What Is American Political Theory?

The following is excerpted from George W. Carey’s excellent little book A Student’s Guide to American Political Thought.

What is American political theory?

There is no universal agreement about what constitutes politics or the political, as the efforts to define the boundaries of political science over the decades will attest.

Yet, at a minimum, “political theory” clearly is concerned with core questions relating to government and how authoritative decisions are made in a society. Among these questions are:

  • On what principles is the government based?
  • How is authority allocated within it?
  • What are its primary purposes?
  • Are there limitations to its powers?
  • How can it be altered?
  • And upon what assumptions regarding human nature does it seem to be based?

Viewed from this perspective, the American experience provides a rich source of theory in many particulars. Most of the early charters left the colonists free to use their own best ideas in establishing political order, the terms of which were spelled out in written documents. Moreover, during the long period of England’s “benign neglect,” which extended into the middle of the eighteenth century, the colonists grew accustomed to refining their processes and institutions of government.

Thus, we have numerous documents relating directly to core concerns of governance that reveal a good deal about the American political thought of the pre-founding period. To these, of course, must be added those ordering documents of the founding era with which we are far more familiar: the state constitutions, the Articles of Confederation, and, most importantly, the Constitution itself. Indeed, after the adoption of the Constitution, American political thought concentrates to a great extent on issues arising from its interpretation.

It is frequently remarked that times of crisis or disorder produce political theory, if only because such times compel hard thinking about the failings of the old order and the goals of the new. This is certainly true with regard to American political theory. The movement toward separation from Great Britain that culminated with the Declaration of Independence provides us with insights into certain enduring principles of American political thought.

Likewise, conditions during the “critical period” under the Articles of Confederation that led to the Philadelphia Convention also generated a good deal of political thinking about the requisites for effective government over an extensive territory. The records we have of the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention, the subsequent debates in the ratifying conventions, as well as the printed essays on both sides of the ratification question (particularly, The Federalist) are all core materials for students of American political theory. So too are the major speeches, debates, and works concerning our basic commitments as a people and the nature of our constitutional system that preceded and followed the Civil War.

It is frequently remarked that times of crisis or disorder produce political theory, if only because such times compel hard thinking about the failings of the old order and the goals of the new.

The scope of American political theory also embraces a myriad of other sources, the criterion for inclusion being a broad one, namely, to what extent they bear upon the central questions involved with governance. This would certainly include public addresses and private correspondence of presidents, major public officials, prominent citizens, and the like; public and official documents, particularly those that proclaim national ideals, goals, or commitments; debates and literature dealing with perennial problems or competing conceptions of constitutional principles; commentaries on the Constitution; pronouncements of the Supreme Court on matters of constitutional doctrine; disputes over the proper role of government; the deliberations of Congress on constitutional issues; and, inter alia, suggested reforms of the constitutional system. All this and more constitute the raw materials of the field of American political theory.

Surveying the materials that fit within its parameters reveals the extent to which American political theory is tied to history. The field is by no means the exclusive domain of political scientists, though historians usually approach the same subject matter differently. In any event, what is apparent in most cases is that the materials do not speak for themselves; to appreciate their significance fully often requires an understanding of their context. Some of the most important provisions and principles of the Constitution, to take an obvious example, cannot be fully understood without an understanding of the political situation under the Articles of Confederation.

Nor can one fully comprehend the Mayflower Compact without knowing about the experiences of the Puritans and their theological roots. Indeed, such contextual knowledge is essential for a comprehensive understanding of the political theory embedded in all of the primary documents, that is, those that are regarded as central to American political thought.

A field so closely tied to history is, understandably, also closely tied to what is called the American political tradition.

Put another way, most of the documents at the center of American political theory—and the values, concerns, and preferences they embody—emerge out of the experiences and circumstances of the American people at different times and places. As such, these documents are integral to the American political tradition; they constitute its essence.

Consequently, American political theory is in many ways a study of the American political tradition; the two terms are often used interchangeably, and appropriately so. In an important sense, then, a good deal of American political theory is abstracted from the political activities and experiences of Americans.

