Citizens of a Common Intellectual Homeland: The Transatlantic Origins of American Democracy and Nationhood by Armin Mattes (review)
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Citizens of a Common Intellectual Homeland: The Transatlantic Origins of American Democracy and Nationhood. By Armin Mattes. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015. Pp. xi, 266. $45.00 cloth; $45.00 ebook)

Like a contemporary Alexis de Tocqueville, Armin Mattes provides nothing less than an original reading of the development of two concepts central to the legacy of the American Revolution: American democracy and American nationhood. And Mattes does so with a [End Page 273] transatlantic lens and a comparativist’s sensibility—he shows that a shared revolutionary impulse to overturn the prevailing political and social order (the Ancien Régime in France; the tyranny of England’s monarchy in the United States) fueled the development of the modern concepts of democracy and the nation on both sides of the Atlantic. Despite his geographic scope, however—each of his four chapters explores a common topic refracted through the works of a pair of intellectuals, one American and the other European—Mattes emphasizes four concepts he deems foundational to American democracy. The importance Mattes gives to these concepts all but ensures that Citizens’ readers will remain, at least in their minds if not with their bodies, on this side of the Atlantic.

Chapter one deftly explores how the Révolution française brought Thomas Paine’s and British political thinker Edmund Burke’s incompatible notions of “equality” into sharp relief. While the radical Paine endorsed an unqualified idea of the political and social equality of individuals, his great nemesis Burke believed that the idea of equality should operate solely on a corporate level. Offering new insights into the early history of modern conservatism, chapter two investigates John Adams’s and German statesman Friedrich von Gentz’s development of an “aristocratic” concept of a “mixed constitution theory.” Adams and Gentz, Mattes shows, shared a belief “in the inequality of human beings and the consequences for society arising from this condition” (p. 67). For these two, diverse types of individuals represented in different branches of government would yield a much needed political, and by extension social, equilibrium. Chapter three—a nicely placed democratic complement to the aristocratic-focused chapter two—explores how the American and French Revolutions inspired James Madison and German philosopher Immanuel Kant to reach similar conclusions regarding the democratic value of popular sovereignty. For Madison and Kant, there was an “intimate connection between [international] peace and a domestic form of government based on the principle of the sovereignty of the nation” (p. 114). Chapter four traces the development of the modern concepts [End Page 274] of the “nation” and “democracy” in Thomas Jefferson’s and French Enlightenment philosopher Destutt de Tracy’s work. Mattes focuses on how the French Revolution prompted Jefferson to define what it meant to be “American” and develop “his conviction of the need for a self-consciously united American people” against the traditional order of society, whether the “legal nobility as in France or an aspiring natural aristocracy as in America” (pp. 181, 182). Significantly, Mattes also shows that, by the early nineteenth century, Jefferson’s “democratic” notion of the American nation ironically helped preserve “conservative” inequalities and strengthened gender norms and racial boundaries.

Citizens is written squarely in the German tradition of Begriffsgeschichte. Rather than treating ideas as autonomous entities with a life of their own and with fixed contents, à la the “unit-ideas” of American philosopher and intellectual historian Arthur O. Lovejoy (1873–1962), Begriffsgeschichte charts the changing and contingent meanings of a given, often political or social, concept. For contemporary American historians, Mattes’s interpretive method might sound like a history of ideas approach, an approach that many historians, after learning from the social turn of the 1970s and then the cultural turn of the 1980s, see as disembodying and decontextualizing ideas. These historians should not rush to judgment—not only is Mattes’s study not a history of ideas, but, as the author notes, Citizens moves beyond the traditional practice of Begriffsgeschichte, in that it stresses the interconnections between concepts, their historical development, and larger social and political contexts, most notably the French and American Revolutions. And yet, notwithstanding his successes—and, as should be clear...


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