Cities express an ambivalence in the American soul: we like cities and wish to live in them—or at least to visit them—but we also dislike cities and wish to avoid them, and live instead on farms or in suburbs, and wish we could redesign the whole country along the lines of the Berkshires, in western Massachusets—with the Turnpike for rapid transit but to a different kind of Boston. Cities are the home of commerce—business and industry we now say—and therefore of the inequality that naturally arises out of commerce—some men become richer than others—whereas this country was founded on the proposition that all men are created equal, and it seems to follow, for some of us at least, that equal we should remain. Originally, then, we opposed the city in the name of democracy. Yet we know, when we think about it, that there is no necessary connection between equality or democracy, on the one hand, and agrarianism; that there was once a purely agrarian society in the West, but it was not democratic; indeed, it was known as feudalism. When we think about it, we would be hard pressed to name a purely agrarian society that was at the same time democratic—outside Rousseau's books that is, and Jefferson's imagination. The latter, as a wise man has reminded us, “did not seem to realize the extent to which, in constantly seeking to strengthen agriculture, not with other elements making for a balanced economy but at the expense of other elements, he was acting to strengthen slavery.” At any rate, our ambivalence toward the city has one of its roots in Jeffersonian democracy, which retains its vitality among us even though the sturdy yeoman farmer has long since been replaced by the suburban homeowner fighting crab grass with a bad back.
The great cities, the ones we visit on holiday or are whisked to in ever-increasing numbers by the charter flights, were once the homes of kings and emperors, who built the palaces that are now the museums and the grounds that are now the public parks, and who won the battles memorialized in the squares and fountains and obelisks and columns constructed out of captured cannon melted down for the purpose. We love Paris, it is not a bit like Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul; the trouble is, we cannot imagine Paris without Louis XIV and Napoleon, neither of whom we could abide for a moment if he were to offer himself on or off a party ticket; or Rome without the emperors and popes, or Vienna without the Hapsburgs, or London without Elizabeth and the Georges and the others. Again, much of what attracts us to the city has an undemocratic element in it. At the very minimum it reminds us of what Tocqueville told us: justice, or at least democratic justice, and that cultivation of the human spirit that produces beautiful things are not compatible.
Do you wish to give a certain elevation to the human mind and teach it to regard the things of this world with generous feelings, to inspire men with a scorn of mere temporal advantages, to form and nourish strong convictions and keep alive the spirit of honorable devotedness? Is it your object to refine the habits, embellish the manners, and cultivate the arts, to promote the love of poetry, beauty, and glory? Would you constitute a people fitted to act powerfully upon all other nations, and prepared for those high enterprises which, whatever be their results, will leave a name forever famous in history? If you believe such to be the object of society, avoid the government of the democracy, for it would not lead you with certainty to the goal.
This is a harsh judgment, palliated only slightly by the virtues of democracy, which he delineates in his following paragraph.
We admire Venice for its color and variety; it is an exotic place, with vestiges of an earlier meeting of the East and West. We admire Amsterdam, rather similar to Venice in its canals and especially in its sights, scents, and flavors brought from the exotic East by generations of Dutchmen. And the London of the first Elizabeth, and of the East India Company and the East India Docks; of ship chandlers, spice shops, coffee importers and coffee houses, and Ceylonese tea merchants; the London through whose port came the world and through whose same port one went out to the world, literally and imaginatively. We admire, in short, the cosmopolitan city—the cosmos polls, the world city; but we suspect, having been taught by Jefferson, that it is precisely the cosmopolitan character of the city that makes government difficult and community impossible; and some of us—Lewis Mum ford, for example—have such a yearning for community that we come to hate the city, and dream of new places in the countryside—call them Garden Cities if you must—surrounded by green belts and featuring the Community Center, the contemporary substitute for self-government. Of course there is a connection between free government and community (if not the community center), which is why the town meeting occupies so prominent a place in our democratic pathos. And of course cosmopolitanism is a threat to community, because the cosmos polis destroys homogeneity; it brings in foreigners with strange ways and strange religions. The anti-Federalists at our beginning opposed the ratification of the Constitution most of all because free republican government could exist, they insisted, only in small, homogeneous places, where, as one of them said, “the manners, sentiments, and interests of the people [are] similar.” Mercy Warren, one of the 18th-century founders of American isolationism, wondered if it might be possible to preserve the “pure republican spirit of the Americans” by building some sort of wall around the country, cutting them off from European luxury, on the one hand, and Western empire, on the other. She and the other anti-Federalists opposed the Constitution precisely because it would lead to the replacement of the small, homogeneous and therefore, they insisted, self-governing communities by the large, impersonal, commercial, eventually urban country which, they also insisted, could only be governed despotically. George Clinton, governor of New York and writing under the name of Cato, the greatest of Roman republican names, put it this way: “The progress of the commercial society begets luxury, the parent of inequality, the foe to virtue, and the enemy to restraint, [and also] ambition and voluptuousness,” and eventually despotism. “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God,” said Jefferson, “if ever He had a chosen people,” and we all know what he had to say about the city:
While we have land to labor then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a workbench, or twirling a distaff. Carpenters, masons, smiths, are wanting in husbandry; but, for the general operations of manufacture, let our workshops remain in Europe. It is better to carry provisions and materials to workmen there, than bring them to the provisions and materials, and with them their manners and principles. The loss by the transportation of commodities across the Atlantic will be made up in happiness and permanence of government. The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body. It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigor. A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution.
