Cyc Am Pol Thght – Synopsis Chapter 1-13 (all outlines separate)

February 9, 2018

Cycles of American Political Thought

Europe was created by history. America was created by philosophy.

—Margaret Thatcher

Course Overview :

Commentators often suggest that Americans have no political philosophy. The standard line is that Americans are doers, not thinkers; pragmatists, not philosophers. On first glance, this seems insightful; however, close examination of the corpus of American political thought makes clear that this thought-action dichotomy is illusory. Born of English parents and developed in changing and increasingly heterogeneous contexts, American political thought has cycled around an essentially liberal core for nearly 400 years.

Although Americans tend not to think explicitly in terms of abstract theory, our very institutions are informed by theory. In fact, as Garry Wills has noted, America is an “invented” country, the construct of men who consciously built political structures to govern a nation. The traditional concerns of political philosophy guided them: the nature of humans, the sources of legitimate social and political authority, the nature of community, the role of the individual citizen, and the proper ends of social and governmental order. Thus, instead of being theory-poor, American institutions are rooted in, and have developed from, explicitly philosophical origins. Wittingly or not, this conditions American citizens: Our thought and actions are theory bound and guided.

This lecture series is about the origins and development of that thought and the philosophical cycles that have spun off from it. Tracing these cycles will take us from Plymouth to the present.

An introductory comment on the American tradition is in order. Louis Hartz, in The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), argued it to be irreducibly liberal. Anchored in John Locke, American thought revolves around liberal conceptualizations of individualism, natural rights, consent, and limited government. Hartz paints a two-dimensional picture of a “liberal” society that has remained remarkably stable over its history.

Although liberalism is a consistent presence in America, reducing the tradition of American political thought to it ignores two essential points. First, non-liberal thinkers, from the Puritans to the Students for a Democratic Society, have been recurrent participants in the American political conversation. Their arguments are part of its philosophical tradition. Second, liberalism itself is not a single, univariate force. Locke’s liberalism could accommodate a king; America’s could not. Further, America’s liberalism has never spoken with one voice. Stressing different elements of Locke’s argument, American liberals contested one another over proper responses to changing realities. This occasioned development of subtly different but politically significant variants of liberalism. To understand the richness of the American political tradition, we must account for these permutations in liberalism, the arguments of those who challenged them, and the cyclical ebb and flow in thought that resulted from this dynamic. Hartz’s insight is a beginning, not an end.

To this end, our survey of American political thought will be broad. We will examine the history of American political thought (including the various contending schools of thought that have emerged, waxed, and waned) and elements of political theory (such as the fundamental assumptions, concepts, and concerns that orient these analyses). We will not confine ourselves to recognized “political thinkers.” The development of thought is not confined to scholars writing at desks for people reading in studies; it is a dynamic conversation of broad scope. We will examine thinkers commonly associated with political philosophy (e.g., James Madison, John C. Calhoun, and Herbert Croly), but we will also treat the theoretical dimensions of political statesmen (e.g., Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan), activists (e.g., Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Eugene Debs, Martin Luther King, Jr.), and institutions. Foremost among the latter will be the Supreme Court. Because the American founders bequeathed a “Republic of Laws,” the Court has played a profound role in our ongoing philosophical dialogue. The reason for this inclusive approach is simple: Philosophy does not confine itself to dusty volumes on library shelves. The development of a living tradition of political thought is a dynamic interaction among thinkers, actors, institutions, and their times.

Our story will unfold historically, but five themes will recur. First, the notion of American exceptionalism permeates American thought. John Winthrop called America a “Citty upon a Hill.” His gloss was religious, but the notion that America is an experiment and “the best hope of mankind” intertwines with much secular thought, as well. In the various guises of exceptionalism, we find distinctive American senses of self and mission. Second, we will attend to the dynamic malleability of liberalism. Born in England; transported to a new world; hovering over the design, practice, and critique of government; and subjected to changing historical contexts, liberalism developed contending variants in America. The dialogue between them—often accounting for political, social, and economic problems highlighted by non-liberals—underpins the cycles of American thought. As our third theme, we will consider the idea that, rather than being founded once, America has had many foundings. These “reconstitutions” resulted from the interplay of thought, practice, and critique, and they framed the philosophical cycles that define the American tradition. Fourth, we will confront the demands that an increasing inclusiveness have placed on American thought. From what was called “We the People” by 55 white, propertied men in Philadelphia has emerged a notion of “the people” far more vast and philosophically challenging. Finally, we will focus on the role of “space” (sometimes referred to as “the frontier”) in shaping and shifting the substance of thought. In many ways, it is the most uniquely American dimension of political theory, and it is fundamental to understanding its development.

