Counter-Attack On Democracy
By standards of the time, America was Utopia already. No grinding poverty, no dangerous
national enemies, no indigenous tradition beyond a general spirit of exuberant optimism,
a belief the land had been touched by destiny, a conviction Americans could accomplish
anything. John Jay wrote to Jefferson in 1787, "The enterprise of our country is
inconceivable" — inconceivable, that is, to the British, Germans, and French, who were
accustomed to keeping the common population on a leash. Our colonial government was
the creation of the Crown, of course, but soon a fantastic idea began to circulate, a belief
that people might create or destroy governments at their will.
The empty slate of the new republic made it vulnerable to advanced Utopian thinking.
While in England and Germany, temptation was great to develop and use Oriental social
machinery to bend mass population into an instrument of elite will, in America there was
no hereditary order or traditional direction. We were a nation awash in literate, self-
reliant men and women, the vast majority with an independent livelihood or ambitions
toward getting one. Americans were inventors and technicians without precedent,
entrepreneurs unlocked from traditional controls, dreamers, confidence men, flim-flam
artists. There never was a social stew quite like it.
The practical difficulties these circumstances posed to Utopian governing would have
been insuperable except for one seemingly strange source of enthusiasm for such an
endeavor in the business community. That puzzle can be solved by considering how the
promise of democracy was a frightening terra incognita to men of substance. To look to
men like Sam Adams or Tom Paine as directors of the future was like looking down the
barrel of a loaded gun, at least to people of means. So the men who had begun the
Revolution were eased out by the men who ended it.
As early as 1784, a concerted effort was made by the Boston business community to
overthrow town meetings, replacing them with a professionally managed corporation.
Joseph Barrell, a wealthy merchant, claimed that citizen safety could be enhanced this
way — and besides, "a great number of very respectable gentlemen" wished it. Timothy
Dwight, longtime president of Yale after 1795, and a pioneer in modern education
(advocating science as the center of curriculum), fought a mighty battle against
advancing democracy. Democracy was hardly the sort of experiment men of affairs
would willingly submit their lives and fortunes to for very long.
This tension explains much about how our romance with forced schooling came about; it
was a way to stop democracy aborning as Germany had done. Much ingenuity was
expended on this problem in the early republic, particularly by so-called liberal Christian
sects like Unitarians and Universalists. If you read relics of their debates preserved from
select lyceums, private meetings at which minutes were kept, journals, recollections of
drawing room conversations and club discussions, you see that what was shaping up was
an attempt to square the circle, to give the appearance that the new society was true to its
founding promise, while at the same time a sound basis could be established for the
meritorious to run things. Once again, the spirit of Sparta was alive with its ephors and its
reliance on forced instruction. In discussions, speeches, sermons, editorials, experimental
legislation, letters, diaries, and elsewhere, the ancient idea of mass forced schooling was
called forth and mused upon.
How Hindu Schooling Came To America (I)