Book Review

Struggling Over Democracy: *Toward Democracy* Roundtable

By Holly Brewer

(This is the second installment of the Toward Democracy Roundtable. Check here for yesterday’s introduction.)

James Kloppenberg begins his meditation on the origins and tensions of democracy with the observation that democracy has won.  Everywhere throughout the world, he begins, democracy is “the world’s governing ideal.” Where then did it come from? And what did its first advocates mean by it, and how was it supposed to function? Beginning with the Athenians, and pausing quite dramatically with the Reformation, his answer is in America, before the Revolution, indeed, he is even more specific: in Rhode Island, somewhere in the 1640s.  One might laugh at the specificity, or raise a skeptical eyebrow, but in truth – as one explores the modern meanings of democracy, of a broadly representative and inclusive government, that respects difference, and allows for equality within reason, and fosters virtue—all crucial elements of Kloppenberg’s definition, perhaps he is not wrong. He comes from a long line of reputable philosophers who have given democracy similar origins; my favorite is Alexis de Tocqueville, who similarly positioned democracy emerging among more generally the New England Towns, though Tocqueville was not new–he was reading earlier historians of New England.  Once discovered, Kloppenberg argues, democracy slowly spread, despite troubles from pesky kings, rising triumphant with the American Revolution.

But what if one did not begin with the proposition that democracy is now triumphant almost necessarily; that the spread of democracy, that is of representative and relatively egalitarian (at least in terms of access to rights) and virtuous liberalism is in fact a phase of world history; that America had an outsize role after WWII, but that democracies are not necessarily stable; that the elements of democracy are hard-won and difficult to maintain.  On some level Kloppenberg still has answers; he would agree that democracies are inherently fragile; that they seek too much, promise too much, and can never fully deliver on their ideals. Even if one agrees with Thomas Jefferson’s arguments for a broad franchise, democracy always begs crucial questions of power. John Adams maintained that most people are not virtuous enough to be granted the privilege of voting. Jefferson wrote, as Kloppenberg quotes, “If we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to enlighten their discretion”—the people must be educated into virtue.  But who, Kloppenberg rightly queries, should be doing the educating?

Kloppenberg walks a delicate tightrope in this vast and learned intellectual history between the actual progress of democracy in law and practice – thus the focus on Rhode Island in particular—and the ideas behind it. Indeed Towards Democracy is a veritable feast of ideas, a revelry in the sources and ideas of hundreds of thinkers from many periods.  In Kloppenberg’s deft hands they come alive, speaking to us across centuries of the kinds of tensions that appear in Jefferson’s words above, and in the words of many others. How should a just (democratic) government weight questions of rights under the law? How should individuals be inspired to act? What factors (reason or revelation) should inform their judgments?  As we encounter thinkers from Aristotle to Robespierre he tries to explain why their particular visions of democracy failed—Robespierre did not have enough respect for difference of opinion, for example, which Kloppenberg argues is essential to a vibrant democracy.  And as a feast of ideas of different thinkers, I found this book highly readable. There are places I would take issue on subtle points—but on the whole he gives many thinkers a fair reading, as they struggled, and many of them, like Montaigne with whom he began, really struggled, to come to some broad acceptance of difference; doctrinaire judgments could lead to war and destruction.

In terms of the ideas themselves, I would agree about the sequence of thinkers, and that taking religion seriously is absolutely essential for the early modern period; that democratic ideas in some fundamental way were born in the wars of religion that emerged with the reformation, probably because of the close connections between church and state in Europe and its colonies. Most of all I agree that it is time we historians returned to taking democracy or “democraticall” ideas seriously.

But outside the feast of ideas, and the rich contemplations of the necessary qualities of (and restraints upon) individuals in a strong democracy, I found myself troubled by some of Kloppenberg’s discussions of the institutional settings in which such ideas emerged and to which they applied. I was acutely conscious of what was missing; of too broad statements about democracy in the colonies, of his focus on New England. As he moved from European wars of religion to the colonies and then to England during the Civil War, I kept wanting him to realize that Rhode Island’s amazingly progressive 1647 Charter emerged in the midst of England’s Civil War – during the commonwealth government and was ratified by the same men who would later condemn and execute their king.  These were not separable events, but part of the same debates about the nature of power. Only in the absence of a king’s power in England could Rhode Islanders gain acceptance for their charter for “democracie.”   England’s Civil War—or England’s first revolution of the seventeenth century, as other scholars have called it, was not simply the failure that Kloppenberg describes as “democracy deferred” even if it did lead to a partial dictatorship under Cromwell and finally to monarchical restoration. Rhode Island’s Charter was only one small part of democratic-leaning reforms of the “interregnum” – many others were introduced under Cromwell’s law reform of 1653, then annulled at the restoration. What set democracy back two centuries in England was not the execution (after a trial) of their king, as Kloppenberg claims, but the restoration of one.

