Posted: October 2, 2006
n this book, an expanded version of the first Alexis de Tocqueville Lectures at Harvard University, James Ceaser argues that certain "foundational concepts" have acted as premises for policy in America and continue to form the basis of our political debate. A professor of government at the University of Virginia and the author of several excellent books on American politics and political thought, Ceaser identifies three kinds of foundational concepts in American history, deriving from views of nature, history, and religion. Having only one lecture at his disposal, he chose to address only nature and history. The book also features responses to Ceaser's lecture by three distinguished commentators, and his rejoinder to them.
Professor Ceaser engages in some in-group joking with his audience, much of which was lost on me, outsider that I am to the discipline of political science. From him, I learned that within political science there is a field called "American Political Development" or "APD," and that it resembles (they would prefer to say it uses) what historians like me call "intellectual history." Intellectual history is one of many traditional historical subfields that, alas, have largely been abandoned by history departments and taken up by scholars in other disciplines. Nowadays, political scientists ponder what used to be diplomatic history, and legal scholars study constitutional history. Members of English departments explore cultural history, and scholars in divinity schools and religious studies departments write on the history of religion. Even political history, once the skeleton of historical understanding, suffers a similar exile. Only a few scholars calling themselves historians pursue the subject. Today, one finds most scholars of political history in departments of government or politics. The loss to the historical discipline has meant gain to others. When historians grumble that our subject has shrunk in public perception of its importance and in the attention it gets in schools, we have mainly ourselves to blame.
Professor Ceaser's analysis of American history is highly sophisticated and impressive. He shows how rival conceptions of History distinguished the world views of Jacksonian Democrats from those of their opponents, the often forgotten Whigs. For the sake of clarity, Ceaser distinguishes between "History" with a capital H, a source of normative values for thinkers like Marx or Burke, and thus of foundational concepts, and "history" with a lower-case h, the academic specialty that makes no such claims and that Ceaser hopes to draw upon for evidence. I was waiting for him to make an analogous distinction between "Nature" with a capital N (the source of normative natural law and natural rights), and "nature" with a lower-case n, the subject of present-day value-free natural science, but he did not. Later on, he suggests that foundational concepts drawn from nature are more reasonable than those drawn from History, which left me speculating that he perhaps intended the history/History distinction to be invidious, and did not want to make such a distinction between two ways of viewing nature. Nonetheless, a parallel nature/Nature distinction would have been useful as well as consistent.
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The discussants, two political scientists and one historian, give the volume balance both politically and intellectually. All regret his decision to leave religion out, as do I. Religion influenced the framers of the Constitution less than natural rights or the lessons of history did, but the generation of the founders was unusual in this respect. Some of the space Ceaser devotes, for example, to the antebellum lawyer Rufus Choate might more profitably have been devoted to the remarkable evangelical synthesis of Protestantism and the Enlightenment that has exerted such strong and lasting power in American political life. (Choate's Burkean political thought is indeed fascinating, and I've written on it myself; but faced with hard choices about inclusion, I think religion trumps it.)
Sometimes the American faith in progress which Ceaser attributes to the French philosophes and Scottish moral philosophers actually reflected post-millennialism—the belief, going back at least as far as Jonathan Edwards, that human action in history can hasten the messianic age that will in turn herald the Second Coming of Christ. Post-millennialism thus did much to prepare the way for America's sense of international mission and for the Social Gospel, both of which Ceaser rightly notices, despite his avowed intention to set religion aside.
Regardless of his reasons, downplaying religion prevents Ceaser from doing full justice to his theory of America's foundational concepts. Like other American movements, the antislavery movement drew not only upon the doctrine of equal natural rights but also upon religious faith, usually biblical but in a few influential cases transcendental or utopian. Conversely, the proslavery argument invoked not only History and racial natural history, but also—and even more often—the Old and New Testaments.
Ultimately, paying closer attention to religion would have improved his discussion of statesmanship. Ceaser holds that American statesmen are free to choose among the foundational concepts, wisely or unwisely, that they apply to particular crises. To have included more about religious foundational concepts would have underscored this variety, and helped make Ceaser's point about our politicians' agency and responsibility.
Rather than discuss religion, Ceaser studies natural rights. His account of natural rights as an important, recurring, and vital force in American political discourse is valid, valuable, and politically relevant. Indeed, one could make an even stronger argument for the pervasive influence of natural rights than Ceaser does. The Ninth Amendment would seem to incorporate the foundational concept of natural rights into the foundational document of our positive law.
From a historical perspective, the problem with natural rights is that both sides of America's great controversies have laid claim to them. The Republican Party of Lincoln and the Democratic Party of Jackson each invoked natural rights. Many Americans did not see the difference between Lincoln's admirable demand for the exclusion of slavery from the territories and Chief Justice Roger Taney's Dred Scott decision. After all, each spoke of rights. A logician might note that Taney and his supporters contradicted themselves. On the one hand, they denied in effect that blacks were men, and hence denied the very idea of natural rights, which upholds the equality of all men. At the same time, they spoke of the right of all Americans to carry their property anywhere in the Union. What justified that right, fundamentally, if not the very right Taney and friends had just denied? The trouble is, voters and statesmen often care little for logic.
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As Ceaser's argument approaches the present, he addresses rival schools of thought among his professional colleagues. These take on the character of both primary and secondary sources in his account. He notes that some present-day political philosophers don't believe that either God or natural rights really exist and don't believe that history has any objective meaning or lessons; they therefore deny that foundational concepts serve a useful purpose. Ceaser judges their position morally bankrupt, nihilistic. Any Christian would concur in his judgment. As a historian, I worry about the effect of moral relativism and what is now called postmodernism on the standards of my profession. Still, it would seem that one of the foundational concepts available for today's statesmen is having no foundational concepts.
Professor Ceaser and his colleagues want to discover knowledge useful to policymakers, among others. Historians usually say they just want to find out what the past was like.
It seems to me that there is something liberating about the study of history for its own sake rather than for some particular instrumental purpose, which will entail an inevitable narrowing of focus. The "liberal arts" got their name because they were considered appropriate for study by free (in Latin, liber) persons, those at liberty to study without the need for a practical payoff. We historians do assume, however, that knowing about history makes good citizens—an idea that sets the context for, if it does not limit, the goal of studying history for its own sake. Once upon a time there was a maxim that "history is philosophy teaching by example." The authors of The Federalist, among many other sober people, believed this. So, I am happy to report, does the author of this engaging, deeply thoughtful, and public-spirited volume.