Are American Citizens Servants or Masters? Needy Suppliants or Sturdy Yeomen?

Ben Peterson’s argument for “national sovereignty” as the “political idea of the year” was so challenging and so persuasive that it seems almost cavalier for me to have observed in commenting upon it that it under-explains the fretwork of national sovereignty. My praise of the argument is sincere, and I do think that it should issue in further discussion. I place at the center of that discussion, however, the urgent necessity to clarify what I have in the past called “political prosperity.”

The idea that people embrace national sovereignty for the sake of national sovereignty, in other words as a mere political abstraction, fails to enlist in its support those political dynamics that give currency to national sovereignty in the first place. Of those dynamics, none is more significant than the conditioning of support for national sovereignty upon the aspiration for humane conditions of life. The nation does not exist for its own sake and, more importantly, in a free society the people do not exist for the sake of the nation.

What, then, are the terms or conditions for the relevance of national sovereignty? I elaborated upon this question theoretically in The Federalist Papers: A Commentary[1], in which I distinguished “political prosperity” and “material prosperity” while nonetheless linking them in a causal relationship. I argue that political prosperity is a prerequisite for general material prosperity in a society. What political prosperity consists in are the institutions and habits of freedom rooted in a due sense of independence and, therefore, agency.

Political prosperity requires a careful political architecture that avoids the emergence of the state as an impediment to the independence of the citizen. In this light, the sovereignty of the nation is nothing other than the correlative independence of the nation that safeguards the independence of the citizen.

It is appropriate to observe that every nation lays claim to sovereignty, while not every nation may lay claim to freedom as its foundation. What does not follow from that, however, is that “the people,” in unfree circumstances, need be understood popularly to embrace the sovereignty of the nation as the condition of their wellbeing. Indeed, the claim of sovereignty in such cases acts with greater force internally than it does externally, for it operates to impose the authority of rulers over the people. We observe the vestigial elements of that practice in claims of “sovereign immunity” in the states of the United States and in claims of “tribal sovereignty” among American Indians. Those cases all invoke an institutional immunity to the claims of individual citizens.

No freedom-loving citizen embraces national sovereignty in order to marginalize his or her own moral and political significance. That was surely the thrust of James Madison’s essay, “Who Are the Best Keepers of the People’s Liberties?” (National Gazette, December 20, 1792). Accordingly, we must seek the reason for the support of national sovereignty in the expressions of the relationship between national sovereignty and individual aspirations that are to be encouraged. This observation, in turn, brings us to the direct articulation of the contrast I drew (in my comment to Ben Peterson) between the sturdy yeoman with the ward of the state.

Let us state simply and concretely what it is that human beings long for and the citizen in a free society has a right to claim. It is this: the fair opportunity to provide competently, by one’s own devices, for the support of a family brought to maturity and, further, to secure an old age unencumbered by material embarrassments. That is the meaning of prosperity for the vast number of human beings and it is the express goal of citizens in a free society. It means not falling into dependence and, therefore, calls for those bourgeois virtues of prudence and fidelity that are necessary in order to the accomplishment of such ends.

In short, the celebration of national sovereignty in a free society is a celebration of the bourgeois virtues and therefore of the ordinary citizen, the sturdy yeoman, who is moved by the protest, “Mother, I’d rather do it myself.” It is not a celebration of the exhaustless search for wealth. It is not a celebration of celebrity. It is not a celebration, even, of genius. While those things will have their place and, in particular, the opportunity to acquire great wealth will be a necessary incident of such a social order, the summit of worth in such a society is independence in character and circumstance.

As George Washington phrased it, “Nothing but harmony, honesty, industry and frugality are necessary to make us a great and happy people.” I would maintain, therefore, and for that very reason, that a people who become increasingly wards of the state cannot be elevated by the embrace of national sovereignty. They can only become increasingly subject to dependence and direction. And we may safely reckon that a people who cannot lift their own heads cannot lift up their nation.

We can put “America first” if by that we mean to put Americans first. There will always be politics in the United States as everywhere else in the world. But there will only be American politics for as long as there are Americans. The real political idea of the hour is the idea that there is and must be an American national character, without which, as Washington put it, “we can never hope to be a happy nation.”

[1] W.B. Allen, The Federalist Papers: A Commentary (Peter Lang, 2000).