Politics and the Creative
For some time I have been puzzling over the sources of the creative imagination. I began close to home with an effort some years ago to probe the creative imagination among historians, but I have tried to go beyond that, to uncover some general clues to the sources of those mysterious impulses that propel the mind beyond familiar ground into unexpected territories-that account for the sudden appearance of creative configurations of thought, expression, vision, or sound.
At times the creative imagination seems to work in isolation, when an individual, impelled by some uninstructed spark of originality, glimpses relationships or possibilities never seen before, or devises forms of expression never heard before. But most often the creative imagination does not flare in isolation. Creative minds stimulate each other, interaction and competition have a generative effect, sparks fly from disagreement and rivalry, and entire groups become creative. We know something about how that has happened-how such creative groups have formed-in art, in science, in scholarship, and in literature; but the same, I believe, has happened in politics, though in ways we do not commonly perceive. I do not mean sudden turns in legislation or public policy. I mean the recasting of the world of power, the re-formation of the structure of public authority, of the accepted forms of governance, obedience, and resistance, in practice as well as in theory.
The creative reorganization of the world of power and all its implications has happened at various points in history, but rarely, if ever, I believe, as quickly, as successfully, and-so it seems to me-as mysteriously as by a single generation on the eastern shores of North America two hundred years ago.
The Founders of the American nation were one of the most creative groups in modern history. Some among them, especially in recent years, have been condemned for their failures and weaknesses-for their racism, sexism, compromises, and violations of principle. And indeed moral judgments are as necessary in assessing the lives of these people as of any others. But we are privileged to know and to benefit from the outcome of their efforts, which they could only hopefully imagine, and ignore their main concern: which was the possibility, indeed the probability, that their creative enterprise-not to recast the social order but to transform the political system-would fail: would collapse into chaos or autocracy. Again and again they were warned of the folly of defying the received traditions, the sheer unlikelihood that they, obscure people on the outer borderlands of European civilization, knew better than the established authorities that ruled them; that they could successfully create something freer, ultimately more enduring than what was then known in the centers of metropolitan life.
Since we inherit and build on their achievements, we now know what the established world of the eighteenth century flatly denied but which they broke through convention to propose-that absolute power need not be indivisible but can be shared among states within a state and among branches of government, and that the sharing of power and the balancing of forces can create not anarchy but freedom.
We know for certain what they could only experimentally and prayerfully propose-that formal, written constitutions, upheld by judicial bodies, can effectively constrain the tyrannies of both executive force and populist majorities.
We know, because they had the imagination to perceive it, that there is a sense, mysterious as it may be, in which human rights can be seen to exist independent of privileges, gifts, and donations of the powerful, and that these rights can somehow be defined and protected by the force of law.
We casually assume, because they were somehow able to imagine, that the exercise of power is no natural birthright but must be a gift of those who are subject to it.
And we know, what Jefferson so imaginatively perceived and brilliantly expressed, that religion-religion of any kind-in the hands of power can be the worst kind of tyranny-that, as he wrote in his most eloquent state paper,
to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on [the] supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy . . .
because [the magistrate] being, of course, judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment . . . Truth [Jefferson concluded in his Act for Establishing Religious Freedom] is great and will prevail if left to herself . . . she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless, by human interposition, disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate-errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.
These were extraordinary flights of creative imagination-political heresies at the time, utopian fantasies-and their authors and sponsors knew that their efforts to realize these aspirations had no certain outcomes. Nothing was assured; the future was unpredictable. Everywhere there were turns and twists that had not been expected. Though they searched the histories they knew, consulted the learned authorities of the day, and reviewed the masterworks of political theory, they found few precedents to follow, no models to imitate. They struggled with logical, ideological, and conceptual problems that seemed to have no solutions. The deeper they went the more difficult the problems appeared.
So they were asked: How could constitutions that were to restrict the exercise of power effectively dominate the agencies that had created them?
Were individual rights to be protected against the state? Who could define them?
Conscience was declared to be free. But was not religion, and specifically Christianity, the ultimate source of morality and probity and hence of justice and fairness? So should Christianity not be enforced as a matter of state policy?
There was no end to the problems, and there was never any certainty in the outcome. Some of the problems in the course of time would be solved, some persist to this day and will never be fully resolved. But what strikes one most forcefully in surveying the struggles and achievements of that distant generation is less what they failed to do than what they did do, and the problems that they did in fact solve. One comes away from encounters with that generation, not with a sense of their failings and hypocrisies-they were imperfect people, bound by the limitations of their own world-but with a sense of how alive with creative imaginings they were; how bold they were in transcending the world they had been born into.
How did that happen? What accounts for their creative imagination? What conditions made it possible?
I do not know the answers to those questions. But surveying that lost, remote world, one comes repeatedly on a distinctive element that seems to have played a significant role. It does not account for individual genius, for the sheer power of intellection or for the inspired capacity to reconfigure familiar elements into new patterns and structures. These are the ultimate qualities of the creative imagination. Yet there are circumstances, underlying conditions, that have an empowering force on latent capacities that otherwise would remain inert.
