Elite Competition and the Decline of Deference in Late 18th Century America

I am well aware that the topic of my discussion today sounds dry and boring, but I guarantee that many of my readers will find surprising relevance to the goings on of today by understanding the drastic political and cultural changes that took place in the late 1700’s shortly after the American Revolution.  By recognizing the same patterns of political behavior and civil (or uncivil) discourse, we may better understand the nature of the times we live in today.

In the last chapter to his excellent and scholarly work, Revolutionary Characters:  What Made The Founders Different, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon S. Wood describes the changing political discourse of the late 18th Century United States, in a chapter entitled:  “The Founders and the Creation of Modern Public Opinion [1].”  As I have often considered myself a bit of an 18th century man myself, with my philosophical interests, hostility to mob rule, and love of scholarly footnotes and classical (and biblical) allusions, it is refreshing to reread this chapter in light of my current experience with different cultural changes than those discussed, but of the same type.

In the 1790’s, what had been a “traditional” elite culture, where only members of the elite participated in political discourse, often on a very high intellectual level and with a certain disdain for the “common herd” had been drastically transformed into the sort of political culture that the United States still exhibits today, with the recognition of the rights of the people, and a mistrust towards elitist snobs, forcing all (regardless of what elites they support or represent) to speak in the language of egalitarianism, of at least pretending that the common people are their equals regardless of what they may believe in their hearts.

There are a lot of very interesting parallels one draw from this particular experience.  For one, the American Revolution, with its rhetoric of popular rebellion against the abusive and exploitative elites of England, damaged the position of those who would seek such elite status in the new United States.  Having inflamed popular passions against aristocracies, and having forbidden the giving of noble titles in their new government, flattening out the social system of the new nation, the would-be elites of the United States were dismayed to find out that the people had actually taken the rhetoric seriously and considered themselves the equals of those whom they had always respected as their betters.  This was a tough change to take–it ended up destroying the only genuinely elitist political party the United States has ever known, the Federalists, and permanently destroyed within the American political culture a widespread willingness for the common man (or woman) to defer to others on the basis of class.

Ironically enough, though, despite the rhetoric of equality that was promoted by such men as Jefferson and Madison and their southern-dominated party (which nonetheless depended for political victory on the more consistent democrats of the North, those urban proletarians and small farmers whom the snobs of the Democratic-Republican elite looked down on but nonetheless depended on), they themselves received a great deal more deference than the frustrated Federalists of New England who were ground to a pulp in the early 1800’s by popular furor.  The reason was that the would-be elites in New England were of a very close financial, educational, and social standing to those they would wish to differentiate themselves from.  They were more insecure elites (and therefore more boastful about their elite status), and thus more vulnerable to the leveling tendencies (among whites) of the late 1700’s cultural shift.  Southern elites received deference as a result of their position in the slaveowning squirearchy, and were thus insulated (except in Appalachian hillsides and piney woods and swamp country, where elites felt unwelcome anyway) from the people they supported theoretically but oppressed and looked down upon in actuality.

Therefore there was a cruel irony in the political discourse of the late 1700’s.  Those who, like Jefferson and Madison, professed in their support of the people, in actuality often did so on an abstract level given particular political hostilities (for example, to those who like Hamilton wished to create a modern Western military-industrial state), without really feeling themselves to be on the level of the people.  The people (most of them at least), in turn, so long as their leaders spoke the right egalitarian language, were in fact willing to tolerate great inequality in practice because of their belief that talent and fortune would level circumstances, and so whatever inequality existed was merely accidental and not structural.  The presence of slaves as a permanent underclass furthermore allowed all remaining whites to play the race card of equality in what really mattered while also co-opting potential competition into engaging in support of the system of plantation slavery in subsidiary roles as overseers or professionals serving the plantations.  The lack of the permanent slave underclass in the North prevented elites from co-opting their less educated and well-off neighbors who proved to demand a greater deal of equality in the absence of a comparable threat to slave revolt to their own social system.

We must therefore note that the decline of deference was a matter of language–elites were forced to talk the language of equality, even though in the South the actual reality of equality was not as important as the image.  However, we must also note the reason why such a shift occurred–a political party on the outs sought to manipulate the people, through rhetoric, that its opponents were tyrannical, elitist snobs.  Whatever the reality of the situation (that it was an intra-elite competition between two different factions of elites), the appearance was that some elitists were on the side of the people and others were not, and the success of that appeal led to a drastic shift in political discourse, preventing any politician ever again from questioning the right of the people to form opinions and participate in political discourse, however much they would have wished otherwise.  Once you let the genie in the bottle of the involvement of the common people out, you cannot go back to the politics of deference that reigned before, even if your elitist tendencies prevent you from going all the way towards making the equality of opportunity truly available to all in deed as well as word.

The way in which the appeal to the common people manifested itself is also of great interest to intellectual historians.  For one, an appeal to the common person meant a simplification of language, a coarsening of the tongue that some still lament, a mistrust of intellectuals, a lessening of the classical (and biblical) allusions that unlearned people would not recognize, a greater focus on image rather than word and reality.  As people mistrust words they became less able to articulate their positions and more likely to participate in mass movements promoted by demagogues and moved by the mob mentality rather than the voice of reason (which had been disparaged as being snobby and elitist).  To the extent we see such tendencies now, we remain deeply influenced by our past, separated by a wide gulf from the elitist band of philosophers we call our nation’s founders but whom we are widely apart in terms of our approach and worldview.

From across this wide gulf of time and worldview, we cannot go back to the way things were before.  We would be hypocrites to stay where we are, honoring the people in word and dishonoring them in action.  We may, however, recoil from going further onward towards seeking equality in opportunity, which need not be socialist leveling (which is equality of ends and not means, and requires the existence of a tyrannical government run by its own elitist snobs).  Without a recognition of what happened, we are vulnerable to drastic shifts and thoughtless struggle, without understanding why we are at the point we are.  Let us at least understand, so that we may turn our God-given capacities of reason on turning the grand ideals of our nation’s founding to reality, in deed as well as word, in thought as well as slogan.  If we cannot be the good 18th century men (and women) that we would want to be, may we at least be noble 21st century men and women, where we happen to exist.

[1] Gordon S. Wood, Revolutionary Characters:  What Made The Founders Different, (New York, NY:  The Penguin Press, 2006), 245-274.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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6 Responses to Elite Competition and the Decline of Deference in Late 18th Century America

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