Citizenship is More Than Just the Facts We Learned in Civics Class

Citizenship

History News Network is running my piece on history and citizenship.  Here is a taste:

Good students and teachers of history understand full well that history is more than just “the facts.” Yet even they may fail to grasp the role of history within  civic education. Too often young people are taught to engage public life for the purpose of defending their rights or, to put it in a negative way, their self-interests. This approach to citizenship education, as historian Robert Ketcham writes in his 1987 book Individualism and Public Life, “would be intricate knowledge of how the system really works and shrewd understanding of how and where to exert pressure to achieve particular objectives.”

Such a rights-based approach, an operating manual for the civic machine, is a vital part of citizenship, but it does not help us in a time when sacrifice is essential. The coronavirus pandemic demands a citizenship that places a commitment to the public good over self-interest. Yes, we have a right to spend Spring Break partying in Florida, eat meals in restaurants, and buy as much toilet paper as we may afford, but citizenship also requires obligation, duty, and responsibility. Sometimes the practice of these virtues means that we must temporarily curb our exercise of certain rights. We must think of others and their needs. 

Read the entire piece here.

A Time for Citizenship

Citizenship

It’s not really that difficult to be a citizen in times like these. Health officials are telling us to stay six feet apart, wash our hands, avoid crowds, self-quarantine, and check on our older neighbors.  If we want to get through this crisis we need to make some sacrifices. We need to think less about rights and more about obligations. We need to be citizens.

Sometimes I wonder if we really know what it means to be a citizen. In school, we took  “civics” courses that taught us things about the United States government. We learned about the importance of voting, the system of checks and balances, and some basic information about our constitutional rights. This kind of knowledge is essential and useful. But taking a course, or memorizing some facts, does not make us citizens, and citizenship is what we need in this moment.

Last night I went to the bookshelf and pulled-down my copy of historian Ralph Ketcham‘s mostly forgotten 1987 work Individualism and Public Life: A Modern Dilemma. (It currently has a 6.5 million Amazon ranking). Ketcham describes how schools often teach young people how to move beyond mere civic knowledge:

They are…further taught that their effectiveness, and even discharge of their obligation, depend on active, single-minded participation in that system: to organize, maneuver, cajole, and bargain become the means of effectiveness–and even of fulfillment of duty.

In other words, civic education too often teaches us how to engage in public life for the purpose of defending our rights or, to put it in a more negative way, our own self-interests. Under this kind of civic education, “the essential training for citizenship, Ketcham writes, “would be intricate knowledge of how the system really works and shrewd understanding of how and where to exert pressure to achieve particular objectives.”

While this rights-based approach is a vital part of citizenship–we must remain politically jealous at all times–it is not an approach to citizenship that usually helps us in times of crisis like our current coronavirus moment. It is rooted in individualism, the kind of individualism that, to quote Tocqueville, “saps the virtue of public life.” What would it take, Ketcham asks, to “enlarge the idea of citizenship as a shared, public enterprise, asking members of a body politic to explore and discuss, together, what might enrich the life of the community, and to seek together, the ideas and aspirations that would enhance and fulfill both individual and social life.”

In times like these, it is good to remember an important strain of American political thought that was dominant at the time of the founding, faded from view as American became more democratic in the early 19th century (although it depends on which historian one reads), and re-emerged at various moments of crisis (World War II, 9-11, etc.). Historians and political theorists call this strain “civic humanism” or “republicanism” or “communitarianism.” (Scholars will split hairs over the differences between these “isms,” but for the sake of this post I am going to use them synonymously). Here is Ketcham:

The office of the citizen…is best understood as the part each person in a democracy plays in the government of the community. This requires, most fundamentally, the perspective of the good ruler, that is, a disinterested regard for the welfare of the whole, rather than a narrow attention to self or special interests. That is, it requires civic virtue. The need is not that citizens necessarily devote large amounts of time to public concerns…or that they be experts in all the details of government. Rather, they must have a disinterested perspective, and must ask the proper public question, “What is good for the polity as a whole?,” not the corrupt private one. “What public policy will suit personal, special, partial needs?” Citizens must bring an attitude formed by words like “obligation,” “responsibility,” and even “duty” to their public role, rather than a perspective formed by words like “desire,” “drive,” and “interest.” The public and civic virtue required of the responsible citizen is, after all, a moral quality, a posture not quantifiable in terms of amount of time expended or amount of information accumulated.

Some have described this kind of civic humanism as utopian in nature. Civic humanism, they argue, requires a rosy view of human nature that does not seem to reflect the actual way humans have behaved in history. Indeed, as historian George Marsden once quipped (echoing Reinhold Niebuhr): “of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification. The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems increasingly to confirm it.” Historians understand, perhaps better than most, the reality of the pain, suffering, injustice, anger, and vice brought by sin. They understand the tragic dimensions of life.

But this does not mean that the civic humanist tradition is not useful. Here, again, is Ketcham:

Such an approach, again, seems wildly utopian in that it asks individual citizens to recognize and restrain self-interest and instead understand and seek the general welfare. The point is not, though, that people can entirely transcend their own particular (partial, narrow) perspective, or entirely overcome the tendency toward selfishness. Those inclinations are ancient, ineradicable facts of human nature; perhaps even properly thought of as the “original sin” of self-love. No one supposes that people can wholly escape this “sin,” but there is a vase difference nonetheless between acknowledging self-interest as an indelible tendency we need to curb, and the celebration of it as a quality “to be encouraged and harnessed.” 

In the 1980s, historians debated fiercely over whether civic humanism or a rights-based Lockean liberalism informed the ideas of the American founders. Wherever one comes down on this debate, it is hard to argue that the civic humanism Ketcham describes above was not influential in the Revolution and the early years of the republic. It is also hard to argue with the fact that Americans have drawn on this tradition at various moments in our history.  Now might be another one of those moments.

Taking Care of Our Own

Corona Healthcare

I published this piece in 2012 when I was writing a column at Patheos.  I think it holds up pretty well. –JF

What is this experiment that we call the United States? What did Thomas Jefferson mean by the phrase “the pursuit of happiness?” What is the promise of America?

For many, the American creed is about individual liberty. Citizens of the United States are free to worship without government interference. They are able to consume freely to satisfy their material wants and desires. They climb the ladder of success with unrelenting ambition.

While this commitment to freedom and liberty has been an important part of our national history, it has often been balanced with the willingness of Americans to sacrifice their self-interested pursuits for their neighbors and fellow citizens in need. The Founding Fathers called this “republicanism.” Christians call it “living out the gospel.”

In popular culture there is no one who understands this tension between individualism and community better than Bruce Springsteen. As a young artist in the 1970s and 1980s, Springsteen’s music celebrated the American dream as defined by individualism. He encouraged us, in the wildly popular “Born to Run,” to break out of our “cages on Highway 9” in pursuit of a “runaway American dream.” And maybe, if we run hard enough, we will “get to that place where we really want to go and we’ll walk in the sun.”

On the same album as “Born to Run,” Springsteen urged us to get in our cars and drive “Thunder Road”—a two lane highway that “will take us anywhere.” The final words of the song are telling: “It’s a town for losers, I’m pulling out of here to win.”

Such a vision of the American dream, filled with cars and roads and freedom, is selfish. Springsteen understands the human condition. He also understands the American condition.

But as “The Boss” grows older, his music has taken a decided turn away from youthful individualism and toward community. For example, his 2007 album Magic included a song entitled “Long Walk Home,” a moving reflection on his figurative return to home after all those years of running away. There is a sense of new birth in the song, almost as if Springsteen has realized that the community in which he was raised offers much more than what Thunder Road had to offer. He reminds us that “everybody has a neighbor, everybody has a friend, everybody has a reason to begin again.” Perhaps those “losers” were not so bad after all. They at least need someone to love them.

At age 62, Bruce Springsteen is not done making music. In fact, he and the E-Street Band will be heading out on tour in a few months to promote their new album, Wrecking Ball. Those close to Springsteen are talking about the album’s pressing themes of economic justice, social concern, and spirituality. It is being produced by Ron Aniello, a Grammy-nominated producer known for his work with Christian artists Jars of Clay, Sixpence None the Richer, and Jeremy Camp.

Last week, the Springsteen camp released “We Take Care of Our Own,” the first single off of Wrecking Ball. Anyone who listens to this song will hear a Springsteen-like call for an inclusive American community that will only prosper if citizens care for one another. This is Springsteen’s republicanism at its best—a call to serve others that is compatible in every way with our Divine call to live out the gospel. There are echoes in the song of our current economic hardships, hurricane Katrina, and the search for meaning amidst life’s difficulties. Such meaning, Springsteen concludes, can only be found in tempering individualism and fulfilling the promise of America by loving our neighbors.

Springsteen asks:

“Where are the hearts that run over with mercy?

“Where is the love that has not forsaken me?”

“Where is the work that will set my hands, my soul free?

“Where is the promise from sea to shining sea?”

Mercy. Love. Work. These are the kinds of virtues that are central to a happy and flourishing life. As he so often does, Bruce Springsteen calls us to something higher than our own ambitions. Christians take heed.

“A republic, if you can keep it”: The Elizabeth Powel side of the story

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Some of you may recall court evangelical Eric Metaxas’s book A Republic, If you Can Keep It.  The book is riddled with historical problems and I reviewed it in a series of blog posts.  You can read it here.

Lately, both Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch have also invoked Ben Franklin’s famous phrase.

But as historian Zara Anishanslin notes, most people who use the phrase “A republic, if you can keep it” forget that Ben Franklin uttered these words to a Philadelphia woman named Elizabeth Willing Powel.

Here is a taste of her piece at The Washington Post:

Last month, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced a formal impeachment inquiry of President Trump, she used a familiar anecdote to back her arguments. As Pelosi told it, “On the final day of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, when our Constitution was adopted, Americans gathered on the steps of Independence Hall to await the news of the government our founders had crafted. They asked Benjamin Franklin, ‘What do we have, a republic or a monarchy?’ Franklin replied, ‘A republic, if you can keep it.’ Our responsibility is to keep it.”

Franklin’s “a republic, if you can keep it” line is as memorable as it is catchy. It is a story that appeals across partisan lines. The same month Pelosi referenced it, Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch released a book titled “A Republic, If You Can Keep It.” It’s a recognizable national origin story with broad appeal; Pelosi was savvy to use it.

But she got the story wrong. So did Gorsuch. 

Read the entire piece here.

Thoughts on Attorney General William Barr’s Notre Dame Speech

I find myself in agreement with a lot of Barr’s speech. Watch and decide for yourself:

Here are a few quick thoughts:

  1. Barr is correct about the founding father’s view of the relationship between religion and the American republic.  They did believe that was religion was essential for a healthy republic.  In the 18th century, Christianity was for the most part the only game in town, but I would argue that many of the founders had the foresight to imagine non-Christian religious people contributing to the good of the republic as well.  Barr fails to think about how the founders’ vision on this front applies to a post-1965 Immigration Act society.  Granted, he is speaking at Notre Dame, so I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
  2. It is unclear whether Barr is saying that the Judeo-Christian tradition is the only way of sustaining a moral republic, or just one way of sustaining a moral republic.  I would guess that he means the former, not the latter.  As a Christian, I do believe that the teachings of Christianity can be an important source of morality in a republic. As a historian I know that Christianity has been an important source of morality in the ever-evolving American experience.  (See the Civil Rights Movement for example).  And as I argued in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, when misapplied Christianity has led to some of our history’s darkest moments, including the election of Barr’s boss.  😉
  3. All of Barr’s examples of how religious liberty is threatened in America today are Christian examples.  How does he think about religious liberty for other groups?  And if Barr is correct when he says that “secularism” is a form of religion, then how are we defending the religious liberty of those who adhere to it?
  4. Barr is right when he says that the state is getting too involved in trying to regulate Christian schools and institutions.  This is indeed a religious liberty issue. I wrote a a bit about this in my posts on Beto O’Rourke’s recent remarks on tax-exempt status for churches and other religious institutions.
  5. I agree strongly with Barr about voluntary societies and their contribution to a thriving republic.  But I wondered why Barr ended his speech by saying that he will use the power of the Department of State to enforce his moral agenda for the nation.  Barr is against churches turning to the government for help in the funding of soup kitchens, but he has no problem turning to the government for help in executing his own religious agenda.
  6. Similarly, Barr seems to be speaking here not as a public or moral philosopher, but as the Attorney General of the United States of America.   How should we understand his particular vision for America–an agenda that does not seem to include anyone who is outside of the Judeo-Christian faith as Barr understands it? How does his vision apply to those who do not share the same beliefs about public schools, marriage, religion, abortion or the role of the state? How do we reconcile his speech at Notre Dame with his responsibility to defend the law for all Americans?
  7. Barr says that Judeo-Christian morality no longer has the kind of cultural power in American society that it once did.  I think he is mostly right here.  For some this may be a good thing.  For others it may be a bad thing.  But is it possible to prove that this decline in the cultural power of the Judeo-Christian tradition in America has led to a rise in illegitimate births, depression and mental illness, suicide rates, anger in young males, increased drug use and general “suffering and misery?” On this point Barr sounds like David Barton, the GOP activist who irresponsibly invokes the American past to win political battles in the present.  (BTW, Barton adds lower SAT scores to Barr’s list).  By the way, abortions have been declining.  How does Barr fit this fact into his narrative of decline.
  8. I have never bought the “look what they are teaching our kids in public schools” argument that Barr makes here.  Both of my kids went to public schools and they were exposed to a lot of ideas that contradict our faith.  (By the way, in addition to the usual suspects that evangelicals complain about, I would add an unhealthy pursuit of the American Dream that understands happiness in terms of personal ambition, social climbing, a lack of limits, and endless consumerism to the anti-Christian values my kids learn in public schools).  At the end of his talk, Barr calls on families to pass their faith along to their children. He calls on churches to educate young men and women in the moral teachings of the faith.  If we are committed to doing this well, what do we have to fear about public schools?  Some of the best conversations I have ever had with my daughters revolved around the things they were exposed to in public schools that did not conform to the teachings of our Christian faith. These were opportunities to educate them in our Christian beliefs. (I realize, of course, that there will be people who will have honest differences with me here).
  9.  Barr says that real education is something more than just job training.  Amen!
  10.  Finally, this quote from Barr’s talk is rich coming from Donald Trump’s Attorney General: “[The Founders] never thought that the main danger to the republic would come from external foes.  The central question was whether over the long haul ‘we the people’ could handle freedom.  The question was whether the citizens in such a free society could maintain the moral discipline and virtue necessary for the survival of free institutions.  By and large the founding generations understanding of human nature was drawn from the classical Christian tradition. These practical statesman understood that individuals, while having the potential for great good also had the capacity for great evil.  Men are subject to powerful passions and appetites and if unrestrained are capable of riding ruthlessly roughshod over their neighbors and the community at large.  No society can exist without some means of restraining individual rapacity.”  I think the House of Representatives (or at least the Democrats within it, seem to understand this better than most right now).

