Historians have long thought that America was, from the beginning, profoundly influenced by the Lockean notion of liberty, with its strong emphasis on individual rights and self-interest. Yet in his recent book, historian J. G. A. Pocock argues that early American culture was actually rooted in the writings of Machiavelli, not Locke. The implications of this substitution are important: if Pocock’s argument is right, then Americans may not be as deeply individualistic and capitalistic as many believe.
Pocock argues that out of the writings of antiquity Machiavelli created a body of political thinking called “classical republicanism.” This body of thought revived the ancient belief that a human being was by nature a citizen who achieved moral fulfillment by participating in a self-governing republic. Liberty was interpreted as a condition that is realized when people are virtuous and are willing to sacrifice their individual interests for the sake of the community. To be completely virtuous, people had to be independent and free of the petty interests of the marketplace. The greatest enemy of virtue was commerce. This classical republican tradition is said by Pocock to have shaped the ideology of America during the eighteenth century.
Many events in early American history can be reinterpreted in light of Pocock’s analysis. Jefferson is no longer seen as a progressive reader of Locke leading America into its individualistic future; instead Jefferson is understood as a figure obsessed with virtue and corruption and fearful of new commercial developments. Influenced by Pocock, some historians have even argued that a communitarian and precapitalist mentality was pervasive among the eighteenth-century farmers of America.
Yet Pocock’s thesis and the reinterpretation of the history of eighteenth-century America engendered by it are of dubious validity. If Americans did believe in the ideals of classical virtue that stressed civic duty and made the whole community greater than its discrete parts, then why did the colonists lack a sense of obligation to support the greater good of the British Empire? If indeed America has not always been the society of individual rights and self-interest that it is today, how and when did it be come so? Classical republicanism is elitist, and it certainly had little to offer the important new social groups of artisans and shopkeepers that emerged in America during the eighteenth century. These middle-class radicals, for whom John Wilkes and Thomas Paine were spokesmen, had none of the independence from the market that the landed gentry had. They were less concerned with virtue and community than they were with equality and private rights. They hated political privilege and wanted freedom from an elite-dominated state. In short, the United States was created not in a mood of classical anxiety over virtue and corruption, but in a mood of liberal optimism over individual profits and prosperity.
Question: Which of the following best states the author’s main point?
- Classical republicanism could not have been the ideological basis of eighteenth-century America.
- Classical republicanism is an elitist theory that was rejected by eighteenth-century artisans and shopkeepers.
- Pocock understates the importance of the contributions Machiavelli made to the formation of early American culture.
- Pocock fails to capture the great extent to which eighteenth-century Americans were committed to a sense of civic duty.
- Pocock’s account of Jefferson is incompatible with Jefferson’s commitment to a Lockean notion of liberty.
Question: The conception of liberty that, according to Pocock, formed the basis of America’s eighteenth-century ideology is most clearly exhibited by which of the following individuals?
- The merchant who rebuilds the damaged sidewalk in front of his store in order to avoid potential lawsuits by customers who might fall there
- The professor who allows her students to help her design the content and the format of the courses she teaches
- The doctor who bows to government pressure and agrees to treat a small number of low-income patients at no cost
- The lawyer who argues that a state law prohibiting smoking in public places unfairly encroaches on the rights of smokers
- The engineer whose business suffers as a result of the personal time and energy he devotes to a program to clean up city streets
Question: According to the author, eighteenth-century American artisans and shopkeepers had little reason to
- support the political efforts of Thomas Jefferson
- reject the ideals of classical virtue
- embrace the principles of classical republicanism
- renounce the political objectives of the British Empire
- worry about increasing profits and maintaining general prosperity
Question: The author mentions which of the following as a fact that weakens Pocock’s argument about the ideology of eighteenth-century America?
- Jefferson’s obsession with virtue and corruption and his fear of commercial development
- The precapitalist mentality that was pervasive among farmers in early America
- The political decline of artisans and shopkeepers in eighteenth-century America
- The colonists’ lack of commitment to support the general welfare of the British Empire
- The existence of political privilege in early American society
Question: The passage suggests that, if classical republicanism had been the ideology of eighteenth-century America, which of the following would have resulted?
- People would have been motivated to open small businesses and expand commercial activity.
- Citizens and politicians would not have been encouraged to agitate for increased individual rights.
- People would have been convinced that by pursuing their own interests they were contributing to the good of the group.
- The political and social privileges enjoyed by the landed gentry would have been destroyed.
- A mood of optimism among people over individual profits and prosperity would have been created.
Question: The author implies that Pocock’s argument about the ideology of eighteenth-century America would be more plausible if the argument explained which of the following?
- How a society that was once committed to the ideals of classical virtue could be transformed into a society of individual rights and self-interest
- How Thomas Jefferson could have become obsessed with individual rights and with prosperity and profits
- Why classical republicanism had such wide appeal among those who were free from the demands of the marketplace
- Why many colonists who embraced classical republicanism were reluctant to place their individual interests above those of Great Britain
- Why the landed gentry in eighteenth-century America should have believed that moral fulfillment is achieved by participating in a self-governing republic
Question: According to the passage, Pocock’s theory suggests that many eighteenth-century Americans believed that increasing commercial activity would
- force the landed gentry to relinquish their vast holdings
- enrich the nation and increase individual rights
- cause some people to forfeit their liberty and virtue
- create a mood of optimism about national prosperity
- strengthen the political appeal of middle-class radicals
Question: The author is primarily concerned with
- refuting a proposed thesis about eighteenth-century America
- analyzing a long-established interpretation of American history
- criticizing a set of deeply held beliefs about early American ideology
- reconciling opposing interpretations of eighteenth-century American ideology
- defending a novel reading of the ideology of eighteenth-century America
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