The Political Thought of the American Founders
- LAST REVIEWED: 04 May 2015
- LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0085
- LAST REVIEWED: 04 May 2015
- LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0085
The historical importance of the American founders as revolutionaries and state builders and the significance of their ideas in constitutional interpretation and contemporary political debates ensure that their political thought is the subject of voluminous scholarship featuring hotly contested and continuously refined interpretations. During the first half of the 20th century, the Progressive interpretation dominated. Pioneered by James Allen Smith, the Progressive interpretation was given its most visible articulation by Charles Beard in his iconoclastic and still controversial study, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (Beard 1986, cited under the Progressive and Neo-Progressive Interpretation). Although they were far from consistent, Progressives followed Beard in treating the founders’ political ideas largely as surface justifications for their immediate economic interests. During the 1950s, however, challenges to the methodological assumptions and empirical findings of Progressive scholarship released the grip of the economic interpretation of the American Revolution and the formation of the Constitution and renewed interest in the ideas of the American founders’ political thought. Since the 1960s, scholars have engaged in an exhaustive debate over the intellectual origins and character of the founders’ political thought. During the 1970s and 1980s, this debate took form as a highly visible series of confrontations about whether the political thought of the American founders was best thought of as a species of classical republicanism or Lockean liberalism. Not long after this debate began, however, a consensus formed among most scholars that the political thought of the American founders was a synthesis of ancient and modern ideas. This catholic but also diffuse and loose-jointed agreement has informed almost all recent scholarship on the political thought of the founders. Scholars have made a strong case for the importance of ideas from ancient Greece and Rome, the Scottish Enlightenment, British common law, international law, Protestant Christianity, and modern liberalism in the founders’ political thought. Nevertheless, the conclusion that the founders’ political thought was a synthesis did not end debate but rather led to exchanges about which traditions were central and how the different idioms and traditions fit together. More recently, the study of the founders’ political thought has been advanced by ever more sophisticated analyses of the political thought of specific founders, by reinterpretations of the central purposes and original understandings of important documents (including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution), by the publication of a number of books that reexamine events that are important in ascertaining the political thought of the American founders (including the formation of the Bill of Rights and the Constitutional Convention), and by the publication of numerous individual and collective biographies that feature interpretations of the political thought of one or several founders. It has also been advanced by new articulations of the Progressive interpretation and the construction of a new framework of interpretation: the unionist paradigm. As these developments have taken place, social history focusing on the lives of ordinary Americans has replaced intellectual and political history as the focus of most academic research in the early republic. This transformation has had an ambiguous relationship with the study of the founders’ political thought. On the one hand, it has turned many scholars away from the study of elite discourse and toward accounts of the lived experiences of women, slaves, free blacks, and ordinary farmers. On the other hand, it has transformed who we think of as founders, illuminated the inegalitarian and ascriptive ideologies that were used to subordinate oppressed groups, and redefined scholars’ understandings of the lines between public and private actions and personal and political beliefs.
One of the causes and consequences of the popularity of the founders in American political culture, or what scholars often call “founders chic,” has been the publication of a large number of biographies, synthetic narratives, and collections of essays about the founders by leading historians, independent scholars, and journalists. Synthetic narratives such as Ellis 2000, Kalyvas and Katznelson 2008, Morgan 1992, Rakove 2010, and Wood 1992 offer important and fresh perspectives on the founders’ political lives and goals and have shed light on the origins, character, and significance of their political ideas. Collections of essays by leading founding scholars such as Bailyn 2003, Wood 2006, and Wood 2011 have made their path-breaking interpretations accessible to broader intellectual audiences.
Bailyn, Bernard. To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders. New York: Knopf, 2003.
A collection of essays by Bailyn that celebrates the boldness and originality of the founders and explains their greatness and innovativeness as the product of the liberating effect of their place as provincials in the broader international context of the 18th century world that they inhabited.
Ellis, Joseph. Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. New York: Vintage, 2000.
Pulitzer-Prize winning study that examines the ways in which the lives of leading founders were tied together and how their interactions led to some of the most important decisions made by the founding generation.
Kalyvas, Andreas, and Ira Katznelson. Liberal Beginnings: Making a Republic for the Moderns. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Examines the political thought of six 18th-century philosophers, only two of whom—Paine and Madison—were American founders. Nevertheless, this work contains a novel thesis that should interest students of the American founding. The authors argue that liberalism and republicanism grew up together, not as rivals. Instead, liberalism was incubated within republicanism and burst from a republican chrysalis.
Morgan, Edmund S. The Birth of the Republic, 1763–89. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Straightforward and clearly written account of the Revolution and the formation of the Constitution. Morgan challenges the then-prevailing Progressive interpretation by arguing that the American Revolution was fought on the basis of the principle of equality. Unity among the colonists around that principle, not class or interest group divisions between them, was the most miraculous development of the period.
Rakove, Jack N. Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.
Broad study that examines how reluctant rebels were thrust into public lives by the Revolution and thereby led to develop the special talents that vaulted them to greatness. Particularly strong on Hamilton as a state-builder and Madison as a thinking politician.
Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Knopf, 1992.
Wood’s important argument that the American Revolution created a fundamental social revolution within the United States with effects that still resonate today. Contains an important restatement of his understanding of the role of classical republican ideology as an antimonarchical moment that gave way to liberalism under the practices of ordinary Americans.
Wood, Gordon S. Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different. New York: Penguin, 2006.
A collection of previously published essays by the premier historian of the American founding of his generation. This collection provides illuminating interpretations of the political ideas of Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Adams, and Paine.
Wood, Gordon S. The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States. New York: Penguin, 2011.
Another collection of brilliant essays by Wood that illuminates the political thought of a variety of founders and also the meaning of rights and republicanism to the founding generation. As in several of his books, Wood argues that the American Revolution was the most important event in American history and traces its reverberations throughout the world.
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