Discussions of political philosophy too often turn abstract and acrid. This is a shame, because philosophic assumptions are all around us. They inform, implicitly and explicitly, how we make sense of (and act in) the world in which we live. The American political tradition is rife with nuance and difference. By looking at it closely, we will see that it is defined by cycles in which different kinds of liberals accommodate challenges by changing contexts and non-liberal thinkers. In doing so, they argue (often heatedly) among themselves in an effort to claim a “true” liberalism that never really existed in a country invented to accommodate the dynamism of political life.

Lecture One America—The Philosophical Experiment

Discussions of political philosophy too often turn abstract and acrid. This is a shame, because philosophic assumptions are all around us. Despite our reputation for being pragmatists, Americans are enmeshed in political theory. The United States is an invented country: one designed by men guided by philosophical and historical “truths” they held to be “self-evident.” Its government is framed by a Constitution that embeds some of those “truths” in fundamental law.

Louis Hartz argued that American political thought was simply liberal. This is an oversimplification. Although liberalism is the dominant philosophical strand in the American tradition, it is a multifaceted theoretical framework that admits of many, often competing variations. Further, many alternative perspectives dot the American philosophical landscape, beginning with the religious authoritarianism of the Puritans. In this course, we will explore the rich philosophical history of America and discover the cycles of thought that characterize the experiment of the “City upon a Hill.”

Lecture Two Historical Baggage

Before there was an America in the European mind, the seeds of the American experience were sown by what Thomas Paine would later call “the principal ruffian of some restless gang.” William the Conqueror is the focal point for the genesis of the British state; 450 years later, descendants of that state traveled to the New World. Much had changed in England over those years, and these changes came in the baggage the colonists brought with them to America.

It has been said that “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.” It is significant that the British colonized America. The “tree of liberty,” with its conception of rights, law, and legitimate governance, was planted in England and transplanted, with all the growth it had experienced, in America. From this plant grew a uniquely American field of political thought, thought with roots in the British historical experience. To understand where we ended up, we must understand where we started, and to understand where we started, we must look back.

Lecture Three Theoretical Baggage

Scope: The early colonists also brought theoretical baggage with them. They arrived on American shores with a distinctly English understanding of politics, society, and governance. The last lecture examined English historical development. This lecture focuses on the theoretical elements of that development. First, we touch on Protestant understandings of social and political life unleashed by the Reformation. Second, we examine the thought of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.

The American tradition of political thought was born from this interplay of thought and action, theory and history. Locke provided the colonists with a logic and vocabulary of politics that grew in importance over the 18th century: liberalism. Central to it were concepts of individualism, rights, freedom, equality, contract, and limited government. The English (and Calvinist) version of the Reformation arrived in the colonies earlier and brought its own distinct arguments. In these competing visions of liberalism and Calvinism, we find the beginnings of the cycles of American political thought.

Lecture Four
A Puritan Beginning

Scope: The first colonists to settle in America came on what the historian Perry Miller has called an Errand into the Wilderness. Many of them were religious dissenters. They sailed to the New World to gain freedom to practice their religion and construct societies consistent with their beliefs. The Jamestown experiment and the Mayflower Compact are evidence of this. Nowhere, though, was the religious basis of the new colonies manifest as strongly as in Massachusetts Bay.

The work of John Winthrop shows us a distinctly non-liberal perspective in early America. A strong Calvinist, Winthrop’s Massachusetts Bay was organized to advance, not the good of man, but that of God. Seeing man as a creature of sin if left to his own devices, Winthrop’s government sought to control him with God’s word. His “Citty upon a Hill” was spatial: In a justly constituted society, man elevates his nature and is closer to God. As we shall see, strands of this thought resurface over time.

