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  • American Democracy and Technology
  • Ivan Kenneally (bio)

The frequent appeals to science and the laws of nature, as well as the appropriation of scientific vernacular to describe the essential premises of the founding, are both powerful evidence that America was intended to be a kind of technocratic republic. Hamilton argues, somewhat hyperbolically, that the impulse actuating the construction of our republic is the desire to decisively replace "accident and force" with "reflection and choice" as the ground of proper self-governance. While the phrase "accident and force" is immediately evocative of tyranny it also seems aimed at the contingent character of rule by ancestral tradition—one could say that tradition is a kind of tyranny of accidental circumstance. Even the frequent discussion in the Federalist Papers of the United States as an experiment in self-governance and the concomitant emphasis on the ameliorative powers of institutionalism borrow from the conceptual architecture of science just as the central notion of the separation of powers seems vaguely modeled on the notion of energy and force in physics. One need not scrutinize the writings of the framers too closely to find the general sentiment echoed by Washington that the "foundation of our empire was not laid in the gloomy age of ignorance and superstition" but rather based on the "researches of the human mind" (June, 1783). Similarly, Hamilton confessed that he was reluctant to mine the classical texts of antiquity for guidance since their speculations could not draw from the "great improvement" exacted in modernity by the new "science of politics." To say that America is a technological republic is not merely to notice that it is the result of rational labor, but that it is an expression of liberation from the yoke of tradition and nature.

Nevertheless, there were also concessions made by the same luminaries that there was something historically particular and idiosyncratic about the political circumstances afforded them—with respect to the regime proposed in the Federalist Papers, Madison wrote that "no other form would be reconcilable with the genius of the American people," intimating that other forms might be appropriate for other maybe less perspicacious nations. Also, the formation of the regime was always infused with a humble sense of man's insuperable moral and intellectual failings—instead of the celebration of human reason [End Page 1] [Begin Page 4] characteristic of Enlightenment science Madison endorsed less hubristic expectations, "As long as the reason of man continues fallible." Moreover, he cautioned against any exuberant optimism that the right bureaucratic contrivances could defeat the "depravity in mankind" that perennially demanded a "certain degree of circumspection and distrust." While Madison certainly thought that his fellow Americans had "accomplished a revolution which has no parallels in the annals of human society" he also makes frequent and powerful appeals to what experience and history can teach us about the immutable principles of human nature. In short, Madison countered the scientific conceit that politics itself could be overcome through asymptotic progress with the realization that even the best form of government presumed an inexpugnable frailty at the heart of humanity: "If men were angels no government would be necessary." To the extent that our Founders did not believe we were remaking everything, certainly not reengineering human nature, our republic is not merely technological or comprehensively liberationist.

If Madison is correct that "the latent causes of faction are ... sown in the nature of man" and that government is a "reflection on human nature," then any republic must take seriously the cultivation of the virtue necessary to counteract a natural "degree of depravity in mankind." Washington's opinion that "religion and morality are indispensable supports" for republican citizenship, or that "true religion and good morals are the only solid foundations of public liberty and happiness" was widely shared, in one way or another, by all the founders. In fact, John Adams considered civic virtue so central to the health of the American republic that he justified a strong, coercive role for the government regarding its promotion, advocating "sumptuary" legislation that restricted excessive luxury, compulsory military service for the sake of engendering discipline and patriotism, and government funded moral education. Adams' preoccupation with moral fortitude as the...


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