America as Rome?

Roman Empire

I am asked this all time:  Is America going the direction of the Roman Republic (or even the Roman Empire)?  In an age of Trump it might seem like the answer is a definitive “yes.” But historians will be quick to tell remind us that “this too shall pass.”

As historian Tom Holland writes in the New York Review of Books, Americans have been comparing themselves to Rome for a long time.  As he puts it: “America is not Rome.  It just thinks it is.”  Here is a taste:

The conviction that Trump is single-handedly tipping the United States into a crisis worthy of the Roman Empire at its most decadent has been a staple of jeremiads ever since his election, but fretting whether it is the fate of the United States in the twenty-first century to ape Rome by subsiding into terminal decay did not begin with his presidency. A year before Trump’s election, the distinguished Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye was already glancing nervously over his shoulder at the vanished empire of the Caesars: “Rome rotted from within when people lost confidence in their culture and institutions, elites battled for control, corruption increased and the economy failed to grow adequately.” Doom-laden prophecies such as these, of decline and fall, are the somber counterpoint to the optimism of the American Dream.

And so they have always been. At various points in American history, various reasons have been advanced to explain why the United States is bound to join the Roman Empire in oblivion. In 1919, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, The New York Times warned that the Huns and the Vandals were massing again. “The Roman Empire and its civilization were destroyed by barbarian hordes coming from the East—and it is from the east that comes the wind.” Thirty years earlier, visiting the abandoned Roman city at Baalbek in Lebanon, Brooks Adams—the great-grandson of John Adams—had been inspired by the spectacle of shattered greatness to dread that his own country’s gilded age was bound to end in similar ruin. In the decades before the Civil War, opponents of slavery repeatedly cited the fall of Rome as a warning of what might happen to a slave-owning society. In the 1830s, opponents of Andrew Jackson cast him as a dictator and a demagogue whose tyranny would inevitably bring the infant republic to share in the fate of the ancient empire. Present anxieties that Trump’s presidency portends America’s decline and fall are the contemporary expression of a tradition quite as venerable as the United States itself. 

Just as Americans today look back wistfully to the Founding Fathers as patrons of an age of rugged independence and virtue, so did the Founding Fathers look back with an equal wistfulness to the early years of Rome. There, for any young republic victorious in a war against a great monarchy, a morality tale was to be found that could hardly help but serve as inspiration. The Romans, like the Americans, had originally been ruled by a king; then, resolved no longer to live in servitude, they had dared in a heroic and ultimately successful campaign to expel him. Repeatedly, whether by standing alone on a bridge against fearsome odds, or by plunging a hand into fire rather than submit to tyranny, or by riding a horse into a bottomless abyss in the certainty that such a sacrifice would secure the republic against ruin, Romans had demonstrated their commitment to liberty.

Read the entire piece here.

“We’re a republic, not a democracy”

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How many times have you heard someone say this?  As Ed Burmilia, a political science professor a Bradley University writes at The Baffler, it is a loaded political phrase.  Here is a taste of his piece:

It is a cheap rhetorical sleight-of-hand, then, to justify outcomes or processes on the basis that America is “not a democracy,” not that such a statement is ever made as a legitimate argument in good faith. In practice, its use is to one of three ends.

First, as a non-sequitur defense of institutions that distribute political power unequally like the Electoral College or the Senate. The country is not a pure democracy with them and would not be a pure democracy were both abolished tomorrow and replaced. The “logic” here is that the existence of undemocratic or simply unfair institutions is justified by the fact that the country is not . . . an entirely different and unrelated kind of democracy. If that sounds stupid, it is.

Second, it is an argument against any vaguely majoritarian institution or idea. This is done with the utmost selectivity, as I am old enough to remember when “The majority of people oppose it” was considered a mic-drop argument against same-sex marriage. Invoke the will of the people one minute; the next—say, when large majorities want basic gun control legislation—smugly chuckle and say, “Sorry, buddy, read the Constitution: this here’s not a democracy.” Appeals to the will of the masses are often a last-ditch argument of convenience.

Third, and most troubling, is resorting to this phrase in defense of discretionary actions taken by political actors—like the president or Supreme Court. Every time the current president declares some breathtakingly dumb decision he makes after his six neurons fire simultaneously during Fox & Friends, defenders are quick to trot out the phrase as if anyone honestly thinks that presidential decision-making might be subject to a national plebiscite. In this usage, the argument is little more than a red herring, using the absence of mob-rule democracy as a justification of whatever lamentable actions are taken by the people elected or appointed to act on our behalf in accordance with Madison’s republicanism. Whether elected directly by voters or appointed through other processes, people in power make bad decisions—to which the nature of our system of government is not relevant.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Brook Poston

james monroe a republican championBrook Poston is Associate Professor of History at Steven F. Austin State University. This interview is based on his new book, James Monroe, A Republican Champion (University Press of Florida, 2019).

JF: What led  you to write James Monroe?

BP: Monroe was right in the thick of every major event during the first half century of American history, yet he is probably the least well known of the major American founders. Also, because his career began during the Revolutionary era and ended in 1825, the study of his life offers a window into two different generations of American political figures. I also liked that Monroe wanted to be remembered alongside the Washington, Jefferson, and Madison but was never quite able to match their accomplishments. It makes him a little more relatable, more human.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of James Monroe?

BP: Monroe attempted to craft a legacy for himself as a champion of an American style of republicanism (dedicated to the protection of liberty) by helping to secure it within the United States and spread it overseas. Monroe tried to secure republicanism at home by purchasing Louisiana, fighting the British during the War of 1812, and acquiring Florida, but his true passion was spreading republican ideals abroad which he tried to do during both the French and Latin American revolutions, culminating with his famous Monroe Doctrine which he hoped would secure his own legacy as a champion of republicanism.

JF: Why should we read James Monroe?

BP: This work changes our understanding of Monroe and his era in some important ways. Because of his experience during the American Revolution and his subsequent apprenticeship to Thomas Jefferson, Monroe came to believe that the creation and hopeful spread of American republicanism was arguably the most important cause in human history. This mindset helps explain Monroe’s position on the French Revolution, which he saw as analogous to the American Revolution. As the American minister to France during the 1790s Monroe tried to build a lasting alliance between the two nations in defense of republicanism. When the Federalists rejected the French Revolution and President Washington dismissed Monroe as his minister in Paris, Monroe saw it as a major defeat for the republican movement. After Jefferson’s election in 1800, Monroe shifted his focus to securing his own political career and republicanism at home. This helped guide his decision making as he purchased the Louisiana territory, negotiated the Monroe-Pinkney Treaty, and helped fight the British during the War of 1812. Nevertheless, the memory of the lost opportunity in France stuck with Monroe as that country drifted away from republicanism under Napoleon. By the time Monroe reached the nation’s highest office in 1817, republican revolutions were breaking out all over Latin America and Monroe saw it as a chance to correct the mistakes the U.S. made during the French Revolution. Monroe therefore saw his doctrine not primarily as a tool to promote American hegemony in the western hemisphere but as part of the ongoing battle between republicanism and monarchy.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

BP: Like many college history majors I decided to go to law school after undergrad. I enjoyed certain aspects of the law but I was unsure about a legal career as I finished up my time at the University of Kansas. Luckily a KU law professor named Michael Hoeflich convinced me that it wasn’t crazy to want to get a PhD in history after I graduated from law school. A year of practicing law drove home the fact that I didn’t want to be a lawyer for the rest of my life and I ended up going back to history and finding a new, and far more satisfying, career.

JF: What is your next project?

BP: I plan to write another Monroe book, this time on his relationships with Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, the Adams’s, and Jackson. This project will look at Monroe’s interactions with these men through the lens of the rise, fall, and rebirth of American political parties.

JF: Thanks, Brook!

What Would Madison Think?

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Over The Atlantic, Jeffrey Rosen offers a nice primer on how America is now living “James Madison’s worst nightmare.”  Here is a taste:

Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms have accelerated public discourse to warp speed, creating virtual versions of the mob. Inflammatory posts based on passion travel farther and faster than arguments based on reason. Rather than encouraging deliberation, mass media undermine it by creating bubbles and echo chambers in which citizens see only those opinions they already embrace.

We are living, in short, in a Madisonian nightmare. How did we get here, and how can we escape?

Rosen still has hope:

To combat the power of factions, the Founders believed the people had to be educated about the structures of government in particular. “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both,” Madison wrote in 1822, supporting the Kentucky legislature’s “Plan of Education embracing every class of Citizens.” In urging Congress to create a national university in 1796, George Washington said: “A primary object of such a national institution should be the education of our youth in the science of government.”

The civics half of the educational equation is crucial. Recent studies have suggested that higher education can polarize citizens rather than ensuring the rule of reason: Highly educated liberals become more liberal, and highly educated conservatives more conservative. At the same time, the National Assessment of Educational Progress has found that citizens, whether liberal or conservative, who are educated about constitutional checks on direct democracy, such as an independent judiciary, are more likely to express trust in the courts and less likely to call for judicial impeachment or for overturning unpopular Supreme Court decisions.

These are dangerous times: The percentage of people who say it is “essential” to live in a liberal democracy is plummeting, everywhere from the United States to the Netherlands. Support for autocratic alternatives to democracy is especially high among young people. In 1788, Madison wrote that the best argument for adopting a Bill of Rights would be its influence on public opinion. As “the political truths” declared in the Bill of Rights “become incorporated with the national sentiment,” he concluded, they would “counteract the impulses of interest and passion.” Today, passion has gotten the better of us. The preservation of the republic urgently requires imparting constitutional principles to a new generation and reviving Madisonian reason in an impetuous world.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Jonathan Israel

k11080Jonathan Israel is Professor Emeritus of Modern European History in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.   This interview is based on his new book, The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World (1775-1850) (Princeton, 2017).

JF: What led you to write The Expanding Blaze?

JI: I was chiefly motivated by the conviction that the historiography of the American Revolution had grown somewhat too parochial. The great body of literature on the topic that we have now is deeply concerned with America but not with the humanity and the world, for both of which the American Revolution seems to me to have been decisive. The place of the American Revolution in the wider revolutionary age (1775-1848) needed better defining, it seemed , and so did its relationship to the ‘The Radical Enlightenment’, a topic American historians – at any rate since Henry May, one of the first coiners of the term- still appear peculiarly reluctant to discuss.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Expanding Blaze?

JI: The book’s argument is that the American Revolution was the spark that created the expanding blaze that transformed the Western world by setting the basic model – democratic republicanism versus aristocratic republicanism- which shaped the early stages of the French Revolution (before Robespierre’s tyranny) and all the revolutionary movements of the Western world between 1782 (Geneva) and 1848. The key argument is that democratic versus aristocratic republicanism defines the inner logic of the American Revolution, and Radical Enlightenment versus ‘moderate Enlightenment’provides the ideological format, the ideas, that justify the two warring sides within the American Revolution.

JF: Why do we need to read The Expanding Blaze?

JI: The book is needed to help better situate the American Revolution than has been done in its world historical context and especially in its general Enlightenment context.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JI: I am not an ‘American Historian’ but a historian of the Enlightenment. I see the American Revolution as a fundamental chapter in the history of world enlightenment.

JF: What is your next project?

JI: My next project is write a short book on the transatlantic origins of the modern Jewish revolutionary consciousness.

JF: Thanks, Jonathan!

The Founding Fathers Rejected School Choice

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My alma mater

Earlier today University of Western Washington history professor Johann Neem visited The Author’s Corner.  Yesterday he visited the pages of the Washington Post to talk more about public education.  As Neem correctly notes, the founding fathers believed that public schools were the foundation of a virtuous republic:

Here is a taste of his piece “Early America had school choice. The Founding Fathers rejected it.”

During the Colonial era and into the early American republic, most Americans shared DeVos’s notion that education was a family responsibility. Parents who could afford it taught their children at home, hired itinerant men or women who “kept” school for a fee, or sent older children to charter schools called academies. Most Americans had little formal schooling.

The revolution transformed how some Americans thought about education. These Americans agreed with Thomas Jefferson that the future of the republic depended on an educated citizenry. They also believed that the opportunities offered by schooling should be available to rich and poor alike. Many state constitutions included clauses like Georgia’s in 1777: “Schools shall be erected in each county, and supported at the general expense of the State.” But how to execute this directive? The best way, American leaders ultimately concluded, was to encourage local public schools and to limit the growth of academies.

As early as the 1780s, Massachusetts Gov. Samuel Adams asserted that academies increased inequality because well-off families chose them over local district schools. Citizens, Adams argued, “will never willingly and cheerfully support two systems of schools.” Others shared his concern. New York Gov. George Clinton argued in 1795 that academies served “the opulent” and that all children deserved access to “common schools throughout the state.”

