The Morality of Democratic Citizenship: Goals for Civic Education in the Republic's Third Century

R. Freeman Butts
Center for Civic Education
Calabasas, California

Chapter Three
Underlying All Else:
A Defensible Conception of Citizenship

B. The Modern Idea of Democratic Citizenship

The revival of the practices of citizenship, if not its full blown theory, had its origins as early as the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Italian cities. Peter Riesenberg argues that a civic consciousness arising from the study of Roman law and the experience of urban life had habituated men to an active life of citizenship well before 1400. 19  This experience thus reinforced the ideas of civic humanism that were written out with such persuasive force in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries by Leonardo Bruni, Guicciardini, and above all by Machiavelli in The Prince. J.G.A. Pocock has portrayed in masterly style how they and others revived Aristotle and went on to influence republican thought in the pre-Revolutionary Atlantic community, especially in England, France, and America. 20  Civic humanism provides a vital link between the classical high ideals of citizenship and the modern idea of republican and eventually democratic citizenship. Pocock argues that in some sense the American Revolution and Constitution form "the last act of the civic Renaissance." 21 

I also find very illuminating the interpretation of Robert R. Palmer that the democratic revolution that swept much of western Europe and British America in the eighteenth century was a single movement that broke out in many parts of the heartland of Western civilization, especially in the decades from 1760 to 1800. 22  The first manifestation was the American Revolution; the most extreme and most violent was the French Revolution; reform movements appeared in England and Ireland; and short-lived republics were set up in Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, Hungary, and Poland in the 1780s and 1790s.

Palmer makes the point that these revolutions did not spread from America or from France to the other countries. Rather, each country had its own agitations, its own protests, and its own assaults on the established orders, which from the mid­seventeenth to the mid­eighteenth centuries had become more aristocratic, more closed, more elite, more self-perpetuating and hereditary, and more privileged. Even the parliaments, assemblies, councils, and diets that were based on some sort of representative principle had become less responsive to the welfare of the common people.

Each country had its own revolutionary upheavals aimed at more participation in government by a greater share of the populace, more equality in such participation, and greater protection for the civil liberties and civil rights of an enlarged body of citizens. But the conservative resistance in most countries was such that by 1800 the established orders had regained their powers and the republics had reverted to aristocracies or monarchies, with two exceptions. The French Revolution maintained its republican facade until the counter­-revolution under Napoleon established the empire formally in 1804. The American Revolution was the only one to succeed without a major reaction.

It is worth reminding ourselves what the democratic revolutionaries in the eighteenth century were revolting against. Palmer argues persuasively that the 40­year movement was essentially "democratic" in the sense that there was a growing desire for an equality that would do away with the inherited forms of social stratification:

Politically, the eighteenth­-century movement was against the possession of government, or any public power, by any established, privileged, closed, or self­-recruiting groups of men. It denied that any person could exercise coercive authority simply by his own right, or by right of his status, or by right of "history," either in the old­-fashioned sense of custom and inheritance, or in any newer dialectical sense, unknown to the Eighteenth Century, in which "history" might be supposed to give some special elite or revolutionary vanguard a right to rule. The "democratic revolution" emphasized the delegation of authority and the removability of officials, precisely because... neither delegation nor removability were much recognized in actual institutions. 23 
Now it is also important to remind ourselves that the revolutionary movements of the eighteenth century have been viewed quite differently during the past 200 years. Much depends on how one views the medieval configurations of social and political order. The contrast here between Palmer, the liberal historian, and Nisbet, the conservative sociologist, is instructive. Palmer speaks of the social stratification and growing aristocracy of the "constituted orders" of the medieval and early modern period. Nisbet speaks of the "federalism" of the medieval pluralist community. He finds great value in the autonomy, decentralization, and variety of the countless customs, traditions, and networks of groups. At the base of the social structure was the strong family system of kin, household, and clan. There were towns, guilds, all kinds of occupational and fraternal associations, monasteries, parishes, universities, and courts:

In kinship, religion, social class, local community, region, guild, monastery, university and various other types of community lay, then, the medieval system of federalism, one that can be truly described as a communitas communitatum. 24 
Describing the medieval social systems as federalist and pluralist enables Nisbet to view their values favorably in contrast to the oppressive, centralized, bureaucratized, absolutistic, collectivist, modern nation-states, which attacked and replaced the medieval synthesis. It is a similar valuing of the older order and revulsion against the excesses of the later French revolutionary period that led conservatives in Britain and elsewhere to praise the freedom of the various privileged social and political groups of the old regimes, which realistically performed different functions and interests and thus should legitimately have different rights and obligations from those of the common people.

