57: Drew McCoy’s The Elusive Republic

In The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America, Drew McCoy investigates the fierce debates among the Revolutionary generation regard the best economic structure for the new American Republic; the “elusive” republic is the one that could chart a middle stage of social development between Jeffersonian agriculture and Hamiltonian industrialization.  He situates political economy, which at that time was a combination of political science, sociology, and economics and was considered a practical subject for statecraft, within a larger Republican ideology intent on developing the American economy in line with Republican ideals.  I’m pretty sure his main innovation is to complicate the old Jefferson-Hamilton debate by suggesting that the elusive republic would have required freezing time, and, by extension, to show that Republicanism itself, if attached to these time-freezing economic policies, was also ill-fated.  Whew.

According to McCoy, who focuses primarily on the writings of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and especially James Madison, 18th century political economy developed in two different directions regarding commercial growth: the Ben Franklin/ Rousseau skepticism of all commerce and the Hamilton/ Barnard Mandeville embrace of the market and human selfishness.  Most American political economists were somewhere in the middle, and McCoy explores their thought regarding this middle path.  Apparently, at this time there were three different ways they thought American could develop:

  • as a primitive or Spartan economy, with self-sufficient agriculture and no commerce or luxuries
  • as a mid-level economy, with widespread property ownership, sophisticated agriculture, household manufacturing, and just enough trade to exchange American raw produce for refine European goods
  • as a mature economy, with a balance of commercial agriculture, large-scale manufacturing, class hierarchy, and both internal and external commerce.

Most “articulate Americans” (except Hamilton) thought that America was already in the middle stage and feared the onset of the mature stage, which would visit all the corruption of Europe on American society.  Thomas Jefferson and James Madison therefore attempted to “freeze time” to keep America in the middle stage.  Believing in the inevitability of growth and wanting to channel that growth into farming instead of manufacturing, Jefferson and Madison shifted their focus to an “expansion across space rather than development through time” – and thus westward expansion had its roots in a Jeffersonian desire to freeze American economic development and keep the nation from industrializing and becoming corrupt like Europe.

While this book doesn’t prove in any way that the entire Revolutionary generation espoused this project to annihilate time through space and thus preserve a Republican culture, and it only vaguely defines political economy, it does, perhaps, provide a rationale for westward expansion and imperialism in the name of preserving American republican ideals.  That the Revolutionary generation thought America was exceptional in its perfect economic state right when slavery was expanding and the nation was displacing Native Americans is indicative of the contradictions at the heart of American culture.

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