Why are we twenty-first-century US historians certain that racism, sexism, and discrimination on the basis of religion, class, or ethnicity is evil, when our predecessors took for granted that native-born Protestant white men should exercise power over everyone else? Why do we reject inherited privileges and assumptions about the legitimacy of existing institutions and those who exercise authority? I think the answers are self-evident: we are the products of a series of cultural revolutions that transformed the way we think. Most modern US historians automatically trace that transformation to the 1960s, but it began instead in the sixteenth century, with the Protestant Reformation, and continued with the wars of religion, the eighteenth-century democratic revolutions, and the agonizingly slow spread of political and then social democracy during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Developments since 1945 represent the culmination of a centuries-long assault on earlier forms of decision-making. The ideas and attitudes that most of us take for granted have their roots in a very long process of replacing top-down with bottom-up forms of decision-making.
We rarely stop to think about the origins of our own ways of thinking because they seem to us so obviously correct. We have trouble even imagining the reasons why other people do not share them, which explains why we so quickly and confidently dismiss those with whom we disagree as ignorant, bigoted authoritarians. Almost all of us hold, more or less firmly, convictions concerning moral, political, economic, and social justice that we rarely submit to scrutiny. In a democracy, that is a mistake. Unless we acknowledge that our own convictions are contingent–cultural products rather than universal and undeniable truths–we are likely to continue to talk past those who disagree with us. That is why the history of democracy matters.
I want to extend my thanks to Lilian Calles Barger for organizing this forum and to Claire Rydell Arcenas, Holly Brewer, and Daniel Wickberg for their thoughtful and generous contributions. Sustained engagement with one’s work is the most valuable gift one scholar can give another. Because I know just how much time and energy it takes to read Toward Democracy with care, my gratitude is correspondingly deep.
Both Arcenas and Wickberg focus on the same theme, the tension in the more generous formulation, or the inconsistency they see between my arguments concerning democratic ideals and the messiness of the historical record, between what they characterize as a Whiggish teleology and a historicist commitment to facing the particularity of the past. I am grateful to Wickberg for his crystalline description of the principles and premises of democracy as I understand them. When I began presenting versions of my argument more than a decade ago, I became aware that some historians consider any attempt to derive from the historical record particular characteristics of democracy misconceived and anti-historical. I am unrepentant.
My understanding of democracy emerged from the history of democracy itself. It took shape as a result of having studied and taught the history of the forms democracy has taken, as well as the history of ideas about democracy in Europe and America, since I started graduate school in 1974. Beginning with Uncertain Victory, putting American and European theory and practice in relation to each other has been at the center of my teaching and my scholarship. My understanding of democracy as a way of life, as an ethical ideal as well as institutions of self-government, did not originate with me—or with John Dewey or Jürgen Habermas, two thinkers whose writings have had a profound impact on me. Thinking about democracy began in classical Greece and has continued into the present. I think the relation between institutions such as the rule of law and popular elections and ideals such as popular sovereignty, autonomy, and equality cannot be grasped without probing the cultural preconditions on which those institutions and ideals have rested historically. That is why the commitments to deliberation, pluralism, and an ethic of reciprocity, the pillars on which I think democracy rests, are at the center of my analysis.
Much of what has been written about democracy by political scientists, political theorists, and historians has neglected the linkages between institutions, ideas, and cultural commitments as democracy emerged historically. My goal in Toward Democracy is to show those connections in Atlantic history, and I laid out a framework in the Introduction not because I wanted to present a transhistorical or metaphysical conception of democracy but to make clear from the outset the complex ways in which these forms of governance and forms of life have been enmeshed with each other. A history of democracy understood solely as the rise of institutional mechanisms, solely as the development of social movements, or solely as the history of ideas seems to me inadequate. That is why I wrote a history in ideas, a history that pays attention to the details of political and socio-economic change and also offers sustained analysis of the ideas that those who wrote about democracy in a multitude of different contexts found most compelling.
The book calls attention to failures, reverses, delays, and deferrals, as Arcenas, Brewer, and Wickberg all note. For that reason it is not surprising that my conception of democracy might seem teleological. But as Arcenas also points out, I argue explicitly that the ideal of democracy is unattainable, even in principle, because it represents an aspiration toward autonomy, equality, mutual respect, and toleration of difference that have receded toward the horizon even as the more homogeneous cultures of the early modern era have given way to the increasing (although still contested) toleration of diversity in the last century. I emphasize the role of religion in the history of democracy in part because the Judeo-Christian tradition has provided believers with principles that can be—and often have been–deployed on behalf of inclusion and equal treatment, even though religious groups more often have shown hatred toward one another that betrays rather than embodies the injunction of Hillel and Jesus to love your neighbor as yourself. All historians write with implicit standards of judgment that are rarely made explicit. The framework used for examining the history of self-rule in Toward Democracy, which took shape in my mind as a result of several decades of teaching and research, is explicit. I tried to use it historically, to show how and why thinkers and activists mobilized as they did, in different times and places, to achieve their own goals, rather than using it to commend or condemn historical actors by measuring them against a rigid, unchanging standard.
A few years ago I wrote two articles for Modern Intellectual History that I hoped would explain the reasons for my practice in Toward Democracy. The first was a defense of the method I have been calling pragmatic hermeneutics ever since I introduced the term in an essay on objectivity published in The American Historical Review in 1987. I contend that we must balance the necessity of interpreting the past, constrained by evidence from the historical record that limits the range of arguments deemed persuasive by our scholarly community of discourse, with our critical judgments concerning what historical inquiries matter most for our own day. The second was an article on Tocqueville’s philosophical history and why I think the effort to balance commitments to philosophy and history remains not only legitimate but also urgent and, to a degree, inescapable. Wilhelm Dilthey and Max Weber both made more explicit than Tocqueville did the reasons why practitioners of the Geisteswissenschaften cannot avoid making value judgments: the objects of our study, as well as the way in which we express ourselves, are necessarily meaning-laden. Much as we might aim for detachment, we are creatures of our own time and place, and we should be aware of our commitments rather than trying to mask or deny them. To acknowledge one’s own convictions, one’s own judgments, seems to me not to risk committing metaphysics but instead to reflect the awareness that no one stands beyond history.
Historicism, as Thomas Haskell wisely observed, can take many forms. At one extreme, it makes the writing of anything other than pointillist micro-histories impossible. If one focuses with sufficient specificity on an individual life and moment in time, every particular person and period is unique, without precedent or echo. Any effort to connect the dots is doomed to failure. At the opposite extreme, everything can be made to fit into a cosmic pattern of the sort that Butterfield skewered. Is there a middle ground? Is there a way to acknowledge the particularities of historical development, the twists and turns, the contingencies and unexpected outcomes of individual decisions–the tragic ironies, to use the term I prefer for understanding the history of democracy–while still piecing together from those jagged fragments a coherent narrative? The moderate historicism that Dilthey recommended remains for me an attractive method. I think historians can appreciate the particularity of every individual and moment yet still try to place those objects of analysis both within chronological frameworks and in relation to the present. Practicing historians need not become nihilists, nor, I think, does the explicit use of ideals for purposes of clarification in historical analysis mean one is guilty of teleology.
In the Introduction to Toward Democracy, I explain why I consider my analysis neither Whig nor anti-Whig: I see the history of democracy less as a story of triumph or progress toward a definite telos than as a story of struggles with persistent obstacles, a story of some successes along with repeated failures. Despite the achievement of universal suffrage and the expansion of those accorded the rights of citizenship, the struggle to realize the ideals of autonomy and equality continues today (p. 713, n. 13). I stand by that judgment. I was aware of the tension between history and philosophy that Arcenas, Brewer, and Wickberg identify as I worked on Toward Democracy. It is a tension I consider not only unavoidable but productive.
Arcenas, Brewer, and Wickberg have offered such generous assessments of the book that it seems almost churlish to quibble with some of their observations. In the spirit of deliberative engagement and respect for difference that I consider as crucial for scholarship as for democracy, I will comment on a few issues. I am fascinated by Arcenas’ conception of democratic time. It is true that I am veering away from the notion of time as cyclical, with its implication of inevitable decline as the consequence of development, which historians since John Pocock have associated with the rebirth of classical republican ideas in the Renaissance and early modern eras. Instead of pointing toward a particular telos, democratic time must be open-ended, unpredictable, because it will reflect popular choices.
