"Revolutionary Men of Letters and the Pursuit of Radical Change: The Views of Burke, Tocqueville, Adams, Madison, and Jefferson" by Susan Dunn, in The William and Mary Quarterly (Oct. 1996), Box 8781, Williamsburg, Va. 23187–8781.
What is the proper role of abstract ideas in politics? Are they an indispensable source of liberating visions or merely, in Edmund Burke’s phrase, "untried speculations" that often lead to disaster?
The question intrigued America’s Founding Fathers and many of their contemporaries, notes Dunn, a historian at Williams College, especially as they watched the French Revolution unfold after 1789. One pole of the debate was defined by Burke, Britain’s great conservative parliamentarian, who in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) denounced the "spirit of innovation" for its disregard of tradition and experience. Inclined toward the Burkean view was a significant group of Americans, including Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, and John Adams. For Hamilton and Morris, writes Dunn, "the strength of American democracy lay in its continuity with its colonial past and English institutions. Experience and practical wisdom were purely positive values; neither man thought that experience dulled the mind with routine, stale formulae, or worn ideas."
Another important Founder, James Madison, the chief architect of the U.S. Constitution, held a more nuanced view. He saw both experience and theory as flawed forms of human understanding. "Madison knew well that men had no choice but to use their rational faculties and imagination to shape the political future," Dunn writes.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the famed observer of Democracy in America (1835–40), was no less horrified than Burke at what France’s revolutionary intellectuals had wrought, but he insisted that abstract ideas do have a role in politics. In monarchical France, he argued, the kinds of "wise and practical men" Burke admired lived an insular royal existence, ignorant of changing social and political conditions. "Only the interplay of free institutions can really teach men of state this principal part of their art," he wrote in The Old Regime and the French Revolution (1856). France’s intellectuals were more attuned to the changes in French society, but they were barred from the practical experience in politics that would have tempered their theories.
Thomas Jefferson was closer in spirit to the French philosophes than most of the other Founding Fathers. Always a contradictory mix of the pragmatic and the idealistic, he favored the latter toward the end of his life.
By 1824, he had come to see the American Revolution as very like the French, a blank slate for the abstract ideas of the Founders: "Our Revolution...presented us an album on which we were free to write what we pleased," he wrote.
Yet Jefferson, like Tocqueville, grasped an essential truth, Dunn argues. For modern societies, the choice was no longer between preservation and revolution, as Burke believed, but between evolution and revolution. "A healthy polity, they suggested, would always turn to its men and women of experience and theory, courageous, farsighted, and hopeful, for perpetual renewal, the key to its survival."