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Outtakes from interview with Jerome Huyler

Outtakes from interview with Jerome Huyler

8 Mins
September 1, 1999

The following are outtakes from this 1999 Roger Donway interview with Jerome Huyler on the topic of " How Lockean Was the American Revolution? ". Mr. Huyler the author of Locke in America: The Moral Philosophy of the Founding Era . He earned his Ph.D.

from the New School for Social Research in 1992 but has never sought an academic post, preferring to work as an independent scholar.

September 1999
Navigator: Your book Locke in America began as a doctoral dissertation. Yet, unlike the typical dissertation-book, yours is notable for its sweep. In it, you undertake to present a coherent Lockean philosophy, although many philosophers and historians have found only marginally integrated writings; and you then challenge a thirty-year tradition in historical research that has denigrated Locke's influence on the American Revolution and American Founding. Why did you decide to do so sweeping a dissertation? And: Do you think this audacity has helped or hurt your reputation?

Huyler: That is an interesting story. Originally, I planned to write a Ph.D. dissertation confined to interpreting Locke's moral and political theory. It was to be called "A Benignant Egoism: John Locke's Social Ethic" (the title of ch. 4 of Locke in America).

The senior person in political theory at The New School, Sonia Kruks, necessarily had to be chair of my dissertation committee. A devoted Marxist and feminist, she clearly had no interest in supporting or helping to promote my viewpoint. In fact, she found the thesis project so unsuitable that she wrote a letter to the dean recommending that I be dismissed from the Ph.D. program with a Masters degree (which I had already earned). She did not think any part of the thesis was salvageable or worthy of her time or attention. My office discussions with Madame Kruks took place at the high point of literary "deconstructionism" ("political correctness" gone mad). It was impermissible for me to even to say "Locke intended this" or "Locke urged that." The experience and vocabulary of the past was forever closed to our understanding, and so nothing "objective" could ever be said about it.

At any rate, Sonia's contract with the New School was about to expire and renewal would necessitate the awarding of tenure. Both were voted down, meaning that she was out. At that point, a professor of constitutional law, who was acquainted with my level of scholarship and was not quite so unsympathetic to my thesis proposal, came to my rescue. He wrote the dean, urging that I be allowed to continue in the program and merely rework my proposal for submission the following semester. I therefore took the opportunity to expand my thesis, emphasizing the American side of the Lockean question. Tom Pangle had already written a book (The Spirit of Modern Republicanism) that dealt with Locke's ideological influence in America. He, too, devoted a good fifty percent of the book to a reassessment of Locke's own philosophy. That served as a precedent for the comprehensive project I proceeded to draw up and submit.

As for whether the sweep of the assignment has helped or harmed my reputation. Frankly, I cannot say. To my knowledge, no one has called the book particularly "audacious."


Navigator: Viewing the situation from the perspective of the Lockean-republicans who made the Revolution, what happened during the period of the Articles of Confederation that prompted them to desire a new frame of government?

Huyler: The Articles of Confederation erected a generally weak central government. This was owing, first, to the strong attachment Americans had to their states (as reflected in the attitude: "I am a Virginian first, an American second"), and second, to the very great suspicion of central power, which Cato and the lessons of history recommended. Under the Articles, Congress had no executive or judicial branch to enforce its enactments. And while the Confederation Congress was given the responsibility of repaying the debt that was incurred by the Continental Congress to finance the Revolution, it lacked the power to lay and collect taxes to discharge that obligation. Under the Articles, states often did not comply with Congress's financial requests. Consequently down to 1785, public creditors at home and abroad, along with Revolutionary war veterans who held "scrip" (promissory notes) were left in the lurch. This constituted a breach of contract and a denial of due property rights. But property rights would be even more flagrantly abrogated. Economic times during the "Critical Period" were tough for many. Many farmers in this largely agrarian land found themselves deeply in debt. Frequently, they reached for political solutions to their problems. At their behest, state legislatures enacted mortgage-stay laws, barring creditors from taking legal action against non-paying creditors. To ease the plight of the farmers, several states engaged in paper money emissions. Debtors could thus pay their bills in full with money that was worth but a fraction of its value at the time it was loaned.

As Noah Webster, echoing the sentiments of many of his learned countrymen urged, here were "so many legal infractions of sacred right — so many public invasions of private property — so many wanton abuses of legislative power." Matters came to a head when, in western Massachusetts, Daniel Shays led a rebellious mob of debtors into court buildings, forcibly putting a halt to court proceedings and destroying legal records.

