advice to the Privileged Orders in the Several States of Europe, published in 1792, suggested that what really separated the free from the oppressed of the world was simply a “habit of thinking.” Indeed, said Barlow, the mind of man was “the only foundation” for any system of politics. Men never submitted to a king because he was stronger or wiser than they were, but because they believed him born to govern. And likewise men have become free and equal when they have thought they were so. When men asserted that nature had established inequalities among themselves, and thus had given to some the right of governing others, what they actually meant, said Barlow, was cultural nature, not physical. Therefore Aristotle was as right in teaching that some were born to command and others to be commanded as the French National Assembly was in declaring that men were born free and equal. What men believed, said Barlow, was what counted. Many “astonishing effects… are wrought in the world by the habit of thinking.” It was custom, mental familiarity, culture, not force, that supported social gradations and distinctions, and even tyranny itself. But “let the people have time to become thoroughly and soberly grounded in the doctrine of equality, and there is no danger of oppression either from government or from anarchy.” In the final analysis, concluded Barlow, it was the Americans’ habit of thinking “that all men are equal in their rights“ which had created their Revolution and sustained their freedom.
—Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787 (It’s the first paragraph.)



So, if the American public are now serfs (so to speak), is it because of a change in habits of thinking since Revolutionary days, or is it that Barlow’s thesis is flawed?

It’s more the former than the latter. Barlow’s thesis is of its time. It’s less a prediction for than a description of the early Republic, probably both looking back at the monarchs still dominating Europe (that it is intended to be Advice shouldn’t be underestimated!) as well as the the constitutional convention and its effects on political life. The early Republic, especially from 1790 to about 1809 was an especially vibrant place for political philosophy and for republican governance. That changed quickly enough that even after Jefferson’s presidency, the U.S. was already a different state and nation than it had begun. Looking to Barlow as an indicator of our contemporary political life, the best one should hope for are capillaries that connect what we were then to what we are now.

I think I know, but I’ll ask anyway: what do you mean by serfs?

It was a bit of a hyperbole, but what I meant was a large class of people being ruled by a very small class of people with a tremendous amount of wealth and power, and the serf class largely accepting, or even celebrating it.

Even then I think there was a measure of difference between the actual reality of daily life (although to be fair, late 18th-century americans were remarkably literate, and the myriad political pamphlets that accompanied the Revolution and the years immediately following were an expression of that and of a broad political consciousness) and the description of daily life indicated by political theorists. When Barlow says “men,” after all, we know he doesn’t mean everyone.

BTW, I’m just getting into Wood’s book, and it’s really very illuminating from the first page. The first chapter works on the thesis that the Revolution just wasn’t very much like any revolution ever seen before because—well, the colonists didn’t actually disagree with English law. Indeed, many revolted because they saw the English constitution as the highest expression of law! And, for exactly the same reason, many others refused to revolt.