HARRY LEE: REVOLUTIONARY PATRIOT
Light-Horse Harry Lee and the Legacy of the American Revolution
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.
xii + 301 pp., $15
By J. Jackson Barlow
Revolutions, we are told, always run the danger of devouring their children. Fortunately for Americans this is a truth of which we have no direct experience. Our post-revolutionary years were exempt from the bloody and bitter factional quarreling which characterized later revolutions. The zeal to bring about the promise of the American Revolution took more peaceful forms; but the absence of bloodshed does not mean absence of disagreement. The debate over both the meaning of the American Revolution, and the best means to secure its promise, began before the war ended and continues to this day. Henry Lee played a prominent role in the Revolutionary War, and his vision of the promise of the revolution was one which was widely shared. Lee lived to become disillusioned about the prospects for the young republic. Charles Royster, in his biography of Lee, tries to account for both Lee's optimism and his disillusionment, but in doing so leaves out what is most important and so gives a confused and obscure account.
Henry, or Harry, Lee had a most unusual career. Scion of the noblest of Virginia's great houses, he became one of the youngest commanders in the Revolutionary War. A brilliant and daring tactician at the age of twenty-two, by the time he was fifty his poorly planned speculations had bankrupted him. A three-term governor of Virginia in the 1790's, his Federalism led to conflict with the Republican legislature, and he was eventually expelled from office. For a life that had begun with such great promise, Lee's ended in unusual failure and dishonor. That failure was in part the consequence of Lee's own optimism.
Royster contends, in spite of Lee's unique career, that he is in some way typical of the men of his generation. Lee was an extreme example; but others thought and felt and suffered much as he did. In fact, Lee's uniqueness is a virtue: "The extremes of his conduct and fortunes might set questions in bolder relief." The questions, for Royster, are:
What did a revolutionary strive for in war? How did the war effect his understanding of the Revolution? In what ways did his experience in the Revolution and its war shape his life and, through him, his country (p. xii)?
To ask these questions is proper and reasonable-the search for men's motivations and their reactions to their deeds is central to the historian's work. Missing, however, from Royster's questions is any consideration of the things which set one revolutionary apart from another. All revolutionaries, to borrow a revolutionary phrase, are not created equal. To ask for the goals of a revolutionary in war is to ask for a manifesto, a statement of principle, and this Royster does not provide. The differences between Washington and Mirabeau, or between Mirabeau and Trotsky, are seen most clearly when seen as differences of principle. The goal of any war is victory. Someone who fights for a goal is likely always to cherish it more fiercely than one who does not fight. Henry Lee held fiercely to his revolutionary principles, and yet he came to be labeled a "monarchist." He was a member of a minority party which was viewed as "aristocratic" in principle if not in intent. Both parties claimed to be faithful to the principles of the Revolution. Any understanding of their differences must begin from an understanding of their principles.
Royster correctly points out that the Revolutionary war was also a civil war. Precisely because it was a civil war-as Royster does not say-customary, ancestral, historical, or traditional ties did not determine one's allegiance. What would determine allegiance was a matter of principle: did one fight for King and country, or for natural rights? The things that Henry Lee and his compatriots fought for were expressed by the Declaration of Independence. More was at stake than merely the uprising of a few disgruntled colonials: they had appealed to, and meant to defend, the rights of all men everywhere. The war was justified by the worthiness of the principles for which it was fought. But the real problem would come after the war, when it had to be decided how to "secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."
The public debate over how best to attain the goals of the Revolution has outlasted the original participants. Yet when the Founding generation attempted to answer them, they, like those who had to choose sides in the war, could be guided only by principles. There was no national tradition of republican government, and scarcely any national feeling, in the young republic. The Federalist Papers are a lasting monument to the brilliance of that debate, and a monument as well to the Founders' confidence in men's ability to reason about, choose between, and act upon principles.
The Founders' way of thinking about the mind has become old-fashioned, regarded as something eccentric or merely silly. Royster represents a more progressive school of thought, one that regards the mind as an instrument, a tool, which can attain goals but cannot choose between them (vide, p. 28). The mind is the servant of incompletely understood impulses which originate within it but which it cannot control. Thus men cannot choose their goals, which is to say that they cannot choose their principles: the idea of a war fought for a principle is nonsense. Needless to say, the Founders, and among them Henry Lee, did not see themselves this way. That may have been rationalization. But Royster's analysis is careless of the things the Founders themselves thought to be important.