While there were certainly other considerations that led to the Convention of 1787 and drafting of the U. S. Constitution, two points can be made. First, as Madison wrote, it was the "the mutability of the laws of the states" that most rankled the public, "The evils issuing from these sources contributed more to that uneasiness which produced the Convention than any other concern of the time." And second, the anxiety over political violations of property and contract, viz. public and private creditors, is an intensely Lockean concern.

Navigator: Given that, what prompted the anti-Federalists (who were also Lockean-republicans) to oppose that new frame?

Huyler: All disputes and disagreements aside, both the Federalists (those who supported) and the Antifederalists (those who opposed) the Constitution's ratification did so from an abiding commitment to Locke's basic principles. As I just indicated, those who favored a stronger union and greater power for the federal government appreciated the violation of Lockean rights that had taken place under the weak Articles. Most Antifederalists also condemned the violations of property and contract that had occurred in the states. But the opponents of the new plan yet clung to the deeper "Catonic" suspicion of human nature and centralized power. More immediately, they were suspicious of the motives of those who most vehemently supported a government that could do anything that might be deemed "necessary and proper" to promote the "general welfare." If you were alive to the natural lust for power that "second-handers" (my term, not theirs) have always exhibited and conscious of the tendency of governments to expand, you could not possibly wish to grant government such "undefined, unbounded and immense power." Let me add, that my final chapter, which discusses several of the major issues surrounding Washington's first administration, is entitled "The Triumph of Antifederalism." The Antifederalists were proven so right that Jefferson and Madison had to form a political party to halt the trend toward consolidation and ruin.

Navigator: You devote considerable space to the ways in which Alexander Hamilton undermined the Lockean foundations of the new government. Do you understand Hamilton as a consistent character throughout his career? That is, did he cynically ally himself with Lockean-republicans at the time of the Revolution and the drafting of the Constitution, then put his own principles into action under the new government? Or did his principles change?

Huyler: While I would want to do much more reading on Hamilton before I pronounce final judgment, I can say this. There is not much time separating the views he expressed in and after the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the ambitious projects he undertook as Washington's Treasury Secretary. Because I can see at least one patent contradiction, I must hold his motives and character suspect. Hamilton was in the forefront in arguing against the need for adding a Bill of Rights to the great charter.

Since there was no power in the frame of government to overstep its due boundaries and enlarge its sphere, Hamilton reasoned, there should be no fear that it would do so. However, once in office he readily invoked the "necessary and proper" and "general welfare" clauses of the Constitution to continually expand the limits of federal authority. He advanced a far-reaching doctrine of "national sovereignty" and the principle of "implied powers" which was to influence John Marshall in deciding Supreme Court cases in favor of expansive national power. Beyond this, it is fairly obvious that his model of political perfection was the British, or Walpolean system, with its ministerial corruption, its loose, pragmatic policy formation, and its peculiar "blessing" (i.e., a national debt to cement the loyalty of the financial interest). This was hardly the Catonic outlook shared by the American revolutionaries or those honest nationalists who, like Madison, saw the need for fundamental political reform by 1786. And I do not think he suddenly became enamored of the British model upon taking his oath of office under the Constitution.

This much can be said on Hamilton's behalf. He sincerely believed that, in a threatening international environment, America's security and greatness depended on industrial strength. To foster that he favored active government intervention in the economy. His motives were not self-serving in the narrow and petty sense, and he does not seem to have profited personally from his public policies. All of which goes to confirm the idea that the path to hell is paved with good intentions.

Navigator: You see the Revolution of 1800 as a resurgence of Lockean-republicanism, and you show with what consistency Jefferson and Madison applied those principles. But you also note exceptions, including the Codfisheries Act of 1792, the Cumberland Road, and public education. Can you explain how Jefferson and Madison distinguished these programs? Or was it just expediency?

