This book provides a complete overview of the American Founders’ political theory, covering natural rights, natural law, state of nature, social compact, consent, and the policy implications of these ideas. The book is intended as a response to the current scholarly consensus, which holds that the Founders’ political thought is best understood as an amalgam of liberalism, republicanism, and perhaps other traditions. West argues that, on the contrary, the foundational documents overwhelmingly point to natural rights as the lens through which all politics is understood. The book explores in depth how the Founders’ supposedly republican policies on citizen character formation do not contradict but instead complement their liberal policies on property and economics. Additionally, the book shows how the Founders’ embraced other traditions in their politics, such as common law and Protestantism.

Recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Citizens United and other high-profile cases have sparked disagreement about the proper role of corporations in American democracy. Partisans on both sides have made bold claims, often with little basis in historical fact. Bringing together leading scholars of history, law, and political science, Corporations and American Democracy provides the historical and intellectual grounding necessary to put today’s corporate policy debates in proper context.

This comprehensive volume covers a range of topics, including the origins of corporations in English and American law, the historical shift from special charters to general incorporation, the increased variety of corporations that this shift made possible, and the roots of modern corporate regulation in the Progressive Era and New Deal. It also covers the evolution of judicial views of corporate rights, particularly since corporations have become the form of choice for an increasing variety of nonbusiness organizations, including political advocacy groups. Ironically, in today’s global economy the decline of large, vertically integrated corporations—the type of corporation that past reform movements fought so hard to regulate—poses some of the newest challenges to effective government oversight of the economy.

This article explores the historical roots and temporal centrality of the interdependent relationship between liberty and inequality in the construction of colonial British America and the early United States. It surveys the symbiotic relationship among liberty, law, and civic capacity in late medieval and early modern England; the deliberate transfer of that relationship to New World polities; the social, economic, and demographic conditions that reinforced and stimulated the expansion of that relationship during and after the colonial era; and its thorough incorporation into the new republican polities and federal nation-state constructed during the American Revolution. So deeply embedded in colonial and early republican America was this relationship, the article argues, that it presented a formidable obstacle to efforts by the excluded to uncouple possession of property from civil capacity and to widen the scope of the concept and practice of equality in the United States.

This essay analyzes what Alexis de Tocqueville calls an “application of linguistics to history.” Beginning with Tocqueville’s position that language is the ground of meaningful bonds between people, I argue that the internal logic of a language—the grammar—is correlated with the internal logic governing the social order that both begets and is begotten by that language. Social orders therefore have both linguistic and political grammars and, as the internal logic of language changes, so too can the political grammar. This essay thus traces what Tocqueville envisions as the historical importance of language: from the language of aristocracy and the grammar of difference, to revolutionary language and the grammar of concurrence, to democratic language and the grammar of indifference. It concludes with Tocqueville’s suggestion of how good grammar might be taught in democratic ages.

This essay reexamines the famous 1831 prison tours of Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont. It reads the three texts that emerged from their collective research practice as a trilogy, one conventionally read in different disciplinary homes (Democracy in America in political science, On the Penitentiary in criminology, and Marie, Or Slavery: A Novel of Jacksonian America in literature). I argue that in marginalizing the trilogy’s important critique of slavery and punishment, scholars have overemphasized the centrality of free institutions and ignored the un-free institutions that also anchor American political life. The article urges scholars in political theory and political science to attend to this formative moment in mass incarceration and carceral democracy.

John Dewey’s democratic theory is celebrated as a classic statement of the theory of deliberative democracy. This article challenges deliberative appropriations of Dewey’s political thought by situating his democratic theory within the contentious history of American labor politics. In his writings on direct action, strikes, and class struggle, Dewey advocated coercive and non-deliberative modes of political action as democratic means for democratic ends. Examining Dewey’s writings on democracy, action, and the use of force reveals how a means-oriented pragmatism circumvents the problematic dichotomy of ideal ends and non-ideal means framing contemporary debates about idealism and realism in democratic theory. Pragmatism’s account of the interdependence of means and ends in political action, as a process of creative and collaborative experimentation, combines a robust defense of coercive tactics with a consequentialist critique of violence.

In this paper I introduce the concept of political attachment as a fundamental problem for political foundings. Political attachments refer to the loyalty, identity, and commitment between an individual and their government. I argue that founders of democratic or republican regimes are often faced with the task of constructing political attachments to ensure that their citizenry will properly support and obey the new government once it is created. I utilize the example of the American founding to identify and describe three distinct theories of how attachments can be purposefully constructed. I then briefly identify how each of these theories was utilized by statesmen in the nineteenth century, and I conclude with analysis of the relative success and failure of each approach, both for the American example and for the construction of regimes more generally.

Critics have denied the egalitarian credentials of Michael Walzer’s theory of complex equality. This article locates the disagreement in differing conceptions of equality. By situating Walzer’s theory in historical context, I argue that, via the influence of the Dissent circle and the narrative social science of Samuel Beer and Clifford Geertz, Walzer developed a view of equality as a political relationship that overcomes oppression, not a set of distributive holdings. Walzer holds that an egalitarian theory must leave scope for democratic decision-making because a society of equals must develop out of collective political action, not an abstract theory. Noting that these arguments anticipate the new “realist” approach to political theory, I suggest that the dispute about the importance of politics to the discipline must extend to the debate about the meaning of equality.

Daniel Webster’s speech before the Senate on March 7, 1850, in support of the measures that would ultimately constitute the Compromise of 1850 has long been denounced for its avoidance of moral principle, as Webster, many argue, opted for “union” instead of “liberty.” Yet Webster refers to morality repeatedly throughout this speech. This essay revisits the broader corpus of Webster’s thought in order to explore his conception of moral experience in democratic life—what I call, following David Bromwich, “moral imagination”—and how it informed Webster’s speech. It positions Webster in a dialogue about moral and political thought that stretches back to G. W. F. Hegel and forward to thinkers such as Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, John Dewey, Hannah Arendt, and Charles Taylor and argues that it was, ironically, Webster’s articulate embrace of liberty that placed the strictest limits on his capacity to imagine the ethics of democracy.

From his early education to the end of his life Thomas Jefferson’s materialism played an essential role in his understanding of Christianity and his hopes for its eventual reform. Jefferson regarded refuting the spiritualist, immaterialist corruptions of Christianity as necessary for guaranteeing that religious freedom and free inquiry, which Jefferson considered inseparable, existed in practice and not just in theory. Central to Jefferson’s religious reformation was the question of the nature of human understanding and the issue of the material basis of thought, the study of which he at times referred to as metaphysics. Jefferson believed that free inquiry into the nature of human understanding would contribute to the reform of religion by separating the “diamonds” of primitive, or rational, Christianity from the “dunghill” of revealed religion, thus rendering religion a subordinate ally rather than an adversary of religious liberty and free inquiry.