The eighteenth century had seen a dramatic unfolding of the human mind, an unfolding which led men to a new appreciation of the authors of antiquity. Classical authors were the textbooks and authorities for the men of the founding generation: those who led the most radical innovation in modern politics turned for their instruction to classical thought. Henry Lee was no exception. Like most educated men of his generation, the Princeton-trained Lee was thoroughly familiar with classical thought. Royster tells us this much, only to deny that it had any influence (p. 27). He was profoundly moved, we are told, by the Ajax of Sophocles; but Royster does not tell us why such a work would appeal to such a man. But after all, could a man who admired Ajax be anything other than a High Federalist?
Ajax was defeated by Odysseus in the contest for the armor of Achilles. In Sophocles' play, the mad Ajax attempts revenge upon the Greeks, but the goddess Athena causes him to murder a flock of sheep instead. Ajax's passion for honor had driven him insane when Achilles' armor was awarded to a lesser man. The same passion led him to fall upon his sword when he realized what he had tried to do to the Greeks. Ajax had been the only worthy candidate for Achilles' armor, but he was defeated by the votes of those who were envious of his fighting abilities. He lacked the arts of the crafty Odysseus, those political skills which made Odysseus first in the councils of the Greeks as Achilles was first on the battlefield.
The American Revolution had one figure who combined the talents of Achilles and Odysseus: George Washington. It was Henry Lee who said that he was "First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his fellow citizens." With this stature, however, came the danger that no worthy successor could be found. Who could be worthy of taking up the shield of Washington? His presence alone had kept the nation together in its infancy; the promise that he would be the first President insured the adoption of its new constitution. After the death of Achilles, the already divided Greeks fell to squabbling over his armor; the quarrel further divided their counsels and led to the death of Ajax. Ajax was a virtuous man-a soldier. The Odysseus of Sophocles' play is a schemer: could Lee have foreseen in the play the rise of scheming politicians in the young republic, politicians who would replace virtue with ambition? Ajax had lost his contest because many of the Greeks were envious of his fighting ability: what were the prospects for a government composed of men calculated not to arouse envy?
Henry Lee believed that military virtue-the virtue of a good soldier-was the foundation of a republic. He was not alone. The Romans held out a vivid example of a republic founded on the virtues of a citizen-soldiery. Their example did not pass unnoticed by the founders, and surely (although Royster does not mention it) it would not have been unnoticed by Lee. But if the Roman example was not enough, Lee could point to the behavior of the Continental Army during the war. Their devotion, their willingness to sacrifice their lives if need be for their principles and their nation, were the highest examples of virtue Lee had seen. He had not seen the same kind of devotion from the civilian population. Would peace and prosperity prove the death of virtue in America, as it had in Rome? Lee turned in his mind to the search for measures which would prevent such a calamity.
Lee, and many others, thought that the Federalist party would provide the leadership and the virtues necessary to sustain the Republic. Royster, with the benefit of hindsight, calls Lee's political opinions "his unrealistic version of the Revolution's promise," a judgment which Lee never reached (p. 81). Many of Lee's fellow-Federalists shared his opinion that military virtue would be the foundation of the Republic. History records them as "monarchists," a charge from which Royster only half-heartedly defends Lee. Still, virtue has been shown to be impossible by modern philosophy: Royster is justified in calling Lee "unrealistic." But Royster's superior understanding of Lee has its costs, for it results in ignoring Lee's own understanding of his own politics. Royster's portrait is simultaneously intolerant of Lee's politics and overly sympathetic to his misfortunes. Royster's Lee is a victim of his circumstances; he is not responsible for either his vices or his virtues.
The American Revolution did not devour its children. It did spark a debate over what a nation "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal" should be. Henry Lee took one side in that debate, the side that favored union and strong national government. His youngest son, Robert, would take the other side. Charles Royster's blindness to questions of principle robs Lee's life of its meaning; it obscures, when it should illuminate. The life of a revolutionary cannot be seen for what it is, if it is not seen to be animated by an attachment to principle-an attachment so strong that he will fight for it. Henry Lee was a revolutionary and a patriot. Royster does not show us what it means to be either one.
