Tuesday, July 05, 2005


I'm about two-thirds through the McCullough biography of John Adams, and my love for Adams continues unabated. I know we're all supposed to love Jefferson, what with his Declaration of Independence and so on, but Adams is closer to my heart. As McCullough notes (p. 468), in his inaugural address, Adams "spoke of his respect for the rights of all states, and of his belief in expanded education for all the people, both to enlarge the happiness of life and as essential to the preservation of freedom." Adams believed that we had an obligation to develop our own talents to the fullest and to establish institutions that enabled everyone else to do so as well. Thus, slavery was wrong in part because it prevented both slaves and slaveholders (in Adams' view) from doing this.

The other thing that's striking to me, though, is the question of scale. At the time of the revolution, Philadelphia--where the Continental Congress was taking place--was a city of almost 30,000 people. According to McCullough, it was twice the size of Boston, larger than New York, and "growing faster than either." But think about that: the largest city in the country wasn't yet home to 30,000 people. The average NFL attendance is over 60,000 per game--more than twice as many people attend a football game as populated the largest city. And, really, I think that makes a difference.

I think it even affects how we govern and can be governed. The members of Congress 200+ years ago were known to their fellows. Though certainly some were subject to being corrupted, there weren't any large interests to corrupt them--no Halliburtons, no military-industrial complex, nothing like that. At the same time, there was a much more vibrant press. According to McCullough, in 1776 Philadelphia had 23 printing establishments and seven newspapers--that's a lot of printing for so few people. Issues could be, and were, debated at great length, and presumably without distractions like whether Tom Cruise is completely insane or just a little wacky. Here would be a good place for an anti-capitalism rant--because I think that the profit motive and the insular nature of big business these days ultimately works against the common person--but that's not the only thing at issue.

How representative can a government be? How does size impose limits on representability? Yes, our cities are much larger, but communication is much faster. Yes, we have fewer newspapers, and the media in general are in fewer, profit-motivated corporate hands, but there are at least a few other sources. The internet has become the equivalent of the opinion journals of the 18th century, in at least a few ways. But really, how representative can a government be? I don't know the answer to that question, but it seems worth asking.


Blogger bitchphd said...

I gotta read that b/c I, too, just adore Adams...

9:40 PM  

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