Of Gentlemen and Justice

An uncharitable reading of Tom Cutterham’s new book would suggest the alternative title: “An Economic Interpretation of the Buildup to the Constitutional Convention.” But Cutterham, a lecturer in U.S. history at the University of Birmingham in Britain, is up to something more interesting, and perhaps more controversial, than Charles Beard was.

Gentlemen Revolutionaries: Power and Justice in the New American Republic contends that the political institutions and values adopted after the American War for Independence stemmed from class-based struggles to define justice that animated the young republic. These institutions, on Cutterham’s reading, did not abolish hierarchy but created new anti-egalitarian social structures, only the most obvious of which was slavery. The idea of justice reflected in the U.S. Constitution, with its emphasis on property rights, sanctity of contract, and restraint on popular sovereignty, reflected the interests of an elite, members of which viewed themselves as “gentlemen.” They co-opted revolutionary sentiment and “transformed [their] code of honor…into an ideology that animated political conflict and formed the basis of the new federal constitution.”

Cutterham begins with the gentlemen revolutionaries’ wagering of their “sacred Honor” in the Declaration of Independence, writing that:

The American Revolution was led by men who set themselves above the ordinary, common man. They understood themselves as gentlemen. That status was a form of power, but it also relied on a set of rules that governed the actions of anyone who claimed it—a code of honor that helped draw the line between who was a gentleman and who was not. When the signers of the Declaration pledged their “sacred Honor” to the cause of independence, they were laying on the line one of their most valued possessions: their status as gentlemen.

The gentlemen thought that abandoning traditional hierarchies based on birth and rank left a void that required new structures of authority to prevent social disorder. Their quest to fill that void was the subtext of debates over the social, economic, and political institutions of the new republic, particularly the religious and educational establishments, financial systems, and state and national constitutions.

Cutterham focuses on the period leading up to the Constitutional Convention, and presents a number of episodes illustrating what he describes as a feud between gentlemen and the public, with their clashing visions of justice. Whereas the gentlemen desired a commercial economy based on the sanctity of contract and property rights, agrarian citizens favored a more populist view.

The first episode is a debate over the Society of the Cincinnati, an effort Colonel Henry Knox spearheaded in the early 1780s to lobby for military officers’ interests. In Cutterham’s telling, the Cincinnati represented officers’ attempt to secure their positions as gentlemen and exercise a hierarchical influence in the new republic. South Carolina judge Aedanus Burke, writing as Cassius, argued to that effect in a May 1783 pamphlet entitled Considerations on the Society or Order of the Cincinnati, warning that distinguishing veterans and their descendants from the rest of their countrymen and women would install a hereditary oligarchy on American shores.

A related controversy surrounding confiscation of loyalists’ property, when cash-strapped states like South Carolina looked to members of the “Tory interest” and their property as sources of revenue in the early 1780s, toward the end of the war. The notion of confiscation suggested to many gentlemen a violation of the “sacred right of property,” and a hint of popular excess.

This time Aedanus Burke spoke in a non-populist, if not antipopulist, vein. He argued that confiscation was a violation of the natural right of property. Privately, he expressed similar concerns related to the power of popular assemblies: “Can property be secure under a numerous democratic assembly which undertakes to dispose of the property of a citizen?”

Alexander Hamilton echoed Aedanus Burke’s concern, opposing similar confiscation procedures against loyalists in New York as setting a dangerous precedent. Hamilton, aide de camp to the head of the Revolutionary Army, after the cause succeeded urged moderation. He was determined to resist what he interpreted as immoderate popular passions for confiscation.

Burke’s rhetorical question hints at a theme Cutterham says was central to the gentlemanly vision of society: the need for bulwarks against popular “licentiousness.” Chief among these would be the influence of the clergy and the erection of educational establishments to outfit young people for the virtuous exercise of liberty.

Enos Hitchcock, a Harvard-educated clergymen-turned-chaplain, made the case for traditional, religiously informed education to prevent social discord—a case Cutterham says was destined to fall flat amidst popular discontent with the clergy. More creatively, the entrepreneur Noah Webster advocated public education as a means of cultivating gentlemanly qualities while simultaneously preparing young men to participate in a commercial society.

The notion of public credit was central to the commercial society that was being championed by a rising financial elite. Farmers and landowners chafed at the tight credit policies of banks like the Philadelphia-based Bank of North American, supervised by the wealthy merchant Robert Morris. Merchants and financial elites resisted state policies aimed at easing debtors’ burdens, especially Rhode Island’s printing of paper money, which caused inflation and devalued creditors’ assets. James Madison expressed alarm about the “general rage for paper money,” an “epidemic malady.” The banking and currency debates were proxies for the larger conflict over the appropriate limits on popular assemblies. Cutterham points out that plans for a convention to amend the Articles of Confederation grew out of attempts to counter popular reforms and protests that undermined creditors.

In Massachusetts, high taxes aimed at restoring public credit met with resistance in the form of protest and outright insurgency—in particular, townspeople would obstruct the activity of courts, a strategy that Western settlers also used to demand relief from creditors’ and speculators’ financial influence. The resistance culminated in Daniel Shay’s famous attempt to seize the federal armory at Springfield.

Knox, by then George Washington’s Secretary of War, interpreted the Massachusetts situation as a harbinger of general lawlessness and the breakdown of civil order. Shays’ Rebellion and the broader unrest strengthened Madison’s case for revision of the Articles, easing the path to the Philadelphia Convention in 1787.

