Rip Van Winkle and the Spirit of '76

One of the problems that emerges during the ratification debate was the question: how will the spirit of the American people be nurtured for republican government? Anti-Federalists worried over the character of the American people. Pace the Federalists, they had a hard time imagining how an extended republic connected by ties of self-interest could maintain itself. How could such a state nurture the proper virtues for self-governance and cultivate a healthy jealousy and defense of liberty against potential, but inevitable, threats.

In What the Anti-Federalists Were For, Herbert Storing observes that this diving line between the Federalist and Anti-Federalist peaks in Federalist 49 in which Madison respectfully rejects a plan for regular constitutional conventions. Frequent appeals to the people, in their constitutional capacity, would deny the Constitution of the “veneration, which time bestows on every thing” that is necessary for stability. Madison adds, moreover, that one should not be too hasty to stir public passions and disrupt domestic peace.

Stability and peace. Very sound considerations. But it is not like the Anti-Federalists valued instability and strife (though, I suspect, Thomas Jefferson who inspired Madison’s rebuttal was more indifferent to their merits than the typical Anti-Federalist). What inspired the Anti-Federalists to support turning to the people—that well-spring of all popular government—was a renewal of the spirit of the revolution. The experience of the American founding shaped character and mores of the people outfitting them for republican governance. The Anti-Federalists had no doubt about that. It transformed the colonists into proud, liberty-loving Americans.

The Spirit of ‘76

The Anti-Federalists worried about what would happen to the “spirit of ’76” after the founding generation passed on public duties to the next generation. Children can be awfully disappointing and unappreciative of the struggles that their parents went through on their behalf. (It is a commonplace observation that the ardent vigor of faith among the colonial Puritans slipped with the passing generations.) The Anti-Federalist Impartial Examiner observes that

[i]t is next to impossible to enslave a people immediately after a firm struggle against oppression, while the sense of past injury is recent and strong. But after some time this impression naturally wears off;—the ardent glow of freedom gradually evaporates;—the charms of popular equality…insensibly decline;—the pleasures, the advantages derived from the new kind of government grow stale through use.

I regularly teach introductory American Government to college students. Stale describes most aptly how many feel about their government.

If frequent constitutional conventions should be rejected as a means of renewing the font of republican ardor, then what shall we do? Of course, the Anti-Federalists had plenty of other ideas such as education, religion, and such like. These are fine, but they are, on the whole, rather didactic means. Literature offers another way, a means that delights and charms even as it teaches.

In “Rip Van Winkle,” Washington Irving offers his later-born readers the opportunity to see the early republic with fresh eyes and catch a glimpse of what made that time extraordinary. Irving’s story helps his readers experience the founding in the most unlikely of ways. Rip Van Winkle sleeps through it. In fact, the founding is absent. Nevertheless, the founding’s absence is what makes Irving’s story so effective at showing how self-government imbues a people with pride for their country and desire to preserve it. In so doing, we readers share in that experience.

Before the founding, Rip and his somnolent village have little impetus to take responsibility and be industrious because they have so little stake in public affairs. After the founding and having tasted self-government, the villagers are puffed up by their sense of self-importance.

By way of quick summary, in Irving’s story, idler Rip Van Winkle escapes his nagging wife with his gun and dog to the Catskill Mountains. Henry Hudson’s spirit and his ghostly companions invite Rip to watch them play ninepins, but a sip of their brew renders him asleep for 20 years. Upon awaking, Rip finds his dog missing and gun rusted. He returns to his once drowsy village to find it bustling with activity and the local tavern flush with spirited political debate on this election day. Unwittingly, he professes loyalty to King George and is perceived as a threat. But before violence ensues, he is recognized and welcomed back. Freed from his wife who died in his absence, Rip returns to an apparently idle life and spends his time retelling his story.

Washington Irving, who born in 1783 and named after General Washington, knew a thing or two about being in the generation after the founding. It might be expected that Irving would write popular piece mythologizing our founders, like Longfellow’s account of Paul Revere, or to retell in heroic terms a famous battle like Bunker Hill. Irving, however, does not attempt to present any of these key events or heroes (though later in life Irving does undertake a biography of his namesake, in five volumes). Instead, he depicts the changes the founding had on Rip’s ordinary village by showing (as it were) before and after snapshots. Absenting the revolution effectively reveals its impact on the character of the American people.

Monarchial Character

Before Rip’s long snooze, Irving depicts the character of a people under monarchy. Irving posits that a lack of responsibility in public matters pervades the whole of society with idleness. Irving dwells on how the villagers have lost the noble and hearty gumption of their Dutch forebears. Rip, as will be shown, is not the only idler in the village, but its best representative. The present villagers take pride in their forbears’ intrepidity and concern for establishing a lasting community, but also grossly neglect to care for what they have inherited. The yellow bricks the Dutch ancestors brought with them to the new world to build anew have become “time-worn and weather-beaten.”