Read more here.

Princeton’s Robert George Reflects on the State of United States Society

507cf-georgeRobert George, the conservative Catholic Princeton professor of jurisprudence and political philosophy, assesses the state of the country in an interview with Matthew Bunson of National Catholic Register.  He discusses civility, secular progressives, Donald Trump, republicanism, Ronald Reagan, and Catholicism.

Here is a taste:

What is most needed in American political life at this moment in history?

Courage — the courage to stand up to bullies and refuse to be intimidated.

You did not support the candidacy of Donald Trump for president. What is your assessment of his administration so far?

To say that I did not support the candidacy of Mr. Trump is the understatement of the year. I fiercely opposed it — though I also opposed Mrs. Clinton.

Like it or not, though, Donald Trump was elected president, and our duty as citizens, it seems to me, is to support him when we can and oppose him when we must. My personal policy has been, and will continue to be, to commend President Trump when he does things that are right and criticize him when he does things that are wrong.

I had urged the same stance towards President Obama, whose election and re-election I also fiercely opposed. I commended President Trump for his nomination of Neil Gorsuch, an outstanding jurist and a true constitutionalist, to fill the seat on the Supreme Court that fell vacant with the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. I have also commended him for some other judicial and executive branch appointments.

I have criticized as unnecessary his policy on pausing immigration from certain countries, and I have criticized as weak to the point of meaningless his executive order on religious freedom. Indeed, I characterized it as a betrayal of his promise to reverse Obama era anti-religious-liberty policies.

Donald Trump is not, and usually doesn’t pretend to be, a man of strict or high principles. He regards himself as a pragmatist, and I think that’s a fair self-assessment. Of course, he is famously transactional. He puts everything on the table and makes deals.

As a pragmatist, he doesn’t have a governing philosophy — he’s neither a conservative nor a liberal. On one day he’ll give a speech to some evangelical pastors that makes him sound like a religious conservative, but the next day he’ll lavishly praise Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is waging an all-out war on those who stand up for traditional moral values in Canada.

Would you comment on Trump’s speech to the Poles?

It was a good speech, and my fellow critics of the president ought not to hesitate to acknowledge that fact.

People on the left freaked out about the speech, but let’s face it: They freaked out because it was Donald Trump who gave it. Had Bill Clinton given the same speech, they would have praised it as visionary and statesman-like.

One thing you have to say for President Trump is that he has been fortunate in his enemies. Although he gives them plenty to legitimately criticize him about, they always go overboard and thus discredit themselves with the very people who elected Mr. Trump and may well re-elect him.

His critics on the left almost seem to go out of their way to make the president look like a hero — and even a victim — to millions of ordinary people who are tired of what one notably honest liberal writer, Conor Lynch of Salon.com, described as “the smug style in American liberalism.”

Read the entire interview here.

Ben Sasse’s New Book

SASSEI need to read it.

After I read Emma Green’s review of Sasse’s The Vanishing American Adult I was struck by two things:

First, I am eager to see how Sasse’s understanding of a virtuous republic differs from the Obama vision of a virtuous republic.  Obama did not use the term “virtue” that often, but his appeals to self-sacrifice for the good of the country certainly drew heavily from the founding fathers’ understanding of the term.  I have argued this multiple times, including here.

Second, it looks like the Nebraska Senator’s call for a republic of virtue draws deeply from the wells of American history, political philosophy, theology, and ethics.  (One might expect this from a Yale Ph.D in American history).  It sounds like it is a much more thoughtful and intellectually respectable argument than the one put out last year by evangelical culture warrior and radio host Eric Metaxas.

Here is a taste of Green’s review:

Sasse pays little attention to the real divides in income, race, and religious conviction that have left many Americans feeling like they live among strangers in a country that wasn’t built for them. Some of his ideas seem punitive, showing the dark side of the Protestant work ethic he so cherishes: Historically, Sasse writes, “the important American cultural cleavage was … not rich versus poor, but rather dignified working poor versus supposedly lazy, undeserving poor.” He updates this mythical archetype for the modern age: parents who stream another Netflix sitcom instead of shoveling their neighbor’s walk, or “needy, undisciplined, coddled, presumptuous” young people who lack “much of a filter between their public personas and their inner lives.” Blaming Millennials for American’s cultural drift is the book’s most grievous and inexplicable category error—maybe we could call it ad millennialem, in the spirit of Sasse’s exhortation for the young to study ancient Rome on their path to virtue. It’s an out for the 45-year-old senator to finger the generation below him rather than grapple with the structural inequalities and cultural differences that have fractured the country over the course of many years.

But it’s also a mistake to call The Vanishing American Adult a “consummate politician’s book” or a naïve ode to the power of chores, as The New York Times has done—Sasse is working in a much older tradition of writing and thinking. Throughout the book, he keeps returning to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile as a reference point and implicit model for what he’s doing. In keeping with Sasse’s studied performance of folksy erudition, this 18th-century text is a bit of a political-philosophy deep cut. It follows the fictional story of a child, Emile, as he gains the education he needs to survive in a corrupt society. The book is about the wisdom that comes from firsthand experience, like flying kites to teach a sense of direction or swimming streams that will one day become the Hellespont.

Like Rousseau, Sasse believes challenging experiences form a person’s character and the heart of education. Like Rousseau, Sasse sees healthy society as a function of virtuous individuals. The senator is making “a plea for self-discipline and self-control” as “the one and only dignified alternative to discipline and control” by the government. At its core, the book also pleads for something greater: the rehabilitation of shared values in a time of intense difference; a focus on culture as the deepest challenge of politics; and the ability to imagine virtue as part of who we are as citizens, whether Sasse gets it right or not.

Read the entire review here.

 

Benjamin Rush on Religious Education

6e84c-rushIn 1786 Benjamin Rush wrote “Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic.”It is a classic example of what historians and political theorists call “civic humanism.” At one point Rush states that goal education is to “convert men into republican machines.” Religion and Christianity is mentioned a lot in this essay, but Rush often mentions it in a utilitarian way.  In other words, religion is good when it serves the needs of a virtuous republic.

Here is one of my favorite quotes from the document:

I proceed in the next place, to enquire, what mode of education we shall adopt so as to secure to the state all the advantages that are to be derived from the proper instruction of youth; and here I beg leave to remark, that the only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in Religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.

Such is my veneration for every religion that reveals the attributes of the Deity, or a future state of rewards and punishments, that I had rather see the opinions of Confucius or Mahomed inculcated upon our youth, than see them grow up wholly devoid of a system of religious principles. “But the religion I mean to recommend in this place, is that of the New Testament.”

Obama the Historian

obama-and-historyCheck out Jennifer Schuessler’s New York Times piece on Barack Obama’s use of history during his presidency.   Here is a taste:

True, Mr. Obama may be unlikely to emulate Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and follow his years in the Oval Office with a stint as president of the American Historical Association. But some scholars see in him a man who used the presidency not just as a bully pulpit but also as something of a historian’s lectern.

