Fearful Masters: Oppressive Tradition and the Benevolent Despot in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

by Bryan Caplan

[Won 2nd prize in a 1993 IHS essay contest.]

[Note: All page references are to Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (New York: Signet Classic reprint, 1889).]

"[R]ationalistic individualism always tends to develop into the opposite of individualism, namely, socialism or collectivism."

--F.A. Hayek

"Loyalty to petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul."

--Mark Twain

1. The Connecticut Yankee's Strategy for Liberty

New ideas usually originate with tiny minorities. If they are scientific ideas, one need merely spread them to other scientific specialists. But if they are ideas about the good society, spreading them to experts is not enough; to implement them, one must somehow spread them far and wide, often to people with little interest in questions of political philosophy. Authoritarian thinkers have a standard solution to this problem: indoctrination coupled with repression. If most people aren't interested, the state must terrorize the interest into them. In contrast, the classical liberal tradition has no easy answer to the question of how to spread its point of view in the face of apathy. The authoritarian solution is an excluded option almost by definition. Still, frustration sometimes leads classical liberal thinkers to seriously consider a watered-

down version of the authoritarian route. Is it possible to strip the top-down strategy of its brutality, to become the benevolent despot out of love for liberty? If it were possible, would it be right?

These are among the deepest questions that Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court explores. Though Twain's answer is mixed, he is doubtful on both counts. Hank Morgan fails to deliver the Golden Age of prosperity and freedom; instead, he plunges England into war, and finds that almost everyone he strove to liberate is on the opposing side. As the lamenting Boss cries, "Ah, what a donkey I was!... [T]he mass of the nation had swung their caps and shouted for the republic for about one day, and there an end! The Church, the nobles, and the gentry then turned one grand, all-disapproving frown upon them and shriveled them into sheep... Why even the very men who had lately been slaves were in the 'righteous cause,' and glorifying it, praying for it, sentimentally slabbering over it, just like all the other commoners." (p.306) Perhaps if Morgan's knowledge of the classics were as great as his technical expertise he would have considered his strategy more carefully; he might have recalled a warning from Tacitus that speaks to all would-be benevolent despots: "Liberties and masters are not easily combined." Morgan himself hardly notices the dilemma. Moved by the plight of two abused peasants, the lordly Morgan informs them, "I'll book you both for my colony; you'll like it there; it's a Factory where I'm going to turn groping and grubbing automata into men." (p.112) Here were see a bizarre mix of intentions. Morgan will educate and uplift the people by dubbing them "groping and grubbing automata" in need of re-assembly in his Factory.

2. Versus Tyranny and Ignorance: Revolution from Above

The Yankee sees two core problems in medieval England: tyranny and ignorance. The tyranny has many tentacles: monarchy, the established Church, a rigid caste system, even slavery. His condemnation is resolute: "The most of King Arthur's British nation were slaves, pure and simple, and bore that name, and wore the iron collar on their necks; and the rest were slaves in fact, but without the name... the nation as a body was in the world for one object, and one only: to grovel before king and Church and noble; to slave for them, sweat blood for them, starve that they might be fed, work that they might play." (p.54) All this rests on the dominant ideology, which Morgan condemns even more fiercely: "A departure from custom - that settled it; it was a nation capable of committing any crime but that." (p.136) Unlike 19th-century Americans, the Arthurian Brits are virtual sheep: unwilling to reason things out, that uncritically follow tradition. Yet the Yankee is not one to blame individuals: he attributes it all to poor upbringing. Even when he thinks of the monstrous Morgan Le Fay, the Boss can only conclude with frustration, "confound her, her intellect was good, she had brains enough, but her training made her an ass." (p.114) Politically, the enemies are feudalism and monarchy. But these are merely the consequence of superstition and blind adherence to tradition, the real culprits.

The Yankee has a cure for both social ills; but alas, he is the only one who can see the disease. Hence, it is up to him to single- handedly enlighten the Arthurian world. Politically, he wants to replace feudalism and monarchy with liberty and democracy. Morgan will show the nation a better way: "where every man in a State has a vote, brutal laws are impossible." (p.174) Democracy seems to be Morgan's chief political passion; but a closer look shows that it is not the process but the just outcome promoted by democracy that he admires. "Seven-tenths of the free population were... small 'independent' farmers, artisans, etc.; which is to say, they were the nation, the actual Nation; they were about all of it that was useful, or worth saving, or really respectworthy; and to subtract them would have been to subtract the Nation and leave behind some dregs, some refuse, in the shape of a king, nobility and gentry, idle, unproductive, acquianted mainly with the arts of wasting and destroying." (p.81) This perspective coheres well with the caste-exploitation theory of Charles Dunoyer, in whose ideal world, "Everyone works and no one governs."

Hank Morgan's second and more challenging task is to change the popular ideology. The people must cast aside their primitive traditions, preposterous superstitions, class-consciousness, and established Church. He will bring science and reason to the ignorant masses. Science, technical training, is relatively simple to spread. Philosophic change is harder, but Morgan's trusted assistant Clarence shows that it is possible. Clarence's contempt for his backward society comes to rival the Yankee's. "I urged that kings were dangerous. He [Clarence] said, then have cats. He was sure that a royal family of cats would answer every purpose. They would be as useful as any other royal family, they would know as much, they would have the same virtues and same treacheries, the same disposition to get up shindies with other royal cats, they would be laughably vain and absurd and never know it, they would be wholly inexpensive." (p.285) When Clarence's sophistication and self-confidence spread to the masses, Morgan's ideological revolution will be complete.

These twin goals, the eradication of tyranny and ignorance, put Morgan comfortably within the classical liberal tradition. He wants liberation for the oppressed, not power for himself. Yet everything he does to secure liberty for mankind seems to require power for himself as a means. And he admits it. "I was no shadow of a king; I was the substance; the king himself was the shadow." (p.53) Fearful of the Church, Morgan plots his revolution in secret. He sets up schools and factories to teach and apply science. His spies spread throughout the country, timidly sprinkling his critique of superstition, knighthood, and other follies. Ominously, he founds a military academy, training his followers with the weapons of the future.

The greater Morgan's power, the more he pushes for liberal reforms. And he seems to get them, inching toward a new world of democracy, liberty, science, and reason. He humiliates the knights in single combat, then strips them of honor and influence. He abolishes slavery and caste distinctions. His inventions spread one after the other: telegraph, telephone, steam and electric power, railroads. With withering irony, he pacifies the warlike knights by introducing them to baseball. The wisdom of Morgan's decision to become the benevolent despot seems confirmed by the birth of this Golden Age.

3. The Self-Defeat of Benevolent Despotism

"Unlimited power is the ideal thing when it is in safe hands... An earthly despotism would be the absolutely perfect earthly government, if the conditions were the same, namely the despot the perfectest individual of the human race," explains Morgan. (p.64) Morgan turns out to be the "perfectest individual" - for a while. Yet eventually power begins to corrupt him. He taunts the knights of Britain into battle - in order to crush them with modern weaponry. The Yankee's appetite for violence mushrooms. "I said, name the day, and I would take fifty assistants and stand up against the massed chivalry of the whole earth and destroy it." (p.283) He acquires the will as well as the power to threaten mass death. The Yankee's political foes are not his only victims; perhaps this passage is just comic relief, but he tells us that he disliked a knight's book so, "I suppressed the book and hanged the author." (p.284)

The last sign of Morgan's gradual corruption disturbs even him. As he ponders the establishment of a republic, Morgan says, "I may as well confess, though I do feel ashamed when I think of it: I was beginning to have a base hankering to be its first president myself." (p.285) As is so often the case, the revolution might turn out to be nothing more than an excuse for the transfer of power to a new elite. Perhaps the Yankee's republic, if it survived, would have emulated Plato's dictatorship of the intellectual elite instead of the Jeffersonian democracy of Morgan's time.

Yet the Boss's corruption admittedly seems rather mild. He does free the slaves, spread technology, and restrain the nobility. The real problem with his revolution from above is that it doesn't work. As he discovers after the Church places an Interdict on him, his Enlightenment only changed the outward character of medieval society, but did nothing to alter the people's way of thinking. And this is precisely what the quote from Tacitus should make us suspect. Benevolent despotism - even despotism in the interest of liberty - relieves the people of their responsibility to think for themselves. The Boss blesses a whole nation with liberty, but finds that only a handful appreciate his gift.

Even Morgan's followers hardly seem to value liberty first-hand. After the Interdict, desertion and disloyalty spread among his retainers. Only the youngest remain trustworthy, because, as Clarence explains, "all the others were born in an atmosphere of superstition and reared in it... With boys it was different. Such as have been under our training from seven to ten years have had no acquiantance with the Church's terrors." (p.300) Boys, cut off from all anti- Morganian views, are hardly informed proponents of liberty. They are probably as badly indoctrinated as the Church faithful - only in the opposite direction. What the Yankee's top-down revolution fails to do is provoke the reasoned acceptance necessary to sustain a free society in the long run.

His own forces aside, it is clear that years of the Yankee's rule had not the slightest effect on the masses. Ideas, Morgan suggests, "flowed in ruts worn deep by time and habit, and the man who should have proposed to divert them by reason and argument would have had a long contract on his hands." (p.54) True enough; but during his years of rule, Morgan had that time to try reason and argument on the populace. Yet he did not. Instead, he was content to personally direct Arthurian society to Enlightenment, educating only his loyal helpers. It should come as no surprise that the Church's Interdict ended the Yankee's New Age overnight. The newborn free society was unstable because it rested on the will of a single man instead of popular acceptance. Thomas Paine's words in Common Sense put this point succinctly. "It is wholly owing to the constitution of the people, and not to the constitution of the government, that the crown is not as oppressive in Britain as in Turkey." Morgan's error was to neglect the crucial task of educating the people to make them ready for the free society when it arrived.