The Reveries of the Solitary Walker
Translated by Charles E. Butterworth
New York: New York University Press, 1979
268 pp., $17.50 (hardcover only)
By Millard Stahle
A more accurate translation of the Reveries has been needed for a long time. The only other English translation in print is the 1927 edition by John Gould Fletcher. In the introduction to his translation Fletcher expressed his opinion that Rousseau's position "was indeed governed by error." He went on to say that "the error Rousseau made was based on a confusion of the values of society with the values of truth-it is essentially the same mistake as that made by Plato, when he supposed that a human society based on justice and truth could exist." Leaving aside the question of whether Fletcher's criticism of Rousseau has any foundation or merit at all, it is doubtful that a translator who evinces such a lack of sympathy or respect for the author he is translating will devote the time and care it takes to produce an accurate and reliable rendition of his text. Fletcher's translation of the Reveries testifies to this. Fletcher divides and joins Rousseau's sentences at will, just as he creates new paragraphs and destroys old ones at will. Although his translation is for the most part literal, no warnings are given that certain French words carry nuances of meaning not expressed by the English words that replace them. Nor is there a consistent effort to translate key words in French with the same English words, nor even any attempt to point out these words and explain their meaning. Connections in thought between various parts of the work are thus lost in the translation, and the reader cannot be certain whether what he is reading comes from Rousseau or from Fletcher.
The Butterworth translation is animated by a different spirit. This new translation is based upon a complete review of the original manuscripts of the Reveries. Butterworth has included a discussion of these manuscripts in an appendix to the book. There is a short Preface that outlines the major events in Rousseau's life. There is also a longer Interpretive Essay at the end which attempts to understand the teaching of the Reveries through a close scrutiny of the arguments it presents, and through a comparison of these arguments with those found in Rousseau's other works. Butterworth also provides notes at the end of each Reverie that serve to identify people, places, or incidents mentioned in the text, or that serve to illuminate difficulties with the text or the meaning of a particular word or phrase.
The only fault I find with the Butterworth edition is in the translation itself. Butterworth's stated goal was "to transmit the sense of Rousseau's prose and of his exceptional style." However both these goals could not always be achieved, and "in the inevitable conflicts between accuracy and felicity of expression, the former always prevailed." Yet after comparing the translation with the original text, one wonders if accuracy wouldn't have been better served by a more dogged literalness.
Rousseau's prose is elegant and flowing, but he is nevertheless precise. Rousseau himself candidly revealed how precisely he wrote in the draft of a letter to a critic of his First Discourse. "Often I have taken considerable trouble to try to enclose in a sentence, in a line, in a word thrown out seemingly at random, the result of a long chain of reflections." If the translator even once sacrifices the precision of literalness for gracefulness of expression, he runs the risk of doing so when Rousseau may have been purposely precise, even if not apparently so. Butterworth has laudably attempted "to translate key words in a consistent manner even when such lexical fidelity resulted in less than lyrical English." It would have been useful to provide a list of such words, or to indicate their appearance in the text.
The Reveries was Rousseau's last work. He was still in the process of writing it when he died in 1778. Indeed it might not be proper to consider it one of Rousseau's "works," not only because it remains uncompleted, but also because Rousseau claimed to have written it not for the public but solely for himself. He intended it as a kind of memoir to be read over in his old age when his powers of imagination and memory were fading. However, in a real sense it completes the Rousseauian corpus, for it offers reflections on man and nature which complement and enlarge those found in the rest of his works.
The dominant theme of the Reveries is solitude. Rousseau claims to know solitude in his later years not because he withdraws voluntarily from the madding crowd, from the perpetual turbulence and vain striving of men in society, but because the ill-conceived hatred and bitter animosity of his contemporaries has forced him to withdraw. Effectively ostracized by his fellow-men as an atheistic monster and an enemy of humanity, Rousseau turns his thoughts away from the injustices others have done him. He seeks instead to know himself, to understand what he is by himself. Through this introspection he produces in the Reveries a kind of self-portrait, as he had done in the Confessions. But the Reveries are not simply a continuation of the Confessions, for in the Reveries Rousseau is no longer interested in justifying himself to the public. The point of departure for the Reveries is Rousseau's enforced solitude and the reflections on man and nature that occur to him on account of his new condition of isolation.
