- Citizens of a Common Intellectual Homeland: The Transatlantic Origins of American Democracy and Nationhood by Armin Mattes
What may be most striking in a first perusal of this compelling history of the conceptual origins of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835–1840) is Armin Mattes’s innovative approach, which can roughly be described as the unlikely but happy marriage between German conceptual history and an updated version of a much older method, one admired by the [End Page 662] eighteenth-century revolutionaries themselves. Following Reinhart Koselleck’s Begriffsgeschichte (conceptual history), on the one hand, Mattes presents a clear-sighted historical analysis of key political terms of the revolutionary period, including democracy, aristocracy, equality, and nation. And on the other hand, Mattes employs a historiographical tool familiar since the days of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, pairing and comparing two political thinkers from each side of the water (the Atlantic, in Mattes’s case) to shed light on the interdependent, transnational nature of these concepts. The four chapters resulting from this methodological union find instructive connections not only between men directly engaged in dialogue, such as Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson and Antoine Destutt de Tracy, but also between thinkers whose conversation depended on the mediation of a third party, as in the case of Friedrich Gentz and John Adams (who read Gentz in John Quincy Adams’s translation), and between James Madison and Immanuel Kant, who were not biographically connected, but in whose cosmopolitan peace plans Mattes identifies parallels reaching down even to stylistic features—such as their respective reflections on governments of “angels” (p. 113).
In these chapters, which can be read individually but also build on one another, the intellectual lives of Mattes’s modern Greeks and Romans yield many stimulating insights. Analyzing Paine’s conception of individual equality, for instance, Mattes offers a convincing new explanation for the absence of systematic references to democracy before the second part of Paine’s Rights of Man (1791). Mattes’s account of the changing nature of aristocracy in the revolutionary period, to take another example, does not grant Burke his customary place at the center of an emerging modern conservatism, but instead reconstructs a heterogeneous “rational” line of early conservative thought in the writings of John Adams and Kant’s former student and Burke’s translator, Gentz (p. 66). Meanwhile, as Mattes argues in his careful discussion of the shared roots of modern concepts of democracy and nation in Tracy’s and Jefferson’s thought, the reinterpretation of these terms through the lens of the French Revolution generated the “new political language” that became the conceptual groundwork of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (p. 142). Tocqueville’s work, which also provides the title quotation for Mattes’s study, should accordingly be viewed as “an important milestone rather than a beginning…in the development of a modern concept of democracy” (p. 185). The great precision and clarity that characterize the arguments throughout Citizens of a Common Intellectual Homeland: The Transatlantic Origins of American Democracy and Nationhood make it quite unlikely that Mattes’s own intellectual homeland, as presented in this book, can fail to attract numerous future citizens.