And he wielded it, they say, to tell a story more strikingly in sync with the bottom-up view of history that dominates academic scholarship than with the biographies of great leaders that rule the best-seller list.

“Obama had these confabs with the presidential historians, but I don’t think he thinks like a presidential historian,” James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, said, referring to the regular dinners Mr. Obama held with leading historians in the early years of his presidency. “I think he thinks like a social historian.”

Obama should be praised for his use of history in his speeches.  His usable past is a complicated one.  Grossman is correct.  Obama thinks like a social historian.  He gave a lot of attention to what happened at Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall.  But Obama also thinks like an American intellectual historian.  He is a historian of ideas and ideals.  When he talks about the common good he sounds a lot like Gordon Wood and the civic humanist tradition.  He calls for sacrifice and what the founders called virtue.

In the end, Obama used the past a lot.  But let’s remember that he was a politician and a POTUS who used the past to serve his progressive agenda. The fact that most of the historical profession believes that Obama’s progressive approach to history is correct does not make this point any less irrelevant.

Finally, I think we need to acknowledge the great irony of the Obama presidency as it relates to history and history education.  For all his magnificent invocations of the American past, Obama did virtually nothing practical to promote the teaching and learning of history.  Let’s face it, Barack Obama was a STEM president and the history community and the American democracy that he loves so much is weaker because of this.

We Are a Republic, Stupid!

I am seeing this more and more from the Trump fans who I meet in face-to-face encounters and online.  In the last month I have been told over and over again that America is a “republic” and not a “democracy.”

Of course we are a republic.  But we are also a democracy in the sense that the people play a role in electing their public officials.  We have become more and more democratic over the years.  The Electoral College, for example, largely votes according to the will of the people.  Unlike the original Constitution, the people now directly elect their United States Senators.  This was accomplished by the 17th Amendment in 1913.  Women (19th Amendment–1920) and African Americans (15th Amendment–1870 and later the Voting Rights Act of 1965) can now vote.  There are no longer land qualifications for office.  And we could go on.

So why are so many Trump supporters chiding me and others for calling the United States a “democracy?”  Could it be because Trump did not win the popular vote?

And by the way, if people are so passionate about defending the idea that we are “republic” I would challenge them to consider the moral responsibility that citizens have in such a form of government.  According to the founders (and the Greeks and Romans before them), a republican citizen will regularly sacrifice his or her own self-interest for the greater good of the republic.  They would vote for what benefited the nation, even if that might work against their own particular interest.  Just a thought.

Another Kind of “Identity Politics”

Last night I posted a piece on identity politics and the teaching of history. The post engaged with Columbia University history professor Mark Lilla’s critique of identity liberalism.  It is not my intention here to revisit what I wrote except to say that Lilla was employing a fairly common understanding of the phrase “identity liberalism,” namely the propensity to celebrate our differences (race, class, gender, sexual identity) in a way that makes them more important than our common identity as Americans.

In his critique of Lilla’s piece at The Junto blog, history professor Jonathan Wilson reminds us that “identity politics” goes well beyond the usual liberal categories of race, class, gender, and secular orientation.  Wilson writes:

Lilla’s argument overlooks the fact that Americanness itself is a particular constructed identity—and therefore, that any politics of the national common good is an identity politics. Lilla writes:

We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism. Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them. It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another. As for narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale. [Emphasis added.]

However appropriate that recommendation may be strategically or as a matter of proportion, it is still a recipe for a form of identity politics. It requires asserting that Americans share a common interest simply by virtue of that group membership. It implies members of the nation owe a loyalty to each other that they may not owe to other groups—and which may override other important forms of human affinity and fulfillment.

I am guessing that Lilla would probably agree with Wilson here, although he would probably say that he was using “identity liberalism” in a very particular way in this piece–a way that most people who read it understood.

In response to Wilson’s post (in the comments section of The Junto), blogger and American historian Ann Little wrote:

I’d say the first identity politics party in American history was the Republican/Democratic Republican party. We can at the very latest say that by the time of Andy Jackson and when they began calling themselves Democrats it was clearly a party organized around white supremacy, with proslavery and imperial expansion at its center. So, DUH! Identity politics is just what we used to call politics before all those troublesome women and nonwhite people had the audacity to assume they had a claim to citizenship rights too.

While Lilla used the phrase “identity liberalism” in a very specific way, both Wilson and Little won’t let us forget that politics was one of the original forms of American “identity politics.”  I agree.

In February 2016 I wrote an op-ed piece published at Fox News about why the founding fathers–George Washington especially–did not like political parties.  The context for the piece was the Senate’s refusal to follow the Constitution and vote on Barack Obama’s appointment of Merrick Garland to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court.

Is it fair to say that Washington saw political parties as a form of identity politics?  Yes.

After I quoted from Washington’s 1796 farewell address, here is part of what I wrote:

Washington worried that political factions—such as today’s Republican and Democratic parties—weakened American’s commitment to the common good.  Political partisanship, he believed, promoted the worst forms of selfishness.  It undermined the “we” in “We the People.”

I thought about all of this again as I watched CNN’s Michael Smerconish grill RNC communication’s director Sean Spicer about Donald Trump’s response to the CIA announcement that Russian hackers tried to influence the 2016 election. Watch it here:

At the 2:45 mark  in the video Smerconish wonders why Americans of all parties are not upset with the fact that Putin and Russia has influenced a presidential election.  If Smerconish is correct, and I tend to think that he is, then “identity politics” (or, as Little puts it, just good old fashioned political partisanship) has now gotten in the way of the national security interests of all Americans, regardless of political party.

Yes, the Cold War is over.  The Soviet Union has been gone for over 25 years.  But if Putin represents some kind of revival of the Russian threat (as Mitt Romney correctly implied during his 2012 presidential run) then it looks are response to this threat will not follow the Cold War model of unified resistance. Whatever collective outrage we have had in the past about Russians trying to influence American life seems to have now been subordinated to party politics.

And it’s not just the end of the Cold War that has caused this decline of national unity in the last two or three decades.  I think it’s time re-read (and perhaps blog about) Daniel Rodgers’s Age of Fracture.

Finally, I have been wondering what Putin thinks of all of this.  Perhaps something along the lines of the final scene in one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes: “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” As the martians look down and watch the once good people of Maple Street destroy themselves,  one of them says (at 27:45 the mark in the video below): “They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find, and it’s themselves.  All we need to do is just sit back and watch…We’ll just sit back and watch and let them destroy themselves.”

More Historical Context on the Electoral College

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The work of historians in helping ordinary Americans make sense of the electoral college has been stellar.  We have already called attention to pieces by Kevin Gannon and Robert Tracy McKenzie.  Today I want to recommend Andrew Shankman‘s Historical News Network essay, “What Were the Founders Thinking When They Created the Electoral College?

Andy reminds us that if the original framers of the Constitution (and the Electoral College) had their way Donald Trump would be President and Hillary Clinton would be Vice President.

