Published online by Cambridge University Press: 07 September 2010
In the 1790s, Pennsylvania farmers warned of a new and insidious threat to American liberty: the turnpike corporation. In the 1793–1794 legislative session, prominent Jeffersonian Republicans submitted petitions that complained of “wealthy incorporated companies taking possession of public and private property.” The petitioners made clear that they were not social levelers; they praised inequality for encouraging beneficial exchanges that were “the basis for public prosperity.” Granting special privileges to turnpike corporations, however, introduced a form of political inequality that “must destroy the liberties of our country.” The petitioners feared that eminent domain privileges would put property rights on a slippery slope that would eventually lead to their demise. “If the government has the right to take one acre of property of the farmer,” the petitioners starkly concluded, “it has the same right to deprive him of his whole farm.”
Signed by more than 200 people, the petition attests to the powerful influence of republicanism in American politics. Although a notoriously complex set of ideas, republicanism can be defined as a political language expressly concerned with the precarious balance between liberty and power. How could Americans avoid the unhappy fate of Rome and other republics that had eventually fallen into despotism? Civic-minded virtue, defined as the ability to put the public good above self-interest, was the answer for many republican thinkers. The problem was that “corruption,” the overly ambitious pursuit of economic gain and political power, constantly threatened to undermine virtue.