American Liberal Arts Blog

Teaching the Liberal Arts in the American Context

June 2011

John Dewey, Democracy, and Government Restraint
By Hyrum Lewis on June 02, 2011

In America, two strong and valuable traditions define much of our political culture: robust democracy and a distrust of government power.  Historically, we Americans have believed that these two traditions reinforce one another, but in his 1927 book The Public and Its Problems, American philosopher John Dewey advanced the now-popular view that the former obviates need for the latter.  Since the government is controlled democratically (rule by the public), we have no need to fear its actions—it is, by definition, operating in the public interest. To Dewey the instrumentalist, we should remove all constitutional and other restraints on government power since government is a valuable tool with which the public can solve its problems. In particular, he argued that this justifies transferring power from the non-democratic private sector (e.g. corporations and business) to the democratically controlled public sector (government).

 

I would voice my disagreements with Dewey (and my colleagues who often make the same point) with five rejoinders:

 

First, even though our government is democratic, it is compulsory.  Private power may not be democratically controlled, but nor is it coercive. Nike, for all of its power cannot force me to give it money (in fact, I haven’t bought a pair of Nike shoes in over a decade).  The government, on the other hand, takes money from me by force every day via taxation.  Even if democratically controlled, suspicion of government is justified because of its coercive nature.

 

Second, private power is dispersed and divided among thousands of bodies while government power is concentrated in a single entity.  Corporations have thousands of competitors, struggling with each other for profits, while the government is, by (Weber’s) definition, a monopoly.  Big business power may be scary, but not as scary as big government because it is generally not monolithic and monopolistic.

 

Third is the problem so brilliantly articulated by Tocqueville—the tyranny of the majority.  Even if a government operates democratically to “solve problems” that the “public” deems necessary, it is still only a majority and not a consensus of the population.  Hence, the majority can (and often does) implement policies that oppress a minority (think of the slaveholding south or anti-Mormon Missouri of the 1830s).  If it so desired, the public—composed of a majority blondes and brunettes—could agree to solve the “problem” of household chores by voting democratically to enslave redheads.  Dewey and his acolytes often ignore the fact that democracy can work at cross-purposes with freedom.

 

Fourth is the problem of unintended consequences.  Dewey’s assumption that what the public chooses actually results in public benefit is naïve. There is a huge gap between intentions and outcomes.  The public undoubtedly wants an efficient DMV with good service, no lines, and happy employees, yet the democratic will has yet to result in this outcome. The public wants our public assistance programs to reduce the poverty rate, but so far it has not happened. The public wants our taxpayer-funded schools to improve as we dedicate more resources to the purpose, but they continue to languish. Public Choice economic theory shows that, in a democratic society, the benefits of government action are concentrated while the costs are dispersed, leading special interest groups to conspire with politicians to undermine the public good.  This leads to a ratcheting effect where each new government program creates an invested interest group which prevents their programs from being altered (see recent Wisconsin public employee union demonstrations for proof).  Dewey never took this into account and neither do his modern followers.  He conceived of the public as the pilot of the ship of state who could easily steer course with constant corrections (we could experiment with policies, he said).  This is not the case, as government policies (even democratically chosen ones) take on lives of their own once implemented.

 

Fifth, and finally, the more power Governments have, the less democratic they become. Dewey was blind to the fact that giving excessive power to the government actually undermines the very democracy that is supposed to be the controlling authority. For instance, the public could democratically empower the government to control the media or to implement a one party state, but once it had done this, the government would then have power to manipulate and control the public rather than vice-versa (by telling us what to think, who to vote for, which policies were just, etc.). I think the democratic transition from Weimar to Nazi rule in 1930s Germany proves this quite decisively.

 

It’s no wonder that Dewey lost a great deal of influence after World War II—Americans saw firsthand the problems of the over-empowered governments in Japan, Germany, and Russia.  I only wish that his notion that “we need not fear democratic government” would now decline in influence as well.