Here is a taste:

Created by the Constitution, the original Electoral College worked like this: each state appointed electors equal to its number of senators (2) plus representatives, apportioned at a ratio of 1 for every 30,000 residents. Each elector cast two votes for president and at least one of those votes had to be for someone outside the elector’s state. If someone received the most votes and a majority, he became president. The second highest vote-getter became vice president. If no one received a majority, the decision went to the House of Representatives, which could choose the president from among the top five vote-getters, and had to make the highest vote-getter vice president if they chose not to make him president. To us these original procedures may sound insane, this year they would make majority vote-getter Donald Trump president and Hillary Clinton vice president.

So, what were the Founders thinking? The Founders were inspired by the classical republics of Greece and Rome and believed they had collapsed when they stopped seeking the public good as their citizens divided into parties to pursue their own interests. For the Founders the public good emerged from a coherent set of values, and understanding how to achieve it required a deep knowledge of the classics, of natural law, common law, and the law of nations, and of the new science of political economy that arose during the Enlightenment. Above all, one had to possess disinterested virtue–putting aside personal interests for the sake of the public good. The Founders thought that most citizens were not capable of fully comprehending the public good. For the United States to succeed, the small group of great and talented men who could would have to guide them. Believing in a unifying singular public good, the Founders saw no value in political parties. Parties existed to promote competing interests, which was contrary to the public good. Citizens either embraced the public good or they behaved selfishly and badly.

Only by starting with these assumptions did the Electoral College make sense. After George Washington’s presidency, the Founders assumed their Electoral College would routinely place the decision of who would be president with the House of Representatives. They reasoned that the small group capable of comprehending the public good was evenly distributed geographically. A reasonable number of them would stand for election. Each would be equally qualified virtuous gentlemen. Without political parties to inflame passions and mobilize voters into a few large groups, only rarely would a candidate gain majority support in the Electoral College. The Electoral College would helpfully sort out five from the larger group of the equally qualified, but usually would do little more than that.

Yet almost immediately after ratification of the Constitution, reality obliterated the Founders’ plan….

Read the rest here.

Alan Taylor Channels Gordon Wood

school-house

By now many of you have probably read a review of Alan Taylor‘s new synthesis of the American Revolution.  (We will be featuring Taylor in an upcoming edition of the Author’s Corner.  Stay tuned).

Writing in The New York Times, Gordon Wood described Taylor’s work this way:

A major legacy of the Revolution, he concludes, was the emergence of a society dominated by ordinary middle-class white men, the very people he has most criticized as patriarchal, racist and genocidal. In Taylor’s mind their victory seems to have come at the expense of others. By focusing on common white men, he maintains, the Revolution worked against blacks, Indians and women. The question raised by Taylor’s book is this: Can a revolution conceived mainly as sordid, racist and divisive be the inspiration for a nation?

And here is Eric Herschthal at Slate:

Taylor…gives a central role to women, blacks, and Native Americans in determining the war’s fate. The wives and daughters of Patriot soldiers took over the shops, farms, and slave plantations of those who left to fight. For the first time in their lives, white women became public participants in politics, organizing boycotts and participating in street protests.

Indeed, Taylor’s new book is not your traditional Whig history of the American Revolution.  If the reviews I read are correct, Taylor gives due attention to women, blacks, frontier settlers, and Native Americans, making these groups important actors in the story.  (I discussed, and praised, Taylor’s similar approach to the colonial period in Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past).  Since I have not yet read American Revolutions, I don’t know how Taylor covers the so-called “founding fathers.”  I am guessing that few reviewers, especially historians of a progressive bent, will say much about his treatment of these white men.

But for those who have not yet read the book, I think we get a glimpse of how Taylor treats the founders’ ideas from his recent piece at the American Scholar titled “The Virtue of an Education Voter.”

A lot of folks on my social media feeds are criticizing Gordon Wood’s review of the book (perhaps rightly so–Wood writes with his usual crankiness), but in this American Scholar piece Taylor sounds a lot like Wood in The Creation of the American Republic.  Taylor focuses on the role that “virtue” and the common good played in the founders’ thinking, particularly as it relates to their belief in an educated citizenry.  Like Wood, Taylor argues that this kind of self-sacrificial virtue was important to the founders.

But Taylor also writes prescriptively about the founders’ belief in the importance of virtue.   In other words, he suggests that the founders were correct when they called for a virtuous republic built upon an educated citizenry.  He tries to resuscitate these civic humanist arguments and employ them in our current debates over the funding of education.

Perhaps there is more Gordon Wood in Taylor’s book than some reviewers would like to admit.

Here is a taste of Taylor’s essay:

We have come to think and speak of education as primarily economic (rather than political) and individual (rather than social) in its rewards. As a consequence, growing numbers of voters care only for the education of their own children. These conceptual and rhetorical shifts lead legislators to wonder why taxpayers should pay for the education of others—particularly those of poorer means, different culture, or darker color. If only the individual, rather than society as a whole, benefits from education, let the student bear the cost of it: so runs the new reasoning.

During every recession, state governments make budget cuts, and public colleges and universities become the tempting, soft targets. That temptation grows when states feel pinched by rising costs for Medicaid and prisons (places stuffed with the poorly educated). By reducing public support for colleges and universities, legislators and governors induce them to increase the tuition and fees that students pay. A recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities finds that since the 2008 recession, states have reduced spending on public higher education by 17 percent per student. During the same period, tuition has risen by 33 percent. The University of California system is the largest in the nation. According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the state of California provided a quarter of the system’s budget in 2002. After a billion dollars in cuts, the state now pays for just nine percent of the system’s costs, yet legislators howl in outrage when university administrators admit more out-of-state and foreign students, who can be charged twice as much as in-state students. The same game is playing out in every state.

Increasingly reliant on loans to cover the cost of higher education, students have assumed alarming levels of debt: an estimated $1.3 trillion owed by 42 million Americans. According to the August issue of Consumer Reports, graduates this year average $37,000 in debt per student. The debt burden puts a drag on the overall economy and society, as thousands of graduates delay buying a home or having children. Increasingly, young people from middle-class families question whether attending college is worth the cost.


As a country, we are in retreat from the Jefferson and Peck dream of equal educational opportunity for all. And the future social costs will be high. Proportionally fewer Americans will benefit from higher education, inequality will increase, and free government will become a stage set for opportunists to pander to the prejudices and fears of the poorly educated.

Although the current definition of education is relentlessly economic, the source of the crisis is political. Just as in Jefferson’s day, most legislators and governors believe that voters prefer tax cuts to investments in public education. Too few leaders make the case for higher education as a public good from which everyone benefits. But broader access to a quality education pays off in collective ways: economic growth, scientific innovation, informed voters and leaders, a richer and more diverse culture, and lower crime rates—each of which benefits us all. Few Americans know the political case for education advanced by the founders. Modern politicians often make a great show of their supposed devotion to those who founded the nation, but then push for the privatization of education as just another consumer product best measured in dollars and paid for by individuals. This reverses the priorities of the founders.