Likewise Kloppenberg describes the Glorious Revolution in a telling chapter title as a “coup d’état” for England and its empire, when many sources indicate otherwise. He quotes Increase Mather, who condemns Massachusetts Charter of 1692 as much more monarchical than their former charter, taken from them in 1684 by Charles II.  If indeed we were only to pay attention to New England, and skip the eight years in between, we might describe the Glorious Revolution as a coup d’etat for the colonies.  But there were eight years in between the two charters and there were many other colonies. The structure of power across the empire before 1688 was one where most of the power was in the hands of royal governors and appointed councils; New England colonies before 1684 with their elected legislatures and governors were a dramatic exception. James II, who became king in 1685, determined not only to put all the northern colonies into a “dominion” or government solely by royal governor and appointed council, he had such plans in the works for all colonies, envisioning as well a Southern dominion and one in the West Indies. The Glorious Revolution, which occurred not simply in England, but when word spread to the colonies, in almost all of them as well, defeated such plans.  But the colonists only rose against James II when it was safe to do so.

While Massachusetts’ new 1692 Charter was not as democratic as their 1641 settlement (crafted from an open ended charter to the Massachusetts Bay Company and with Charles I’s attention elsewhere!), it was dramatically more representative than the Dominion under James II. This was especially true because Massachusetts’ 1692 Charter allowed the upper house, the council, to be actually chosen by the lower house. Other colonies had weak assemblies that rarely or never met: New York, his own colony, had no assembly until after the Glorious Revolution. To see the Glorious Revolution as a coup d’état is thus especially problematic when it comes to empire. In England itself, as well, it brought real, if short term, changes.

It is a strange and subtle point, but Kloppenberg treats some of the most important theorists of democracy, Algernon Sydney and John Locke, as though their ideas really belonged to the era of Charles II and James II, even though he acknowledges both were accounted traitors or seditious in the 1680s. In terms of the organization of his argument, they come before the Glorious Revolution of 1688—true radicals emerging from the mists of monarchy, betrayed by the new interloping king William, who brought almost none of the reforms they theorized. But should they really be seen as belonging to the era before that Revolution? Sidney’s Discourses were only published (once!) in 1699—during the reign of William III. William appointed John Locke to a powerful position on the Board of Trade in 1696. Sidney’s and Locke’s ideas were only published and widely read after the Glorious Revolution. Due to restrictions on the press and harsh punishments, we wouldn’t even know their ideas—and Jefferson among others would never have read them—if there had not been a Glorious Revolution.

In practical terms, it is clear that many and dramatic reforms that we would associate with various degrees of democracy occurred on William III’s watch, even if incomplete. I would point to, for example, limits on young aristocrats being elected to Parliament (age restrictions) in 1695 or the Settlement Act of 1701, which prevented, from then on in England itself, any king from dismissing judges in the middle of the night – merely based on the king’ s pleasure – and replacing them with new ones. More importantly, in practical terms, Kloppenberg’s focus on New England ignores the extent to which practical democracies, despite the Glorious Revolution, were still sharply limited across most of the British Empire.  Only in Massachusetts, for example, and a few other colonies (such as Pennsylvania) did the upper houses have any connections to representative democracy. Many features of colonial governments continued to look like aristocracies through the eighteenth century.

Other advocates for democratic reforms are similarly dismissed: He portrays the Whig Robert Walpole as simply corrupt, when in fact it was during Walpole’s tenure as the first “prime minister”—a minister chosen by the house of commons—that most colonies were finally permitted printing presses (presses were forbidden by earlier royal instructions) and the colonial lower houses of assembly met regularly and the colonies gained greater independence—it was Walpole who allowed some measure of “salutary neglect.”  Cato’s Letters were written in response to the Tory South Sea Bubble, to Walpole’s opponents, not to Walpole. They aided Walpole’s rise and their arguments for freedom of the press arguably influenced decisions to allow printing presses in the colonies. Kloppenberg comes in a long line of similar, conservative dismissals of Walpole, who proudly displayed a painting of the humble, elderly Locke in his rooms.

