Whose Republicanism Is It?


The Spirit of Modern Republicanism: The Moral Vision of the Founders and the Philosophy of Locke, by Thomas L. Pangle, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 334 pages, $22.50

This is not a book for the general reader. However, Thomas Pangle's Spirit of Modern Republicanism is concerned with a scholarly controversy that holds important implications for the public debate about many issues. Pangle aims at nothing less than the fundamental questions: What kind of nation is America supposed to be? What is the nature of individual rights in the American regime? How is the "spirit of commerce" to be understood within the context of the American Founding?

The return to these fundamental questions is today urgent because of the remarkable success of what I call the "post-Progressive" school of historians, who have made it a project to discover a non-Lockean "soul" in the thought of the American founding, so as to controvert the philosophical basis of individual natural rights and free-market commercial society. This debate is vital because today's scholarly opinion can affect tomorrow's public opinion. As Pangle notes, "the turning points in our history and the leaders who have stepped forward in those periods have usually drawn us back to very deep wellsprings of theoretical controversy." Though Pangle is a political theorist, he recognizes clearly that the present historical controversy over the nature of the founding is closely related to "the unfinished argument over the political economy of a liberal democracy ushered in by the New Deal."

A little background is in order. The godfather of the Progressive historians was Charles Beard, whose neo-Marxist Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (published in 1913) argued that the authors of the Constitution were not the high-minded, disinterested statesmen we have always envisioned, but that instead they acted with the lowest motive of protecting their own property and fortunes. Though influential for a long time, Beard's narrow thesis did not hold up well under sustained scrutiny, and Beard has become a mere curiosity or period piece, still included on every graduate student's reading list, but enlisting no devotees.

But the essence of Beard's attack on the founding has been taken up by a much more subtle and sophisticated group of left-wing historians who, instead of directly attacking the founding as duplicitous, make the case that the Constitution and the thought in The Federalist is low and contemptible in its aims. This argument has been built carefully step-by-step, starting with Louis Hartz's The Liberal Tradition in America (1955). Hartz argued that the lack of any serious socialist movement in America was in part due to an "irrational" Lockean ardor for individualism. This anti-Lockean strand has been greatly transformed and amplified in recent years by Bernard Bailyn, Garry Wills, and others and finally culminates in Gordon Wood's 1972 book, The Creation of the American Republic.

By the time we get to Wood, the argument is much richer than Beard's, or even Hartz's. It is, in short, that the impulse to revolt in 1776 was generated by an ideology derived from classical republicanism, which held as its ideal not the regime of individual rights but rather a moralistic communitarian vision. "Ideally," Wood wrote, "republicanism obliterated the individual." Locke and natural rights have no place in Wood's account. But in 1787, as Wood tells it, the authors of the Constitution pulled a Brinks job on the principles of 1776, by giving sanction to individual rights and the spirit of commerce. The implication is clear: the commercial republic of the Constitution is untrue to the Revolution of 1776; let's rewrite the Constitution and bring in some socialism cloaked in the "true" American tradition. The "Wood thesis" is now widely accepted among American historians.

That is why a book like Pangle's is so necessary. I say a book "like" Pangle's, because The Spirit of Modern Republicanism errs too far in the opposite direction of seeing the founding as being wholly based on modern political philosophy. Pangle is among the Straussian scholars who see an impenetrable gulf between classical and modern thought. The post-Progressive attempt to claim a neo-classical basis for their attack on the founding neatly skewers the Straussians, who prefer ancient to modern thought and who are therefore not necessarily paying honor when they say, as Pangle does, that the founders were "under the tutelage of modern political philosophy."

The Spirit of Modern Republicanism is divided into three parts. In the first, Pangle summarizes and critiques the post-Progressive view I have limned above. He observes that these historians have a very poor grasp of the classical and Whig texts on which they base their argument—for instance, they completely misunderstand or misinterpret "the radically libertarian character of 'Cato'"—and that the real animus behind the post-Progressive view is a left-wing moral dogmatism.

The third and longest section of the book is devoted to a textual analysis of Locke's teaching. Pangle is intimately familiar with the Lockean corpus, and his exposition is graceful and brilliant. He situates Locke's teaching about property within the difficulties posed by the Christian teaching about dominion and stewardship—a relation seldom understood by those who routinely appropriate Locke's language in defense of property rights. But Pangle admits that the Lockean teaching he presents here goes far beyond the founders' understanding of Locke. Why this abstraction from the historical argument?

This brings a reviewer back to the central part of the book, where Pangle's version of the founders' philosophy appears. Here there is a strange and unfortunate convergence between Pangle and the post-Progressives. After having established in the first part and opening chapters of the second part that the post-Progressive school had misinterpreted the philosophical sources of the founding—that there had in fact been "no break" with the revolution in the writing of the Constitution—Pangle goes on to say that, indeed, the principles of the founding really do "subordinate the high in mankind…to the low," the low being the regime of commerce based on individual rights.

In the end Pangle overstates the case for Locke. The founders were not Straussians and did not necessarily see the same gulf between ancient and modern thought. Because of this methodological straitjacket, Pangle commits some crudities in order to maintain his argument. For instance, there is his dealing with the famous letter in which Jefferson portrays the Declaration of Independence as an "expression of the American mind" resting on the "harmonizing sentiments of the day" as expressed in "the elementary books of public right, (such) as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc." Pangle dismisses out of hand Jefferson's suggestion that there can be any harmonious understanding between ancient and modern with the statement that Jefferson and the founders were "unwilling, and perhaps unable, to plumb the depths of the chasm" between ancient and modern thought. In this Pangle violates his own adopted rule of understanding the founders as they understood themselves.

It is possible to maintain both the place of Locke—and individual rights—and the classical nobility of the American republic. Certainly the signers of the Declaration who pledged "our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor" thought so. Pangle's book gets off to a great start against the left-wing post-Progressives and closes with a scintillating exposition of Locke, but the middle leaves us with "unanswered questions," which, coincidentally (?), is the title of the central chapter of the book.

Steven Hayward is a research fellow at the Claremont Institute and director of the institute's Golden State Project.