Lincoln: History and Principle
By Anonymous on June 03, 2011

The participants for this year’s ISI summer program are being asked to contemplate a certain question regarding the fundamental nature of Lincoln’s “re-founding” – was it “a fundamental departure from the established constitutional order and national self-understanding, or was it rather a rededication to the American Founding as it was originally conceived?” Given the debates over Lincoln that have raged with ever more intensity during the past few decades, there are substantial bodies of thought on either side of this question.  However, I wish to propose a different terminology than that of “departure” and “rededication,” because it suggests an opposition between divergence and return that can be conceptually limiting.  Lincoln’s “re-founding” was neither a departure nor a return – it was a fulfillment.   A model is available in the understanding of Christ as having come not to “abolish” but to “fulfill” the law (Romans 8:3-4); the law was not partially realized before He fulfilled it, the law was merely a theory before His arrival enabled its practice.  When we refer to the principles “enumerated in the Declaration of Independence and enacted through the Constitution," it must be recognized that an enactment, by definition, is always subject to the relationship between theory and praxis, resulting in the greater and lesser degrees to which an ideal or principle is consummated by any particular action.  Lincoln’s “refounding” managed to extend the application of those principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence but imperfectly reflected in the nation’s Constitution.

The reason this terminology is important, and the reason why I feel we might do well to consider abandoning the language of “return” in its more restrictive usages, is that the precedence given to history can subtly degenerate into a kind of textual originalism, whereby the words and motives of historical actors come to define the significance of those events and documents which we inherit. But a statement like “all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” expresses principles whose meaning is not tied to a particular set of historical actors at a given moment in time.  Such words assert a truth grounded in the nature of the human condition; as Hamilton replied to the British (who were charging the Patriots with violating the positive laws of NY), "The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records; they are written as with a sunbeam in the whole volume of human nature by the hand of Divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power."  

There are indications that many of the Founders hoped future generations would more perfectly enact the principles of the Declaration by ridding the nation of slavery.  Washington said of slavery that “There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it,” and John Adams held that “Every measure of prudence, therefore, ought to be assumed for the eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States… I have, through my whole life, held the practice of slavery in… abhorrence.” A historian recently argued that Jefferson’s alteration of the third item in the phrase “life liberty and property” to “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration stemmed from a desire to avoid using a term that could be misconstrued to support and thereby perpetuate slavery. Examples like these could be multiplied, but they shouldn’t have to be.

The Founders had human failings like the rest of us; what sets them apart from the march of history is that they exalted their principles, not themselves, as guides for others to follow.  As important as our national heritage is, it must be remembered that the principles articulated in the Declaration can stand, and will only prevail, upon their own logic; it is a logic that requires a fresh articulation for every generation, and not something which must be “rummaged for among old parchments or musty records.”  That is our challenge today, and it is formidable during an era that disputes the existence of “self-evident truth,” “the laws of nature,” and most of all, “nature’s God.” But it is a call which we must answer, for we ignore it at our peril.

***

Thomas DiLorenzo’s The Real Lincoln illustrates the dangers of privileging history over principle. He sets to work impugning Lincoln’s motives, discounting his anti-slavery “professions,” and exposing his “statist” economics.  The “real” Lincoln, we are told,  “decided that he had to wage war on the South” in order to advance “the old Whig economic policy agenda” and impose tariffs and domestic improvement schemes, which would expand the size of government -- with himself, conveniently, at the center of power.  By quoting selectively and focusing on character flaws, DiLorenzo encourages a mindset in which the reader concentrates on everything in Lincoln’s life except the force of his natural rights arguments.  But DiLorenzo is like the person in the old Chinese proverb who, when someone tries to point out the moon in the sky above, can only see the gesturing finger.  Firstly, even if the ad hominem attacks upon Lincoln were correct (and most of them are not, as numerous reviewers have indicated), one might look to the fact that slavery was not in fact undergoing a natural process of extinction -- the Western part of the United States is now devoted to big agriculture, which would have offered an ideal breeding ground for the “peculiar institution.”  More importantly, however, we cannot allow this argument to be resolved based upon the accidents of history.  The substantive question was, and remains, whether the slavery practiced in the Southern states was in accordance with a “nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” (Gettysburg Address).

Lincoln’s logic was crystal clear, even if DiLorenzo believes his personal character was besmirched:  “no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent. I say this is the leading principle—the sheet anchor of American republicanism… That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, DERIVING THEIR JUST POWERS FROM THE CONSENT OF THE GOVERNED’…  the relation of masters and slaves is, PRO TANTO, a total violation of this principle” (original's caps, not mine).

Furthermore, this was a basis for governmental intervention because:

“The Constitution provides, and all the states have accepted the provision, that ‘The United States shall guarantee to every state in this Union a republican form of government.’ But if a state may lawfully go out of the Union, having done so it may also discard the republican form of government; so that to prevent its going out is an indispensable means to the end of maintaining the guaranty mentioned; and when an end is lawful and obligatory, the indispensable means to it are also lawful and obligatory.”