In a brief but brilliant essay entitled "Provincialism," the art critic Kenneth Clark commented on the differences between metropolitan and provincial art. Through the centuries, he wrote, metropolitan art, emerging from dominant centers of culture, has set the grand styles that have radiated out into the world, creating standards and forming assumptions that only idiots, Clark wrote, would challenge. But in time metropolitan art, for all its successes-and in part because of them-becomes repetitive, overrefined, academic, self-absorbed as it elaborates, polishes, and attenuates its initial accomplishments. A kind of scholasticism sets in, while out on the margins, removed from the metropolitan centers, provincial art develops free of those excesses. Artists on the periphery introduce simplicity and common sense to a style that has become too embellished, too sophisticated, too self-centered. The provincials are concrete in their visualization, committed to the ordinary facts of life as they know them rather than to an established style that has taken on a life of its own. And they have a visionary intensity, which at times attains a lyrical quality, as they celebrate the world around them and strive to realize their fresh ambitions.
There are dangers in the provincial arts, Clark points out: insularity; regression into primitivism; complacence in the comforting familiarity of local scenes. But the most skillful provincial artists have the vigor of fresh energies; they are immersed in and stimulated by the ordinary reality around them; and they transcend their limited environments by the sheer intensity of their vision, which becomes, at the height of their powers, prophetic.
Thus Kenneth Clark on provincialism in art. To a remarkable degree I believe the same might be said of provincialism in politics and the political imagination-particularly the politics of Revolutionary America.
The American founders were provincials-living on the outer borderlands of an Atlantic civilization whose heartlands were the metropolitan centers of England, France, the Netherlands, and Spain. The world they were born into was so deeply provincial, so derivative in its culture, that it is difficult for us now to imagine it as it really was-difficult for us to reorient our minds to that small, remote world. We cannot avoid reading back our powerful cosmopolitan present, the sense we have of our global authority and our expanded social consciences-reading back all of that into that small, unsure, preindustrial borderland world. Language can mislead us. The vocabulary of politics in eighteenth-century America was metropolitan, transcultural, European if not universal; but the reality of the Americans' lives, the political and social context in North America, was parochial, and the provincialism of those borderland people had, I believe, in political thought precisely those creative qualities that Clark describes in provincial art.
How provincial were they? There is literary evidence, some of it eloquent. William Byrd II, returning to Virginia in 1726 after ten years of intense striving in England's literary and political circles, called his native land a "silent country," in which at times he felt he was "being buried alive." Though surrounded by "my flocks and
my herds," he wrote back to England, "my bond-men and bond-women, and every soart of trade amongst my own servants," he was lonely. There was no one to respond to his wit, his satire; no one to acknowledge his intellectual achievements, no way to establish his worth as a man of letters, as a man of the world. He was no longer in the world. Nostalgically, he kept his rooms in London, practiced his languages-every day some Greek and Latin and a bit of Hebrew-read diligently, remorselessly, in several European languages, built up his library into a formidable collection of over three thousand titles, and continued to write, for his own satisfaction, while pouring out to his diary his longings for a greater world.
There were other isolated bookmen and old-fashioned virtuosi-the learned Pennsylvania Quaker James Logan, for example, more successful and consequential a scholar and scientist than Byrd-who were similarly remote from the metropolitan culture, similarly dependent on echoes from abroad. And later, in the pre-Revolutionary years, there would be an outpouring of belles lettres in the North American towns and cities-a plethora of literary efforts and polite discourses in coffeehouses, clubs, salons, and tea tables, all "aping metropolitan rites and fashions," all aspiring to images of a greater beau monde, all refracting metropolitan styles in amusement, wit, and social discourse.
So Thomas Dale, a well-educated London physician down on his luck, emigrated to Charleston, South Carolina, rose through his professional skills and his reputation as what he called "a great wit and a great Scholard," a veritable "vir literatus," to achieve, in that center of provincial culture, wealth, position, and status, while pumping his English correspondents for word of literary developments in London, inquiring after his old acquaintances and literary idols, and
hoping that his friends, in their "walks thro' Moorfields and the Stalls . . . would pick me up some pamphlets and 2 or 3 penniworth of Learning good and old." He would consider that "a singular favour,"
For Fortune plac'd me in a ruder soil,
Far from the Joys that with my Soul agree,
From wit, from Learning-far, oh far from thee!
Later, in 1763, Benjamin Franklin, back in urban and enterprising Philadelphia after years in England, knew better than anyone else how far that city had advanced in literary accomplishments in the years since he had launched his Junto's program of cultural development. But he wondered why it was that the "petty island" from which he had just returned-a mere stepping-stone in a brook next to America, "scarce enough of it above water to keep one's shoes dry"-should have, in almost every neighborhood, more sensible, virtuous, and elegant minds than could be collected in "100 leagues of our vast forests." The most gifted Americans, he wrote, merely "lisp attempts at painting, poetry, and musick."
But the witness of art and architecture is more objective and more revealing.
The young John Adams spoke with envy of the rich and powerful in his world, of a smug, arrogant American aristocracy, of elegant American mansions, of grand estates and grand prospects. But what was the scale? How grand was grand?
Some of the grand places he and his contemporaries knew are familiar to us-they have survived or been rebuilt-though we do not often think of them in this connection
From the Hardcover edition.
Revue de presse
“Seldom have . . . the American Founders . . . been celebrated with such depth and sophistication.” —The New York Review of Books
“In the great flood of books about the American Revolution . . . To Begin the World Anew occupies a place all its own. A closely argued exploration.” —The Washington Post Book World
“One of America’s most discerning historians. His thinking is subtle. His style is forceful. . . . Throughout he retains a sense of wonder that those men in a clump of distant British provinces could have wrought a political system, a view of the world, that is so imaginative and enduring.” —Los Angeles Times
“Deep, creative, brilliant, and provocative. In a word: dazzling.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette