.. commonwealth drew on “the commons,” lands, streams, and forests for which whole communities had responsibilities, and in which they had rights of use, and also goods of general benefit built mainly through citizen labors, like schools, libraries, community centers, wells, roads, music festivals and arts fairs. All were forms of commonwealth.
For many immigrants, America represented a chance to recreate a commonwealth privatized by elites in Europe. As the historians Oscar and Mary Handlin observed about the Revolutionary generation of the 1770s, “For the farmers and seamen, for the fishermen, artisans and new merchants, commonwealth repeated the lessons they knew from the organization of churches and towns…the value of common action.” John Adams proposed that every state be called “a commonwealth.” Four (Massachusetts, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky) were so designated.
A similar commonwealth and civic consciousness informed the work of Robert Nisbet, a key figure for modern conservative thinkers. The market alone, he said, celebrates an acquisitive individualism that erodes the authority of the church, the family, and the neighborhood, corrupts civic character, public honor, accountability, and respect for others. Unbridled capitalism, by itself, produces only a “sand heap of disconnected particles of humanity.”
In the Republican convention last week, we have a specter of what that might look like. Citizenship and the commonwealth are disappearing like the cat in Alice in Wonderland.