Rip’s farm “dwindled away under his management” and his children “were as ragged and wild as if they belonged to nobody.” Whenever his wife nags him to take up his duties, Rip evades and often spends the day at the local inn that is a “perpetual club of the sages, philosophers, and other idle personages of the village.” Under a picture of King George, reminding them that their governance takes place elsewhere, these idle persons “[talk] listlessly over village gossip, or [tell] endless sleepy stories about nothing.” If “chance” brought them a newspaper, Irving notes with irony how “sagely” the denizens of the tavern “would deliberate upon public events some months after they had taken place.” Irving shows how disconnected Rip and his fellow villagers are from meaningful public debate, because they lack participation in the events that govern their lives.

Overseeing all these discussions is Nicholas Vedder, the inn’s owner and literary stand-in for the king, who governs their opinions not so much by word, but by signaling his approval or disapproval though how he smoked his pipe. Here Irving connects the idle character of the village to monarchical rule in which political power is far removed from ordinary individuals that they have little attachment or interest in the decisions and events that govern their community—they merely take their cues or signals from the monarch.

In Rip’s village, before the revolution, there is a kind of liberty enjoyed by its inhabitants—the liberty of having no responsibilities and cares. Little is expected of Rip by society and so Rip obligingly does little in return.  He is carefree and disinterested in the affairs of the world, because they do not concern him and he has little means of participating in them. Neither the political nor social order encourages Rip to take care of his responsibilities. While freedom from political cares would seem to allow Rip more time to devote to his private affairs, instead the same lack of attachment and care pervades his private life. Only his wife harps on him to take more interest and care with his farm and family.  The lesson Rip must learn is that liberty rightly understood depends on accepting what is within one’s care. Otherwise, one is simply slumbering like Rip in the mountains with ghostly companions.

After awakening, Rip returns to his village, which happens to be an election day.  He notes several transformations and he’s quite befuddled to explain them. We readers know that Rip has slept through the American founding and yet we experience with him the surprise of seeing how his sleepy village changed.

Republican Liberty

Aside from physical changes to the village, the strangest transformation is how “[t]he very character of the people seemed changed.” In the tavern, he finds a large crowd of “tavern politicians” engaged in fierce discussion and lively debate. Instead of sleepy, disinterested discussion over scraps of bygone news under the watchful approval of Nicholas Vedder, the discussion has a “busy, bustling, disputatious tone about it.”

Elections, of course, are a defining feature of self-government. Irving, however, does not show the act of voting itself. Irving’s insight is that the bare act of voting is not what shapes a people’s character. Taking part in the debate and deliberations animates a free society, because it is how one truly takes part for what happens in public affairs. It matters how ordinary people vote and so debate is crucial for persuading and convincing others. Elections vest the citizen with a responsibility, but responsibility with the charm of being “self-important.”

Partisanship replaces tutelage to local big-wig’s opinion. Rip’s former companions are replaced with “a lean, bilious-looking fellow…haranguing, vehemently,” “a busy little fellow,” and a “self-important old gentleman.” The former two men pelt Rip with questions about his political party. Partisanship gets a lot of bad press, but the thing to keep in mind here is that it means that your opinion matters in the new republic. Every citizen may have her opinion solicited with as much solicitation as a monarch’s. Nothing less than which party holds political office is at stake.

Moreover, the manners have altered. Instead of fawning and discerning opinions from on high, people ask each other directly what they think and who they support. People are more frank and honest in the expression of their opinions. And as Irving shows, they are not always nice about it.

The tavern scene on election day shows in full the preoccupation with the meaning of the founding and, more importantly, how present-day citizens should act and vote to be consistent with the founding. Rip overhears the “tavern politicians” debate the “rights of citizens-elections—members of Congress—liberty—Bunker’s hill—heroes of seventy-six.” It is all “Babylonish jargon” to Rip, but the subject matter is surprisingly empty of contemporary policy or even local concerns.

Debts to the Founding

Whatever the contemporary issues, sooner or later debates in America cannot help but become debates about the obligations of the founding.

Americans are, Irving suggests, too eager to cast contemporary debates in the grander terms of the founding and warns against looking for the ghost of monarchism. Irving comically depicts the villagers deeply alarmed upon seeing Rip’s gun and hearing his proclamation of loyalty to King George. But Rip’s gun is rusty and he’s an old man with a long beard. Hardly a threat to their peaceful elections. Irving hints at violence towards Rip, but he is soon recognized and welcomed back.

Irving’s gentle warning against dragging up the ghosts of monarchism and stirring up the passions, at first, may seem a more amusing presentation of Madison’s argument in Federalist 49. (After all, Washington Irving had Federalist sympathies. He used to write for his brother’s pro-Aaron Burr Federalist paper.) But there’s more to it than that. Rip’s reappearance signals a return of something missing from the new nation—storytelling. What’s missing from both the Federalist and Anti-Federalist concerns is how stories can shape a people.

Storytelling unites a people through shared stories just as the experience of the revolution united the founding generation. Moreover, storytelling has the distinct advantage over frequent constitutional conventions, because it can unite a people across generations. Irving’s story provides a common literary heritage for the new nation.