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Taking the pulse of American political thought

The American Experience

Public Discourse, Civic Engagement, Social Media, Community, Demographics, Biographies

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.

The Judiciary

Constitutional Law, Rule of Law, Justice, Supreme Court, Constitutionalism

James Madison’s Notes on the 1787 Constitutional Convention have acquired nearly unquestioned authority as the description of the U.S. Constitution’s creation. No document provides a more complete record of the deliberations in Philadelphia or depicts the Convention’s charismatic figures, crushing disappointments, and miraculous triumphs with such narrative force. But how reliable is this account?

In an unprecedented investigation that draws on digital technologies and traditional textual analysis to trace Madison’s composition, Mary Sarah Bilder reveals that Madison revised the Notes to a far greater extent than previously recognized. The Notes began as a diary of the Convention’s proceedings. Madison abandoned the project at a critical juncture, however, and left the Notes incomplete. He did not return to finish them until several years later, largely for Thomas Jefferson. By then, Madison’s views were influenced by the new government’s challenges and Jefferson’s political ideas. Madison’s evolving vision of republican government, his Virginia allegiances, his openness to constitutional protection for slavery, his fascination with the finer points of political jockeying, and his depictions of Alexander Hamilton and Charles Pinckney shifted during the writing and rewriting of his account. When the Notes were finally published in 1840, the layers of revision were invisible.

Madison’s version of events quickly assumed an aura of objectivity, and the Notes molded the narrative of the Constitution. Madison’s Hand offers readers a biography of a document that, over two centuries, developed a life and character all its own.

In the fourth of the Federalist Papers, published in 1787, John Jay warned of absolute monarchs who “will often make war when their nations are to get nothing by it.” More than two centuries later, are single executives making unilateral decisions any more trustworthy? And have the checks on executive power, so critical in the Founders’ drafting of the Constitution, held? These are the questions Louis Fisher pursues in this book. By examining the executive actions of American presidents, particularly after World War II, Fisher reveals how the Supreme Court, through errors and abdications, has expanded presidential power in external affairs beyond constitutional boundaries—and damaged the nation’s system of checks and balances.

Supreme Court Expansion of Presidential Power reviews the judicial record from 1789 to the present day to show how the balance of power has shifted over time. For nearly a century and a half, the Supreme Court did not indicate a preference for which of the two elected branches should dominate in the field of external affairs. But from the mid-thirties a pattern clearly emerges, with the Court regularly supporting independent presidential power in times of “emergency,” or issues linked to national security. The damage this has done to democracy and constitutional government is profound, Fisher argues. His evidence extends beyond external affairs to issues of domestic policy, such as impoundment of funds, legislative vetoes, item-veto authority, presidential immunity in the Paula Jones case, recess appointments, and the Obama administration’s immigration initiatives.

In his near quarter century on the Court, Justice Clarence Thomas has written extensively on significant issues such as equal protection, religion, and federalism. But in the Court’s spring 2015 term, Thomas for the first time wrote substantively on the constitutional separation of powers. For Thomas, the Constitution understood government to possess three distinct types of power—legislative, executive, and judicial—and then constructed the three branches to each exercise its vested power type. I consider how Thomas defined the three powers, as well as how he saw the Constitution creating each branch with the qualities needed to exercise the power given it. All along, I show how Thomas connected separation of powers to the Constitution’s larger goal: protecting individual liberty. I then conclude with limitations to Thomas’s view and how it, while not achieving total victory, may aid in increasing the Court’s fidelity to constitutional norms.

