The “core” of American democracy, writes Matthew Robin Hale in the March issue of the Journal of American History, is a struggle over how egalitarian and communitarian our politics should be. This struggle emerged, he argues, in the mid-1790s as the French Revolution excited and mobilized thousands of Americans to discover and declare that they were “Democrats.” They were Democrats in emulation of Frenchmen’s embrace of liberté, egalité, and fraternité and in opposition to the “aristocratic” airs of the Federalists who preferred to distance the representatives from the people, certainly from the propertyless people.
This lasting division, Hale writes, appears today as a debate between the political left of figures such as Mario Cuomo and Barack Obama who describe the nation as a family of mutual obligation and the political right of figures like Barry Goldwater and Rand Paul who decry the label “democracy” and argue that our nation is instead a formally contracted “republic” of independent individuals. (Consider the debate over health care. The political descendants of the Francophiles claim that it is a human right, that through government we should all pay for the health of our neighbors. The descendants of the Federalists claim that it is the responsibility of self-reliant individuals and the government’s role is, at most, to gently regulate the health market.)
The story of Francophile enthusiasm during the Washington administration not only informs our understanding of American political history, it also informs our understanding of our ever-changing collective memory of that history. (Earlier posts on collective memory are here and here). In particular, Hale’s account plays against the political memory in the latest smash hit, the musical, “Hamilton.”