Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

“The American People”: current and historical meanings

The People, sir, are a great beast.”
–Alexander Hamilton

Virtually all US politicians are fond of “The American People.” Indeed, as the ultimate fallback stance for any candidate or incumbent, no other quaint phrase can seem so purposeful. Interesting too, is this banal reference’s stark contrast to its original meaning.

That historic meaning was entirely negative.

Unequivocally, America’s political founding expresses general disdain for any truly serious notions of popular rule. For Edmund Randolph, the evils from which the new country was suffering originated in the “turbulence and follies of democracy.” Elbridge Gerry spoke of democracy as “the worst of all political evils,” and Roger Sherman hoped that “the people…have as little to do as may be about the government.” Hamilton, the likeable subject of today’s most popular musical on Broadway, charged that the “turbulent and changing” masses “seldom judge or determine right,” and diligently sought a “permanent” authority to “check the imprudence of democracy.”

For Hamilton, such imprudence was inherent and irremediable.

For Hamilton, the American People represented a “great beast.”

In a similar vein, George Washington soberly urged convention delegates not to produce a document solely “to please the people.” For him, as well, any search for public approval was anathema.

Today, Americans casually neglect that the country’s founders had a conspicuously deep distrust of democratic governance. Accordingly, warned the young Governeur Morris, “The mob begin to think and reason, poor reptiles . . . They bask in the sun, and ere noon they will bite, depend on it.”

Furthermore, President George Washington, in his first annual message to the Congress, revealed similarly compelling apprehensions about any genuine public participation in government. The American people, he sternly warned, “… must learn to distinguish between oppression, and the necessary exercise of lawful authority . . .”

Much as Americans might not care to admit it, the country’s founding fathers were largely correct in their expressed reservations, but probably for the wrong reasons. In the United States, “We the people” have displayed a more-or-less consistent capacity for deference to “lawful authority.” Still, this “people” has also demonstrated a more-or-less persistent unwillingness to care for itself as authentic individuals; that is, as meaningfully recognizable “good citizens.”

Now it is time for candor, especially in the Trump Era. A “mob” does effectively defile any presumed American “greatness,” but it is not the same mob once feared by Hamilton, Sherman, and Morris.

It remains a dangerous mob nonetheless.

Who actually belongs to the dangerous American mob? In essence, they are rich and poor, black and white, easterner and westerner, southerner and mid-westerner, educated and uneducated, young and old, male and female, Jew, Christian, and Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist and atheist. It is, in some respects, precisely as the founding fathers had earlier feared, a democratic mob. Yet, its most distinguishing features are not poverty or any lack of formal education. Rather, they concern the absence of any decent regard for genuine learning.

More than anything else, as should be readily apparent from social media, America is all about “fitting in,” about resisting personal estrangement from the mass at absolutely all costs.

In Donald Trump’s America, we have gone from “bad to worse.” The overriding goal for literally millions has become painfully obvious. This goal is a presumptively comforting presidential dispensation to chant pure nonsense, endlessly, as ritualistic cheerleaders, in chorus. Comforted by such rhythmic and repetitive primal chanting (one should think here of the marooned English schoolboys in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies), citizens freely abandon any more meaningful responsibilities to really understand what is being cheered.

“We’ll build a beautiful wall, with a beautiful door, and Americans will be safe.” Of course, the very country that is being blamed for America’s own ills will obligingly pay for this “beautiful wall.”

In significantly large measure, the American People now fulfill early Roman appraisals of the plebs; that is, of an unambitious mob, one wishing to learn only what is “practical,” a commoditized mass roughly equivalent to the ancient Greek hoi polloi a usefully malleable “herd” (think both Nietzsche and Freud, who preferred “herd” to “mass”) that viscerally celebrates the demeaning sovereignty of unqualified persons.

A summation of such fulfillment was already known to America’s founding fathers, primarily by way of Livy: “Nothing is so valueless,” said Livy, “as the minds of the multitude.” Recalling this ancient Latin author, America’s core enemy is today an insistent intellectual docility, a grimly uninquiring national spirit that not only knows nothing of truth, but also wants to know nothing of truth.

In his Notes on Virginia, Thomas Jefferson once proposed an improved plan of elementary schooling in which “twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually.” Today, of course, it is simply inconceivable that any president or presidential aspirant could refer to his fellow Americans as “rubbish.” Yet, this openly crude analogy expressed the unvarnished sentiment of America’s most famous early “populist,” the founder and future president who drafted the Declaration of Independence.

Going forward, the “American People” have only one overriding obligation; that is, to disprove both Alexander Hamilton and Donald Trump by somehow embracing a new national political ethos, one inspired not by a perpetual fear of severance from the warmly-submissive American mass, but by a much more intentional cultivation of personal intellect and public responsibility. Plainly, this indispensable embrace will take time – arguably, perhaps, even more time than is still actually available (One should be reminded here of Bertrand Russell’s trenchant observation in Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916): “Men fear thought more than they fear anything else on earth – more than ruin, more even than death.”) — but there is no alternative. For The American People, this eleventh-hour embrace may effectively represent its last graspable chance for personal and collective survival.

Featured image credit: American flag and sparkle by Trent Yarnell. Public domain via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. Donald Smith

    Hard to argue with much of it, but it was the distrust of the people that led to one of our current problems. The Electoral College and the Supreme Court have appointed the two of our last three presidents who lost the popular vote.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *