U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Toward Democracy Book Club: Entry 4 – Chapters 1-2

Dust Jacket for Jim Kloppenberg’s Toward Democracy (OUP, 2016).

Last week I posted the schedule. I will do my best to stay with it. Today we proceed with chapters one and two. As noted in prior Book Club entries, my notes here are purposely not comprehensive. They’re idiosyncratic summaries in relation my interests. They focus on aspects of the chapters that catch my eye. So this, and other entries, are not traditional reviews. They are merely conversation starters. I do welcome (absolutely!) comments and observations about topics, themes, and people I neglect.

Chapter One – Born in Bloodshed: The Origins of Democracy

Chronologically speaking, this is the broadest chapter. Its survey of the precursors of pre-modern democratic thought moves us from the Greeks to Reformation Europe, and a bit beyond. It covers 500 BCE to roughly ~1600 CE.

Kloppenberg (JTK) opens with reflection on Michel de Montaigne. A study of Montaigne’s thought is used to launch discussions of autonomy, the ethic of reciprocity, cultural diversity/relativism, restraint (or self-mastery), submission, mercy, and sensible doubt. While Montaigne was no democrat, his Essays meditated on ideals that would be central to democracy’s development and flourishing. I noted also that JTK explicitly attributes some of Montaigne’s convictions about civil society to “convictions [that] originated in response to the new world of America.”[1]

While transitioning from the reflective open with Montaigne, JTK pauses, before traveling back to the ancient Near East, Greece, and Rome, for larger observations. This one struck me as relevant in 2017: “Popular government…cannot be established or sustained unless people are willing to let their worst enemies exercise power. …Responding to defeat with violence is fatal to democracy.” [2] Words of wisdom, even if you reject the normalization of the winners.

The Torah, JTK notes, introduced the “logic of the covenant” to civil rule, meaning it established “the unlimited authority of the law” while implying the “limited authority of any particular king.” This notion of a covenant will be key as the chapters move on to religious settlements in North America, particularly New England. Also valuable, from the ancient Hebrews, is the notion of rabbinical commentary and disputes about Torah. A “Jewish commitment to deliberation” informed this thinking about covenants, kings, and the law. [3]

In terms of Greek practices and thinking, Kloppenberg underscores a few contributions: the use of the lot, or sortation; holding officials accountable to the wider public, locating ultimate decision-making in the popular assembly, and Solon’s constitution. Despite these recommendations, Greek thinkers generally considered Athens’ democratic ways its fatal flaw as a city state. Democracy was a travesty in relation to justice and the elevation of merit. Nevertheless, isonomia, or equality before the law, was a key virtue for democracy in the eyes of Aristotle.[4]

On Rome, JTK wryly observes that the Roman Empire’s “most lasting contribution to the long-term development of democracy might have been its failed suppression of Christianity.” Christianity challenged “Roman assumptions concerning hierarchy and honor” with their egalitarian communities. Because they renounced Roman gods, and hence Roman authority and law, persecutions ensued, which caused martyrdoms and more intense devotions. This also caused theological reverberations in Christianity (i.e. toward a more cosmic, inclusive, and universal story) that would increase its attractiveness in the Mediterranean area. [5]

Passing over Augustine, Medieval politics, and Renaissance humanism, I want to continue the thread of religion and speed this discussion ahead to the Reformation.

Kloppenberg forwards two key ways that the Reformation contributed to laying the ground for democracy. (1) Protestants challenged human religious hierarchies, and (2) they “emphasized the sacred dimension of ordinary life,” which meant “trusting the judgment of ordinary people.” Furthermore, the Reformation introduced a problematic for democracy that has remained for the last 400 years: “the tension between religious devotion turning into intolerant zealotry…and religious devotion justifying popular government by providing the rationale for seeing the will of the people as the will of God…” Kloppenberg feels there are perhaps too many historiographic accounts of democracy that see it as about economic struggle or the defense of rights and liberties against state power. [6]

This chapter concludes, at the start of the seventeenth century, with Kloppenberg’s observation that “democracy had few friends.” The wars of religion that had followed the Reformation resulted in “the rise of royal absolutism and deepened distrust of the people whose revolts against authority took such destructive turns.” Before leaving this chapter, and its many discussion of religious contributions to the development of democracy (particularly Christianity), JTK forwards an irony: “When religious and political pluralists at last vanquished absolutists, ..among the casualties were the religious underpinnings of the golden rule, the ideal that had made possible the emergence of the ethic of reciprocity on which democracy depends.” [7]

I don’t have many larger reflections on this chapter. It covers well-trodden survey ground, even while it bends those familiar topics to the themes JTK will reinforce as time passes. It’s a necessary device in a tome as comprehensive as Toward Democracy.


