Politics and the Creative Imagination 6

Franklin, of course, floated easily in French salon society, but, keenly aware of his provincial origin, he shrewdly overcame its stigma in France by flaunting it—cleverly establishing his cosmopoli¬tan credentials by exaggerating, caricaturing, hence implicitly deny¬ing, his provincialism. He knew that by projecting himself as a gifted backwoods innocent, he would become nature’s own scientist and philosopher, and thus the very embodiment of the fashionable ideas of tht philosophes.
The Founders were provincials, alive to the values of a greater world, but not, they knew, of it—comfortable in a lesser world but aware of its limitations.
And as provincials, in the pre-Revolutionary years, their view of the world was discontinuous. Two forces, two magnets, affected their efforts to find standards and styles: the values associated with unaf¬fected native simplicity and those to be found in an acquired cos¬mopolitan sophistication. For many—the ablest, best informed, and most ambitious—the result was a degree of rootlessness, of alien¬ation either from the higher sources of culture or from the familiar local environment. Few whose perceptions surpassed local bound¬aries—and over one thousand Americans traveled to Europe in the generation before the Revolution—could rest content with a sim-ple, consistent image of themselves. Their view of the world and of their place in it was ambivalent, uncertain; and that ambivalence tended to shake their minds from the roots of habit and tradition. Like the eighteenth-century Scots, whose similar borderland situa¬tion stimulated an extraordinary renaissance in letters, natural sci-ence, and social science, the Americans’ ambivalent identities led them to the interstices of metropolitan thought where were found new views and new approaches to the old.
Never having been fully immersed in, never fully committed to or comfortable with, the cosmopolitan establishment, in the crucible of the Revolution they challenged its authority, and when faced with the great problems of public life they turned to their own local, provincial experiences for solutions. Like Clark’s provincial artists, they adhered to the facts of everyday life, and from them developed a fresh vision of what might be accomplished, what might be cre¬ated. “The ‘axioms’ of Montesquieu or any other great man,” the New Jersey lawyer, engineer, and political pamphleteer John Stevens wrote, “tho’ [others] shall deem them ‘as irrefragable as any in Euclid,’ shall never persuade me to quarrel with my bread and but¬ter.” “Is it not the glory of the people of America,” Madison wrote,
that whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of for¬mer times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind vener¬ation for antiquity, for custom, or for names to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?
So they referred the great, classic problems of politics not to the experience of the ages or to the wisdom of the metropolitan author¬ities, but to their own provincial situation, and developed their ideas and their vision of the future from what they knew to be true, and then shaped them to conform to the idealistic programs of political reform that were elsewhere deemed hopelessly utopian.
They attacked head-on the overrefined, overelaborated, dogmatic metropolitan formulas in political thought, challenging assumptions that only idiots, they were indeed told, would question.
So the great men had said, and the metropolitan world demon¬strated, that dual sovereignties—sovereign states within a sovereign state—could not coexist. That would lead, it had forever been said, systematically and inevitably, to conflict and chaos, for sovereign power was in its nature indivisible. But “I ask,” Ellsworth declared in a pivotal moment in the ratification debate, “why can they not [co¬exist] ? It is not enough to say they cannot. I wish for some reason … It is vain to say, they cannot [co] exist, when they actually have done it.” Their constitutional solution to this ancient problem—federal¬ism: imperfect but effective—was a formalization of the de facto con¬stitutional world that they, as British provincials ruled by both their local assemblies and Parliament, had known for generations.

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