More than 200 years later, the United States may well be losing the American Revolution. That revolution not only delivered independence but also severed America’s ties with a country that many colonists perceived to be deeply flawed. As Thomas Paine wrote in “Common Sense,” England’s constitution saddled it with “two ancient tyrannies” — monarchy and aristocracy, twin evils that, among other things, spawned a society riven with inequities while contributing “nothing to the freedom of the state.” Insurgents worried that the longer the colonies remained part of the British Empire, the greater the likelihood that England’s imperfections would corrupt America.
England did not corrupt America, but its imperfections have nonetheless become features of the modern United States: the concentration of wealth in few hands, diminished (or scant) expectations of upward mobility among a large chunk of the population, frequent wars, a standing army, executive sway over the legislative branch, elected officeholders who not infrequently appear to hold their offices for life. If Paine, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe could see America today, they might not only think that America had lost its way but also that the time for a new revolution had come.
In the age of the American Revolution, an oligarchy presided over England. Some people inherited seats of power, while virtually all of the remaining officeholders came from the wealthy, educated elite. Many of these represented “rotten boroughs,” that century’s version of gerrymandering, a practice that left much of the English citizenry unrepresented or underrepresented. Managing the system for their own benefit, the governing elite never considered using the power of government to improve the lives of those outside their class.
Few opportunities existed for the poor to improve their condition. As historian J.H. Plumb wrote, many artisans and farmers were among the “multitude of losers” in English society, peoples whose lives were “threaded with desperation and anxiety.” Writing decades before the American Revolution, journalist Daniel Defoe broke English society down into tiers:
The great, who live profusely
The rich, who live plentifully
The middle sort, who live well
The working trades, who labour hard, but feel no want
The farmers, who fare indifferently
The poor, who fare hard
The miserable, that really pinch and suffer want
Those beneath the “middle sort” made up the vast majority of England’s inhabitants, and the gaps in wealth between the tiers of society were massive. The average annual income of the nobility was 6,000 times that of farmers and craftsmen.
If many of America’s insurgents in 1776 were dismayed by England’s government and social system, nearly all were appalled by England’s seemingly incessant warfare. England fought four major wars and a few smaller ones during the 75 years preceding the American Revolution. In 1775, Benjamin Franklin spoke of the eternal “plundering wars” brought on by the “rapacity” of England’s ruling oligarchy. The next year, Paine wrote in “Common Sense” that the king had little to do but give away offices to toadies and make war.
Many American revolutionaries were convinced that England’s best days were behind it. One colonial rebel referred to England as “an old, wrinkled, withered, worn-out hag.”
America escaped England as a result of the War of Independence, but concerns about the dangers of oligarchy lingered after the Treaty of Paris in 1783. By the 1790s, Jefferson, Paine and Monroe feared that the Alexander Hamilton-led Federalist Party was advocating policies that would lead America to resemble England.
Hamilton wanted to emulate England’s system of governance, which he saw as “the best model the world ever produced.” At the Constitutional Convention, he urged the delegates to craft a document that would guarantee that the few — “the rich and well born” — would be in control, checking “the imprudence of democracy.” Jefferson, Paine and Monroe worried that Hamilton’s economic policies of refinancing the debt and creating a banking system were the first steps toward replicating the despised English government and society that America had just fought a war to escape.
They feared that the Federalist program would in time lead not only to the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few but also to the creation of forces that would prod the United States into one war after another. After all, Hamilton, as President George Washington’s treasury secretary, achieved a funded debt and national bank and introduced public securities, all of which followed the English model — and which had generated great wealth and power among the new English class of moneyed men, while funding the seemingly endless wars.
In the election of 1800, Jefferson offered an alternative, in the process sounding uncannily like a modern-day progressive. He stood against anything that might lead to an American oligarchy, remarking that he had “not observed men’s honesty to increase with their riches.” He opposed “a standing army in time of peace” and assailed “corruption, plunder and waste” by public officials. He disapproved of executive preponderance over the legislative branch and disagreed with governments that wished “to go backwards instead of forwards to look for improvement.”
Jefferson was so frightened by the menace to democracy that he saw in Hamilton’s designs that he thought his election as president constituted what he variously labeled the “revolution of 1800” and a second American Revolution. In his first inaugural address, Jefferson stated that “the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail,” and he spoke of majority rule as the “vital” or “sacred principle” to which he was committed. So long as it prevailed, he said, America would be “the world’s best hope.”
Jefferson, Paine and Monroe saw Jefferson’s victory as the triumph of American democracy over dangerous Hamiltonian impulses. But history is filled twists and turns, and our conditions today signal that they might have been wrong. The United States has been embroiled in lengthy wars for much of the past 75 years. And like the England of old, modern America’s plague of wealth inequality is accompanied by disturbing signs of downward mobility that threaten to mire many in poverty, anxiety and even hopelessness.
If they were here today, Jefferson, Paine and Monroe might start looking at our Constitution — parts of which they had found objectionable even in their own time — for an answer. Jefferson wished to preserve the Constitution but warned against a drift toward “monarchising its features” and the emergence of anything resembling “hereditary tenure” in the Senate. Monroe even supported calling a second constitutional convention to revise the original document.
Both were troubled by the realization that the Constitution had been designed to protect entrenched interests by making change exceedingly difficult, but they accepted it as the price for preserving an American union. Jefferson anticipated that for centuries to come most Americans would be farmers and fervent democrats, which would guard against the advent of those qualities that had made England flawed.
Few in 1800 could have imagined that the day would come when on average more than $10 million is needed to win a Senate seat (indeed, senators originally weren’t even elected) and well over $1 million, sometimes even more than $2 million, is necessary to win a House seat even in rural districts. Or that in our day the wealthiest 0.1 percent of Americans would control 22 percent of the wealth while the bottom 90 percent possesses 23 percent.
These signs of oligarchy might lead Jefferson, Paine and Monroe — revolutionaries that they were — to attempt to change the undemocratic portions of the Constitution. They might now rethink an electoral college that enables candidates to win the presidency without securing a majority of the popular vote, a Senate in which the least populous states have the same weight as the most populous and a Supreme Court on which unelected justices hold lifetime appointments.
Or, instead of seeking to change the Constitution, they might search for other means to rehabilitate the democracy that they believed led America to stand apart from the rest of the world, making this nation — as Jefferson put it in his first inaugural address — “the world’s best hope.”
Modern reformers should keep this inspirational vision in mind, looking for ways to revolutionize America, increasing equality, fairness and upward mobility.