The Political Thought of the American Founders

Alan Gibson

in Political Science

ISBN: 9780199756223
Published online March 2013 | | DOI:
The Political Thought of the American Founders

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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.

Article.  24144 words. 

Subjects: Politics ; Comparative Politics ; Political Institutions ; Political Methodology ; Political Theory

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