To his credit, Cutterham notes the complexity of these debates, which not only pitted populists against elites but frequently pitted elites against one another. A notable example concerns the un-adopted “black project,” floated by Hamilton’s friend John Laurens as a solution to the South Carolina militia’s recruitment problems and a step toward gradual emancipation. These frequent intra-elite disputes run counter to, or at least complicate, the author’s gentlemen vs. public narrative. Nevertheless, his artful narration of these lesser-known and ideologically intricate episodes is the primary strength of Gentlemen Revolutionaries.

Whenever he steps back to assess their overall significance and implications, however, he is less thorough and convincing. As a historian, Cutterham is not necessarily required to extensively evaluate his subjects’ principles and arguments. On the other hand, he clearly intends readers to draw a distinct set of conclusions from his presentation of the historical record. More thorough evaluation would thus seem appropriate. For Cutterham, the debates are interesting not as a window into the challenge of constructing a viable republic, exacerbated by postwar debt and the need to balance popular and elite demands, state and federal prerogatives, and commercial and rural interests. Rather, they are of interest mostly insofar as they reveal the gentlemen’s underlying motive of maintaining their status and prestige. He draws rather incautious and broad conclusions from episodes like the debate over the Bank of North America, writing that, “Over time, gentlemen carved out the exclusive power to define justice itself.”

The more critical flaw is the book’s unclear definition of the gentleman. Its use of the term extends to—and emphasizes—“commercial gentlemen,” that is, bankers and merchants. Cutterham’s central claim is that the gentlemanly vision of society embraces free market exchange, championing the commercial virtues that support such a society. He effectively supports his claim that a Hamiltonian, commercial vision of society generated a great deal of the impetus for the Constitutional Convention and influenced its outcome, but there is an important distinction to be made between this vision and the gentlemanly ideal in the more traditionalist sense.

In Revolutionary Characters (2006), Gordon S. Wood identified the importance of the gentlemanly ethic in post-Revolutionary political culture, acknowledging the distinction of rank and hierarchy that it entailed.[1] Yet where Cutterham sees old wine in new skins, Wood saw a break from aristocracy toward a social order based not on birth but on merit and opportunity. Wood argued that the gentlemanly ethic, based on education, manners, and conduct was an “immensely radical belief with implications that few foresaw.”[2]

Alexis de Tocqueville had similarly observed the broadened use of the term “gentleman” in England, and especially the antebellum United States:

As ranks become closer and mixed with each other . . . the definition of “gentleman” was proportionately extended. Every century it was applied to people placed a bit lower on the social scale. Finally, it traveled to America with the English. There it is used to designate any citizen indiscriminately. Its history is the history of democracy itself.[3]

John Adams’s well-known definition of the gentleman is one of the clearest by an American Founder:

The people, in all nations, are naturally divided into two sorts, the gentlemen and the simplemen . . . the common people. By gentlemen are not meant the rich or the poor, the high-born or the low-born, the industrious or the idle; but all those who have received a liberal education, an ordinary degree of erudition in liberal arts and sciences, whether by birth they be descended from magistrates and officers of government, or from husbandmen, merchants, mechanics, or laborers; or whether they be rich or poor . . . Now it seems to be clear, that the gentlemen in every country are, and ever must be, few in number, in comparison of the simplemen.[4]

Adams’s definition, notice, is simultaneously egalitarian and elitist. It is based on intellectual refinement and a notion of liberal education quite at variance with the professionalized training that Noah Webster promoted. This new ideal of the gentleman centered on character and intellectual virtue, not wealth. The gentleman would exhibit honesty and commitment; he would be a member of a genuinely noble elite.

Cutterham’s book raises important questions: should we admire Hamilton’s defense of loyalists’ property rights? What are the merits of the case against unfettered democracy? Is there a distinction between natural aristocracy and oligarchy, and is the former a necessary safeguard against the latter? How closely does “gentleman’s justice” align with genuine justice?

These are all the more pertinent as we enter what some have called a new “gilded age.” Despite successive democratizing reforms during the 19th and 20th centuries, social and economic inequalities abound and may be deepening. There is a case to be made that the gentlemanly ideal was an attempt to attach standards of conduct and character to the wealth-based hierarchy that would result from the abandonment of aristocracy. The post-industrial economy has established that hierarchy on a firmer basis than ever, but the gentlemanly ideal has hardly kept pace.

Was that ideal as calculating and insidious as Tom Cutterham seems to believe? And will the history of our own time prove Tocqueville right—that the history of the word “gentleman” was the history of democracy, and when, after stretching so thin, it finally slipped out of our language, democratic self-government slipped out of our grasp? If so, future generations may wish that young men still aspired to be gentleman, and young women to be ladies.

[1] See Peter Berkowitz’s excellent review in Policy Review, which happens to share the title of Cutterham’s book.

[2] Gordon S. Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different (Penguin Press, 2006), 15.

[3] Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the Revolution, translated by Alan S. Kahan, edited François Furet and Françoise Melonio (University of Chicago Press, 1998), 153-4.

[4] John Adams, Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, Volume III, in The Works of John Adams, edited by Charles Francis Adams, Volume VI (Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1851), p. 185. Available online http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/adams-the-works-of-john-adams-vol-6.