Palmer, on the other hand, describes what these differences in rights and obligations had come to mean for the "constituted bodies" of the Western European countries by the middle of the eighteenth century:

Persons did have rights as members of groups, not abstractly as "citizens," and all persons had some legal rights, which, however, approached the vanishing point for serfs in Eastern Europe and slaves in America... but the most noticeable similarities in the constituted bodies are to be found in two other features. First, the concept of "order... frequently meant that there were some orders of men whose function was to fill positions of governance, in state or church, as distinguished from other orders whose functions were different. Secondly, there was a strong tendency, about a century old in the 1760s, toward inheritance of position in this governing elite, either by law or in fact, a tendency for influence to accumulate in a few families, or, in more abstract terms, for the institution of the family to diffuse itself through the institutions of government, not to mention those of religion....

In short, the world had become more aristocratic. 25 

It was this growing dominance of preferred status favoring the rights and privileges of family, kinship, wealth, property, and social class that the revolutionary movements objected to. The doctrines of natural rights, of social contract, of equality, and of political liberty were in large part directed at doing away with the preferred status that had been made into permanent legal relationships fixing the rights and obligations of special groups into a hierarchical political order. In its feudal context the idea of citizenship had become identified with a narrowly defined and small group in society. The democratic revolution essentially aimed to broaden the meaning of citizenship to include a much wider range of male adults, if not all of them, and to redefine the role of citizens in such way that they not only became active participants as individuals in the day-to-day political process but became, collectively as "the people," the very founders of the political compact itself.

The political thought of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the course of the democratic revolution are far too complicated and controversial to be summarized here. I can only select a few points for emphasis, which seem to me to highlight the formulation of a new meaning for citizenship in the United States as it grew out of the American Revolution and was incorporated in the new American Republic. Here I draw upon some of the scholarship of major American historians who have dealt especially with this formative period in American history. 26 

The essential point here is that, above all, the American Revolution was political in its intent and in its results. It was not aimed at a total overturning and reconstruction of society, as the Jacobin phase of the French Revolution turned out to be. The British-American colonies had already achieved a good deal of the social equality and had never been plagued with the hereditary aristocracy which so infuriated the French revolutionists. In America there was great faith in the virtues of independent property owners; there was little effort to achieve a radical redistribution of the economic sources of wealth or production, except for the expropriation of the lands and property of loyalists who fled to Canada.

What did influence the American patriots was the oppressive power of the British Parliament and of the royal officials who sought to compel obedience of the colonists from afar, treating them like "subjects" rather than like "citizens." Repressive compulsion by taxes, by standing armies, and by arrogant and aristocratic officials came more and more easily to be identified as tyranny and as violations of the citizens' rights to justice, liberty, and equality.

To justify the citizen's rights, revolutionary thought in eighteenth century America drew upon a stock of historical ideas that Bernard Bailyn identifies as five­-fold: the classical literature on politics from Plate and Aristotle to Cicero, Sallust, and Tacitus who wrote on the corruption and decline of virtue that was undermining the Roman Republic; the Enlightenment literature on the social contract and political reform ranging from Montesquieu and Locke to Voltaire and Rousseau; the English tradition of common law stressing equity, justice, and civil rights; the Puritan covenant theology that envisioned a special destiny in America for God's contract with man; and, especially in Bailyn's view, the radical political literature of the seventeenth century revolution in England, the Civil War, and the Commonwealth period as illustrated by John Milton, James Harrington, and Algernon Sidney. Their outlook on civil liberties helped to shape the republican ideas of Whigs in the eighteenth century in opposition to the views of Tories in defense of royal sovereignty.

The American solution was to turn away from the traditional constituted bodies and turn to "the people" as the sovereign constituent power for establishing governments that would rest upon the natural rights of liberty and equality and that would function by popular consent, political representation, independence from foreign rule, and separation of political powers.

One of the most influential statements of this redefinition of "the people" as the constituent power of the legitimate political community is, of course, the Declaration of Independence, which funneled a century of democratic revolutionary thought into the prose of Thomas Jefferson and edited by the drafting committee consisting of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert R. Livingston, and Jefferson himself:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed. That, whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness....

We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America... do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly Publish and Declare, That these United States are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States....