But our ambivalence stems from his, because he probably formulated that statement about the city on his way to Philadelphia and a meeting of the American Philosophical Society. Jefferson was, for all his rusticity, among the most urbane of Americans, the man who thought Bacon, Newton, and Locke were the three greatest men who ever lived—and there was nothing rustic about Bacon, Newton, and Locke, and nothing bucolic about the world their thought helped to build.
I am contending that the American ambivalence toward the city has its roots in the dispute that took place at the beginning, the dispute between the men we call Federalists and those we call anti-Federalists. Residual elements of that original dispute are reflected in the later struggles between Hamilton and Jefferson, and the Hamiltonians and the Jeffersonians, and later in those between Biddle and the friends of the Bank, on the one hand, and the Jacksonians, the sturdy yeomanry, on the other; and still later in those between the Gold Republicans from the East and the William Jennings Bryan Democrats from the West, the descendants of Jackson. Bryan became famous for his imprecations against the cities: “Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country. . . .” And, of course, one can hear echoes of it still, beating in the heart of the Republicans, once again located in the Middle West, even if the Republican body comes from California or Maryland. These men dislike the effete East, or the Eastern Establishment, as much as Bryan and Jackson ever did. America may be the first new nation, the first to be established on the basis of the modern principles delineated by Hobbes and Locke, but there has seldom been a time without a significant body of opinion that distrusts modernity, its principle and its works.
Our ambivalence toward the city arises out of our acceptance and our simultaneous rejection of modernity. I mean by this, and without here elaborating it, we built on the Hobbesian-Lockean principle of self-interest, but we yearn for a good we can share in common, a common good, a community, which the younger generation has called a participatory democracy, an idea coming from Rousseau. But it is no easy task to define a common good for a civil society whose organizing principle is self-interest, whether that principle is accepted eagerly, which is more or less the case with the authors of the Federalist Papers, or reluctantly, as was true of such anti-Federalists as Melancton Smith, and true also, I think, of the greatest of the commentators on America, Tocqueville. Brotherhood cannot be willed (Tom Hayden and the New Left to the contrary notwithstanding), and the authors of the Federalist knew this very well, which is why they eschewed reliance on “moral and religious motives,” and accepted instead the Lockean corollary of the Hobbesian-Lockean premise: the pursuit of wealth will solve the political problem, and wealth will flow naturally from the unrestrained greed of men. In less pejorative terms, the society that attains what Federalist Number 10 calls the first object of government—that of protecting the unequal faculties of acquiring property—will be one that directs the energies of its people into wealth-getting. It will not be a society of good Samaritans; it will, however, be a society whose members are not so likely to fall among thieves when they travel the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, or Boston to New York, because the passions of men will be directed into activities that do not lead to bloodshed and do not threaten the peace. The passion for acquisition—greed—will assume first importance under this new, this modern dispensation, and it is a passion that can be satisfied in peaceful ways. Scarcity will be overcome and, in fact, wealth will abound. The Gross National Product will assume astronomical proportions, just as Locke said it would. In this way self-interest will be served. Acquisition will be a substitute for morality; that is, acquisition will replace the morality that formerly constituted the community, the cement that bound men into a community. Acquisition becomes the substitute for brotherhood. The modern world will have less need of Samaritans, which is all to the good, Hobbes, Locke, and their epigoni would say, because there were never many good Samaritans anyway.
The anti-Federalists opposed this arrangement, and some of them knew exactly what they were opposing. Nevertheless, it can be said that however much the anti-Federalists talked of sturdy yeomen and republican virtue and small communities of brothers, in the end they too took their stand with Lockean acquisition. And so too did their lineal descendants of the next generation, the Jacksonians. The Jacksonians may have yearned for something in addition—Marvin Meyers shows this most perceptively in his book, The Jacksonian Persuasion—but they proved unwilling to pay the price for it, and in this respect too they resembled their ancestors. John Adams taunted the anti-Federalists with this unwillingness. You want republican virtue? he asked them. You want rustic simplicity? You want the small, virtuous, agrarian republic? If so, what you want is San Marino:
A handful of poor people, living in the simplest manner, by hard labor upon the produce of a few cows, sheep, goats, swine, poultry, and pigeons, on a piece of rocky snowy ground, protected from every enemy by their situation, their superstition, and even by their poverty, having no commerce or luxury. . . .
