I have become increasingly interested in the development of American political philosophy beginning in the period immediately after the Civil War, particularly the evolution of American thought leading to the progressive movement in the early 20th century through the New Deal. In other words, what happened to the principles of the original founding in the decades immediately after the re-founding of our country as a result of the Civil War? Beginning with The Metaphysical Club, which I reviewed a couple of years ago and read again earlier this year, I covered quite a bit of ground on this topic this summer, as follows:
Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect, by Paul A. Rahe. In 1989, when the Cold War ended, many intellectuals expected the “end of history” or the ultimate triumph of liberal democracy. However, this hasn’t materialized as expected, and the fact that there remains much discontent in democratic societies has been widely discussed. In fact, as Rahe demonstrates, the uneasiness that has prevailed among the modern republics and the drift toward “soft despotism” was anticipated by thinkers well represented in the history of the development of the American experiment. In this volume, he outlines their thought as it pertains to how this condition arises within a democracy when paternalistic state power expands and gradually undermines the spirit of self-government. A good analysis, well researched, but not long on solutions at this late date.
Beyond the Revolution: A History of American Thought from Paine to Pragmatism, by William H. Goetzmann. This is a pretty broad sweep of American intellectual history which tells the story of America’s greatest thinkers, writers, and other creators, showing how they built upon and battled one another from 1776 to 1900. I found the book to be a very helpful overview of the evolution of American political philosophy, however, some reviewers have been critical of its single-minded adherence to what is called the “Harvard Narrative”. This is a pejorative term for the standard rendition of the path of American political thought from the founders to a pragmatism that many believe is devoid of ideas and moral grounding, but seeks only acceptable results. I agree with some aspects of this criticism, but the book is good history, and it is what it is.
Woodrow Wilson and Roots of Modern Liberalism, by Ronald J. Pestritto. From his early days as a political scientist through his term as President of Princeton University and Governor of New Jersey to his election as President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson was a central figure in the development of progressivism and its successor, the liberalism that dominated 20th century political life and public policy in America. Wilson was totally committed to Hegelian historicism and the Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer as organizing philosophies, and these of course were completely antithetical to the natural rights constitutionalism of the American founding. You wonder where we get the notion of the “living constitution”? Here’s your man. And this book has been described as the deepest and most comprehensive treatment to date of Wilson’s political thought. Very well done.
Living Constitution, Dying Faith: Progressivism and the New Science of Jurisprudence, by Bradley C. S. Watson. Legal historian Watson examines how the contemporary embrace of the “living” Constitution has arisen from the radical transformation of American political thought, particularly since the Civil War. He also traces the history of why our jurisprudence has become so alienated from the constitutionalism of the American founders. All of this is rooted in progressive legal theories, historicism, Social Darwinism, and pragmatism, and it has significantly undermined Americans’ faith in the eternal truths as well as the limited Constitution of our founding. Some of the book is redundant with the Wilson book, but the approach is much different, as Watson focuses more on the evolution of our jurisprudence.
In addition to these works on American thought, I enjoyed a new book by Jean Bethke Elshtain, Sovereignty: God, State, and Self, which was the central theme and grew out of her Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. In it she examines the origins and meanings of sovereignty as they have evolved over the centuries and as they relate to the ways in which we attempt to explain our world: God, state, self. She intertwines theology, philosophy, and psychology in a unique approach to understanding a concept that is absolutely essential in defining who we are, and she invites us to reflect on the toll that a narrow secularism is taking on human values and dignity. Not a light read but worth the effort.