Sunday, January 04, 2009
When the United States began its national existence, the relationship between intellect and power was not a problem. The leaders were the intellectuals. Advanced though the nation was in the development of democracy, the control of its affairs still rested largely in a patrician elite; and within this elite men of intellect moved freely and spoke with enviable authority. Since it was an unspecialized and versatile age, the intellectual as expert was a negligible force; but the intellectual as ruling-class gentleman was a leader in every segment of society—at the bar, in the professions, in business, and in political affairs. The Founding Fathers were sages, scientists, men of broad cultivation, many of them apt in classical learning, who used their wide reading in history, politics, and law to solve the exigent problems of their time. No subsequent era in our history has produced so many men of knowledge among its political leaders as the age of John Adams, John Dickinson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Mason, James Wilson, and George Wythe. One might have expected that such men, whose political achievements were part of the very fabric of the nation, would have stood as permanent and overwhelming testimonial to the truth that men of learning and intellect need not be bootless and impractical as political leaders. ...
The American people have always cherished a deep historical piety, second only to that felt for Lincoln, for what Dumas Malone has called "the Great Generation," the generation which carried out the Revolution and formed the Constitution. We may well ask how a people with such beginnings and such pieties so soon lost their high regard for mind in politics. Why, while most of the Founding Fathers were still alive, did a reputation for intellect become a political disadvantage?
... [T]he members of the elite fell out among themselves, and lost their respect for political standards. The men who with notable character and courage led the way through the Revolution and with remarkable prescience and skill organized a new national government in 1787-88 had by 1796 become hopelessly divided in their interests and sadly affected by the snarling and hysterical differences which were aroused by the French Revolution. The generation which wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution also wrote the Alien and Sedition Acts. Its eminent leaders lost their solidarity, and their standards declined. A common membership in the patrician class, common experiences in revolution and statemaking, a common core of ideas and learning did not prevent them from playing politics with little regard for decency or common sense. Political controversy, muddied by exaggerated charges of conspiracies with French agents or plots to subvert Christianity or schemes to restore monarchy and put the country under the heel of Great Britain, degenerated into demagogy. Having no understanding of the uses of political parties or, of the function of a loyal opposition, the Founding Fathers surrendered to their political passions and entered upon a struggle in which any rhetorical weapon would do.
- Richard Hofstadter, Anti-intellectualism in American Life
Labels: Hofstadter Anti-intellectualism