Posted by: captainfalcon | March 5, 2010

A Representative Sample of Wood

Here are two interesting ways in which the theory of representation that informed the writing of the state constitutions in 1776 resolved the tension between its insistence on popular representation and its restriction of the franchise to persons of property.

First, it equated citizenship with attachment to the community. “‘The right of suffrage’ was one with ‘the rights of a citizen,’ but only with what was the proper evidence of citizenship or attachment to the community” (Wood, 169).* The revolutionaries thus elevated an equivocation – between citizenship in its legal sense and citizenship in its civic sense – to an axiom of the age. The theory of representation then defined (reasonably enough) attachment to the community as being a property-holder (or some variant thereof: paying taxes, for example), and the reconciliation was complete.

The logic, in short: Government is servant of the citizenry. The citizenry are those with a vested interest in the community. Those who have no investment in the community have no vested interest therein. So, government is servant of property holders. The franchise thus properly extends to them alone.

Second, from its central claim that government is the servant of the citizenry, the revolutionary theory of representation derived that “equal interests among the people should have equal interests in the legislatures” (Wood, 170; internal quotation omitted).** Or, in another formulation from John Adams, the representative assembly “should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason, and act like them” (Wood, 165). But “poor, shiftless spendthrifty men and inconsiderate youngsters that have no property are cheap bought (that is) their votes easily procured Choose a Representative to go to court” (Wood, 168-169). Therefore, if the franchise were extended to the unpropertied, this delicate representative balance would be upset, and government would cease to be servant of the citizenry.

The astute reader might note that another way the government could cease to be servant of the citizenry is if an entire class of citizen – those without property – are deprived of the vote. One reply available to defenders of the revolutionary theory of representation is to advert to the equation of citizenship to attachment to community earlier discussed. Another approach, to our ear ludicrous (but to the revolutionaries quite intuitive), is to deny that the unpropertied have (or, more accurately, are moved by) interests that can properly be served by the government. If the government can’t serve the unpropertied, then it’s not possible for the government be their servant.

The revolutionary theory of representation did deny that the unpropertied were moved by interests servable by the government. It did so by restricting what counts as an interest the government can properly serve. Whereas nowadays we realize, if still regard as unsavory, that government is “hostage to special interest groups,” and thereby acknowledge that the government does not discriminate between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” interests, the revolutionary generation did not recognize the problem of faction as a central problem of politics. It was not until the late 1780s, after a decade of logrolling legislatures, that they admitted (most famously in Federalist 10) that politics amounted to interest groups pitted against each other, not, as they’d previously flattered themselves, the people versus the crown.

Operating with the blithe assumption that government could restrict itself to serving only the interests of the people as a whole (the “common good”), the revolutionary theory of representation aimed to enable the government to serve those interests. “[I]t is to be presumed,” the revolutionaries then (blithely) reasoned, that those who “from their property and other circumstances, are free from influence, and have some knowledge of the great consequence of their trust” are those whose interests represent the people as a whole. (To be sure, different parts of the country, and different groups, would have different legitimate, “common good-y,” interests. That’s why the legislature would invariably be a mixture of views. But only those with property would lack incentive to use the government for personal profit.)

In short: (1) Only people with a vested interest in the community are citizens. Because government is servant of the citizenry, only they get the vote. And (2) government is supposed to serve the hodgepodge of interests that together make up the common good (this is what it means to serve “the people” / citizenry). Only those with property have interests that map the common good. So the government best discharges its duty to the common good if only representatives of the propertied direct it.***

Someone tell Karl Marx.

* All quotations from (Wood, Gordon. The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787. 2nd ed. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998. Print.)

** Wood doesn’t give the derivation, but it’s easy to see how the pieces fit together. The government is servant of the entire citizenry, not just a faction of it. So the entire citizenry needs representation, and proportional to its interests (otherwise the government serves one group more than another).

*** Notice how widespread acceptance of (2) makes sense of the emergence of Marxism! (2) is only plausible if you embrace the abstraction the people, as opposed to recognizing that the people is at war with itself. Once you admit that, talk of the common good (at least as defined as the happily harmonious aggregate interests of the people) is seen to be specious. Class struggle becomes the reality of politics.


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