Sunday, January 16, 2011

2. U.S. History to 1877: The "Critical" Period

Liberalism and Republicanism

The fact that the word “contract” is used in a political construction is a reflection of the times in which Locke lived. During the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century, much of western Europe and their colonies were increasingly driven by economic forces that were relatively new to the historical stage. “Liberalism” is a term that is historically used as a reference to the capitalist economic system that grew out of the thirteenth-century Mediterranean System. Traders on the Silk Road and the Mediterranean Sea discovered the profitability of maintaining a connection between northwestern Europe and the Silk Road and encouraged individuals to invest in their ventures. Relations between individuals were increasingly of a commercial, contractual nature, and Locke’s “Social Contract” is an illustration of that.

So liberalism, in the historical sense, is a reference to expanding commerce, industry, banking, and the movement of the centers of wealth and power slowly but surely away from monarchy, aristocracy, and church and into the hands of a rising middle class. This middle class is not the same as the American middle class one finds in suburbia, for example. The middle class of historical liberalism consisted of very wealthy individuals who were not necessarily landed aristocrats, monarchs, or churchmen. The priority of liberalism is the individual’s right to pursue their own self-interest, usually meaning their economic self-interest. This definition of liberalism is not to be confused with the late-twentieth-century definition of liberalism. Economic liberalism is now often called “neo-liberalism.”

Acting as a check on the force of liberalism was the idea of “civic republicanism.” Harkening back to the Roman Senate and res publica, republicanism put moralistic limits on liberal economics. Particularly revealing in this regard is the way the English translated res publica as commonwealth. The priority in this school of thought is the “commonwealth,” or attention to the state of the community or society, rather than personal wealth. Putting the welfare of the community, state, or nation ahead of one’s own pursuit of wealth, to have a sense of duty to one’s community, is at the heart of civic republicanism. Religion can act as a form of republicanism and often did in the early U.S. Liberalism and republicanism provide a framework of historical forces which helps analyze the evolution of the United States. These forces came into conflict immediately after the American Revolution.

This is seen in the inherent conflict between the terms “democracy” and “federalism.” After the American Revolution, when the thirteen colonies of North America had won their independence from England, democracy was the dominant political force. Democracy is, of course, the basic concept of rule from the bottom up or popular sovereignty – Aristotle’s “polity.” Self-determination is at the heart of this concept. The citizens of the newly-created United States did not want their hard-earned independence compromised by centralized authority. They created a week confederation government that had very little power and no authority over the states. Many thought that a government that ruled over all the states would be too big and too dangerous. The control of the British government by moneyed interests, it was feared, would be repeated in a strong central government in the U.S.

Economic conflicts, however, brought about an attempt by the wealthy to seek control of state governments and manipulate them to their own ends. When farmers in western Massachusetts rose up against what they saw as a usurpation of power by the rich, they rebelled in an event known as “Shay’s Rebellion.” This led many of the ruling class to call for a convention where a stronger central government might be created. Federalism is the concept of a strong central government that has supremacy over the state governments that exist under it. The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 was the convention that resulted in a proposal for a federal government in the United States through a document they drafted that we now call the Constitution. Article VI, paragraph 2 of this Constitution contains what is known as the “Supremacy Clause” that codifies the supremacy of the federal government over the states.

This Constitution was very controversial at the time, and a group of people organized themselves against its ratification. Labeled by the pro-Constitution, “Federalist” press as “Anti-Federalists,” they wrote letters and spoke out against what many of them saw as a usurpation of power from the people and the states. Federalists, or supporters of the Constitution, also wrote letters in support of the document, with a group of essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay being compiled into a publication titled The Federalist Papers. There is a collection of Anti-Federalist writings as well, called The Anti-Federalist Papers.

When the states met in ratification conventions to argue the adoption of the new government, Federalists faced a hostile population who were distrustful of centralized power. In order to win enough votes for ratification, Federalists were forced to promise a “Bill of Rights” – a list of rights that would be protected by law and attached to the Constitution. This gave them enough votes for ratification, although the needed nine states (3/4 majority) to adopt the Constitution was reached without ratification by two of the largest states, New York and Virginia. The Tenth Amendment, (the first ten amendments are the Bill of Rights), was an acknowledgment of the power of democracy and “states’ rights” in the new United States. This amendment contains what are known as the “Reserved Powers” that leave any powers not specified in the Constitution “to the states, or to the people.” Many of those Anti-Federalists who grudgingly accepted the result of the ratification process continued to insist on the validity of “States Rights” – the right to individual states of a significant degree of sovereignty.


Saul Cornell. The Other Founders: Anti-Federalism and the Dissenting Tradition in America, 1788-1828. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

C.B. MacPherson. Political Theory of Possessive Materialism: Hobbes to Locke. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Forrest McDonald. Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1985.

Caroline Robbins. The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthmen. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959.

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