The American Revolution was founded upon elite gentlemen willing to stake their reputation on a political gamble. That’s what Tom Cutterham argues in his new book, Gentlemen Revolutionaries: Power and Justice in the New American Republic (Princeton UP, 2017), anyway. The British Empire featured countless men who were eager to climb the ranks of nobility–class options that simply were not available to those who lived in her colonies. But political independence offered a way out. “This book argues that,” Cutterham explains in his introduction, “in the wake of the Revolutionary War, a new national elite created it self through a process of debate and struggle over these gentlemanly ideals” (3). Rather than the logical culmination of the “critical period”—a murky chronological era that many historians prefer to skip over rather than engage—the Constitution was actually “a desperate gambit by which gentleman hoped to turn the tables and restore their own authority” (8). This book is the story of how elite men came to that conclusion and enacted their initiatives.
Cutterham begins he book by looking at soldiers and the Order of Cincinnati. When veterans created an organization that highlighted their service and capitalized on their networking—the first of several attempts to create an unofficial noble class—it drew a backlash from those who distrusted its power and privilege. These were examples of people seeking to build an artificial elite that highlighted both hierarchy and equality to different people. Another point of paradox in the early republic was public access to education, the focus of the second chapter. While, in general, public schooling possessed democratic principles, it also worked to curtail democracy’s excesses. Many elites saw it as a way to mold the minds of young citizens and rid their community of democratic threats. Indeed, both religion and education were used to contain disobedience in the young republic, especially in New England. Cutterham then turns his attention to questions concerning property, power, and justice, particularly in South Carolina, and demonstrates how debates over confiscation revealed a deep gentlemanly animosity toward democratic equality. The attempts to calm animosity toward loyalists was indicative of the desire to maintain an elite form of commercial justice.
The final two chapters are perhaps the most intricate and sophisticated of the book. In a nation filled with speculators who yearned to expand westward, an evolution of monied interests soon dominated the country’s political discourse. The creation of quasi-private, quasi-public banks was one way elites could maintain some form of economic control even before a strong federal government was installed. Cutterham is to be commended for tracing through this complex web of financiers and provide an understandable account of republican credit. And finally, Cutterham concludes the book with the reaction to Shays’ Rebellion, when elite gentlemen were finally willing to act on the “licentiousness” they felt was prevalent in their nation. All their private forms of nobility-building had failed. The Constitutional Convention, then, was the last-ditch effort after several years of attempts to remove power from common people. “America’s gentlemen would tear down the union rather than submit to popular rule” (150), Cutterham concludes.
But the elite’s victory came with a price—or at least a rhetorical compromise. The discourse that carried the day during the ratification debates was not the hierarchical structure the gentlemen used before 1785, but rather a new one that emphasized equality and popular sovereignty. Even if they shuddered to consider the merits of a true democracy, which they believed invited chaos and anarchy, these gentlemen politicians at least appropriated its language. From that point on, systems on inequality, land ownership, and wealth accumulation would be masked through a republican framework. In many ways, the ironies remain with us today.
In some ways, the book is a call-back to classic works on Revolutionary America: it is focused on elites, state-building, and republicanism. But is also reflects the post-social history turn, as it casts the “gentlemen” as responding to a powerful and growing populous clamoring for a more democratic future. In an era where American historians are combatting resurgent founders’ chic with a focus on the marginalized, Cutterham’s response is to reconsider the power of their influence. Further, he urges readers to recognize the pitfalls of elite governance. This is a dark narrative for our sardonic culture. If Bernie Sanders were to read a book that validated his prophetic voice decrying a capitalistic empire of self-interest and wealth inequality, this very well might be one of them.
The bulk of Gentlemen Revolutionaries covers four years, between 1783 and 1787. On the one hand, this close examination really digs into the “critical period” for its own sake, rather than as a postlude to the Revolution of prelude for the Constitution. But it also makes it difficult to pick up on long trajectories. Events, tensions, and even people overlap. (South Carolina politician Aedanus Burke pops up in several locations, for instance, and often distinct from previous occurrences.) And the narrative at times falls into the traditional pattern of focusing on individual white men while losing the focus, found abundantly elsewhere, on how they were pushed by the very people they despised. Cutterham’s framing of elites responding to the populace sometimes focuses a bit too much on the former while forgetting the plight of the latter. (Which, ironically, is what many of the early American elites did as well.)
But even if there are debates over specifics, I found the general argument of Cutterham’s book both refreshing and compelling. His analysis is deep and his prose smooth. More, I found his message exceptionally (if tragically) relevant: America’s struggle to define justice and power within a system built by elites is still an unsolved dilemma. What Gentlemen Revolutionaries proves is how deep, systematic, and original the fears over populist democracy are within US history, and how embedded they are within the nation’s governing document. In 2017, though, the stakes seem even more complex: on the one hand, a powerful and wealthy oligarchy continues to control our economy and political discourse—these are the elites Cutterham warns us about. But we also live in an age of unfettered and demotic demagoguery, nearly to the point that we might sympathize with the gentlemanly fear of democracy’s excesses. Paradoxes, indeed.
It is the battle between these tensions, after all, that shape America’s democratic traditions. And thanks to Cutterham, we can see that they were in place even during the half-decade that preceded Philadelphia’s famed convention.