A review of Interpreting the Founding: Guide to the Enduring Debates Over the Origins and Foundations of the American Republic, by Alan Gibson
We began the dance." So John Adams remarked about the process of establishing free governments during the American Founding. Americans themselves appreciated the momentousness of this event from the outset. As George Washington put it, "With our fate will the destiny of unborn millions be involved." It is no surprise, then, that the earliest historians—David Ramsay, Mercy Otis Warren, William Gordon, and Jeremy Belknap—all expressed a sense of excitement, awe, and responsibility in the face of writing the first histories of the founding. Like explorers who encounter a virgin landscape, these historians had to blaze new trails and offer original interpretations; and having no others to follow, they had no alternative but to confront the real event itself.
Alan Gibson, associate professor of political science at California State University, Chico, is a scholar of a much different age. Writing more than two centuries after the Constitution was ratified, he could not possibly have proceeded in the same spirit as those first historians. The landscape they explored has been trampled on by myriad interlopers, and no inch of territory has been left unexamined. Perhaps no event in human history has been more intensely investigated. What's more, following the establishment of the academic history profession in the late 19th century, the American Founding has become the terrain on which countless reputations have been made or lost and hundreds of tenured positions granted or denied. With the passions of so many writers figuring into the enterprise of "interpreting the founding," one can only wonder in what measure the original event still matters.
Gibson's study is not, in the first instance, about the founding itself, but about the way in which these writers have understood it. His book is not a history, but a history of histories. The personages treated are not the likes of Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, or George Washington, but rather Charles Beard, Bernard Bailyn, and Rogers Smith. The events discussed do not include the transformation from a confederation to a national government in the 1780s, but the shift from a liberal to a republican historiographical approach in the 1970s.
What, one may ask, is the worth of such an inquiry? At the end of his book, Gibson writes that he wants to know both "how should the study of the Founding now proceed" and in "what direction [that study] is likely to turn." He seeks then to encourage a better understanding of the event itself (the founding) by way of considering what others have said about it; and to learn about the interpretation of the founding, on the assumption that this subject is a significant object of study in its own right. Historiography in this sense has long been a practice in French intellectual life, where the positions that historians have taken about the French Revolution have proven hugely important in shaping the politics of each era.
Gibson's is certainly not the first study of the founding's historiography. As he points out, there is now a considerable literature in this field and a debate about whether the interpretations displace one another in Kuhnian-like paradigm shifts or, as Gibson believes, succeed one another in a more accretionist fashion. Still, the author contends that his is the most comprehensive and systematic account of this topic to date, and there is no reason to doubt his assessment. He has very ably surveyed the sweep of scholarship since the beginning of the 20th century, making every effort to present the different approaches in an impartial manner. If anything, he might be accused, at times, of being uncritical to a fault. He may have downplayed themes or missed works that others would have included—for example, there is little discussion of institutional developments like the emergence of the modern executive and only scant mention of religion. In addition, eminent scholars like Wilson Carey McWilliams and Harvey Mansfield are not mentioned. But Gibson disavows any intention of trying to cover everything, and he is wise to do so. One of the merits of this book is its economy. It covers a great deal of material in a small amount of space, and will be cheered by beginning students of the founding who may wish to know what books they should read and by more advanced scholars who want to know what books they can avoid. In both respects, Interpreting the Founding is a highly useful volume—useful being a term of art that reviewers often invoke to escape pronouncing a judgment, but which in this case is perfectly apt.
Gibson divides the study of the founding into six "schools of interpretation" that appeared over the course of the last century in rough sequence: the Progressives, the Liberals, the Republicans, the Scottish Enlightenment School, the multiple-traditions approach, and social history focusing on the dispossessed. Here, a school of interpretation in the fullest sense contains both a general theory about what causes historical movement and an application of that theory to the American Founding. The Progressive school, for example, holds that class interest is the prime mover of historical development and that ideas are mere instruments for promoting economic advantage. Applying their thought to the Revolution, Progressive historians argue that a coalition of classes united to overthrow the reactionary element of the colonial aristocracy. When the dangers to property posed by many of the state governments became evident, a propertied elite moved to establish the U.S. Constitution. In this account, promoted by such writers as J. Allen Smith and Charles Beard, the Revolution and the Constitution are antithetical: the former was a glorious moment of democratic achievement, the latter a shameful act of oligarchic counterrevolution.