The upshot of this is that a course in American political theory will probably differ substantially from most other courses offered in the more general field of political theory that deal, chronologically or otherwise, with major theoretical works. One reason for this difference—and perhaps even for the manner in which American theory is tied to our tradition—might well be the dearth of first-rate political treatises produced by Americans. Indeed, it is generally agreed that only one such work merits being called a classic, namely, The Federalist. Some have argued that John C. Calhoun’s Disquisition on Government (1851) deserves this distinction as well. A fine course in American political theory could center almost entirely on these two works, but most courses, while not ignoring these works, will deal with a wider range of materials.

Common Ground: The Founding Era

The field of American political theory, as we have indicated, embraces a massive body of primary materials that has swelled enormously in recent decades. This means that courses in American political theory will vary significantly in both substance and approach, depending largely on the predilections of the instructor. Furthermore, both the meaning of and relationships among the primary materials at the core of the American political tradition are legitimately subject to varying interpretations.

It would be wrong to conclude, however, that such courses will have no common ground in their substance or approach. A uniqueness attaches to the American political tradition that serves to provide a focus to its study. The source of this uniqueness derives from the query put by Alexander Hamilton at the beginning of the first essay in The Federalist,

“whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident or force.”

This, he believed, was the overriding question facing the American people at the time of the ratification struggle—and not only the American people but all mankind as well.

The affirmative answer given this question with the adoption of the Constitution has served to provide a fixed point of reference for students in the field.

That the Constitution should serve this function is quite understandable. It was not ordained or sanctioned by the gods, nor was it “given” to the people by a mythical lawgiver. Rather, it is a written document, the result of a deliberative process, that can be considered the embodiment of the “constitutive will” of a people; that is, the Constitution spells out in some detail the processes and institutions by which the people, acting in their constituent capacity, have consented to be governed. It is “fundamental law” in the sense that it is unalterable by the government it creates.

Madison, writing in Federalist 53, conveys this understanding of the Constitution’s status when he distinguishes “between a constitution established by the people, and unalterable by government” and systems such as the English one, in which legislatures have “a full power to change the form of government.”

In fact, at no subsequent period in their history have the American people ever seriously entertained the idea of undertaking a new act of founding; that is, of deliberating as a people with the end of producing a new constitution that would embody their “constitutive will.” Quite the contrary. There is a common understanding (a “constitutional morality,” if you will) that the Constitution should be amended only when there is a compelling need. Alarm is frequently expressed by politicians and opinion leaders at the mere prospect of constitutional conventions meeting at the request of state legislatures to draft specific amendments (e.g., amendments requiring a balanced budget, sanctioning voluntary prayers in public schools, or limiting terms of office) for fear that these conventions might go too far and thereby destroy the handiwork of the framers.

In the popular culture, at least, it would appear that the motives and deeds of the framers are beyond reproach.

The Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation are also central documents in the American political tradition. We know that without separation from Great Britain, the choice of which Hamilton writes would not have been possible. Although controversy surrounds the Declaration’s precise role, import, and status within the tradition, its significance cannot be denied because, among other things, it justifies our separation from Great Britain, sets forth “self-evident” “truths,” and advances the proposition that governments derive their “just powers from the consent of the governed.”

In addition, as Thomas Jefferson wrote nearly fifty years after the event, the Declaration “was intended to be an expression of the American mind,” and “its authority rests . . . on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.” Most students of the period agree with Jefferson’s assessment.

In general, any course in American political theory—save, perhaps, those devoted to some special period or concern—will deal with the “founding era,” as it is commonly dubbed. This era is defined in various ways, but most scholars would place its beginning shortly after the period of “benign neglect” that ended in the early 1760s when Britain began to reassert more stringent control over the colonies.

There is less consensus in fixing its cut-off point, but most agree that it runs at least into the early years of the nineteenth century. During this entire period the American people were obliged by circumstances to think about fundamental political values and to make authoritative and strategic decisions that would bind subsequent generations.

As a consequence, to use a metaphor, the founding period can be looked upon as both the center of and the energizing force behind the ever-expanding universe of American political theory.

George W. Carey (1933–2013) taught government for many years at Georgetown University. During his long and distinguished career, he established himself as one of the foremost interpreters of the American political tradition.

Image by Joakim Honkasalo via Unsplash.

Free College Student's Guide to American Political Thought

Are you studying the right things? In just 109 pages, learn the key thinkers, readings, and concepts you need to understand American political thought.

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