Lincoln makes it clear that the prevention of secession, in order to be just, cannot be for the sake of a merely formal Union but must be directed towards the preservation of republican principles. If the federal government were to become lawless and oppressive, the national covenant would already be broken, and any efforts to prevent secession would not be “lawful and obligatory.” Under those dire circumstances, nullification and secession would be theoretically justifiable.  On this crucial issue, Lincoln was not a partisan advocate of either “big government” or “state’s rights”; he was a defender of republican principles wherever their infringement occurred.  During Washington’s lifetime, that place was the British monarchy; during Lincoln’s lifetime, it was within the Southern states; in our own lifetimes, the threats may arise in new contexts – such as the federal government or unaccountable global entities intent on decimating national identities and their sovereign governments, which exist “to secure and protect” the natural, God-given rights of the people.

Any nation dedicated to such a “proposition” has recognized and affirmed a logic that surpasses the individual human flaws and circumstances surrounding its historic articulation and implementation.  Lincoln understood that this nation was founded by mortal men who espoused a few immortal truths, which they were wise enough to memorialize in a national charter, i.e., the Declaration of Independence.  Our problem today is that we have forgotten what it means to be “a nation dedicated to a proposition” – having lost all sense of the transcendent, it seems we are no longer capable of reading words written in sunbeams, as Hamilton so eloquently characterized the truths of the natural law.  Therefore, it is unsurprising to find authors like DiLorenzo elsewhere in their writings defending an understanding of freedom tantamount to Calhoun’s conception of popular sovereignty (thereby repudiating the very principles which his analysis of Lincoln refuses to confront).  The libertarian concept of freedom is a more recent relative of the older concept of license, a freedom identified with the exercise of the individual human will, irrespective of moral character (or, as Cawdry put it in the first dictionary of 1604, “licentious - taking libertie to do evill,” associated with “one that thinks he may doe what he liketh”).  Nothing could be further from Lincoln’s understanding of liberty, according to which there can be no “right to do a wrong.” 

Thus, the evasion of the merits of Lincoln’s arguments on the basis of logic is probably grounded in a more fundamental antipathy.  Of course, the answer for us is not to swing like a pendulum to the opposite extreme, attempting to trade in the “mystic chords of memory” for the forms of abstract thought; but the moment we depart from the logic of the Declaration, or begin to entertain the notion that the Constitution expresses a majoritarianism divorced from any recognition of substantive right as assured by “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” we enter a field of misunderstandings from whose mazy errors mankind has only seldom been extracted.

 

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Does a College Education Really Matter?
By Gerson Moreno-Riano on June 06, 2011

“I am not sure I want to go to college.”  This statement alarmed me.  As an academic and the dean of undergraduate studies at a private, faith-based university, such ambivalence about a college education worried me.  In this particular case, however, I was not just alarmed but seriously concerned.  This was so given the fact that the person making this statement was one of my own children. 

After a number of discussions and several days, my child was persuaded that a college education was the sine qua non of contemporary success.  But the statement continued to jar my mind since it raised a very important question – is a college education really valuable?  Every ounce of my being wants to shout “yes!”  But if so, then why?

There appears to be no good answers to the why question – at least no real persuasive answers.  In the recent Pew Research Center’s “Is College Worth It?” report, a majority of Americans think that a college education fails to live up to its price tag.  Why is this so?  Perhaps it is related to the fact that our current higher education models are no longer in harmony with what it means to be a human being.  Rather, they are in line with priorities that reflect political and economic necessities.  This mismatch between an education that fosters a deep humanity and one that supports political and economic priorities may be the reason why the American public and, perhaps, my own child are ambivalent about higher education.

Let me illustrate what I mean about this mismatch.  In a conversation with a high school senior, this student shared with me why he did not want to attend college after his graduation.  He wanted, as he put it, “to go to the jungle, get lost, and become wise.”  Whatever one may think about this post-graduation plan, there is something profound about this desire – to become wise.  In my estimation, this has been the bedrock of higher education in the Western tradition, namely, the pursuit and acquisition of wisdom.  To be educated was to be wise, to be a lover and doer of truth and goodness.  This particular student and, I would argue, many other students and families are not as interested in gainful employment, monetary accumulation, and national competitiveness as American colleges, universities, and the Department of Education are nowadays.  What this student and many others do deeply care about is whether or not they will be good human beings, good people, good fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, and friends.  What is the value of gainful employment, monetary gain, and a competitive nation when our homes, friendships, and societies are broken almost beyond repair?  As a businessman recently shared with me, “on my deathbed, I will be thinking about my relationship with my wife and kids and not the great business deals I cut last year.”