Americans lost something valuable when we forsook “virtue” as a goal for education and a foundation for free government. In 1950, a Harvard committee published an influential report titled General Education in a Free Society. The authors wrote that “our society, like any society, rests on common beliefs and … a major task of education is to perpetuate them.” But the report struggled to define the “common beliefs” best taught by modern American universities. In the 19th century, most colleges had promoted a patriotism linked to Protestant Christianity. But in our own century, no one creed seems capable of encompassing the diverse backgrounds and values of American students. We also balk at empowering any public institution to teach a particular political orthodoxy. The sole common ground is a celebration of the university as a “marketplace of ideas,” where every individual can pick and choose her or his values. Secular universities preach just one core value: the open and free investigation of multiple ideas. Liberal education now favors a process of free choice rather than any other particular belief.

We need to revive the founders’ definition of education as a public good and an essential pillar of free government. We should also recover their concept of virtue, classically defined, as a core public value worth teaching. That, in turn, would enable more voters to detect demagogues seeking power through bluster and bombast and pandering to the self-interest of members of the electorate. At the end of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a woman in Philadelphia is said to have asked Benjamin Franklin what sort of government the delegates had created for the people. He supposedly replied, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

Read the entire piece here.

Review of Eric Metaxas, “If You Can Keep It”: Part 2

MetaxasYesterday we started a short series on Eric Metaxas’s new book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.  You can get caught up here.

One of the main themes of If You Can Keep It is the founding fathers’ belief that a republic is only sustainable when the people of the republic are virtuous. Metaxas is correct in pointing this out.  The founders of the United States were students of history.  They knew that Western Civilization offered very few examples of successful or long-lasting republics. They also knew that republics only worked when people were willing, at times, to sacrifice their own interests for the greater good of the republic.  “Virtue” was the name that they, and the ancients whose books they read, gave to this kind of self-sacrifice. Modern-day historians have also called it “republicanism” or “civic humanism.”

Metaxas believes the founders were correct when they said that a thriving republic needs virtuous people.  He joins the large chorus–a chorus that can be traced back to the 1780s–of concerned citizens who worry that the country’s failure to act virtuously is undermining the republic.  Metaxas thus challenges his readers to pursue the common good, balance self-interest with togetherness, and make “the business of the republic” their business.(p.4)

Though I am not sure he or his followers will appreciate the comparison, Metaxas is tapping into the same political philosophy that has been the driving message of the Barack Obama presidency.  This is not the message of “Make America Great Again” or the libertarian/Tea Party message of individual freedom without duty, but rather a message deeply rooted in a commitment to virtue and the common good.

But unlike Obama, Metaxas’s vision of a virtuous republic is almost entirely connected to religious belief and, if one reads carefully enough, to Biblical Christianity.  On p. 62, Metaxas asks “What would make someone behave virtuously?”  He concludes: “the answer–both practically speaking and theoretically–must be religion.”  Granted, there are many Americans, like Metaxas, who believe that virtue is impossible without religion, but the founding fathers did not fall into this camp.  Metaxas’s understanding of the founders’ view of virtue is problematic for several reasons.

First, the founders did believe that religious people made good citizens because they knew how to sacrifice their own interests for something greater, namely their god. But the founders did not believe that religion, or particularly Christianity, was the only source of virtue.  Metaxas is wrong when he says that “virtue and morality divorced from religion was unthinkable” to the founders (p.60).  Most of the founders, including John Witherspoon, the evangelical Presbyterian clergyman who was the only minister who signed the Declaration of Independence, believed that virtue could stem from the conscience or the “moral sense.”  Granted, many of them–whether Christian, Deist, or something in-between–believed that the conscience or moral sense was instilled in human beings by God, but they did not believe that a religious experience, the practice of a a specific faith, or the imbibing of particular religious doctrines was necessary to live a virtuous life.  (I have argued this in two of my books: The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and The Rural Enlightenment in Early America and Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction).

On p.66. Metaxas states that the “religion” that the founders thought was inseparable to a virtuous republic was not the religion of the “clockmaker God of Deist imagination,” but the religion of the Bible. (He quotes the Massachusetts statesman Daniel Webster on the importance of the Bible in creating citizens). Metaxas implies that “Deism” was not a religion that the founders thought could contribute to a virtuous republic because it did not adhere to the teachings of the Bible. But while Deists did not believe that the Bible was inspired, they did believe that the ethical teachings of the Bible could serve as a guide–one of several–to a virtuous life.  In other words, Deism was certainly one of the so-called “religious” beliefs that the founders believed could contribute to the greater good of the republic.

Second, Metaxas argues that religion was essential to the success of the republic because it brought “order” to liberty.  This was indeed a widely held view among many founders, especially those, such as John Adams and his Federalist friends, who wrote state constitutions (see the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution for example) that maintained religious establishments or state churches for the purpose of preserving moral order. Liberty was not licentiousness.  A self-governing people needed to be reminded of the limits of their freedoms.

But while religion (and one gets the impression that whenever Metaxas refers to “religion” he really means Christianity) was one way to curb the dangers of liberty, it was not the only way.  Again, one could look to the conscience, the moral sense, or cultural habits to bring order to one’s life and curb the passions associated with liberty.  (On p. 56 Metaxas notes that Ben Franklin turned to these things as a means of bringing moral order to his life).  One could even argue that the United States Constitution, with its system of balanced government designed to keep the passions that come with liberty in check, was a means of accomplishing this task.  As James Madison wrote in Federalist 10, a strong central government (as opposed to the weak Articles of Confederation) was necessary to keep the factionalism and rampant self-interest of the wild 1780s under control.

All of this may sound like nitpicking, but it is actually important in light of Metaxas’s use of the founders to make his case for the revitalization of the American republic today.  The claim that the founders believed Christianity to be the only (or even the primary) source of virtue in the republic is not an accurate one.  Yet Metaxas runs with this idea and uses it to diagnose what he perceives to be our current malaise.  In other words, he argues, we need to return to the founders’ idea that the republic will only survive if we become a nation of Christians again.  On this point, Metaxas is not far removed from the views of GOP activist David Barton and his call to “return” America to its Christian roots.  To be fair, Metaxas rarely says that we need to return to “Christianity” per se (he prefers the term “religion”), but I am guessing that most of his largely evangelical and conservative readers will miss this distinction.  Does Metaxas believe that Islam, for example, can also serve as a source of republican virtue?  I don’t know.

In the end, Metaxas may be correct.  Perhaps only God can solve whatever problems we face in this country.  But his appeal to history to make this point does not work.

Fourth, and finally, it is important to remember that when the founders wrote about the role that religion might play in strengthening the republic they were writing as statesmen charged with building a nation, not as theologians or ministers charged with the responsibility of advancing the Kingdom of God.  For the founders, religion served as a means toward a very secular end.  If religion would help the republic to thrive, then they were willing to promote it. Whenever the founders wrote about religion in their work as nation-builders they wrote about it in this context.  Their goal was not to use the United States to advance the cause of God, but to use religion to advance the cause of the state.  I am guessing that some Christians may find this problematic.

More to come…