The Legislature

Representation, Legislative Powers, Taxation, Political Parties, Congress, Districting, Legislative Theory

Representation is integral to the study of legislatures, yet virtually no attention has been given to how representative assemblies developed and what that process might tell us about how the relationship between the representative and the represented evolved. The Rise of the Representative corrects that omission by tracing the development of representative assemblies in colonial America and revealing they were a practical response to governing problems, rather than an imported model or an attempt to translate abstract philosophy into a concrete reality. Peverill Squire shows there were initially competing notions of representation, but over time the pull of the political system moved lawmakers toward behaving as delegates, even in places where they were originally intended to operate as trustees. By looking at the rules governing who could vote and who could serve, how representatives were apportioned within each colony, how candidates and voters behaved in elections, how expectations regarding their relationship evolved, and how lawmakers actually behaved, Squire demonstrates that the American political system that emerged following independence was strongly rooted in colonial-era developments.

What kind of job has America’s routinely disparaged legislative body actually done?  In The Imprint of Congress, the distinguished congressional scholar David R. Mayhew gives us an insightful historical analysis of the U.S. Congress’s performance from the late eighteenth century to today, exploring what its lasting imprint has been on American politics and society.  Mayhew suggests that Congress has balanced the presidency in a surprising variety of ways, and in doing so, it has contributed to the legitimacy of a governing system faced by an often fractious public.

Even in this most partisan and dysfunctional of eras, we can all agree on one thing: Washington is broken. Politicians take increasingly inflexible and extreme positions, leading to gridlock, partisan warfare, and the sense that our seats of government are nothing but cesspools of hypocrisy, childishness, and waste. The shocking reality, though, is that modern polarization was a deliberate project carried out by Democratic and Republican activists.
In The Polarizers, Sam Rosenfeld details why bipartisanship was seen as a problem in the postwar period and how polarization was then cast as the solution. Republicans and Democrats feared that they were becoming too similar, and that a mushy consensus imperiled their agendas and even American democracy itself. Thus began a deliberate move to match ideology with party label—with the toxic results we now endure. Rosenfeld reveals the specific politicians, intellectuals, and operatives who worked together to heighten partisan discord, showing that our system today is not (solely) a product of gradual structural shifts but of deliberate actions motivated by specific agendas. Rosenfeld reveals that the story of Washington’s transformation is both significantly institutional and driven by grassroots influences on both the left and the right.

The Executive

Executive Powers, Prerogative, Presidential Rhetoric, Foreign Relations, Military Powers

Ever since the nation’s most important secret meeting—the Constitutional Convention—presidents have struggled to balance open, accountable government with necessary secrecy in military affairs and negotiations. For the first one hundred and twenty years, a culture of open government persisted, but new threats and technology have long since shattered the old bargains. Today, presidents neither protect vital information nor provide the open debate Americans expect.
Mary Graham tracks the rise in governmental secrecy that began with surveillance and loyalty programs during Woodrow Wilson’s administration, explores how it developed during the Cold War, and analyzes efforts to reform the secrecy apparatus and restore oversight in the 1970s. Chronicling the expansion of presidential secrecy in the Bush years, Graham explains what presidents and the American people can learn from earlier crises, why the attempts of Congress to rein in stealth activities don’t work, and why presidents cannot hide actions that affect citizens’ rights and values.
Mary Graham co-directs the Transparency Policy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and is the author of three earlier books on the politics of information. She has written for the Atlantic, Science, and other publications.

In 1940, for the first time since America’s founding, a sitting president sought a third term in office. But this was only one remarkable aspect of that year’s election, which was, as John Jeffries makes clear in his new book, one of the most interesting and important elections in American history.
Franklin Roosevelt’s plan to pack the Supreme Court had failed; in the wake of a recent recession, his New Deal had hardened support and opposition among both parties; and the German advance across Europe, along with Japanese aggression in Asia, was stirring fierce debate over America’s role in the world. Adding to the moment of profound uncertainty was FDR’s procrastination over whether to run again. Jeffries explores how these tensions played out and what they meant, not just for the presidential election but also for domestic politics and policy generally, and for state and local contests. In the context of the Roosevelt Coalition and the New Deal party system, he parses the debates and struggles within both the Democratic and Republican parties as Roosevelt deliberated over running and Wendell Wilkie, a businessman from Indiana and New York City, got the nod from Republicans over a field including the rising moderate Thomas E. Dewey, the conservative Michigan senator Arthur Vandenburg, and the isolationist Ohio senator Robert Taft.
A Third Term for FDR reveals how domestic policy more than international events influenced Roosevelt’s decision to run and his victory in November. A detailed analysis of the results offers insights into the impact of the year’s events on voting, and into the election’s long-term implications and ramifications—many of which continue to this day.