Four of the thirteen states thus declared to be independent and to rest upon the sovereignty of their citizens had already drawn up and adopted constitutions before July 4, 1776. One of the most influential in stating the basic ideas of liberty and equality was the Declaration of Rights drafted by George Mason and adopted by the Virginia Assembly on June 12, 1776 as a bill of rights to its new constitution. Its several clauses spell out for a particular state in greater detail what Jefferson's eloquent words implied that the several states held in common:

That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants, and at all times amenable to them.

That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection and security of the people, nation or community....

...when a government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community hath an indubitable, unalienable and indefeasible right to reform, alter or abolish it.

That no man, or set of men, are entitled to exclusive or separate emoluments or privileges from the community but in consideration of public services, which not being descendible, neither ought the offices of magistrate, legislator or judge to be hereditary.

That the legislative, executive and judicial powers should be separate and distinct.

That... all men having sufficient evidence of permanent common interest with, and attachment to the community have the right of suffrage, and cannot be taxed, or deprived of their property for public use, without their own consent, or that of their representatives.... 27 

Thereupon the Declaration lists specific items of due process and civil liberties which made up a "bill of rights:" the right of individuals to a speedy trial by jury with due process; prohibition of excessive bail, of inhuman punishments, and of general warrants for search and seizure; protection of freedom of the press; subordination of the military to civil power; and free exercise of religion.

The bills of rights of other states in various ways extended this list to cover a wider range of citizens' rights: freedom of speech, assembly, and petition, right to bear arms and habeas corpus, equal protection of the laws, inviolability of household, and prohibition against ex post facto laws and expropriation of property without due process of law.

The enumeration of these rights and liberties in the state constitutions, many of which were later incorporated in the Federal Constitution and Bill of Rights, was the practical way in which the colonists sought to devise a political community in which the citizens as a body exercised their ultimate legitimate authority, which deserved obedience for the sake of order but which at the same time protected the individual's rights from the coercive absolutism of a totalitarian state. It was their effort to solve the persistent dilemma of order based upon the sovereignty of "the people" versus liberty for the individual citizen.

It is all too evident to us today that the patriots really meant "men" when they came to spell out the rights of the people, and they meant white men, and they meant white men of property when it came to voting. But I do not believe that we can blame too much the men of the eighteenth century for not having been born in the nineteenth or twentieth century. At least they opened up the closed constituted bodies of 1000 years' standing in such ways that their successors could eventually wipe out the property qualification, the gender, the racial and the age restrictions in the definitions of full democratic citizenship. 28 

Continue to Chapter 3, Part B2

19. Peter Riesenberg, "Civism and Roman Law in 14th Century Italian Society," Explorations in Economic History, Vol. 7, No. 1-2 (1%9), pp. 237-254.  back 

20. J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment; Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975).  back 

21. Ibid., see especially Chapters XIV and XV.  back 

22. Robert R. Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800, Vol. I (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1959).  back 

23. Ibid. pp. 4-5.  back 

24. Nisbet, Social Philosophers, p. 399.  back 

25. Palmer, Age of the Democratic Revolution, Vol. I, p. 29.  back 

26. See, for example, Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967); Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1969); Stephen G. Kurtz and James H. Hutson, eds., Essays on the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1973); Ralph Ketcham, From Colony to Country: The Revolution in American Thought, 1750-1820 (New York: Macmillan, 1974); Clinton Rossiter, The American Quest, 1790-1860: An Emerging Nation in Search of Identity, Unity, and Modernity (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971); Robert R. Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution; A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800, 2 vols. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1959 and 1964); Bernard Bailyn, David Brion Davis, David Herbert Donald, John L. Thomas, Robert H. Wiebe, and Gordon S. Wood, The Great Republic: A History of the American People (Boston: Little Brown, 1977), esp. Part II by Gordon Wood); James McGregor Burns, The Vineyard of Liberty (New York: Knopf, 1982); John P. Diggins, The Lost Soul of American Politics; Virtue, Self-interest and the Foundations of Liberalism (New York: Basic Books, 1984); Forrest McDonald, Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1985); William Peters, A More Perfect Union (New York: Crown, 1987); and Michael Kammen, ed., The Origins of the American Constitution: A Documentary History (New York: Penguin, 1987).  back 

27. Palmer, Age of Democratic Revolution, Vol. I, pp. 518-520.  back 

28. For an excellent analysis, see James H. Kettner, The Development of American Citizenship, 1608-1870 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1978). For a briefer historical analysis but explicit application to civic education, see Richard M. Battistoni, Public Schooling and the Education of Democratic Citizens (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1985).  back 

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