The American Experience

The American Revolution was not only a revolution for liberty and freedom, it was also a revolution of ethics, reshaping what colonial Americans understood as “honor” and “virtue.” As Craig Bruce Smith demonstrates, these concepts were crucial aspects of Revolutionary Americans’ ideological break from Europe and shared by all ranks of society. Focusing his study primarily on prominent Americans who came of age before and during the Revolution—notably John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington—Smith shows how a colonial ethical transformation caused and became inseparable from the American Revolution, creating an ethical ideology that still remains.

By also interweaving individuals and groups that have historically been excluded from the discussion of honor—such as female thinkers, women patriots, slaves, and free African Americans—Smith makes a broad and significant argument about how the Revolutionary era witnessed a fundamental shift in ethical ideas. This thoughtful work sheds new light on a forgotten cause of the Revolution and on the ideological foundation of the United States.

America was born in an age of political revolution throughout the Atlantic world, a period when the very definition of ‘nation’ was transforming. Benjamin E. Park traces how Americans imagined novel forms of nationality during the country’s first five decades within the context of European discussions taking place at the same time. Focusing on three case studies – Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina – Park examines the developing practices of nationalism in three specific contexts. He argues for a more elastic connection between nationalism and the nation-state by demonstrating that ideas concerning political and cultural allegiance to a federal body developed in different ways and at different rates throughout the nation. American Nationalisms explores how ideas of nationality permeated political disputes, religious revivals, patriotic festivals, slavery debates, and even literature.

During the 1912 presidential campaign, Progressivism emerged as an alternative to what was then considered an outmoded system of government. A century later, a new generation of conservatives criticizes Progressivism as having abandoned America’s founding values and miring the government in institutional gridlock. In this paradigm-shifting book, renowned contributors examine a broad range of issues, including Progressives’ interpretation of the Constitution, their expansion and redistribution of individual rights, and reforms meant to shift power from political parties to ordinary citizens.

“There has never been an America without Muslims”—so begins Amir Hussain, one of the most important scholars and teachers of Islam in America. Hussain, who is himself an American Muslim, contends that Muslims played an essential role in the creation and cultivation of the United States.
Memories of 9/11 and the rise of global terrorism fuel concerns about American Muslims. The fear of American Muslims in part stems from the stereotype that all followers of Islam are violent extremists who want to overturn the American way of life. Inherent to this stereotype is the popular misconception that Islam is a new religion to America.
In Muslims and the Making of America Hussain directly addresses both of these stereotypes. Far from undermining America, Islam and American Muslims have been, and continue to be, important threads in the fabric of American life. Hussain chronicles the history of Islam in America to underscore the valuable cultural influence of Muslims on American life. He then rivets attention on music, sports, and culture as key areas in which Muslims have shaped and transformed American identity. America, Hussain concludes, would not exist as it does today without the essential contributions made by its Muslim citizens.

William F. Buckley Jr. is widely regarded as the most influential American conservative writer, activist, and organizer in the postwar era. In this nuanced biography, Alvin Felzenberg sheds light on little-known aspects of Buckley’s career, including his role as back-channel adviser to policy makers, his intimate friendship with both Ronald and Nancy Reagan, his changing views on civil rights, and his break with George W. Bush over the Iraq War.

Felzenberg demonstrates how Buckley conveyed his message across multiple platforms and drew upon his vast network of contacts, his personal charm, his extraordinary wit, and his celebrity status to move the center of political gravity in the United States closer to his point of view. Including many rarely seen photographs, this account of one of the most compelling personalities of American politics will appeal to conservatives, liberals, and even the apolitical.

The Townsend Plan was more than a secular pension scheme—a $200 per month plan for retirees. This article analyzes the organization’s periodical, the Townsend National Weekly, to outline the religiopolitical dimensions of “Townsendism.” It first situates Townsendism in American political thought, showing how it drew heavily on “civil religious” symbols that tie the population metaphysically to the nation. Next, it explores how the plan manufactured these symbols. The first symbol was the plan itself, which is treated as gospel, complete with the quality of spontaneous acceptance. The second symbol was Dr. Francis E. Townsend, who members believed channeled a spiritual connection to Abraham Lincoln. This article concludes that Townsendism was a sect of the American civil religion, indicating that the concept is more plastic than traditionally conceived. It suggests that scholars should reexamine our approach to civil religion and moral politics in American political thought more generally.

