What Do You Need To Know About American Political Thought?

This is an attempt at a sneeze page. The idea is to provide context for older articles so new readers can see what this blog is about, at least in part.

Some of you have asked me about what basic history you need to know in order to fully comprehend American politics.

I think you’re asking me this because you’re seeing the same old arguments come up over and over. You’re probably wondering if the repetition of certain lines of thought is a cycle which repeats throughout history.

If you suspect that, you’re exactly right: the political argumentation of today is descended from just a fraction of American history alone. Furthermore, the earlier the argumentation occurs in our history, the more it repeats. So except for bringing up one poet below, this “guide” doesn’t go past 1900.

  • pre-1776: the settling of the continent, especially the spirit and policies of the Puritans in New England, is what you want to know. The only thing you need to know about the French and Indian War is that France got beat by England and the colonies. The trashing was so thorough it was, for all intents and purposes, the end of serious French involvement on this continent (i.e. we don’t speak French, even those in Quebec who are Francophones do that out a renewed sense of nationalism – 50 years ago no one was speaking French in Quebec). The reason why you want to know the Puritans is because they are central to the thought of Alexis de Tocqueville: you can see me muse on the sort of tyranny he wants democracy to avoid becoming, and in an attempt to do my best impression of him, wonder about the relation between the sacred and the secular.
  • Revolution and Constitution: 1776 is when we declare independence, 1789 is when the Constitution is ratified and we receive the blessings of Union. The Articles of Confederation, the pre-Constitutional order, are incredibly significant as they represent a type of republicanism we are always tempted by: Why doesn’t freedom mean complete local control? Shouldn’t we relate to States the way Jefferson related to Virginia, calling it “my country?” I say “tempted” because Union is the only guarantee that the States wouldn’t go to war with each other; there is obviously a strong case to be made for the Articles. But a Union where the popular will can ultimately remain supreme while we’re kept safe – heck, that doesn’t sound like a bad deal to me. The documents you should know are the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers: there’s a lot more than this, i.e. Tom Paine, the Anti-Federalist, Franklin, etc. Dwelling on the major arguments brings forth the key issues, though. For example, I think Paine’s full political thought is comprehended by Jefferson, who does seem to think America can be wholly secular at some point. So.
  • The entirety of American history from 1820-1860 is grappling with slavery. The South does not have the population to keep the House, but with slave states, can keep parity in the Senate. Slavery can be outlawed by a simple majority vote of Congress: it is never mentioned explicitly in the Constitution, and even under the Articles, things like the Northwest Ordinance banned slavery in the territories it organized. Contra what other scholars think, Jacksonian democracy is a distraction, a purposeful distraction. Ultimately it led to Stephen Douglas’ idea of “popular sovereignty,” where new states taking votes on their constitution – and not acts of Congress – would determine the legality (and implicitly the morality) of slavery. Never mind that “acts of Congress” determined whether a territory had the right to become a state in the first place, never mind that acts of Congress usually delineated the exact bounds of a territory. Even if you don’t agree with it, familiarity with Lincoln’s thought is a must: through him comes one of the better understandings/critiques of the Declaration, and a set of theological virtues America should adhere to if it is to prosper and not destroy itself.
  • The next two major schools of American political thought are the Transcendentalists (Thoreau, Emerson) and the Progressives (Woodrow Wilson, John Dewey). I don’t write on either of these schools because the argumentation is too close to our own. You see the argument that we can live in some sort of anarchistic peace or that progress needs to be embraced by the people and the State without exception all the time. If you want something deeper, try Emily Dickinson: a freedom-loving people can leave one alone one’s whole life. How can alienation from the community be reconciled with being a political animal by nature? Robert Frost grapples also with the theme of thought and American life: How is it possible to be thoughtful in a nation centered on the practical?

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