In his book Dry Bones Rattling, Mark Warren explains that over the past few decades Americans have become less involved in their communities. Warren explains that American politics has become much more about the individual candidate and the individual voter than about the community. Organizations that have been the traditional avenues for community involvement, such as the Masons or the Red Cross, have seen drastic drops in participation. Warren even points out that bowling league membership has decreased even while more Americans are bowling.1
This drop in community involvement is particularly disconcerting, Warren notes, since the strength of American democracy is rooted in Americans’ willingness to participate in community associations. Warren explains that Alexis de Tocqueville was the first to notice the strength and beneficence of these associations.
The Ward Republic
Probably the best known advocate for community involvement is Thomas Jefferson. In a letter to Joseph Cabell, who worked with Jefferson to establish the University of Virginia, Jefferson discusses his vision of federalism. Jefferson explains that “[t]he generalizing and concentrating all cares and powers into one body” has “destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed.”2 To prevent the concentration of power into the hands of a few elites, Jefferson claims it is essential to ensure that every citizen becomes involved, one way or another, in the government of his or her community, state, and nation. Jefferson states that the best way to get every citizen involved in government is by “dividing and subdividing these republics from the great national one down through all its subordinations, until it ends in the administration of every man’s farm by himself. . . .” Jefferson concludes that “when there shall not be a man in the State who will not be a member of some one of its councils, great or small, he will let the heart be torn out of his body sooner than his power be wrested from him by a Caesar or a Bonaparte.”3
It may seem overly dramatic to suggest that the decline in community involvement can lead to the rise of a Caesar or Bonaparte, but it is entirely plausible. When the average citizen gives up his or her power to affect government, it creates a vacuum of power that is filled by the governing elite. If a sovereign abdicates his throne, another will quickly take his place. In a democracy, of course, the people are sovereign. If the people have decided to become less involved in their government, then they have essentially abdicated, and their throne will be taken by another. In this case, the power will be taken by those in the upper echelons of society: the wealthy, the elites, the politicians. According to Warren, this is what is happening. Americans are becoming less involved in community organizations and therefore less concerned with government and politics in general. These community organizations work as an access road to government. Without an access road, it is difficult to drive onto a freeway. Likewise, without community organizations it is difficult for the average citizen to become involved in Jefferson’s ward republic, even so difficult as to not seem worthwhile.
The Rise of Individualism in Politics
Another of Warren’s concerns is that the power of political parties has become diminished. Warren remarks that the local political organizations, including the urban political machines, of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were essential in getting ordinary people involved in local and even national politics.4 Strong party organizations can make it easier for common people, especially minorities, to become involved in government and politics. The death of these organizations brought about the weakening of the national parties and an increase in individualism in American politics and candidate-centered campaigns.
Of course, the downfall of these local organizations was often due to their corruption. The power of the old bosses diminished greatly as they faced legal troubles and candidates began to distance themselves from them. A good example of this can be seen in Harry S. Truman’s relationship with Thomas Pendergast, the local Democratic boss of Jackson County, Missouri.
The history between Truman and Pendergast is detailed in David McCullough’s biography, Truman. In 1921, Harry Truman was a partner in a failing clothing store. He had always held an interest in politics, and desperately needed rescuing from his failing financial situation. He was approached by the Pendergast family that year about running in the election for eastern judge of Jackson County.5 For the Pendergasts, Truman was “window dressing.”6 He was likable, a farmer and small businessman, and a war veteran. Most importantly, he was an honest man, something that was rare in the Pendergast organization. The Pendergasts obviously hoped to be able to point to Truman when trying to fend off accusations of corruption. McCullough quotes Tom Pendergast as saying, “Well, there’s my boy Truman. Nobody can ever say anything about Truman. Everybody thinks he’s okay.”7
The Pendergast organization helped Truman win that election, and they supported his political career from then on. Truman’s first meeting with the Big Boss, Tom Pendergast, came in 1926 at Pendergast’s office in Kansas City, MO. In this meeting, Pendergast told Truman that he believed Truman should run for presiding judge of Jackson County. Truman, who was hoping for the county collector position (which carried with it a larger salary), decided to go along with Pendergast. Pendergast’s support meant the result of the election was not in doubt.8
It is telling that Truman’s first meeting with Pendergast was one in which Truman was more or less appointed to political office. Truman saw no harm in this, it was, in Truman’s opinion, “how the game had always been played, not by Tom Pendergast only, but in American politics overall . . . . To the victors went the spoils.”9 Truman even respected Pendergast. At least Pendergast had a code he lived by, and though it was not the same code Truman had, “Pendergast was no hypocrite, no ‘trimmer,’ however rough and sordid his background.”10 Pendergast allowed Truman the liberty to run his political offices as he saw fit, and never asked him to do anything dishonest.
But the corruption in the Pendergast organization eventually led to its downfall. Tom Pendergast pled guilty in 1939 to tax evasion, a charge that stemmed from a bribery scandal, and served 15 months in prison.11 While Pendergast and his associates were found to have taken bribes and swindled millions of dollars from the Kansas City government, Truman was found to be clean. The fact that the opportunity to become wealthy by corrupt means was ignored by Truman should have solidified the public’s opinion of his integrity. However, Truman’s close connections to the Pendergasts, and his continued loyalty to his friends even after their illegal activities were discovered would hamper Truman’s political ambitions from then on.
