Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Letters from an Ohio Farmer

Liberty or Soft Despotism

May 22, 2012

To My Fellow Citizens:

In an earlier letter, I remarked that Alexander Hamilton’s view of a commercial republic has, for the most part, prevailed in the United States. Hamilton believed that such a commercial republic was the best means of protecting the natural rights of its citizens to their lives, liberty, and property, which constitute the very basis of prosperity.

Hamilton’s view was largely adopted by the Whig Party in the 1830s and was the cornerstone of the economic program advocated by Henry Clay, whom Abraham Lincoln, an ardent Whig during his early political career, called his “beau ideal of a statesman” (on a forthcoming anniversary, we will reflect on the statesmanship of Clay in his many years as an American legislator). For Hamilton, Clay, and Lincoln, the key to prosperity is freedom. In his eulogy on Clay, Lincoln observed that:

Mr. Clay’s predominant sentiment, from first to last, was a deep devotion to the cause of human liberty—a strong sympathy with the oppressed everywhere, and an ardent wish for their elevation. With him, this was a primary and all controlling passion. Subsidiary to this was the conduct of his whole life. He loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country; and he burned with a zeal for its advancement, prosperity and glory, because he saw in such, the advancement, prosperity and glory, of human liberty, human right and human nature. He desired the prosperity of his countrymen partly because they were his countrymen, but chiefly to show to the world that free men could be prosperous.

The basis of the commercial republic that Hamilton, Clay, and Lincoln envisioned was a just, generous, and prosperous system of free labor that “opens the way for all — gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all.” The genius of free labor, Lincoln held, was that “when one starts poor, as most do in the race of life … he knows he can better his condition.”

Lincoln conceded that not all individuals are able to improve their lot in a commercial republic. But “if any continue through life in the condition of the hired laborer, it is not the fault of the system, but because of either a dependent nature which prefers it, or improvidence, folly, or singular misfortune.” The fact is that a system of free labor “allow[s] the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else” and “leave[s] each man free to acquire property as fast as he can.”

Such a system has a place for government action but one that is limited in scope. “The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but cannot do, at all, or cannot, so well do, for themselves — in their separate, and individual capacities,” e.g., national defense and the maintenance of good domestic order (the military and police functions); the administration of justice, including protection of property rights and enforcement of contracts (the court system); and limited investment in and maintenance of “public goods.” Such a government leaves to individuals “the sacred right to regulate their own family affairs” and to “communities … [the right to] arrange their own internal matters to suit themselves” without undue government interference. “The proposition that each man should do precisely as he pleases with all which is exclusively his own” was for Lincoln the very foundation of justice.

Lincoln saw free labor as the antidote to the great problem of the time: slavery. While a system of free labor was based on the assumption that industrious, honest, and sober men would freely pursue their own interests, slavery was based on the assumption that the vast majority of laborers were indolent and without ambition, “that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it, induces him to labor.”

Contrast the view of republican independence advanced by Hamilton, Clay, and Lincoln with the story of “Julia,” a cartoon figure made famous in the country in recent weeks to demonstrate what a female citizen today—if we can call her that instead of “subject”—owes to the benevolent policies of the modern American government. “Julia” represents what Alexis de Tocqueville called “soft despotism.” Tocqueville understood that democracy is susceptible to a certain form of tyranny: the rule of a “benevolent” government, catering to the public’s needs and whims in exchange for their freedom, which creates a servile people dependent on the largesse of government, happily acquiescing in the loss of liberty as long as the government fulfills their material desires.

The United States stands at a crossroads. Will we choose the path to prosperity represented by the commercial republic based on a just, generous, and prosperous system of free labor? Or will we succumb to Tocqueville’s “soft despotism” and the servility it entails?

Ohio Farmer