Arguing that the political theorist Danielle Allen and the rock musician Bruce Springsteen offer similar analyses of the causes of, and solutions to, America’s racial divide, this article employs Springsteen’s music and his efforts to model his relationship with Clarence Clemons as an example for the broader American polity to consider the plausibility of Allen’s claims about interracial friendship as a source of political reconstitution. Detailing the criticism of the friendship model of racial politics set out by Benjamin DeMott, and the more specific criticism of Allen’s formulation offered by Lawrie Balfour, it argues that considering Springsteen’s work as a practical embodiment of Allen’s theory suggests not only that Allen fails to surmount such critiques but also that the problems of Springsteen’s relationship with Clemons indicate further ways in which friendship, as a form of citizenship, is an inadequate solution to the political problems of race that Allen identifies.

Melville’s “Benito Cereno” and the film Captain Phillips are both based on actual events in which black Africans unlawfully seized control of a ship led by whites; in both cases, (a kind of) order was eventually restored after Americans violently suppressed the Africans. Both the novella and the film take what at first glance might seem like a simple tale of American heroism and transform it into a story that is far more tragic and morally complex. Some readers of the novella in Melville’s day and some viewers of the film may have been tempted to interpret the respective stories solely as thrilling adventure tales that unambiguously celebrate the triumph and the goodness of American power; at the same time, both Melville and the makers of Captain Phillips lead the perceptive reader and the perceptive viewer to ask critical questions about the degree to which American power actually promotes justice.

Anarcha-feminist Emma Goldman wrote her 1931 autobiography to evaluate her early politics and American radicalism at the turn of the century. I find in Living My Lifetwo approaches to antiauthoritarian action: Adversarial politics seeks to emancipate the masses by contesting the agents of state, market, or patriarchy, but it falters when radicals act for those with whom they share few experiences. Empathetic politics builds that needed solidarity, by encouraging radicals to learn from the masses and by educating the masses on the conditions that motivate radicals to act. I follow Goldman’s transition between these approaches through narratives of early life and politics, prison, nursing, and her assistance with Alexander Berkman’s attack on Henry Clay Frick and her defense of William McKinley’s assassin. Living My Lifeproposes that radicals summon the people through shared experience, expanding our understanding of radical thought and the relevance of autobiography for political theory.

What role, if any, should fear play in the politics of existential crises like nuclear catastrophe and global climate change? This paper considers why the postwar thinker Hans Morgenthau set aside his principled worries about the politics of fear and began to cast the prospect of nuclear catastrophe in terrifying and apocalyptic terms. I argue that Morgenthau’s resort to existential fear appeals may have seemed like an appropriate strategy in the face of the representational and motivational difficulties of prospective catastrophes like nuclear annihilation and in response to the forms of organized denial and political inertia that these difficulties enable. His aim was to cultivate the salutary fear required to construct new forms of political order as a bulwark against nuclear catastrophe. I suggest that there are lessons from this engagement with Morgenthau for the contemporary question of the place of fear appeals in the climate change debate.

The problem of trolls exemplifies the challenges of building democratic communities in the digital environment of social media. Distinguishing trolls from activists can be difficult; democratic theorists have yet to adequately address how to prevent the former while remaining open to the latter. In this article, I outline a theory of democratic politics that takes space as a central element in shaping democratic interactions. Using the work of John Dewey, I draw out two key characteristics of democratic space: boundedness and flexibility. Using these criteria, I then evaluate Kinja, Gawker Media’s commenting platform, both before and after trolls attacked the site in 2014. I find that in altering its boundaries to successfully protect against trolls, Kinja introduced a new problem: a lack of flexibility that continues to affect the possibility for democratic discourse on the platform. I conclude by suggesting how this theory of democratic space might shape future research.