Truman found it difficult to distance himself from the Pendergasts, political machines, and the stigma of corruption surrounding them. He was repeatedly dogged by accusations of being “Pendergast’s bellhop.”12 In 1940, in the wake of the Pendergast scandal, Truman was fighting for reelection to the Senate. His opponent Lloyd Stark, Governor of Missouri, continually brought up Truman’s connection to the Pendergasts (though Stark himself had received political help from the Pendergasts).13 Stark’s attacks against Truman became so fierce that at campaign stops Truman was often heard joking, “I just wanted to come down and show you that I don’t have horns and a tail just because I’m from Jackson County.”14 Much later in his career, the Pendergast connection continued to pop up. It was even brought up by President Roosevelt and his advisors while discussing the possibility of Truman running on the ticket with Roosevelt in the 1944 election.15 Truman was reluctant to accept the spot on the ticket because he knew his Pendergast connections would come up in the campaign and he did not want to have to fight off such attacks again because, “he had worked too hard to build a good name in the Senate.”16
Truman’s political career is a history of the fall of the political machines and the move in American politics away from party-centered campaigns and toward candidate-centered campaigns, and a general increase of individualism in politics. This is a dramatic departure from the ward republic envisioned by Jefferson. Such a radical departure requires a radical correction. Since the old style of machine politics has failed, and citizens have become turned off of politics and community involvement, perhaps it is time to look back at Jefferson’s idea. After all, machine politics failed because it was never a proper interpretation of Jefferson’s republican idea.
The Return of the Republic
Former United States Senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart argues that the reestablishment of Jefferson’s ward republic is the solution to civic apathy. Hart argues that America was founded as a republic, but it is viewed today as a democracy. There is a difference. A democracy is individualistic, but a republic is a compact among citizens and requires civic duty. Civic duty, Hart argues, is a necessity for civil rights. While a democracy is a one-way institution where citizens place their demands upon the government, a republic is a two way street. The state has a duty to the citizens to protect their lives, health, liberty, and property, but the citizen also has a duty to the state. Hart says that while American school children recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day, they are not aware of what republic “for which [the flag] stands.” Hart says, “American school children do not know what a republic is because no one wants to tell them that they must earn their rights by performance of their duties.”17
Let us look again at how Jefferson envisioned his republic. Jefferson believed that “the principal feature of any republic is the direct, personal, and collective action of citizens, acting according to the rules laid down by the majority.”18 Hart states:
Such a republic, however, is restricted by size and space. Even Jefferson understood that his ideal would be impractical over the large area of the United States.
Jefferson saw the solution to this problem in the idea of representation. Representation could be used to create a large republic so there would be small, pure republics and a large, less pure republic based on representation. According to Hart, the innovations of federation and representation made the vast republic of the United States as we know it today possible.20
Hart asks how government should be organized to achieve democratic and republican values. Hart states that the “Jeffersonian pyramid of republics–a national representative republic composed of a federation of states based upon democratic, participatory, assembly republics–offers one solution.”21 Hart sees a system in which the federal and state governments establish goals and standards of citizen welfare (i.e. social justice, education, civil rights) to be reached throughout the republic. Local republics would be responsible for achieving these goals in the manner that they believe best suits their situation. The federal and state governments would provide support in various forms to help the local republics achieve these goals. In other words, the national government establishes the ends and the local governments devise the means to achieve those ends.22 The reader should contrast this idea with the present system of school finance in Texas where local schools are funded by local tax revenue. The Jeffersonian ideal, as envisioned by Hart, would maintain local control of schools while ensuring that every local republic has the resources needed to achieve the goals set by national and state government. Citizen participation would be maintained through “regular town meetings [which] would enable all citizens to participate in the decisions regarding the matters of common good that affect their lives.”23 Hart points out that television and internet broadcasts can make these town meetings “virtual.”
Hart says that the restoration of the ward republic would not require dramatic changes to the present structure, but it would be quite different in substance. Under this system, the local citizen would have far greater empowerment and responsibility. Hart says that, “citizens would have a much greater immediate sense of responsibility, under the mandate of federal standards, for alleviating conditions adversely affecting their community’s life.”24 Hart reiterates Jefferson’s belief that “resistance to tyranny is greatest among those who have responsibility for self-government.”25 Citizens who are deeply involved in the governing of their communities, states, and nation would be unwilling to see that power usurped by special interests and their powerful politician allies. Hart also discusses later in his book how the restoration of the ward republic and the fierce opposition to tyranny that it would generate can help in the fight against global terror.
Such a change must work from the bottom up. The powerful interests that dominate our political system, and their politician allies cannot be expected to give up the power that has been usurped from the citizenry. By forming community groups and forcing government officials to hear and respond to their demands, citizens can recover their power. The restoration of the ward republic must begin with the demands of the citizens. The Texas IAF discussed in Warren’s book is an example of how ordinary citizens can begin this reform. The hope is that civic involvement, which today is only seen in rare instances, will become the normal way in which politics is done.
1. Warren, Mark. Dry Bones Rattling. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001., pg. 17.
2. Jefferson, Thomas et.al. The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Modern Library, 1993., pg 604.
4. Warren, pg. 16.
5. McCullough, David. Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992., pg. 159.
6. Ibid., 160
8. Ibid., 173.
9. Ibid., 216.
10. Ibid., 185.
11. Ibid., 239.
12. Ibid., 208.
13. Ibid., 241.
14. Ibid., 247.
15. Ibid., 300.
16. Ibid., 308.
17. Hart, Gary. Restoration of the Republic. Oxford Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, 2002., pg. 4.
18. Ibid., 82.
20. Ibid., 83.
21. Ibid., 161.
22. Ibid., 164.
23. Ibid., 165.
24. Ibid., 168.
25. Ibid., 169.
1. Hart, Gary. Restoration of the Republic. Oxford Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, 2002.
2. Jefferson, Thomas et.al. The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Modern Library, 1993.
3. McCullough, David. Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.
4. Warren, Mark. Dry Bones Rattling. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.