1. Did you find the survey adequate?
2. What thinkers would you have added?
3. Does JTK overplay the role of religion?
4. Are Roman contributions underplayed?

Chapter Two – Voices in the Wilderness: Democracies in North America

I spent too long talking about chapter one above (still finding my stride here, for the Book Club!), so now my notes on this chapter will necessarily be more brief and mechanical. And that’s in spite of the fact that I enjoyed this one more!

The chronology of this chapter is much more abbreviated: ~1600-1650. It concentrates on the New England colonies, geographically—particularly the Massachusetts Bay and Narragansett Bay. Apart from Boston, little communities (all now more famous) figure prominently in Kloppenberg’s story: Charlestown, Watertown, Dedham, Exeter, Plymouth, Patuxit/Portsmouth, New Haven, Hartford, Windsor, Wetherfield, and Providence.

Kloppenberg’s thesis is as follows: “The history of democracy in early America…is neither a triumphal procession nor a fiction. … By 1660, however, various forms of governance had emerged throughout England’s North American colonies that rested more firmly and explicitly on the principle of popular sovereignty, and incorporated more elements of popular participation, than did any forms found in seventeenth-century Europe. No one set out deliberately to achieve that result. The irony of democracy I America thus begins with the first towns established in New England.” [8]

The main characters in this chapter are, in order of importance, John Winthrop, Roger Williams, Nathaniel Ward, William Dyer, Anne Hutchinson, Robert Keayne, Thomas Hooker, John Robinson, William Bradford, and John Davenport.

One of the key developments in these communities became the role of assemblies. These assemblies animated sentiments for popular sovereignty, self-government, and autonomy. The tension between direct and representative democracy quickly resolved itself, for practical reasons, in favor of the latter. Citizenship and rights of participation derived from church membership. Differences were resolved in a top down fashion, and consensus was nearly always favored over dissent. [9]

Thomas Hooker emerges as the figure articulating key ideas in the transition to more expressive modes of popular sovereignty. Hooker argues that magistrates should be chosen by the people, in accordance to Biblical principles found in Proverbs. Because “in the multitude of counsellors there is safety,” the people’s authority ruled. “The foundation of authority is laid in free consent of the people.” Hooker invoked the idea of the covenant in binding together the civil sphere. This move lent a sacredness and seriousness to town governments that attempted to discern the general will. That seriousness functioned to repress dissent. That move culminated in Nathaniel Ward’s The Body of Liberties (1641), which built on principles found in Greek, Roman, and English common law more than the church. [10]

Moving away from New England, I found Kloppenberg’s justifications for downplaying the significance of Maryland and Virginia convincing (namely, capitalists motivations in the latter, which led to tobacco cultivation and then slavery). Problems with tobacco planters and small farmers also became problems in Maryland. Apart from those other English settlements, the Spanish and French possessions involved few to no permanent, self-sufficient settlements or the cultivation of families in North America. For better or for worse, the conditions for the development of democracy were most favorable in the more autonomous English settlements.[11]

Although I’ve read about these events many times, I hadn’t read them as closely as Kloppenberg presents the figures and communities herein. The focus on the question of ‘democracy’ gave it more urgency for me.


1. Does JTK adequately present the conditions for the development of New England democracy?
2. Do you agree with his lack of emphasis on other English colonies (e.g. VA or MD)?
3. What figures does he leave out from the 1600-1650 period?
4. What political considerations are underplayed? Perhaps the threat of Native Americans as a unifier?
5. Is the presentation in this chapter too traditional, with its focus on New England?


[1] James T. Kloppenberg, Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 22-25

[2] Ibid., 26.

[3] Ibid. 27.

[4] Ibid., 27-37.

[5] Ibid. 37, 43.

[6] Ibid., 50-51.

[7] Ibid. 59-60.

[8] Ibid, 67.

[9] Ibid., 82, 85.

[10] Ibid., 84, 86-87.

[11] Ibid., 88-93.