In fact, they did not want it. Not at that price. But this has never prevented us Americans from yearning for imaginary San Marinos.
Tocqueville is the man to read on this subject. No one since Rousseau has better articulated the problems and the costs of modernity. It was one thing to share a good in common, to live in a community with a common purpose, when all men and all classes were bound to each other by the laws and the institutions of the place, sharing the tenets of a faith held in common; when the organizing principle of the regime embodied an articulation of the ends that men individually and collectively were to seek; when the principles of the regime were derived from an understanding of the human soul that placed it in an ordered universe; or to say this in more familiar language, when the civil law was patterned after the natural law and the natural law, in turn, was grounded in God's eternal law. In such a world, men and societies derive comfort from their opinion that they are living according to divine providence, or according to the natural law, and it was understood in that world that self-preservation was merely the lowest in the natural hierarchy of ends. The trouble was, there were disputes as to what that common faith would be, leading to religious wars, civil and international, and countries tended to resemble the Northern Ireland of today. But when self-preservation becomes the totality of the law of nature, as it does for Hobbes and Locke, and when the law of civil society comes to be based on this understanding of the natural law, promoting the materialism that would relieve man's estate even as it corrupted his soul, it is not strange that the common good becomes an elusive thing. Nor is it strange that Tocqueville was forced finally to define the common good in terms of self-interest, “the only immutable point in the human heart,” he said. As to what happens generally to the soul of the man who is only told to preserve himself, Tocqueville has no solution at all. He can only regret what he foresees: the desuetude of nobility, or refined habits and embellished manners, of poetry and of philosophy itself.
In Tocqueville's Democracy in America is to be found a comprehensive understanding of the problems of modernity. Nevertheless, he understood as well the fundamental justice of the modern principle, that gave rise to the modern liberal-democratic state, namely, the principle that all men are created equal. It is quite clear that he was passionately attached to various aspects of life in an aristocracy, but it is equally clear that he acknowledged the fundamental injustice of aristocracy. In democracy there is justice, but in democracy there is also the danger that those things that make life worth living are endangered. He may have hoped that somewhere within the new civil society there could be founded a citadel in which these things could continue to exist, if not to flourish, or from which they could be defended; a place (perhaps the university, but certainly not the modern city) relatively impervious to the onslaughts of egalitarian public opinion, but he knew enough not to be sanguine about this. These things—let us simply say, the arts and the life of the mind—were formerly a part of aristocracy. They were a part of the aristocratic city; and they would be jeopardized in the modern world built on equality and self-interest. Tocqueville, one might say, appreciated the justice of modernity, but he knew the price that would have to be paid for it.
When we complain of our cities we do so on the ground of their alleged inhumanity, or their inhuman scale and pace; on the ground that they are not suited for a truly human life. When we, in the American context, start asking the question—what is the city?—we are in fact asking the larger question of what is the purpose of human life. The one is reflected in the other, but this is partially concealed from us nevertheless. It is concealed because we are out of the habit of asking that larger question, and we are out of the habit of asking it because it was the intention of modernity to suppress that question, or at least to suppress the public asking of it. For, when that question was asked publicly, it was answered publicly, that is to say, officially; and there were religious wars, and inquisitions, and censors, and, generally, no liberty, and life too often resembled the life in Hobbes's state of nature: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” So, as I say, Hobbes and Locke intended that that question no longer be asked, and, on the whole, they were successful.
The question was asked at our beginning by the anti-Federalists, most of whom knew very well that their small, homogeneous, virtuous republics of sturdy yeomen would have to be built on the foundation of an official church; but that question was not asked or answered by the republic we did build. This republic was the large commercial republic whose first object, Madison said, was the “protection of [the] different and unequal faculties of acquiring property.” We built our cities with this purpose in mind, to facilitate the making of money, which, in turn, would preserve human liberty. To this we have added only an amusement park here and there. But the great old cities we admire are admirable precisely because they reflect an official concern with the question of what is the purpose of human life. That is a noble question, capable of being answered in a noble manner. The answer given may be wrong, but it is not likely to be banal. The greatest monuments in these old cities are of course religious monuments: the Parthenon in Athens, St. Peter's in Rome, Notre Dame in Paris, Westminster Abbey in London, to say nothing of Jerusalem. They, and their adornments—the pictures, the sculpture, the frescoes, the music, the poetry—these are the things present in the old cities, built before modernity, built before self-preservation and self-interest became the sole ends of civil society. In such cities are to be found expressions of the nobler aspects of the soul, the poetic rather than the prosaic. The modern city is prosaic because modern life is prosaic. The question—what is the city?—is a reflection of the recognition of the fact that modern life is prosaic, and of our dissatisfaction with that fact in our day.