Despite his interest in the historical sequence in which these schools appeared, Gibson gives relatively little attention to why each school emerged and what role it played in American politics. From an abundance of goodwill, he seems to take the historians' own claims of objectivity at face value. He thus accords more impartiality to these historians than they usually accord to the founders. Although no single theory explains these schools' emergence and behavior, it would be interesting to apply each school's understanding of what moves history to its own interpretation. After all, why should a historian be exempt from his own theory? If, as Progressives claim, the founders' ideas were expressions of class interests, then the same should hold true for the Progressives' ideas. In fact, the hypothesis works remarkably well in this case. Progressive historians were part of a new class of experts who emerged at the beginning of the 20th century, striving to use social scientific knowledge as a title to govern. They understood government to be subject only to such limitations as social science thought best. To promote their class interest, therefore, the Progressives needed to overthrow the prevailing doctrine that favored limited government. Progressive historians assumed the most ignoble role in the enterprise, volunteering as the intellectual hit squad that impugned the founders' motives and reduced their efforts to the promotion of self-interest.
Gibson takes up the Liberals next. The Liberal historians' general theory—the author is less clear on this point-holds that major historical actors are capable of exercising a genuine choice about ideas and that these ideas are important causes in historical movement. According to this theory, leading founders embraced the principles of natural-rights liberalism; above all, they were deeply taken by the ideas articulated by John Locke's philosophy of liberalism—hence this school's alternative label, the "Lockean" interpretation. America in this view is a nation founded on principles designed to limit government and protect rights. The Revolution and Constitution are roughly of a piece in this enterprise, with the latter's incorporating, to be sure, numerous practical accommodations to existing circumstances.
If the general theory of this school were applied to the historians who have embraced it, it would allow each historian to decide his reasons for emphasizing the founding's liberal origins. These reasons could range from a commitment to objectivity in historical interpretation to the promotion of a political goal. Again, this premise holds some promise. Many of the Liberal historians seemed to think not only that the claim of Lockean origins is good history, but also that making this clear would have a good effect, though for strikingly different reasons. Louis Hartz famously described a "liberal tradition" in America with the hope of making people conscious of it so that they would begin to overcome it; Daniel Boorstin did so for the opposite reason, hoping that by describing the founding's liberalism he could provide solid grounds for a centrist political consensus in America.
The third interpretive school in Gibson's schema is Republicanism. This approach to the founding emerged in the 1970s and for the next two decades all but captured the historical profession. (It has since lost some ground.) The Republican historians' general theory is that history is very much influenced by ideas. But quite unlike the Liberal approach, Republicans like Gordon Wood and J.G.A. Pocock argue that people rarely choose their ideas; rather, people are constrained by a set of ideas or a "language" that they inherit, which shapes how they view the world. In Heidegger's words, "language is the house of being." But when and why are such "languages" generated? The response seems to be only that different languages emerge at rare moments, in response to some particular situation, and are fashioned by the power of some extraordinary thinkers who happen to be on the scene. Applied to the founding, the Republican thesis is that a language of civic humanism, shot through with the themes of corruption and virtue, was developed in Italy in the 16th century, in large part by Machiavelli. The English then appropriated this language, modifying it to become the ideology of the Whig "country" opposition. This was the American Revolutionaries' chief discourse and the best starting point for understanding what happened in 1776. In the Republicans' interpretation, John Locke and liberalism all but disappear from the American scene. The Revolution was about virtue, not natural rights. As for the Constitution and early American politics, Republican historians have been at odds: some contend that the framers of 1787 rejected republican discourse and began to develop a new liberal language, while others stress the continuity of the republican tradition throughout the founding era and well into the 19th century.
