With 55 thinkers of widely varying quality under examination, and an almost equal number of scholars writing about them, one might expect wild fluctuations in the merit of the resulting essays. Happily, however, the results are uniformly of a high standard. Every essay is at least a solid introduction to the thinker or thinkers in question, almost all raise provocative issues or questions about their subjects, and some are so good as to surpass the thought of their subjects in merit (easier in some cases than others). Whether one dips into the work to look at a particular thinker, or reads to get a sense of the whole of American political thought, one cannot leave this book without gaining a deeper understanding of both the individuals examined and America itself.
For this is a book about America, and not only its thinkers. The statesmen, activists, and writers chosen were selected because of the depth or influence of their thought about America. Many of them were active political men and women, and all focused their writings, or at least a significant portion of their writings, on America and its principles. This perhaps explains what otherwise would be some notable omissions (such as Leo Strauss or Hannah Arendt) from the list of American political thinkers. The book is organized around the major chapters in American history, and tells the story of the effort of thoughtful Americans both to understand and to provide direction for forming, reforming, or preserving the American experiment amid the vicissitudes of its history.
What is the history of American political thought? Although each essay writer in this book focuses on a particular person or persons in American history, a story emerges from the whole. To oversimplify, it goes something like this: The American Revolutionaries rejected the Christian political thought characteristic of the Puritans, and built a new nation upon the liberal political principles of the Enlightenment. These principles were threatened with erosion as the anomaly of the existence of slavery in a nation dedicated to liberty took center stage, but returned triumphant through the thought and statesmanship of Abraham Lincoln. Following the Civil War the principles waned again, to be replaced by Social Darwinism, positivism, and Progressivism. This time no Lincoln arose to reestablish the original principles. Twentieth-century American political thought largely developed or built upon the themes of the Progressives, as the principles of the founding receded into the background. Today we find our intellectual leadership still dominated by the Progressive rejection of the founding principles. The good news is that we also live in a time of intellectual confusion and ferment.
This history is portrayed with considerable subtlety and insight in the 46 essays. In his portrait of John Winthrop, John Cotton, and Nathaniel Niles, Michael Rosano draws a sharp contrast between the understanding and defense of liberty found in the traditional Christian political thought of the Puritans and that found in the Enlightenment liberalism triumphant in the American Revolution. By overthrowing the traditional American Christian viewpoint, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution built upon it were revolutionary in thought as well as in action. Rosano also points to ways in which the Christian view of liberty was perhaps superior to that of the founding and suggests that the liberal view could be strengthened by taking the Christian insights into account.
The nature of this new revolutionary order is explored in a series of essays on figures leading up to the Revolution (Hutchinson, Otis, Paine, Franklin), prominent men of the Revolution and the formation of the Constitution (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Wilson, the Anti-Federalists Brutus and the Federal Farmer, and Publius), and, finally, a leading defender of their accomplishments, John Marshall. These essays show us not only our founders' deep understanding of the central principles of their work, but the challenges or difficulties they had to address or overcome in order to institute those principles. In Michael Zuckert's portrayal of Madison and James R. Stoner, Jr.'s portrayal of Publius we see the profundity of the founders' thought about institutions, and in Paul O. Carrese's essay on Washington we see the possibility for political moderation and statesmanship within the framing principles. In addition these essays explore the changes that could be rung on the founding principles. John Koritansky, for example, examines the extent to which Thomas Paine could justify a social radicalism built on the principles of the Declaration (rather than by rejecting them as in today's radicalism). Jefferson's emphasis on the will of the people and Adams's concern for balanced government could both look to the principles of the Declaration. Eduardo A. Velasquez shows us how James Wilson attempted to combine dedication to natural rights with Scottish moral sensibility. Karl-Friedrich Walling offers a compelling appreciation of the extraordinary contribution of Hamilton to America in creating the institutions and the understanding that would enable her both to remain free and to wage war effectively—the problem that Tocqueville said democracies were least able to solve.
One emerges from these essays with a new appreciation of the great intellectual gift we have inherited from the founders—a way of thinking about politics that recognizes human nobility, seeks freedom and self-government, measures clearsightedly the necessities of political life and the devices and means of dealing with them, and gives recognition and scope to the wide range of talent and diversity found in human beings.
Following the founding period, the existence of slavery and its incompatibility with the principles of the founding gradually become the central issue for the new nation. This section of the book opens with a subtle analysis by David Tucker of John Quincy Adams's attempt to reconcile the principles of the founding, the nation founded upon them, and the realities of political life, including the existence of slavery. We then are treated to a variety of attempts to address the slavery question. They range the gamut from rejecting the nation that would tolerate slavery (William Lloyd Garrison), to deflecting attention from slavery to other issues (Clay), to regarding the purity of the individual soul as more important than politics (Emerson and Thoreau), to dismissing the principles of the founders altogether as unjust (Calhoun). We can see that the principles of the founders have been rejected or fundamentally modified not only in Calhoun, but in many of the opponents of slavery as well. In the light of this history, the achievement of Lincoln appears as all-the-more astounding—that he could see so clearly that the injustice of slavery had to be addressed, not avoided, and yet addressed in such a way that the union could be maintained and the principles of the founding once again set as the essential moral and political guide for the country. The nature of this achievement is ironically indicated by the subtitle of Steven Kautz's essay on Lincoln's radical achievement, "The Moderation of a Democratic Statesman."