Would indigenous peoples have done better without the American Revolution? Gregory Evans Dowd challenges the thesis that the Revolution, by creating a settlers’ republic, imperiled American Indians more than had the British Empire. Examining North America on the eve of the revolution and the British settler colonies in Canada, Australia, Southern Africa, and New Zealand afterward, Dowd suggests that the American Republic, frequently ferocious though it was, was not exceptionally so. Native American nations, moreover, seized and still retain from American republicanism a concept of indigenous sovereignty largely unavailable in the other British settler colonies and their successor states. Indeed, by redirecting the British Empire northward and overseas, the Revolution endangered indigenous peoples abroad.

When did Americans start calling themselves “democrats”? What did it mean to identify as a “democrat” in an era when doing so was unprecedented? Most historians of the American Revolution and early republic too casually employ the words “democrat,” “democratic,” and “democracy.” Matthew Rainbow Hale, in contrast, interrogates the rhetoric of “democracy” and shows that the French Revolution not only spurred the first self-conscious democratic movement in American history but also served as the forge through which an expanded version of democracy revolving around social and formal political imperatives emerged.

Russell Rickford examines pastoralist discourses within Black Nationalist theories of land and autonomy during the black power movement. In the 1960s many African American thinkers saw urban enclaves as sites of incipient black nationality. By the decade’s end, many of these nationalists had embraced rural settings as alternative domains of black sovereignty. This shift in envisioning the ideal “land base” reflects nationalism’s penchant for mythmaking as well as the resilience of black America’s political and cultural quest for sanctuary and self-determination.

History records only one peaceful transition of hegemonic power: the passage from British to American dominance of the international order. What made that transition uniquely cooperative and nonviolent? Does it offer lessons to guide policy as the United States faces its own challengers to the order it has enforced since the 1940s? To answer these questions, Kori Schake explores nine points of crisis or tension between Britain and the United States, from the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 to the establishment of the unequal “special relationship” during World War II.

The factors that made the Anglo-American transition peaceful, notably the convergence in their domestic ideologies, are unlikely to apply in future transitions, Schake concludes. We are much more likely to see high-stake standoffs among competing powers attempting to shape the international order to reflect the starkly different ideologies that prevail at home.

Americans in the post–civil rights era are sharply divided over the principle of color-blindness or race neutrality in law and policy, with some holding a strict adherence to the idea to be indispensable to the achievement of just and healthy race relations and others rejecting at least present appeals to color-blindness as obstructive of needed reforms. The present essay reexamines the idea in the thought of nineteenth-century antiracism activist Albion W. Tourgée, best remembered today as attorney for the plaintiff in Plessy v. Ferguson. From a reconsideration of the complex thinking of Tourgée in the matter, present-day advocates of divergent approaches may gain useful guidance as to the twofold moral imperative of remediating damages of race-based injustice and of maintaining a prudent adherence to the color-blindness principle in the fashioning of effective remedies.

Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men provides a vivid account of the tension between ethics and politics. Especially in studies of Adam Stanton and Willie Stark, scholars have used concepts such as “idealism” and “realism” to interpret this theme. Grounded in the secondary literature and political theory, this article provides an original, philosophically rigorous analysis of the moral problem of politics presented in the novel. It assesses the categorizations of Adam as an idealist and Willie as a realist, and it identifies the inadequacies of the idealism–realism dichotomy implicit in the scholarship. By examining Jack Burden, this article also claims that the novel offers a vision of political morality superior to both idealism and realism that can be described as “moral realism.” Beyond its contributions to the scholarship on the novel, this article offers an invitation to reconsider the topic of political morality in a field such as political theory.

To counter partisan polarization, political theorists like John Rawls and political leaders like Barack Obama have sought to locate and express consensual elements of American culture that can appeal to or at least be accepted by people having political, religious, moral, and philosophical differences. While orthodox pluralism previously recognized the need for a normative consensus to regulate political struggles, a new principled pluralism expands on the contents of the American consensus by proposing many political principles and philosophical assumptions that are articulated at an intermediate level of abstraction, that express the emerging (though not always present) common sensibilities of most Americans, and that can be used to justify political policies and practices.