His new condition, it turns out, is not altogether as distressing as it first appears. However involuntary his solitude may have been, Rousseau discovers that he is
singularly made for solitude. Unlike other men, he can leave society without his soul remaining attached to it. He can live alone without being lonely. In fact he discovers that happiness, which is the object of man's restless activity in society, lies not in anything that can be found in society, but rather in the contemplative bliss known only to the man who has withdrawn from society. Rousseau backs up this assertion with a moving depiction of his life as a solitary on Saint Peter's island in Switzerland. "The charms of the solitary life, such as Rousseau presents them, constitute a praise of solitude that has no equal, before or since." Perhaps the closest thing it could be compared to is Aristotle's account of the "marvelously pure and lasting pleasures" of philosophic contemplation, in the tenth book of his Nicomachean Ethics. For although Aristotle's understanding of contemplation is quite different from Rousseau's, both men see their solitary activities as an imitation of the self-sufficiency and happiness attributed to the Divinity. One could even understand Rousseau's work in the Reveries as an attempt to find a substitute for Aristotle's contemplation of the unchanging natural order, of the whole which is governed by mind and hence is intelligible. Rousseau did not share Aristotle's view of the universe; he seems instead to have accepted the modern mechanistic explanation of nature's workings. The contemplation of this nature seems to inspire less enthusiasm. It is even depressing and repugnant, for it implies that nothing in our world is eternal, and reminds us that the death we face is a total one. The solitary reverie is in a way an escape from this hideous act. Its key ingredient is imagination, not reason. What Rousseau experiences in his exile, what constitutes the true charm and happiness of his life, is not concentrated thought which he sees as painful exertion. Rather it is sweet day-dreams which the imagination produces when, prompted by pleasant sights or gentle, rhythmic sounds, it lets itself go to wander where it will.
The Reveries is read most often by students in literature courses, as one of the classic works that inspired the Romantic Movement. They do not, for the most part, read the political works of Rousseau. Students of political science on the other hand rarely venture outside of Rousseau's political works. This is somewhat understandable. The two Rousseaus seem to have little to do with one another. The austere republican who defends virtue and patriotism seems to have nothing in common with the idle dreamer who returns to the wholeness of the natural state all on his own. Yet the real challenge in understanding Rousseau is, if not to reconcile these two extremes, at least to find the common basis for them, to discover the underlying principle or principles that explain them both. The Reveries should thus be most stimulating to students of Rousseau's political thought, for they raise the most perplexing questions about that thought.
ON BIG GOVERNMENT
How to Limit Government Spending
Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1980
197 pp., $8.95
By John Adams Wettergreen
Enthusiasm for constitutional limitation of the central government's taxing and spending authority began to wane before the end of the 1980 primary elections. Nevertheless, Aaron Wildavsky has published this tract defending the National Tax Limitation Committee's proposed constitutional amendment. And why not? If a constitutional amendment is a cure for an otherwise irremediable evil, then the value of a defense of a proposed amendment need not be transient, or merely partisan. Indeed, properly considered, this book is an excellent beginning point for understanding a principal defect in the current regime.
Wildavsky holds that the poetical problem today is Big Government. Although he defines that problem quantitatively and economically, he does not understand the problem to be government's sheer size or inefficiency. Rather, Big Government threatens democratic liberty and its chief by-products-individual, social, political, and economic diversity. Thus his critique of Big Government differs from that of most policy analysts. Wildavsky does not consider simply whether Big Government works. The problem is that Big Government might well accomplish what is intended by it, "because government guarantees collectivity, not individuality" (p. 6).
The amendment provides that total outlays for a given "fiscal year shall not increase by a percentage greater than the percentage increase in nominal gross national product" in the immediately preceding calendar year. Further, when inflation exceeds three percent, total outlays "shall be reduced by one-fourth of the excess of inflation over three percent." Thus the amendment is drawn to produce two massive effects: first, to fix the relative size of the public sector at roughly its present dimension (about 20% of GNP); second, to insure that inflation will no longer serve the interest of the public sector. Moreover, under the amendment, the federal government would acquire a new interest in economic growth, and in countercyclical fiscal policy.1 For flexibility in emergencies and otherwise, outlays could be increased by extraordinary majorities. Even so, this law has teeth because members of Congress are given standing to sue the Treasurer, who is held constitutionally responsible for all spending.
Wildavsky knows the constitution can do no more than supply principles of sound policy. It is, so to speak, our political orthodoxy. Nevertheless, as Boss Murphy once remarked to George Washington Plunkitt, "What's the Constitution among friends." In practice there are innumerable ways by which government could evade the limits set by the amendment. Wildavsky catalogues existing ways in his sixth chapter, "End Runs." Tax expenditures, changes in methods of calculating GNP, phony declarations of emergencies, off-budget outlays, use of regulations to order private expenditures, judicial mandates of governmental expenditures, and credit guarantees all could undermine limits on spending. The amendment, on the other hand, only provides against one kind of end run, albeit the most important one; the federal government's control over state and local spending by means of grants is to be fixed at its present level. However, as Wildavsky rightly reasons, all evasions would be far less prevalent if the public orthodoxy were opposed to unlimited government spending. They would be, that is, insofar as the government is controlled by public opinion.