Interestingly enough, Pew’s “Is College Worth It?” report provides some evidence that substantiates the danger of this mismatch.  According to many Americans, character traits not education are “the most important determinants of success in life.”  As an academic and administrator, I can think of very few American college or university curricula that focus on educating students toward wisdom pursued and acquired as evidenced in upright characters.  The overwhelming trends are to consider college education as the pursuit of self-discovery or the acquisition of skills needed for gainful and competitive employment.  Graduates from such institutions may indeed acquire gainful employment and may be bound up in the joy of self-discovery (whatever that means), but will they have the wise and virtuous characters requisite for a rapidly changing world?

I suggest that we begin to re-think American education and re-cast it along the pursuit and acquisition of wisdom.  This pursuit does not have to be antagonistic to political and economic necessities.  It should be prized far beyond them and thus serve as the moral compass with which to evaluate and guide such considerations.  Such re-casting would require a deep, honest, and perhaps widespread conversation about the nature of human life and education.  I can think of no better time than now to start this dialogue. 

Top Five Books in Early American History: Number Three
By Michael Schwarz on June 08, 2011

The grading is finished, the semester is long-since over, and thermometers throughout the Midwest announce the arrival of summer.  With summer, of course, comes the summer reading list.  So let’s resume the countdown of my personal top-five books in Early American History. 

Here’s a refresher (for a review of the parameters, see #5): 

Number Five: Drew McCoy, The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America (1980)

Number Four: George Dangerfield, The Era of Good Feelings (1952)

Number Three

Lance Banning, The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995)

Until his death in 2006 Lance Banning served as my dissertation director.  An incomparable scholar, he was also a kind mentor and a dear friend.  Needless to say, I’m a little biased here.

If I could maintain some pretenses to objectivity, however, I would point out that in 1996 Banning’s Sacred Fire was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in History.  Following its brilliant subject from his arrival in Congress in 1780 through his friend Jefferson’s ascension to the presidency in 1801, Sacred Fire explains how Madison understood both the Revolution and the constitutional settlement.  Unlike earlier portraits of Madison as an ardent nationalist in the 1780s who suddenly and inexplicably in the 1790s abandoned Alexander Hamilton and joined up with the Jeffersonian opposition, Banning’s Madison was anything but an unqualified nationalist from the beginning.  This makes Madison a more complex political thinker but also a more consistent one.  Most important of all, it rescues Madison from two centuries of Federalist-inspired interpretations, all of which depict Madison as a John Kerry-esque flip-flopper.   Like his hero Madison, Banning writes with penetrating logic and graceful lucidity.  The result is a genuine pleasure not to be missed by anyone with a serious interest in the Founding Era. 

Faculty Obligations
By Lee Trepanier on June 09, 2011

As professors we have multiple obligations that are traditionally defined by teaching, scholarship, and service. Teaching and scholarship are pretty well-defined (if difficult to evaluate), but service is not. For most faculty, service usually consists of serving or heading committees, advising students or their clubs, and some community service, such as media appearances and speeches at various local organizations. However, one aspect of service that is often neglected is faculty governance.

Now there is faculty governance for those who are administratively ambitious: departmental chairs, deans, chairing special tasks forces, and so on. But what I am talking about is the faculty service that concerns with curriculum, evaluation, participation in the faculty senate or union. This is the hard slog that is not appreciated by one’s peers and doesn’t help one’s career if he or she is eyeing the administrative route. But it is necessary and crucial that thoughtful and dedicated faculty assume these positions; otherwise, faculty are not able to govern themselves effectively, thereby allowing administration and the public to take away these responsibilities from them.

How do we encourage faculty to participate in governance of the university? Is there some way we can incentivize faculty not to abdicate these responsibilities to the public and administrators? Or is genuine faculty governance something we have inevitably lost in an era of specialization and profit?