Given the Republican historians' emphasis on the theme of how ideologies or languages shape human thought, it is remarkable that none of them seems to have systematically investigated what language accounts for their own thought. Unless these historians as a class are superior to all other human thinkers, or unless they have access to the first truly objective theory in the history of human thought, there seems to be no good reason why they should be credited with having access to an Archimedean point outside of ideology. If James Otis and Samuel Adams were the spokespersons of Whig Country doctrines (and ultimately of Machiavelli), who is behind the thought of Pocock and Wood? Who conceived their language, and who saw fit to apply it to the development of a modern republican or communitarian discourse? This line of inquiry enters speculative territory into which Gibson wisely does not tread, but his bibliography identifies Hannah Arendt's On Revolution as the first real "Republican" text. Might not Arendt, and ultimately her teachers of perspectivalism, be a source of this modern form of historiography?
The other three schools are adaptations of one form or another of the first three. The Scottish Enlightenment approach accepts the Lockean school's general notion of the conscious choice of ideas, but it argues that the leading founders chose not only John Locke, but also one or another of the great Scottish thinkers of the age: Hume, Hutcheson, Ferguson, Reid, or Kames. The American Founding is a mix of a liberal Locke and a less liberal Scot (each of whom was related in different and complicated ways to Locke). The fifth school Gibson identifies as the "multiple-traditions" approach. It combines one or more of the other five approaches into a synthesis or fusion. Yet as this fusion often takes place on a foundation that favors one approach or another, this "school" for the most part collapses into one of the others, albeit in a slightly more nuanced way. Thus it splits into those like Michael Zuckert who privilege Locke (now called "neo-Lockeans") and those like the late Lance Banning who favor republican ideology (presumably the "neo-republicans"). At this point, a scorecard with very fine print is needed to keep up with this school's different tendencies. In the end, Gibson credits only Rogers Smith with being a true multiple-traditions proponent, and perhaps rightly so, inasmuch as he coined the term. Smith refuses to choose an authoritative position among the different ideologies that he identifies as extant at the time of the founding. To keep matters straight, it would help considerably if all analysts were clearer about whether they were discussing the positions of the chief group of national leaders who wrote the Constitution (the "founders") or the views of a substantial portion of the public at large. To say that racism and sexism were endemic at the time of the founding, as Smith does, is about as surprising as learning that there was gambling in Casablanca.
Finally, Gibson identifies a recent eclectic group of "social historians" who are interested in the condition of the "dispossessed" or the Other (women, African-Americans, and Indians). This concern hardly qualifies as a new departure. There were classic works on race from a much earlier period, like Winthrop Jordan's White Over Black, published in 1968. What is new, however, is what Gibson calls the "neo-Progressive" agenda of much of this recent scholarship. It continues the Progressives' old campaign of discrediting the founders, only relying this time less on the charge of their selfish class interest than on accusations of their ethnocentrism and sexism.
Alan Gibson's very fine study might have profited from a bit more skepticism about some of the interpreters whom he surveys. In particular, he begins by accepting the Progressives' contention that serious attempts to understand the founding started only with themselves, which is a claim that on examination turns out to be only another component in the Progressives' plan to re-program American political thought. Gibson's book therefore ignores all of the 19th-century interpretations of the American Founding. This is regrettable. Included in his omissions, for example, are Tocqueville's study of the founding and the accounts of some of the romantic historians, like George Bancroft. These treatments have the merit of beginning at the beginning, conceptually speaking, by asking to what degree the American regime was actually founded in 1776 and 1787, as distinct from the formative, unfolding influence of the religious beliefs and republican mores of earlier colonial settlements. One may disagree with the 19th-century historians' conclusions, but no student of the founding can afford to ignore such a fundamental question. Other key issues, in particular concerning constitutional and institutional developments, were raised with much insight by pre-Progressive historical studies. From these, too, modern students might learn a great deal.
Still, Interpreting the Founding is a worthy introduction for studying real history. It is encouraging to learn that Alan Gibson's next study is of the founding itself. Perhaps it will recall some of the wonder and awe of those first historians.