My purpose in this essay is to show that the enduring value of Alexis de Tocqueville’s work is rooted in his philosophical anthropology, or view of human nature. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville reveals his view of human nature as he treats the relationship between religion and politics in the democratic social state. His political science remains valuable because he understands human beings as creatures distinguished by their desire for the infinite and immortal. In sum, for Tocqueville, religion is an essential support of liberty in the democratic social state because it answers the soul’s desire for the infinite and immortal, and provides the foundations for personal and political justice.

Due in part to the influence of Michael McConnell, free exercise exemptionism is generally thought to be compatible with, if not dictated by, the founders’ church-state political philosophy. This article rejects that position, arguing instead that America’s constitutional tradition offers two distinct conceptions of religious liberty: the founders’ natural rights free exercise and modern moral autonomy exemptionism. The article aims to distinguish these two approaches by clarifying how they are grounded upon divergent philosophical understandings of human freedom and by explaining how they advance different views of what religious liberty is, how it is threatened, and, accordingly, how it is best protected. The article also attempts to demonstrate how our modern approach expands the protection for religious liberty in some ways but limits it in others.

Some scholars argue that the theology of the American Revolution was fundamentally Lockean and largely incompatible with Christianity, a view that this article calls the Lockean view; more recently, others who advocate what this article calls the Lockean–Reformed view argue that the American Revolution was both Lockean and Reformed and that there is no incompatibility between these sources. This article critiques the Lockean–Reformed view and argues that there were two traditions of resistance theory in early Reformed Protestantism—the Continental tradition and the Anglo tradition. While these two traditions were not monolithic, the distinction is helpful in understanding how the theology of resistance during the American founding was different from the Continental tradition of resistance. It also allows one to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses both of the Lockean view and of the Lockean–Reformed view.

This article reinterprets the role of Protestantism in the American Revolution by examining the unpublished sermon manuscripts of Boston Congregationalist minister Samuel Cooper. Even as late as 1775, Protestant ministers like Cooper identified Protestantism with liberty and Roman Catholicism with tyranny. But these same ministers eagerly allied with Catholic France against Protestant Britain in the Revolution. Cooper even redeployed colonial war sermons against his new British foes in the Revolution. The shifting loyalty of ministers like Cooper cannot be explained by mere expediency or secularization of the political elite. Rather, the explanation lies in the evolving nature of transatlantic Protestant constitutionalism—the ongoing association of Protestantism with liberty and the rule of law—over 2 centuries.

Generations of students have been taught that the American Revolution was a revolt against royal tyranny. In this revisionist account, Eric Nelson argues that a great many of our “founding fathers” saw themselves as rebels against the British Parliament, not the Crown. The Royalist Revolution interprets the patriot campaign of the 1770s as an insurrection in favor of royal power—driven by the conviction that the Lords and Commons had usurped the just prerogatives of the monarch.

When it came time to design the state and federal constitutions, the very same figures who had defended this expansive conception of royal authority—John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, James Wilson, and their allies—returned to the fray as champions of a single executive vested with sweeping prerogatives. As a result of their labors, the Constitution of 1787 would assign its new president far more power than any British monarch had wielded for almost a hundred years. On one side of the Atlantic, Nelson concludes, there would be kings without monarchy; on the other, monarchy without kings.

Gloria McCahon Whiting examines enslaved Africans living in New England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to provide insight into the dynamics of gender and power in bound families throughout the Anglo-Atlantic world. Combining social-historical research on thousands of slaves with carefully reconstructed stories of particular families in bondage, she calls into question an important assumption that underpins much scholarship on gender and family in Atlantic slavery: that the structure of slaves’ families defined their normative values.

Cities were fundamental to the rise of the black power movement in the late 1960s, but, as Brian D. Goldstein uncovers, the built environment also served as a crucial medium through which black power proponents imagined the future that would follow from racial self-determination. As the case of Harlem shows, activist architects and planners and their community partners crafted an urban vision that valued existing African American residents and preserved their vibrant neighborhoods. In doing so, they not only offered a rebuke to modernist city building, with its emphasis on clearance and redevelopment, but they also played a thus-far-overlooked role in crafting a new, postmodern urbanism in its place.