  

Sexual Ethics as Moral Barometer of the Future of the Republic
By James Allen on June 11, 2011

A new Gallup study of American ethical/moral attitudes across age ranges was just released related to such topics as the morality of pornography, non-marital sexuality, polygamy, homosexuality, etc.:

http://www.gallup.com/video/147878/Divorce-Morally-Accetable-Americans-Affairs-Least.aspx


Notice that youth in the USA are moving ever closer to matching their unabashedly secular European counterparts (German, Dutch, Italian, English, French, etc.) when it comes to attitudes in the same department. For example a Gallup study of a couple of years ago found that nearly 2/3 of all Germans believed that regularly viewing pornography is morally acceptable. But the American stats here occur with the USA supposedly being a lot more plugged in to organized "religious"  practice and belief than is the case for Europe. Of course, American religiosity can be notoriously vacuous and banal in comparison to an authentic, robustly Judeo-Christian vision. And religious institutional "attendance" in the USA can often be associated with a gigantic theological disconnect when it comes to day-to-day, lived theology and actual practice.

In Europe, at least many people there are more seemingly consistent. For instance, most there seem to instinctively recognize that being a "Christian" (ironically, pivotal to the history of European civilization) means something that is contrary to contemporary secular values. And, as such, most there no longer identify themselves as being particularly "Christian." But in the USA, there is the strange marriage of secular values joined to the need to still appear "religious" via church attendance, giving lip service to various theological platitudes, etc. But I suspect that youth in the USA are soon coming to match their more consistently secular European counterparts. Already, religious institutional attendance and affiliation rates have been dropping precipitously in just the past 10 years.....With young people leading the way in the drop-out department.

But more directly pertinent to what I do for a living (i.e. teaching students in a consciously Christian university setting), I wonder about the general ethical attitudes of students in the classrooms of the more conservative, traditionally religious colleges and universities in the USA.....I.e. Whether they would be much different than these survey numbers. In just the past couple of years, I have personally experienced some amazingly disturbing incidents in which allegedly Christian students attending putatively Christian universities have been involved in some really sordid ethical incidents. And these incidents occurred with the students involved seeming to not have much of a conscience working in the various circumstances.

And I also wonder if administrators and Boards of Directors at such religiously-oriented schools even realize the extent of the mass liquidation of the Judeo-Christian worldview taking place in our lifetimes. Or if such administrators merely plod on and continue to assume that today's students attending such schools are basically the same as those of decades past. Os Guinness' 1973 prediction in his book, The Dust of Death, that the then seemingly fringe ethical positions of the Swinging '60s/early '70s could one day infiltrate mainstream Western societies seems to have been quite prophetic. What were once shocking ethical positions just 40 years ago have become quite mainstream today. And I suspect that even professed "religious" youth of today have likewise drunk deeply at the well of the ethical downgrade.

These ominous developments would also seem to pose a serious threat to our national republican political experiment. Granted, many of the pivotal, political minds of the Constitutional period were not orthodox Christians. But as even the skeptical historian Carl Becker noted in his book, The Heavenly City of the 18th-Century Philosophers (1932), Enlightenment European figures who displayed such hostility to organized Christianity in Europe nevertheless still operated on moral and ethical assumptions quite grounded in traditional Judeo-Christian theology. The same ethical viewpoints could also be found in the Deist-inclined movers and shakers of the post-Revolutionary War and Constitutional periods of American history. And these ethical beliefs and understandings would have dovetailed nicely with the ethical and moral beliefs of the majority Protestant, more evangelically-inclined population of the young USA. 

This generally peaceful marriage of Enlightenment and more orthodox Judeo-Christian ethical viewpoints arguably held until the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s, when the ethical consensus unravelled. And the ongoing "culture wars" of the past few decades have displayed clear evidence that the American nation has increasingly fragmented when it comes to defining standards of right and wrong.

And yet, the intellectual architects of the national political establishment in the late 1700s clearly articulated the view that a "virtuous citizenry" was absolutely essential to the long-term survival of a republican form of government. Otherwise, factionalism, subsequent anarchy, and eventually tyranny would inevitably emerge to wield control over a morally fragmented citizenry.

I fear that our increasingly divisive and ethically contested public sphere could lead to such instability and, in the worst case scenario, the demise of our republican form of government. But apart from some sort of return to a more cohesive understanding of public ethical and moral principles (as was the case when Judeo-Christian ideals held sway), I am pessimistic about the future health of the American republican political experiment.