From the end of the Civil War through World War II, the book in part shows us attempts to apply the principles of the founding to the continuing issue of race relations, and the newer issues of the equality of women and the disruptions caused by the growth of modern industry. But the dominant story of this period is the replacement of the principles of the founders by other principles. Chris Flannery shows us a Henry Adams—who inherited American principles through his family as well as his country—becoming a person who could not defend the difference between good and bad because of the influence of the principles of scientific history upon him. In others the founders' principles are replaced by the ideas of Social Darwinism (Theodore Roosevelt, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Louis Brandeis), which in turn lead to replacing the constitutional understanding of the founders with the idea of the administrative state (Woodrow Wilson). The moral radicalism attendant to these ideas propels some thinkers even to become enamored of Communism (W.E.B. Du Bois and Herbert Croly), the greatest 20th-century enemy of free government.
The book includes essays on 13 thinkers dating from the end of World War II to the present. These figures range from Ayn Rand to Justice Brennan, from Walker Percy to Malcolm X, from Russell Kirk to Betty Friedan. They address issues ranging from free markets, race relations, the status of women, anti-Americanism, and biotechnology, to the proper interpretation of the Constitution by the courts. The essays collectively provide a window on the moral and political confusion of our times. Notably there is no simple defender of the principles of the founding among them. Peter C. Myers argues that in advancing the cause of desegregation, Martin Luther King, Jr., represented some of the highest ideals of America and spoke the language of the Declaration, but he also clearly shows that the deeper strata of King's thought did not come from the principles of the Declaration but from other sources, even sources antithetical to those principles. When one looks at the alternative understandings proposed, one is not impressed. The radical selfishness of Ayn Rand, the "let's make Americans British" of Russell Kirk, the anti-Americanism of Malcolm X, the "evolving" Constitution of Justice Thurgood Marshall, even the "textualism" of Justice Scalia—all seem more like revelations of intellectual and moral problems than solutions to them.
Why have we arrived at this point? Is there some defect in the original principles of the country that leads to their erosion, or is the cause to be found elsewhere? This book suggests an answer to this question, an answer that points in turn to the crucial responsibility that must be borne by thoughtful Americans. The general answer can be seen in the book's essays on seven Supreme Court justices: John Marshall, Joseph Story, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Louis D. Brandeis, William Joseph Brennan, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, and Antonin Scalia. The essays on John Marshall and Story show both their greatness as champions of the law and their firm attachment to the principles of the Declaration and the institutions of the Constitution. David F. Forte shows that the foundations of the modern Court were laid by Justices Holmes and Brandeis. Under the impulse of his social Darwinism, Holmes taught "the modern judge . . . to reject the moral hold of precedent and of the constitutional structure that had previously cabined the judicial craft," and from Brandeis's wholesale manipulation of the Constitution and laws to further the Progressive cause, "he learned how to construct a social program while clothing it in judicial form." Bradley Watson shows that the jurisprudence of Brennan and Marshall is the direct descendant of that of Holmes and Brandeis. Ralph Rossum gives Justice Scalia a high-minded interpretation, enlisting him in the defense of the original Constitution, but one wonders if Scalia, too, is not infected by Holmes's positivism.
What is clear in this story is that Holmes and Brandeis did not turn to new ways of looking at jurisprudence because of some defect in the principles of the Declaration or the institutions of the Constitution. Rather they wished to amend those principles and reform those institutions because they believed in the social Darwinism and positivism that ruled in American intellectual life. There was no showing that the principles of the founding could not deal with the practical problems of the 20th century. The level of thought in the ruling circles of the United States had simply declined. If one doubts this, it is only necessary to read the extraordinary essay on John Marshall by Matthew J. Franck. Franck shows that all of the important charges against Marshall—that he was a nationalist, a conservative defender of property rights, a reactionary anti-democrat, and a manipulator grabbing power for the Court—are false. And he shows that he possessed jurisprudence as good for our day as it was for his, showing us "how to balance and reconcile the rule of law, freedom, and self-government." There was no good reason to abandon Marshall's jurisprudence other than failure to believe in the cause of the Declaration and the Constitution.
But are these thinkers excused by saying that they are reflections of their times? Tocqueville points out the power of public opinion in a democracy. Can thinkers be blamed for following it? The apparently easy erosion of the founding principles evident first in the period before the Civil War and then again in the period since demonstrates that those principles are not secure in the hearts and minds of Americans, but that they must be continually relearned and refortified. They require leaders who can understand them, see their truth, and find ways to inculcate them in public opinion and in the hearts of Americans. Far from being excused by the power of public opinion, the most thoughtful Americans have the responsibility of resisting the fashions of the day in order to lead that opinion towards the true principles of liberty and self-government.
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of American political thought revealed by this book is to be found in its two score and seven essayists themselves. The essays reveal a broad openness to understanding the diversity of American political thought. In examining its subject, virtually every essay assumes that there is something to be learned from the person examined. At the same time, each essay tries to get to the root of the principles and issues addressed by its subject. The authors bring to this attempt a deep understanding of the political alternatives, and an appreciation for the complications of political life. They do not assume that we know better than the founders, but neither do they assume that there may not have been advances in American thought since the 18th century. If the first step in finding one's way out of moral and intellectual confusion is to examine carefully and dispassionately both the views that dominate and the alternatives to them, then these authors have taken that step. Nietzsche points out that a mere 100 men made the Renaissance. By this standard this book shows that we are halfway toward a renaissance in America. American political thought is alive and well.