Carolina Critic

No 112: The American Republic: A Good Time to Rediscover Our Roots

Bruce Frohnen, ed.: The American Republic: Primary Sources; Liberty Fund; 2002; 724pp.; $25 hardback $12 paperback.

Jan. 10th, 2003
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Once again another great value emanates from the people who are dedicated to the proliferation of freedom: Liberty Fund.

It seems that this book comes at a time when America needs to rediscover its bearing, its meaning. What is remarkable about much of today’s political rhetoric is the absence of argument grounded in the permanent things. It is a symptom of modernity that many lose touch with the past or more importantly the immutable truths that form the foundation of this country.

The debate spurred by what President Bush calls the war on terror is healthy to be sure, but it is a meaningless exercise if we do not return to, and contemplate, what made this country good. It is not the past simply that ought to provide us direction, but the ideas that which our Founders grappled when forming this country.

In the past year, three influential political gadflies — Michael Walzer, Oriana Fallaci, and more recently Christopher Hitchens — who can be described only as leftists, have left their cozy confines to question the gods with which they have had communion. It has brought them much ridicule from their compatriots.

What has set them apart from their ex-political friends is their defense of the United States and their condemnation of terrorism — especially their argument that Jews ought not be subject to yet another holocaust. Yet even in their apology is a disturbing trend — their arguments were bereft of any guidance from the Founding. America may be good, but do they know why? Sadly, it seems not.

Enter the very affordable book of primary sources edited by Ava Maria and Assistant Professor of Law Bruce Frohnen.

Filled with primary documents that end just before the Civil War, the author states in the introduction that “the readings selected here represent opposite sides of important debates concerning... American independence, religious establishment, and slavery.” In other words, thebook does not avoid the conflict over ideas by including, for example, essays from Federalists and Anti-federalists. Such debate is not only healthy and necessary to understand America but is also needed to better grasp who had the better argument and why.

What we notice in Frohnen’s presentation of conflicting ideas are twofold: 1) the fundamental agreement among political combatants on the nature of man (that is until John C. Calhoun and other proslavery apologists rejected such ideas in an attempt to redefine the Founding), and 2) the basis of which such arguments were conducted.

Concerning point one, the reader will notice, generally, that the largest gulf between the Federalists and Anti-federalists is the practical application of how to best secure the natural rights of man. Hence, they spent much time debating the size and energy of the central government, not fundamental principles.

Furthermore, readers will notice what Noah Webster spells out explicitly in “Leading Principles of the Constitution,” where he restates the general view that America was a country formed like no other. She was not the result of accident and force, but choice and reflection.

This is altogether different from that later debate (included in the volume) between the proslavery and antislavery advocates where the likes of Calhoun rejected such natural-right notions as fantastic and argued that America should be reconstituted on his special form of racial science. In this section we find the predictable contributions from Abraham Lincoln, John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, and Roger Taney along with the surprising additions of Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Leggett, George S. Sawyer, and John Taylor of Caroline.

Point two also needs further elucidation. The aforementioned debate raging today is vapid in that it does not begin from the timeless ideas such as what is nature?

What is the natural law? What are natural rights and how are they best secured?

Except for a few quarters in America today, we do not begin our inquiries as Abraham Lincoln did when he said that he had not one political idea that did not originate out of the Declaration of Independence.

The Frohnen volume will surely strike many readers as odd because the Founding documents begin with such timeless considerations.

The American Republic is a worthwhile and timely volume to reintroduce citizens to the ideas that permeated the Founding.

Webster, again, thought every citizen must examine the principles of the U.S. government: “In the formation of such a government, it is not only the right, but the indispensable duty of every citizen to examine the principles of it, to compare them with principles of other governments...” For those looking to begin that discovery and tread in the same path as the Founders, purchase a copy of this book.

Erik Root is an assistant editor of Carolina Journal, monthly newspaper of the John Locke Foundation.