Merit: The History of a Founding Ideal from the American Revolution to the Twenty-First Century

Joseph F. Kett
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 344
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    Book Description:

    The idea that citizens' advancement should depend exclusively on merit, on qualities that deserve reward rather than on bloodlines or wire-pulling, was among the Founding ideals of the American republic, Joseph F. Kett argues in this provocative and engaging book. Merit's history, he contends, is best understood within the context of its often conflicting interaction with the other ideals of the Founding, equal rights and government by consent. Merit implies difference; equality suggests sameness. By sanctioning selection of those lower down by those higher up, merit potentially conflicts with the republican ideal that citizens consent to the decisions that affect their lives.

    In Merit, which traces the history of its subject over three centuries, Kett asserts that Americans have reconciled merit with other principles of the Founding in ways that have shaped their distinctive approach to the grading of public schools, report cards, the forging of workplace hierarchies, employee rating forms, merit systems in government, the selection of officers for the armed forces, and standardized testing for intelligence, character, and vocational interests. Today, the concept of merit is most commonly associated with measures by which it is quantified.

    Viewing their merit as an element of their selfhood-essential merit-members of the Founding generation showed no interest in quantitative measurements. Rather, they equated merit with an inner quality that accounted for their achievements and that was best measured by their reputations among their peers. In a republic based on equal rights and consent of the people, however, it became important to establish that merit-based rewards were within the grasp of ordinary Americans. In response, Americans embraced institutional merit in the form of procedures focused on drawing small distinctions among average people. They also developed a penchant for increasing the number of winners in competitions-what Kett calls "selection in" rather than "selection out"-in order to satisfy popular aspirations. Kett argues that values rooted in the Founding of the republic continue to influence Americans' approach to controversies, including those surrounding affirmative action, which involve the ideal of merit.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6767-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: THE FACES OF MERIT
    (pp. 1-14)

    In early May of 1775 Benedict Arnold met up with Ethan Allen near Lake Champlain. Neither man was a professional soldier—Arnold a valorous druggist, Allen a frontier land speculator—but each looked smart in his new uniform: Arnold wore a scarlet coat, Allen a green coat with enormous gold epaulets. Arnold had been commissioned a colonel by the Massachusetts committee of safety; Allen had been elected colonel by the Green Mountain Boys, roughnecks from the disputed area between New York and New Hampshire. Sharing the same objective, to seize Fort Ticonderoga, a short distance across Lake Champlain, Arnold and...

    (pp. 15-38)

    Speaking on the second anniversary of American Independence, David Ramsay, the early historian of South Carolina, described the United States as a nation in which “all offices lie open to men of merit, of whatever rank or condition”; even “the reins of state may be held by the son of the poorest man, if possessed of abilities equal to the important station.”¹ Ramsay recognized that Independence itself had boosted the cause of merit, but he traced the roots of merit to the colonial period. Even under British rule, he wrote in 1789, the colonists’ distance from Britain had preserved them...

    (pp. 39-67)

    In his 1778 “Oration on the Advantages of American Independence” David Ramsay contrasted republics, “favorable to truth, sincerity, frugality, industry, and simplicity of manners,” with monarchies, reservoirs of “insincerity, hypocrisy, dissimulation, pride, luxury, and extravagance.” The “low arts of fawning and adulation” secured favor in royal governments, but Americans had been freed from “all pretensions to preferment, but those which arise from extraordinary merit.”¹

    In fastening the tie between merit and republics, Ramsay set the bar for republican office seekers very high. Strictly speaking, they were not to seek office at all; rather, they were to await the bestowal of...

  7. 3 SMALL WORLDS: Competition in the Colleges
    (pp. 68-92)

    The contours of competition for honors in colleges paralleled competition in public life. In each case the American Revolution stimulated more intense competition, more striving for fame, more prizes and rewards. Students in the early republic who insisted on recognition of their genius resembled the Men of Merit and First Characters who rested their claims to high office on their possession of preeminent and conspicuous merit, which was comprehended as a unitary superiority.

    That striking similarities existed between the conception of merit in public life and in the colleges is hardly surprising, for the colleges were virtual training grounds for...

  8. 4 MAKING THE GRADE: Managed Competition and Schooling
    (pp. 93-126)

    As long as merit was equated with significant public achievements and with talents capable of public display, it was difficult to imagine gradations of merit among ordinary people. Patriot writers of the Revolutionary era maintained that American conditions were uniquely conducive to the achievement of a “competency,” an achievable medium between misery and abundance.¹ The ideal of securing a competency neither invited comparisons between one person and another nor encouraged a view of life as an endless competition among the common people.²

    By the 1790s some Europeans were describing an excessive love of wealth as an American trait, but Joel...

    (pp. 127-158)

    Written examinations, numerical marks, and report cards measured achievements, but not the sort of public achievements that I have associated with essential merit. Rather, by subordinating impressions of single and visible achievements to silent measures of unremarkable behaviors over a lengthy time period (a month or a semester) and by slicing merit into measurable units, these instruments that first appeared during the antebellum era more closely resemble institutional merit. Yet none of these measures of merit explicitly aimed at forecasting the futures of students. This is a point worth mentioning because tests to identify promise in the form of IQ...

  10. 6 THE “PRESUMPTION OF MERIT”: Institutionalizing Merit
    (pp. 159-191)

    The mental testers resembled a migrating gaggle of geese, alighting on one pond before flying to another. They acted as consultants to institutions rather than as architects or implementers of policy. As consultants, they aided institutions in identifying and rewarding promising employees. In their own eyes, they used science to identify merit. But the kind of merit they had in mind had nothing in common with the overall superiority of the Founding Generation’s Men of Merit. Nor did they have much in common with those who had devised merit systems in the nineteenth century to settle disputes over rank orders...

  11. 7 SQUEEZE PLAY: Merit in Government
    (pp. 192-221)

    Three decades after the death of the last pioneer of higher education, Charles W. Eliot, in 1926, the sociologist C. Wright Mills argued in The Power Elite (1956) that a “political directorate,” the part of the power elite that concerned itself with politics, ran the United States. Much of the debate stirred by Mills focused on his contention that the elites in business, the military, and government were interlocking, that their members thought sufficiently alike to appoint each other to positions of power. They had attended the same prep schools and colleges, socialized in the same clubs, and putted on...

    (pp. 222-262)

    During the last five to six decades the ideal of merit has come under withering criticism on the grounds that it is incompatible with other principles of the Founding: equal rights and popular consent. Critics have argued that because we cannot choose our parents or our IQs, even the fairest application of merit-based selection cannot overcome the legacies of birth. Yet Americans had spent the better part of two centuries devising ways to reconcile merit with equal rights and popular consent. Equal rights meant citizens’ equal right to advancement on the basis of merit. Rather than condemn the Bank of...

    (pp. 263-266)

    This book has argued that advancement by merit was among the founding principles of the American republic and that its history is best understood within that context. In contrast to France, where revolutionaries would urge that careers be opened to talents, the Whig gentry that led the American Revolution in most states did not raise the banner of merit to rally groups excluded from governance by factitious social distinctions. Rather, its members thought that in a colonial society lacking a hereditary aristocracy, careers had long been open to talents, that their families had earned their social rank, and that their...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 267-322)
  15. Index
    (pp. 323-332)