Gotham Diary:
7 April 2014

Three sentences.

In other words, what had happened in colonial America prior to the Revolution (and what had happened in no other part of the world, neither in the old countries nor in the new colonies) was, theoretically speaking, that action had led to the formation of power and that power was kept in existence by the then newly discovered means of promise and consent. The force of this power, engendered by action and kept by promises, came to the fore when, to the great surprise of all the great powers, the colonies, namely, the townships and the provinces, the counties and the cities, their numerous differences amongst themselves notwithstanding, won the war against England. But this victory was a surprise only for the Old World; the colonists themselves, with a hundred and fifty years of covenant-making behind them, rising out of a country which was articulated from top to bottom — from provinces or states down to cities and districts, townships, villages, and counties — into duly constituted bodies, each a commonwealth of its own, with representatives “freely chosen by the consent of loving friends and neighbours,” each, moreover, designed “for increase” as it rested on the mutual promises of those who were “cohabiting” and who, when they “conjoyned [them] selves to be as one Publike State or Commonwealth,” had planned not only for their “successors” but even for “such as shall be adioyned to [them] in any tyme hereafter” — the men who out of the uninterrupted strength of this tradition “bid a final adieu to Britain” knew their chances from the beginning; they knew of the enormous power potential that arises when men “mutually pledge to each other [their] lives, [their] Fortunes and their sacred Honour.”

Never have I read a more powerful paean to the United States of America as constituted in 1789. It astonishes me that the words that I have just extracted were not taught to me in school, and taught again and again. Had this passage formed part of the backbone of elite education in the middle of the last century, I am quite sure that the troglodyte, conservative sentimentalism about “the Founders” spouted by the likes of Antonin Scalia would be far more broadly dismissed as the bunkum that it is.

Why wasn’t it? I asked Kathleen, having been almost swept away by reading it to her.

Could it be the title of the book in which Hannah Arendt published this oratorical gem? On Revolution. Not the happiest title in 1963, what with Cuba &c. Revolutions were “bad things” in those days, for the simple reason that, as Arendt herself pointed out repeatedly, no revolution except the American had been a “good thing.”

Kathleen thought it might be that Arendt was Jewish. I disagreed. While social antisemitism was still virulent in the early Sixties, academic and “cultural” antisemitism had been dismantled for some time.

Could it have been the distinction that Arendt makes between a republic and a democracy, as in the following perhaps too-brainy passage?

The American revolutionary insistence on the distinction between a republic and a democracy or majority rule hinges on the radical separation of law and power, with clearly recognized different origins, different legitimations, and different spheres of application.

In Arendt’s view, the USA was a republic, and not a democracy. It was certainly more of a republic in 1789, with the indirect election of the Senate.

Could it have been Arendt’s erudite humanism, so at odds with the American enthusiasm for guts? She roots the success of the American Revolution in a dense matting of civil compacts, not in battlefield heroism. This might well have been found unappealing.

I felt that we were getting closer to an explanation that stood up. In the end, however, we shook our heads irresolutely. The best explanation that we could come up with was so dumb, so stupid, and so piggish, that it was hard to credit.

Hannah Arendt was a woman.