How does a nation heal after a bloody and divisive civil war? This question is of paramount concern and the source of considerable debate for historians grappling with the aftermath of the Civil War. Where some find evidence of a “road to reunion” built on a foundation of white supremacy, others see prolonged, even ongoing, sectional division. Nina Silber not only explores the literature dealing with “reunion and reconciliation,” including the scholarship on the Civil War in memory, but she also suggests new ways to pursue the Civil War’s continued impact on U.S. culture.

This essay seeks to understand the complex response to the current Black Lives Matter protests against police violence, which pose deeper questions about the forms of politics that black citizens—who are experiencing a defining moment of racial terror in the United States in the twenty-first century—can and should pursue. When other citizens and state institutions betray a lack of care and concern for black suffering, which in turn makes it impossible for those wrongs to be redressed, is it fair to ask blacks to enact “appropriate” democratic politics? These questions are explored via a reading of Danielle Allen and Ralph Ellison’s meditations on the problem of democratic loss and Hannah Arendt’s critique of school desegregation battles in the 1960s. I suggest that there is a conceptual trap in romantic historical narratives of black activism (especially the civil rights movement) that recast peaceful acquiescence to loss as a form of democratic exemplarity.

Although “constitutional conservatism” has become commonplace among American conservatives, its meaning has proven elusive. Revisionist historians and political scientists have looked to its origins in the early twentieth century, when Republican Party elites constructed a conservative interpretation of the Constitution and put it into practice in the era of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. Yet these revisionists have told only part of the story, because constitutional conservatism was also the creation of a network of activists and groups who in the 1920s constructed a nationwide campaign to instill a conservative understanding of the Constitution in the American public. This study examines how they built their campaign, defined its purpose, framed a conservative reading of constitutional history and theory, and conveyed it to the public in a bitterly contested political process. By telling this fuller story, it provides a more complete understanding of constitutional conservatism, both in the past and today.

As controversial in politics as he was in the military, Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) was an embattled president, enormously popular with the American people, yet the target of unrelenting censure by political enemies. For the first time in almost a century, this book by the distinguished historian Charles W. Calhoun examines Grant’s administration in depth, offering a fresh look at the 18th president’s policies and actions during his two terms in office (1869–1877).

Most biographers focus on Grant’s military career, giving less attention to the significant and complex questions that marked his presidential terms. These concerns, the issues of politics and governance, are at the core of this book. As a political historian with a vast knowledge of nineteenth-century America and an extensive array of original sources at his command, Calhoun approaches Grant’s presidency not as an incongruous or inconsequential sequel to his military career but instead as the polestar of American public life during a crucial decade in the nation’s political development. He explores Grant’s leadership style and traces his contributions to the office of president, including creating a White House staff, employing modern technology to promote the mobility of the presidency, and developing strong ties with congressional leaders to enhance executive influence over legislation.

“Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1841. While this statement may read like an innocuous truism today, the claim would have been controversial in the antebellum United States when enthusiasm was a hotly contested term associated with religious fanaticism and poetic inspiration, revolutionary politics and imaginative excess. In analyzing the language of enthusiasm in philosophy, religion, politics, and literature, John Mac Kilgore uncovers a tradition of enthusiasm linked to a politics of emancipation. The dissenting voices chronicled here fought against what they viewed as tyranny while using their writings to forge international or antinationalistic political affiliations. Pushing his analysis across national boundaries, Kilgore contends that American enthusiastic literature, unlike the era’s concurrent sentimental counterpart, stressed democratic resistance over domestic reform as it navigated the global political sphere. By analyzing a range of canonical American authors–including William Apess, Phillis Wheatley, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Walt Whitman–Kilgore places their works in context with the causes, wars, and revolutions that directly or indirectly engendered them. In doing so, he makes a unique and compelling case for enthusiasm’s centrality in the shaping of American literary history.