Public Virtue, Public Vices:

On Republicanism and the Tavern

[Page 3]

Kevin C. Murphy, Columbia University
(Copyright 2001-2013, All Rights Reserved)

Part I.
Part II.
Part III.
Part IV.
Part V.
Part VI.

In his recent book Civil Tongues and Polite Letters, a "study of the role of private society in invoking civility in British America" inspired by the research interests of Jurgen Habermas in the "cultural power of private society" and the attempts by Franco Moretti to create a "sociology of literary forms," Citadel professor David S. Shields aims to explore how various "discursive modes" -- each "fixed on a particular site of conversation," including (for our purposes) the tavern -- helped to "fashion new forms of group identity" based on a shared "social aesthetics" and a common awareness of pleasure.23 By examining communities joined by bonds of pleasure rather than by those of "communicative reason," Shields differentiates his book from the works of Habermas. In so doing, Shields is heavily reliant on the writings of Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third earl of Shaftesbury, particularly his notion of the "sensus communis," defined as a "form of communal identity brought into being by speech acts or writing," and his assertion that "[v]iability of the public spirit depended upon giving manners sufficient scope to allow wit and humor."24

Civil Tongues, which begins with a republican reading of a French fete (in Philadelphia) penned by none other than Dr. Benjamin Rush, takes republican hostility to the tavern, and consequently to pleasure, as a given. "Having defined public virtue as a private morality of self-sacrifice, discipline, and maturity," Shields argues, republicans "challenged all communities predicated on pleasing the self -- those pursuing recreation, amusement, good-fellowship, shared consumption, or shared pleasure. Republicanism attacked the value of a social aesthetics, asserting the dominion of morality in public affairs. A person's seeking pleasure in company was conflated with self-interest under the heading of 'luxury.'"25 Shields goes on to contend that this hostility to luxury as defined constitutes "a critical weakness in republican ideology: the failure to conceptualize the place of leisure in civic culture other than in negative terms or atavistic notions of rural retreat -- otium, 'leisure.'" According to Shields, this failure to recognize that "[v]irtue, the totemic force in whose name republicans dared to criticize the prevailing schemes of power, was the product of the free play of wit [a la Shaftesbury]" was "the most visible symptom of a larger incapacity to appreciate the central role of pleasure in human action, an incapacity that would limit the effectiveness of republican attempts to counteract the growth of a consumption-driven economy and a liberal ideology."26

Thus, Shield's work not only perpetuates the argument first posited by Lender and Martin that the republican concept of virtue is deeply antithetical to the sociability of tavern life, but also takes it a step further -- this blindness to the importance of shared pleasure and Shaftesburian sensus communis is the Achilles' heel that renders republicanism irrelevant as a civic philosophy. A compelling case, but it begs the question: Were the republicans really so puritanical, and was their prevailing conception of virtue really so sterile? Well, according to more recent work by Gordon Wood, one of Rodger's founding trinity of republican historians, perhaps not. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1991 tome The Radicalism of the American Revolution, Wood argues that the republican virtue of the founders may have been closer to the sensus communis of the tavern than originally argued. Indeed, Wood argues that the revolutionary republicans, anticipating Shield's complaint and taking Shaftesbury much more at his word than Civil Tongues lets on, "wanted a virtue that was natural," since "[t]he kind of classical virtue that Montesquieu had described was unnatural; it was too forbidding, harsh, and austere":
Without kings and other unnatural interferences, republican society could develop a new kind of virtue, could express the natural adhesives, what [Benjamin] Rush [yes, him again] called the natural 'affections' appropriate to a modern enlightened society...Such a new, modern virtue was associated with affability and sociability, with love and benevolence, indeed with the new emphasis on politeness...Politeness tamed and domesticated the older civic humanist conception of virtue. Virtue became less the harsh self-sacrifice of antiquity and more the willingness to get along with others for the sake of peace and prosperity. Virtue became identified with decency.27
Calling republicanism the "greatest utopian movement in American history," Wood argues that republicans' ultimate goal was "to destroy the bonds holding together the older monarchical society -- kinship, patriarchy, and patronage -- and to put in their place new social bonds of love, respect, and consent."28 Thus, contrary to the humorless asceticism suggested by the traditional reading of republicanism, Woods finds that, for revolutionary republicans as for the clubs and organizations examined by Shields, "[p]romoting social affection was in fact the object of the civilizing process."29

This detente of republican virtue and sociability suggested by Wood clearly has ramifications for the relationship between republicanism and the tavern. As he notes, "[m]ingling in drawing rooms, clubs, and coffeehouses -- partaking of the innumerable interchanges of the daily comings and goings of modern life -- created affection and fellow feeling," those selfsame "natural feelings of love and benevolence between people" that served as "republican substitutes for the artificial monarchical connectives of family, patronage, and dependency and the arrogance, mortification, and fear that they had bred."30

But, one shouldn't overstate the case -- however much Benjamin Rush and his contemporaries may have applauded the cultivation of love and benevolence in the citizenry, they still seemed to harbor little love or benevolence for their local taverns. In the final analysis, Gordon Wood's reconciling of revolutionary republican and Shaftesburian conceptions of virtue only further complicates the already complex connections between the public virtues of republicanism and the public vices of tavern life. For, rather than being mutually complementary or directly antithetical, the relationship between publican and republican could and did incorporate elements of both, as evidenced by the two most recent and most in-depth works on the subject of taverns to date.

Continue to Part IV.

Return to Part II.

23. Shields, David S., Civil Tongues & Polite Letters in British America, University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill: 1997), xxvi, xxxii
24. Shields, xxii, xvii. Shaftesbury also plays a moderate role in J.G.A. Pocock's The Machiavellian Moment, a book which Daniel Rodgers deems one of republicanism's founding texts (despite being "notorious" in its difficulty), as one of the most significant members of the English peerage to follow James Harrington in using republican arguments of corruption against the Crown. Suffice to say, he doesn't come across quite as avuncular, pleasure-seeking, and antirepublican in Pocock's tome as he does in Shield's work. Pocock, J.G.A., The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition, Princeton University Press (Princeton: 1975), 406-420. Rodgers, 16.
25. Shields, xiv, xxviii.
26. Shields, 176, 313-314. For more on the historical tug-of-war between civic republicanism and consumption-oriented liberalism in America, consult Sandel, Michael, Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy, Harvard University Press (Cambridge: 1996.)
27. Wood, Radicalism, 215-216.
28. Wood, Radicalism, 229. Says Wood, "America seemed made for such republican affection." (Wood, 220.)
29. Woods, Radicalism, 217.
30. Woods, Radicalism, 217, 220.

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