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Lecture Nine
The Unconscious Dialectic of Crèvecoeur

Scope: J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur did not set out to write a political tract. His Letters from an American Farmer (1782) was meant as a celebration of life in the new, free, and unbounded land of America. It portrayed America as issuing from a virgin birth—a place of opportunity unconstrained by European institutions, classes, or religious establishments. Often seen as an early-day Thoreau, Crèvecoeur extolled the exceptionalism of America as a place where mankind is born anew, free from the fetters of the past, and living in accordance with nature: “The American is a new man.”

Yet beneath this pacific calm, Crèvecoeur became aware of tyrannies at work in the New World: slavery, war, and frontier clashes with Indians. These tensions cloud the picture he paints in the later chapters of his work and suggest that life in the New World may not be free of the forces that repelled him about the old. American liberalism would have to confront the past. Man, in the end, was still man.

Lecture Ten
John Adams—“Constitutionalist”

John Adams is arguably the least heralded member of the revolutionary and constitutional generations. This injustice results from his prickly personal manner, his occasional pretension, and ultimately, his uncomfortable juxtaposition between the charismatic Washington and Jefferson. We make a mistake, however, if we allow Adams’s personality deficits to blind us to the unique contributions he made to American political thought.

Adams was arguably the most theoretically inclined American thinker of his time. Steeped in a profound admiration for the British “constitution,” his arguments as a revolutionary were grounded in Britain’s failure to accord its American subjects the rights of Englishmen. After the Revolution, Adams wrote his grand Defense of the Constitutions of the United States. In it, he articulated a broad argument in favor of cautious and institutionally constrained self-government—one more conscious of class divisions and less idealistic than that of other revolutionary thinkers. His emphasis on the structure of government to control man’s passions harkened back to the lessons of the past and pointed toward the future.

Lecture Eleven
A Political Constitution

Scope: The Constitution did not fall from the laps of the philosophical gods. It was the product of political deliberations undertaken in a specific historical and political context. The contours of that context shaped the document produced by the Constitutional Convention in specific ways, sometimes resulting in interpretive clarity; other times, in ambiguity.

To understand the philosophical substance of the Constitution, we must first appreciate the political imperatives driving those who wrote it. The framers had to compromise on many issues in order to reach agreement among themselves, then gain ratification by the states. These compromises added new and sometimes ambiguous strands to an emerging republican liberalism. In these ambiguities lay the bases for the conflicts among liberals that would, over time, occasion further cycles in American thought and recurring “reconstitutions” of our political experience.

Lecture Twelve
A Philosophical Constitution—Faction

In defending the proposed Constitution against its opponents, Alexander Hamilton conceived of a project to advance an affirmative defense of the new government. Drawing in fellow delegates John Jay and James Madison, this project evolved into a series of 85 articles, collectively entitled The Federalist Papers. In them, these men, writing under the pseudonym of “Publius,” sketched out a pragmatic yet philosophically informed argument for the necessity of a national government designed in light of the “science of politics.”

The principles of this science, consciously applied for the first time in the history of man, enabled the Constitution to provide for “a Republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican Government”—those that sprang from “faction.” This “dangerous vice,” born in the nature of man, had long condemned popular governments by allowing majorities to deny the rights of individuals and minorities. Conquering it was the animating genius of the Constitution. The tools of this conquest came from the past (structure) and the present (space).

Lecture Thirteen
A Philosophical Constitution—Structure

The framers devised a complex institutional arrangement to “control the effects” of faction. Although “a dependence on the people is no doubt the primary control on government,” Federalist No. 51 went on to say, “but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” These included representation, separation of powers, institutions checking each other, life-tenured judges, and the great expanse of the republic itself. The central precaution is best captured by the notion that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interests of the man must be tied to the constitutional rights of the place.”

In framing the government on this principle, Publius made institutional structure and relationship the great security against “the violence of faction.” This placed new ingredients into the mix of the American experiment. This novel blend of people, space, and institutions is the heart of the Constitution’s claim to protect against tyranny. In it, as well, are many of the ingredients that fuel succeeding cycles of thought.