Huyler: Jefferson deemed the Codfisheries Act necessary in order to counter similar restrictions imposed by America's trading partners that had hurt so many domestic producers. What Jefferson failed to appreciate is that any clamorous commercial interest could thereafter argue that it was also being unfairly put upon by foreign competition and so was also deserving of special political benefits and immunities. It was really just a matter of winning enough votes on the floor of Congress. Given the practical need for adjustment and compromise, a pattern of bargaining and "logrolling" would eventually end in the wholesale awarding of tariff benefits, bounties and the like to organized interests bent on achieving "commercial" success by plying a peculiar political trade. The possibilities for pull and privilege are limitless. National roads were deemed necessary if a rapidly expanding population situated over a far-flung expanse of territory was to communicate and be integrated into a common commercial market. In the case of education, Jefferson believed that "a nation that wished to be ignorant and free . . . wished for something that never was and never would be." So public education, for him and Madison, was essentially a means of instilling in the minds of the young the understanding necessary to preserve republican liberty. Do you want to call this expedience? I certainly do. As the case of the Louisiana Purchase makes clear, the most steadfast and influential founders could find grounds for violating their principles.

Navigator: When, in your view, did anti-Lockeanism (and anti-republicanism) become the dominant view in American government, rather than the exception? And why did that happen at that time?

Huyler: First, I would strike "anti-republicanism," since republican government, as such, is compatible with a host of non-Lockean political arrangements (e.g., utilitarianism, pragmatism, interest group liberalism, etc.). It is only Locke's political philosophy that would set strict limitations on a republican form of government. To answer the question, it depends on what you mean by "anti-Lockeanism" and what you mean by "dominant?" Yes, that was my Bill Clinton impression. I would say that the essence of "Lockeanism" as a political theory is contained in the doctrine of inalienable individual rights, in particular, those of life, liberty and property. From a metaphysics built on "equal creation," Locke derives the political principle of "equal protection," a strict equality which prohibits any law or public policy that would aid some at others' expense. So the question becomes when did the fundamental doctrine of "equal creation" cease to be the dominant premise of American government?

There are really three answers. (1) For many Americans (especially black slaves, but many independent-minded women) the answer is it never really did dominate American politics, at least not from the start. As time passed, a greater portion of the population came to claim a share of the rights to which all citizens were naturally entitled. Beyond this, on the colonial and state level the principles of property and equality were violated continually, before and after 1776. The pattern generally consisted of competing political families and factions spoiling for the private benefits made possible by winning elections and holding public office. Patronage, monopoly privileges, direct subsidies and other commercial advantages were awarded to sectional and other special interests.

(2) Notwithstanding all this, on the national level, there was a political stalemate of sorts — at least down to the close of the Civil War. In Congress, the battle lines were clearly drawn. Southern representatives in Congress had enough clout to derail northern attempts to end slavery (an anti-Lockean development). But they also held the votes to deny to the industrial, commercial and financial interests up North, the steep tariffs, large-scale internal improvements and other subsidies those forces hoped to wrestle out of Washington. With the South's defeat and expulsion from Congress in the aftermath of the Civil War, the northern interests were able to run riot on Capitol Hill. A rather extravagant pension plan was passed for Union veterans, their widows and orphaned children. That system continued to issue benefits down to the 1910s. Progressively steeper tariffs were enacted at the behest of giant industrial trusts, to the chagrin of seaport merchants who relied on brisk international trade for their livelihood and every planter or farmer who sold his produce in a politically free market, but who had to purchase his needed commodities in a politically "protected" one. Thereafter, as Carnegie noted, Congress soon began "building railroads from nowhere to nowhere at public expense," enriching certain bankers and promoters and stimulating economic growth for a while, but precipitating two financial panics and crashes before the century was out. None of this was compatible with Lockean natural right.

(3) Having said all of that, I would back-up more than a hundred years and suggest that "anti-Lockeanism," in the sense we are speaking of it, became a dominant (and not an exceptional) historicalforce with the second act signed into law by the first President of the United States. This was the Tariff Act of 1792 which had as its purpose "the support of the government, the discharge of the debts of the United States and the encouragement and protection of manufactures." The principle of protectionism is antithetical to the principles of property and equality. And the principle-shattering power of that precedent would be sufficient to admit a thousand further similar violations of property and natural right — acts that assisted some interests, but only at the expense of others. Why were the Lockean principles of equality and property breached at that early date? It was due to the willingness of majorities in Congress to grant such aid to the dozens of domestic industries that petitioned for such assistance the moment the new national government was organized, and the active promotion of such measures by a Treasury Secretary who hoped to help the interests of domestic producers in any way he could.

Parenthetically, I might add, if any Objectivist out there is looking for another way of reducing the principle that "principles must be absolute" down to the level of sense experience, the Tariff of 1789 is as good a case as any I can think of.

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