- The Consent of the Governed
This book is dedicated to our mutual friend, Carol Kay, who in dying young deprived eighteenth-century studies of a luminous and generous mind whose influence can be felt in its pages. By a further irony, The Consent of the Governed must stand as an obituary not to one but to two intelligent and imaginative champions of the liberal order. For like Carol Kay, Gillian Brown died young, in her case in 2004 after a long and courageous fight against cancer. It is evident from this book, which is a delight to read, that in her, early American studies has lost a sophisticated, mature, and subtle exponent. Taking her cue from Kay, who omits Locke from her Political Constructions, Brown unapologetically returns to Locke as central to the literate imagination of the early republic, for from him, particularly his educational protocols, the chief thesis holds, the key features of the experience or phenomenology of choice—what Brown calls "consent"—are mapped onto a huge range of different texts from the late eighteenth century into the early decades of the nineteenth. The experience and enactment of consent that these texts enjoined helped to form specifically American readers, readers peculiarly sensitized to the conditions and constraints of consent, a mode of cultural apprehension, which, far from being nakedly or thematically exceptionalist, played out the complicated dance of, on the one hand, dependence on the English language and British institutions, and, on the other, dissent from what they might denote in favor of some alternative vision, but one itself indebted to shared histories and habits.
Like Kay, Brown is after some big game. At its broadest, Brown's book takes issue with the modern attack on liberalism as altogether too smug about the object of its criticism. The by-now standard view is that, in hypostasizing an ideal, transhistorical rational consciousness as the agent in liberal forms of negotiation, liberalism blinds itself to the degree to which this postulate is the ideological projection of vested interest—classically the interests of the European, male upper [End Page 568] classes—insufficiently aware of how other kinds of communities might be disabled in their participation in the political forum or excluded from it altogether. But Brown believes that this is a parody of Locke's view—Locke often taken as a father of or shorthand for liberalism—since for him all individuals must continuously battle with the numerous hindrances of disposition, experience, and circumstance. The liberal position is then a duty placed on us as individuals as we struggle with the world around us, a form of work, or, in ancient terms that directly concern Brown's thesis, an ongoing form of paideia: the possibility of rational self-possession does not entirely escape us, but must be arduously and tenuously achieved under the constraint of endlessly shifting conditions. What Brown calls "consent" epitomizes this hard won and in that sense entirely artificial form of individual—and thence national—consciousness, so that a central argument of her book is that the protocols of education in the new republic, indebted as they are to Locke, are central to the formation of a new national character: the Aristotelian analogy between family and state, between private and public, becomes in this account more than a figure of speech in political theory.
The other main thrust of the argument is related and no less daring. For Brown knowingly takes on the by-now standard view—espoused by influential figures like Bernard Bailyn—that the ideological origins of the new republic lie in many sources apart from Locke, especially the tradition of classical republicanism that is the topic of J.G.A. Pocock's The Machiavellian Moment. Brown's focus is finally no less sweeping in implication, but rather than being an account in classic intellectual history, in her view Locke's influence proves decisive for the American experience because it represents a phenomenological account of how children—in the first instance—and women—in the second—achieve their own rational autonomy, learning to become agents...