Even if Morgan had triumphed politically as well as militarily over the knights, what would he have done? One of his loyal boy-followers objected thusly to their conflict: "While apparently it was only the nobility... we were of one mind, and undisturbed by any troubling doubt... But think - the matter is altered - all England is marching against us!... These people are our people, they are the bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh, we love them - do not ask us to destroy our nation!" (p.307) In reply, Morgan correctly points out that only the knights would fight against them. But what would Morgan say to the same objection after the war's end? How would he rule a nation, superstitious and ignorant, that hated and feared him? What would become of liberty and democracy, of free inquiry and freedom of religion, if the Boss had to rule a recalcitrant population? His revolution would transform into ruthless suppression of the people, and all his liberal reforms would be postponed - permanently. The tension between benevolent despotism and the promotion of Enlightenment would in the end yield only tyranny made more terrible by the aid of science.

4. The Connecticut Yankee: Judicious Rationalism or the Fatal Conceit?

There are two distinct strands of classical liberal thought: the rationalist and the traditionalist. Rationalist liberals, such as Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard, believe that it is simply a timeless moral fact that the free society is right, and that humans, if sufficiently intelligent and thoughtful, can see that rightness no matter what their culture might tell them. Traditionalist liberals like F.A. Hayek see things differently. They do not defend the free society because reason sees that morality demands it; such talk is foreign to them. Instead, they argue that the age-old competition of traditions has gradually shown us that the free society is the most workable political system. Reason is itself a product of tradition, and hence incapable of standing radically outside tradition to judge it. The tension between these two factions is not hard to detect. Rationalists say that the traditionalists lack a moral defense of freedom; that their criticisms of reason are self-refuting; and that the traditionalists' celebration of evolved custom ignores the barbarity of many traditions. The traditionalists, in turn, allege that rationalists are closet authoritarians whose trust in autonomous reason logically leads them to demand rule by an "enlightened" elite. Rationalism leads to what Hayek terms "the fatal conceit," the arrogant notion that intellectuals may discard any tradition that seems irrational.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is an excellent testing ground for these opposing theories; it provides ammunition for rationalist and traditionalist alike. Against the traditionalists, rationalists may point to the brutal traditions of Arthurian society. To take but one ugly instance, "A master might kill his slave for nothing: for mere spite, malice, or to pass the time... Anybody could kill somebody, except the commoner and the slave." (p.115) Grotesque traditions fill Twain's depiction of medieval society. How could Hayek, for example, defend such practices? Are they yet another wondrous product of cultural evolution?

Yet Connecticut Yankee also supports the traditionalist view. Hank Morgan is the perfect example of the rationalist liberal: with reason and science at his side, he schemes to liberate Arthurian society. Yet he ultimately brings ruin to England. His power exceeds his wisdom, he pushes for change too quickly, and it all backfires. The Yankee has a revolutionary intellectual's hubris: "Here I was, a giant among pigmies, a man among children, a master intelligence among intellectual moles: by all rational measurement the one and only actually great man in that whole British world." (p.56) It is virtually a confession that he has "the fatal conceit," that Hayek attributes to social planners everywhere. Convinced that he is the representative of reason, Morgan arrogantly deems himself fit to decide the fate of his mental inferiors.

In all likelihood, Twain has a reason to juxtapose Morgan's fatal conceit and England's senseless traditions. He wants to contrast two mistaken routes toward the free society. Morgan's mistake is to try revolution from above. Instead of changing minds, he seizes the reins of power. This leads to short-run liberation as best, and tyranny disguised as "Enlightenment" at worst. At the same time, Twain wants to discredit traditionalism, with its apologies for what is blatantly unjustified. Strict adherence to tradition is no less fearful than the benevolent despot. Many traditions promote needless harm and guilt, and support authoritaria rule. Tradition does not necessarily evolve into justice or prosperity; and even if it did it might take centuries, centuries during which everyone could have enjoyed justice and prosperity immediately if they only questioned their traditions more thoughtfully.

Tacitus' aphorism that "Liberties and masters are not easily combined" warns us against crowning either tradition or an intellectual elite as our new master. Both routes could easily lead us away from a free society. If "Liberties and masters are not easily combined," then we must stop trying to combine them. A genuinely liberal route to a free society would have to be at once decentralized and experimental. A centrally-planned movement is a mistake; not only does it stifle creativity, but it risks being perverted into a not-so-benevolent despotism. Yet uncritical celebration of tradition and hostility toward wildly new ideas is equally mistaken. The classical liberal strategy toward freedom should be a spontaneous order in the best sense: not a static, uniform order imposed by tradition, but a freely developing and multi-faceted order united by the spirit of critical thought and free inquiry.