Postscript: I wrote this piece just prior to the Anthony Weiner “Weinergate” revelations in which Congressman Weiner admitted to extensive “sexting” and other sexually explicit activities with various women that he had met online. Without commenting extensively on the entire sordid tragedy, I fear that this media event will further reinforce American public cynicism regarding the integrity of public officials and even public institutions themselves. The revelations related to Congressman Weiner only add to seemingly flourishing sex scandals of recent years centering on disgraced public officials (i.e. “men behaving badly”) to be found in both political parties: John Edwards, Mark Sanford, Chris Lee, Arnold Schwarzenegger, etc. 

Caricatured or Correct?
By Lee Trepanier on June 12, 2011

In an article in The Guardian, there is an accountof a new type of university in Great Britain which academics fear most: “academic celebrity, student fees, profit and loss, one-to-one tutorials and America.” Is this the future of the university? Should it be?

Monday June 13 at Princeton
By Drew Alexander on June 13, 2011

The 2011 Summer Institute opens tonight at the Nassau Inn with Dr. George Nash's lecture entitled :Educating for Liberty: The Reverand John Witherspoon and America's Founding Fathers.

Dr. Nash's abstract is as follows:

As the 2011 Summer Institute prepares to examine the themeThe Constitution and American Identity, it seems fitting to begin by reflecting on the historical backdrop of our conversation. John Witherspoon was the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. At least as importantly, as president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) from 1768 to 1794, he superintended and shaped the education of literally dozens of young men (including James Madison) who went on to hold positions of political leadership in the new United States. This lecture will explore Witherspoon's influence on the intellectual and political identity of the generation of patriots who made and secured the American Revolution.

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Tuesday June 14- "Alexis de Tocqueville on the Foundations and Future of American Democracy"- Randall Strahan
By Anonymous on June 14, 2011

Tocqueville acknowledges the wisdom of the Founders of the U.S. Constitution. Yet his account of the founding of government based on popular sovereignty in America emphasizes a point of departure that comes well before the Revolution and the adoption of the Constitution. In his analysis of the success of a democratic republic in the United States, Tocqueville also assigns crucial importance to the mores that guide citizens’ actions within the constitutional forms designed by the Founders.  American identity and public spirit are said to arise from practical experience of participation in local and state political communities along with attachment to principles articulated in our national founding documents.  Looking to the future, Tocqueville was confident that government based on popular sovereignty was firmly established in America, but less confident of the survival of the federal Constitution. In the longer term he foresaw a powerful centralizing tendency in modern democratic politics that, if left unchecked, could result in a new type of despotism.  Tocqueville’s analysis suggests that some of what is distinctively American about American democracy—certain institutions and practices that develop and sustain beneficial mores among citizens—will always be at risk of being overwhelmed by what is democratic. Tocqueville’s “new political science” recognizes the importance of constitutional forms in shaping democratic regimes and citizens, but calls our attention to other causes that may be equally important for understanding the past and future of American democracy

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Tuesday June 14: "The Statesmanship of an Eighteenth Century Child: Henry Adams, the Constitution, and American Identity" - Natalie Taylor
By James Dudley on June 14, 2011

Political scientist James P. Young explains the continued importance of The Education of Henry Adams by reminding readers that “The story Adams tells represents not only his life but also the history of his family, his class, and indeed his country.”  A self-proclaimed child of the eighteenth century, who happened to be born in the nineteenth and “required to play the game of the twentieth,” Henry Adams remains faithful to the Constitution of 1787.  Like the generations of statesmen who came before him, Henry Adams recognized that a balanced Constitution fosters the exercise of liberty under the protection of law.  The Constitution provides the moral framework within which the statesman governs, guiding the people in upholding the principles of the republic.  Henry Adams learns this lesson well from his grandfather, John Quincy Adams.   As “the boy Henry” ages during the course of the nineteenth century, the precarious balance of the Constitution is lost and a decline in statesmanship ensues. Adams learns bitter lessons from the corruption of late-nineteenth century politics and becomes a mere witness to politics during the Progressive Era. 

 

Unable to practice statesmanship in the manner of his ancestors, Henry Adams practices literary statesmanship.  It is by telling the story of an eighteenth-century child that Adams guides his readers in upholding the principles of the republic.  This lecture will examine the lessons imparted by Henry Adams to his readers about the importance of a balanced Constitution in shaping American identity

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