It is also true that I have long disputed the notion that eighteenth-century thinkers operated within hermetically sealed liberal and republican languages. Toward Democracy provides a lot of evidence of creative uses of multiple vocabularies. Inasmuch as my analysis veers toward a version of consensus, as Wickberg suggests, I would argue, against earlier versions of a unitary liberal tradition, that Americans have shared instead a commitment to democracy, a commitment to argument and conflict rather than comity. Lying beneath those disagreements, I contend, was an initially inchoate sense of what self-government requires. That awareness took more determinate shape through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as the number of people judged capable of participation slowly expanded, and it came into particularly sharp focus in the writings of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. But Americans have been arguing about the issue that Brewer identifies, Jefferson’s question about who is qualified to exercise political judgment, since the seventeenth century. As Barger observes in her introductory comments, the expansion of the suffrage to include women and, eventually, African Americans stands in paradoxical relation to the simultaneous thinning out of the ethical commitments to autonomy and reciprocity that eighteenth—and many early nineteenth-century thinkers considered the central requirements of self-rule. That, in a nutshell, is the dynamic I characterize as the tragic irony of democracy.
I will comment on two of Brewer’s observations, because I do not think we disagree. First, I concur with her contention that developments in Rhode Island in particular and New England more generally during the 1640s were “only one small part of democratic reforms of the” English “interregnum.” But as she notes, many of those democratic initiatives were annulled in the restoration of Charles II, precisely the point of the contrasts drawn in chapters two and three. Early experiments with democracy in England’s North American colonies planted the seeds for later flowerings of self-rule, whereas similar initiatives in England were squashed when monarchy was restored. There was nothing unique about the ideas of Roger Williams or Thomas Hooker, or about the ideas of other now-obscure early settlers in the northern English colonies who undertook to govern themselves and called their forms of governance democraticall. What was distinctive was their surprising success in sustaining a degree of self-rule strikingly inconsistent with English law and practice after 1660 or—and this is the second point—
after 1688. Although I see what Brewer is driving at concerning William III and Walpole, it had not occurred to me to conceive of the post-1688 English monarchy, or of Walpole’s ministry and his policy of salutary neglect toward the colonies, as conscious rather than inadvertent or accidental contributions to the rise of democracy. Brewer’s point about what became possible after 1688, however, to a limited degree in England and, even more strikingly, in the colonies, is also consistent with my arguments in chapter four. In short, I do not see why she considers her comments about English politics a corrective to the analysis offered in Toward Democracy.
I will conclude with a final note about conflict and about the enemies of democracy. To have paid closer attention to those who opposed popular democracy, which I did in an earlier draft of the book that was half again as long as the published version, would have required even more patience from readers. From Hobbes and Filmer through Bonald and Maistre to George Fitzhugh and Louisa McCord, opponents of egalitarianism and self-rule offered spirited challenges to all the ideas discussed in Toward Democracy. I could not do justice to both sides of these arguments and fit everything into a single volume. That project remains for another historian.
Finally, I disagree with the claim that I treat violence and radical change as necessarily counter-productive and anti-democratic. I make explicit in my discussions of the Haitian Revolution, the French Revolution, and the US Civil War in particular that no change would have occurred without violence. I do contend, however, that in our understandable enthusiasm for those whom we place on the right side of history, opponents of hierarchy, privilege, and oppression who fought the good fight, we tend to pay less attention than we might to the staying power of those they sought to displace. Not only did earlier Elizabeth Warrens persist, so did the petty tyrants, royalists, and slaveholders who not only refused to be silenced but who succeeded in seizing power and who stymied, for generations, the efforts of democracy’s champions. The violence of all those struggles for self-rule was necessary. Change would not have occurred otherwise. But the violence that followed was equally, and in some cases more lastingly, significant, because it provided the means whereby regimes of brutal repression were reestablished. That outcome, the deepest tragic irony, is also an integral part of our inheritance.
James T. Kloppenberg is the author of Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought (Oxford University Press, 2016) and the Charles Warren Professor of American History at Harvard University. See full introduction to this series.