On a certain level it does not seem fair to critique Kloppenberg for not knowing such details; he is more interested in the ideas, and in how those ideas influenced those who legislated and those who voted and other philosophers.  And yet he purposely situates those ideas in a context that characterizes every effort at real reform as failure. The social reforms of the American Revolution, the Civil War that it took to abolish slavery, or the French Revolution’s execution of king and aristocracy – for Kloppenberg all mark a retreat for democracy.  For him, too much change and violence means a decline in virtue and civil discourse.  I agree (who would not?) that war and violence are costly. I would query, about the Civil War, for example—whether one could have a meaningful democracy on the terms that Kloppenberg defines it—not only representative, but as respecting others, advocating equality under the law, allowing for difference – if hereditary slavery is legal.  In other words, “virtue” is a slippery term in Kloppenberg’s lexicon, and perhaps even in some ways something that belongs to an elite of privileged voters.  His “virtue” has an air of gentility.

All of this brings me back to the beginning, and to the question of whether in fact democracy is the favored form of government. I am reminded, somehow, that Towards Democracy was published before our most recent presidential election.  As Trump welcomes Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines to the White House, as he congratulates Recep Erdogan on an election victory that consolidates his power, as he praises strongmen around the world, America’s influence as a force actively promoting “democracy” as a form of government is disappearing. I would agree that democracy depends on principles—and on an education that fosters virtues of many kinds, as well as the information to make decisions.  But democracy also depends on small rules—of who can vote—of who is arrested and disenfranchised for minor “crimes”—of who has freedom to speak. It is something that always has to be fought for, and sometimes that struggle is not polite.  I am reminded of Elizabeth Warren’s continuing to read Coretta Scott King’s letter about Jeff Sessions, even after Mitch McConnell had formally silenced her: “Nevertheless, she persisted” outside the senate. Towards Democracy is an amazing effort, one that all historians who care about democracy should read, but if I had one wish, it would be for a more contextualized analysis of that struggle.

Holly Brewer is Burke chair of American cultural and intellectual history at the University of Maryland. She is currently finishing a book that situates the origins of American slavery in the ideas and legal practices associated with the divine rights of kings, tentatively entitled

Portrait of Holly Brewer, Burke Chair of American History and Associate Professor, Department of History, ARHU.

“Inheritable Blood: Slavery & Sovereignty in Early America and the British Empire,’ for which she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014. Her work situates the impact of political ideas in context across England and its American empire. Her first book traced the origin and impact of “democratical” ideas across the empire by examining debates about who can consent in By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority (University of North Carolina Press, 2005); and won three national prizes including the 2008 Biennial Book Prize of the Order of the Coif from the American Association of Law Schools.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. If Kloppenberg sees the American Civil War as “a retreat for democracy” (in this review’s words), that seems strange. One might view the Civil War as a consequence of the breakdown of the democratic process as it existed in the early-and-mid-19th-cent. U.S. (civil wars, almost by definition, represent the breakdown or failure of non-violent modes of resolving conflicts), but to consider, in a long view, the Civil War and the Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution (including the amendment abolishing slavery) as anything other than an advance for democracy seems bizarre, to put it mildly.

    As for “virtue” being “perhaps even in some ways something that belongs to an elite of privileged voters,” if he’s using ‘virtue’ to mean something like being conscious of, and wanting to discharge, certain civic duties or obligations, elites are perhaps more likely to think routinely in such terms. Through large swaths of history, the non-privileged are often too concerned with the practicalities of survival to have time to worry about their obligations to the polity. There are no doubt many exceptions to that generalization, and some of those exceptions might be particularly obvious during moments or periods of revolutionary upheaval. But Kloppenberg apparently, if I’ve read this review accurately, doesn’t much like revolutions.

  2. Louis, thank you for your post. Let me try to clarify even if I don’t answer your question fully. Kloppenberg presents political violence as the breakdown or failure of the democratic process of applying the principles of deliberation, pluralism, and reciprocity. The Civil War was an example, as I read him, of the breakdown of that process. No, I don’t think he believes the revolutions are the means to resolve political differences.

    Virtue, as defined by John Adams was a combination of self-government ( as in temperance and self-control) and benevolence toward others. This is generally how Kloppenberg uses virtue. I agree that this probably requires education and certain privileged position in society to exercise as civil virtue. That’s why education was so important in the early republic.

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