Although political orthodoxies are as important as Wildavsky claims, they are usually established by partisan political campaigns such as those of 1800, 1860, or 1936 (or 1980?). However, Wildavsky contemplates more than fundamental reform of public opinion. He understands the amendment to be a "Social Contract." As such, his amendment would constitute a truly fundamental change of our organic law, because the parties to it are not the parties to the contract upon which, putatively, this nation was founded. According to the Declaration of Independence, all citizens contract to form the government that "to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness." The two parties to Wildavsky's contract are the public sector and the private sector, i.e., the central government and everyone else. These parties are to agree, in effect, "We won't get any bigger any faster than you do." Whatever we might think of such a contract in theory, in practice it could only be struck when both sides were satisfied that their present relation is the right one-that is, only when there is some basis of trust between them. Without such trust, however, there can be no real contract. Without trust, cheating-looking for end runs-will be the norm. Unfortunately, nothing in Wildavsky's amendment or book gives us any reason to believe that Big Government has our best interests at heart.
This is a real difficulty because Wildavsky and his amendment avoid distinguishing what is public from what is private; he wisecracks, only "the Great Accountant in the sky" is capable of that. Unfortunately our political leaders have been so accustomed to discovering and implementing end runs, and so unaccustomed to doubting the central government's authority, as to make one wonder if they believe that anything, in principle, belongs to the private sector. Yet there must be some clear public convictions about what is properly private and public, or the terms of the amendment's social contract will be meaningless in practice. For example, credit guarantees to corporations and the regulation of corporations to achieve social goals so obscure the difference between public and private that the corporation is barely distinguishable from a government agency. Yet Wildavsky does not regard government involvement with corporations as a threat from Big Government because he believes that corporations properly belong to the private sector, or that industry and government are natural enemies (see pp. 97 and 98). He could have been more consistent had he recognized that the distinction between public and private is a political question, a question of who ought to rule for what purposes.
Big government is an important and relatively recent departure from traditional American politics. Traditionally, Big Government was defined unqualifiedly, not relatively or quantitatively, as unlimited government. Thus, contrary to what Wildavsky claims (p. 46), Madison fully expected that government would enter into the private sector-sometimes more, sometimes less-to discourage or foster the interests of various factions. This is the problem of Federalist 10: the spirit of the factions must operate within a democratic, representative government, but the "chief business" of such a government is the regulation of various, interfering factions. Still, Madison did not consider that the government itself could become a politically significant faction as it has today, because such a possibility makes nonsense of the very idea of representative democracy.2 That is, to the extent that government itself is a faction, its control by public opinion is difficult.
Once government itself has become a politically significant faction, it can become a majority faction. When the government itself constitutes the political majority, liberal democracy, as we know it, will have ceased to exist. Therefore, some limitation on the interest of government-as-faction is desirable. However, a constitutional limitation on the governmental faction constitutionally legitimates the government as a faction. After all, it is one thing to admit that Big Government is a fact of life, here to stay, and quite another to grant that Big Government rightfully possesses constitutional status. Wildavsky's amendment limits only the central government's future augmentation of some of its present ways and means. In no way does it limit-implicitly, it accepts-Big Government's present and future claims to authority over states, individuals, and corporations. Based on past experience, once the authority is thought to be there, the ways and means to exercise it easily follow, even if end runs are necessary. The present situation, in which both the size and the legitimacy of the central government are suspect, is preferable. If the amendment were to be ratified, we might lie down dreaming of great ameliorations of public life, and, as happened to too many in the past generation, wake up to an even greater centralization of administrative authority and control in Washington.
1Accordingly, the amendment also provides that surpluses be used to reduce public debt. However, these effects are not so certain as Wildavsky seems to suppose. Little thought was given to what effect would be produced in conditions of persistent decline of (real, nominal, or measured) GNP and/or persistent deflation. Presumably, under these conditions, government outlays could remain the same. The size of the public sector, relative to the private, would then increase. See pp. 141, 142.
2Those who doubt that government has become a faction have not reflected upon the problem of bureaucratization, e.g., on the fact that the national bureaucracy is both the chief provider of "constituency services" and a very important Washington lobbyist.