by Alan Gibson. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007. 232pp. Cloth. $29.95. ISBN: 9780700615193.
Reviewed by Samuel B. Hoff, Department of History, Political Science, and Philosophy, Delaware State University. Email: shoff [at] desu.edu.
UNDERSTANDING THE FOUNDING continues Alan Gibson’s focus on the period of the American Founding. In an earlier book, Gibson covered the predominant frameworks used to interpret research on the Founding era. In the current text, he dissects four of the most important – and controversial – debates concerning the latter period in order to “clarify the points of disagreement among scholars on these questions, explore what is at stake in these debates, and give contentious answers to them” (p.14). He taps the records of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, THE FEDERALIST PAPERS, and a plethora of secondary sources to address the topic.
Chapter 1 analyzes the legacy of Charles Beard’s economic interpretation of the Constitution. After presenting Beard’s primary thesis – that the Articles of Confederation was replaced by the Constitution in order to guard the value of public securities, protect American manufacturing and shipping interests, and regulate commerce within the United States and abroad – Gibson offers the arguments against Beard’s view. Among the criticisms of Beard’s research are that it contains inconsistencies, methodological errors, and incomplete empirical findings. Various scholars, including Forrest McDonald, E. James Ferguson, Staughton Lynd, Jackson Turner Main, Gordon Wood, Van Beck Hall, Calvin Jillson, and Robert McGuire have sought to modify or disprove Beard’s contentions. In the end, the lack of historical data has prevented a completely accurate examination of the impact of economic interests on the writing and ratification of the Constitution. Still, there is no question that Beard’s groundbreaking work has cemented the depiction of the Constitution as an economic document and the delegates who created it as possessing certain distinguishing traits.
The extent to which the Constitution contains democratic elements is probed in Chapter 2, even though “there is simply no common definition or standard of democracy against which the original design of the American political system can be measured” (p.50). Gibson employs the democratic dimensions of inclusiveness, responsiveness, and political equality to evaluate the Constitution’s content. He finds that the criteria of suffrage and qualifications for office make the inclusiveness dimension the most democratic. On the other hand, the system of indirect and staggered elections together with the longer terms for federal officials as contrasted with state personnel make the Constitution less democratic on the dimension of responsiveness. Similarly, the three-fifths clause, equal representation in the Senate, and the Electoral College [*656] demonstrate that the Constitution was democratically challenged on the dimension of political equality.
In Chapter 3, Gibson examines the debate over whether the American Founding should be studied using a contextual approach or whether the Framers addressed perennial questions which may be adapted to modern times. He notes that the Progressives argued that American revolutionaries “were irresponsible and self interested, that their rhetoric was little more than conspiratorial and irrational propaganda, and that the American Revolution was unjustifiable because the colonists were freer and more prosperous than their English brethren” (p.94). Additionally, linguistic contextualists warn against the practice of scouring historical records to inform contemporary issues. Conversely, others regard the Founders’ political thought as profound reasoning and as containing timeless moral lessons. Gibson attempts to reconcile these competing positions by recommending that when the ideas of the Founders are “irretrievable, we should attempt to understand the differences between us and them, establish a complex account of institutional change and political development, and develop broad categories of contemporary American politics for which the Founders are neither the cause nor the cure” (pp.128-129).
In Chapter 4, Gibson revisits the controversy over whether the political thought of the Founders is based primarily on Lockean liberalism, classic republicanism, or a synthesis of the two. The work of Michael Zuckert clearly classifies the Founders’ political thought as based on the writings of British philosopher John Locke, particularly as they are enunciated in the American Declaration of Independence. That position is refuted by Rogers Smith, who asserts that American political thought relies on faulty conceptions of liberalism. Meanwhile, historians such as Lance Banning, Drew McCoy, and Ralph Ketcham hold that republican concepts were Americanized and synthesized with liberalism. Instead of solving the “dialectic of the republican-liberalism debate” (p.156),
Gibson advances an agenda for scholars which includes (1) examining more closely the Founders’ conception of civil society and the institutions they believed would support it; (2) exploring how the Founders’ political thought differs from ancient and modern political thought; (3) identifying inegalitarian ideologies in the Founders’ political thought and determine their relationship to liberalism and republicanism; (4) investigating more closely the structure of American political institutions, the direction of political development, and how current discourse may be the result of multiple traditions of political thought.
In the final chapter, the author trumpets the use of historiography for comprehending the confrontations covered in the text. Gibson believes it will assist in dissecting the meanings of concepts and provide the impetus for rigorous discussion of important topics pertaining to America’s past. He advocates what he refers to as a “third” relationship or understanding of the Founding, one which would interpret that period “as neither virgin birth nor [*657] original sin, as neither a repository of true or first principles nor a source of shame and guilt . . .” (p.193). For Gibson, such an alternative path would allow modern scholars to “follow their advice when they were right and because they were right, not because they were Founders” (p.194).
Gibson’s book may be compared with other studies on the same topic. Ralph Ketcham (1993) explores the ideas, principles, and debates which accompanied the formation of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Joseph Ellis (2000) portrays how the men of America’s Founding generation debated and decided issues of the time, of which slavery was directly relevant to the content of the Constitution. Other scholars explore the ramifications of the Constitution’s provisions for later debates. For instance, David Ericson (1993) traces development of American liberalism to both disagreements over ratification of the Constitution as well as to ensuing controversies over slavery and nullification, whereas Bruce Ackerman (2005) assesses the consequences of the Framers’ eschewing of political parties on the maturation of the presidential election process.
UNDERSTANDING THE FOUNDING is not without faults. While the first two chapters are quite well-written and easily comprehendible, the next two chapters are less effectively presented. The reason may be that the author deviates from a discussion of what the Constitution is based on to how it should be studied. Chapter 3 may have benefited from inclusion of the contemporary dispute over original intent versus adaptability of the Constitution. Chapter 4 could have more clearly delineated the classic republican tradition as an alternative to Lockean liberalism. As for Gibson’s “third way” prescription for understanding the Founding era, one may find that course already being utilized in Donald Phillips’ 1997 application of the Framers’ experiences to modern conditions.
As one peruses available studies of early American political thought, it is easy to discern that the majority of offerings are actually the writings of the Founders with little commentary or interpretation. Thankfully, Gibson’s book contributes to a genre of studies that go beyond recitation into the realm of analysis and criticism. Though his research is most appropriate for a sophisticated audience, its premise remains simple: we still have much to learn about the influences on, content of, and legacy of the American Founding.
Ackerman, Bruce. 2005. THE FAILURE OF THE FOUNDING FATHERS: JEFFERSON, MARSHALL, AND THE RISE OF PRESIDENTIAL DEMOCRACY. Cambridge: Belknap Press.
Ellis, Joseph J. 2000. FOUNDING BROTHERS: THE REVOLUTIONARY GENERATION. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. [*658]
Ericson, David F. 1993. THE SHAPING OF AMERICAN LIBERALISM: THE DEBATES OVER RATIFICATION, NULLIFICATION, AND SLAVERY. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Ketcham, Ralph. 1993. FRAMED FOR POSTERITY: THE ENDURING PHILOSOPHY OF THE CONSTITUTION. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
Phillips, Donald T. 1997. THE FOUNDING FATHERS ON LEADERSHIP: CLASSIC TEAMWORK IN CHANGING TIMES. New York: Warner Books.
© Copyright 2007 by the author, Samuel B. Hoff.