When the 1952 presidential election campaign began, many assumed it would be a race between Harry Truman, seeking his second full term, and Robert A. Taft, son of a former president and, to many of his fellow partisans, “Mr. Republican.” No one imagined the party standard bearers would be Illinois governor Adlai E. Stevenson II and Supreme Allied Commander in World War II, Dwight D. Eisenhower.. I Like Ike tells the story of a critical election fought between two avowedly reluctant warriors, including Truman’s efforts to recruit Eisenhower as the candidate of the Democrat Party—to a finish that, for all the partisan wrangling, had more to do with the extraordinary popularity of the former general, who, along with Stevenson, was seen to be somehow above politics.

I Like Ike is a compelling account of how an America fearful of a Communist threat elected a war hero and brought an end to twenty years of Democrat control of the White House. In an era of political ferment, it also makes a timely and persuasive case for the importance of the election of 1952 not only to the Eisenhower Administration, but also to the development of presidential politics well into the future.

Federalism

States, State Governments, Territories, Statehood, Native American Lands

In this article, I investigate whether the growth of special districts in the fifty states from 1972 to 2002 can be explained by choices made by local general-purpose governments in response to different degrees of government autonomy in the fiscal, institutional, and political system. Focusing on three dimensions of government autonomy—local government capacity, local government discretion, and local government importance—I find that the growth of certain types of special districts is in part a response to state laws constraining government autonomy of general-purpose governments. The findings also suggest that reliance on special districts by local general-purpose governments would decrease if they had stronger own-source revenue-raising capacities and more diversified tax revenue bases. In contrast with prior studies, the analysis provides limited evidence to support the notion that special districts are formed by general-purpose governments to circumvent fiscal restrictions, such as debt limits and tax and expenditure limitations.

For much of the twentieth century the landscape of American federalism was characterized by accumulation of power by the national government. In recent decades influential political and legal thinkers have called for devolution of governmental power to the states and localities, where, they argue, such powers properly belong and are more effectively exercised. One of the recurrent argumentative tropes in the devolutionary literature maintains that devolution is more desirable than centralization because it better protects and enhances individual liberty, and not merely the sovereignty of the states. The project of this essay is to challenge this alleged linkage by examining four of its most common and compelling manifestations. Utilizing Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between negative and positive liberty, the essay offers critical analysis of claims that devolution serves individual liberty by (1) facilitating policy experimentation, (2) spurring interjurisdictional competition, (3) promoting local self-government, and (4) enforcing the limits of governmental power.

This article, a pilot study, examines the behavior of courts in federalism disputes. It explores the circumstances that lead courts to take a centralist or, more interestingly, a noncentralist stance in disputes between national and subnational governments. Several hypotheses are tested, relying on a sample of eleven federations, with attention to institutional features such as the extent of subnational representation in federal policymaking, the degree of integration of the party system, the role of states in the appointment of judges and composition of the court, the extent of decentralization of the federal system, and the devolutionary and multinational nature of the federation. Courts seem more likely to take a noncentralist stance in the presence of weak representation of subnational governments at the federal level, a low centralization gradient or, in particular, the context of a devolutionary multinational state. In contrast, low representation of states in selection of judges or composition of the courts seem to encourage a more centralist stance.

Democracy

Popular Sovereignty, Republicanism, Democratic Theory, Natural Rights, Natural Law, Morality, Religion, Equality

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.