The American Republic: Primary Sources edited by Bruce Frohnen.
What should be taught to American undergraduates and law students to make them good republicans? The woeful lack of much if any grounding in the history of their own country in high school, and the failure of most undergraduates to learn about the divergent approaches to the good society attempted over three thousand years of Western history, makes the task of one who would attempt, in a single course, to explore the origins and development of the American system of government daunting indeed. There are a few tools at hand to do the job, but Bruce Frohnen (Associate Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University College of Law, Senior Fellow at the Russell Kirk Center, and Editor of the Political Science Reviewer) has now offered one of the most delightful—a set of primary sources running from the colonial period to just before the civil war, that may serve as a partial remedy for student ailments.
Most of today’s undergraduates and law students believe that all there is to good citizenship is “toleration” for differing views, encouraging affirmative action, permitting abortion on demand, enforcing non-discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation, encouraging “self-actualization,” and discouraging or obliterating “elites” wherever they are to be found. They believe that the only important government is the federal one, they are unreflecting egalitarians and secularists, and, lacking knowledge of anything that happened, say, before 1954 at best or the late sixties at worst, they see few reasons to believe that there is anything unique or praiseworthy about the United States. It was the consensus of the Framers that it was necessary, from time to time, to recur to first principles, and that is precisely what Frohnen has done. He ends his account with the build-up to the Civil War, but this period is enough to illuminate these “first principles,” and to challenge the currently dominant “principles” of political correctness. In particular, Frohnen has sought to foster an appreciation for the contribution to American liberty made by the framers’ conception of dual sovereignty, and by the enduring belief of Americans that good government was impossible without grounding in Judeo-Christian religion and morality. He divides his sources into nine sections—Colonial Settlements and Societies, Religious Society and Religious Liberty in Early America, Defending the [colonial] Charters, The War for Independence, A New Constitution, The Bill of Rights, State versus Federal Authority, Forging a Nation, and Prelude to War. More than one hundred and twenty individual selections are offered, ranging from a few paragraphs to chapter-length offerings from law and political science treatises. The whole is packaged in a 721-page double-columned volume that is an incredible bargain at the apparently subsidized price the Liberty Fund has set.
Old chestnuts are here, such as the Magna Charta (1215), The Mayflower Compact (1620), and the Declaration of Independence (1776). But these are balanced, nuanced, and placed in context by including other rarely read works, such as the Massachusetts Body of Liberties (1641), Roger Williams’s “The Bloody Tenent of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience,” (1644), the “Federal Farmer” (1787), “Brutus” (1787), the Report of the Hartford Convention (1815), the Webster/Hayne Debate (1830), Joseph Story’s Commentaries (1833), the Calhoun/Webster Debate (1850), and George S. Sawyer’s “The Relative Position and Treatment of the Negroes” (1858). Each document or set of documents includes some introductory material from Frohnen that adds up nicely to a summary of colonial, early national, and pre-Civil War American history, which should fill in many educational lacunae. Frohnen is not pushing any particular interpretation of American republicanism or American culture, rather he has sought, as he puts it in his introduction, to present conflicts concerning “American independence, religious establishment, and slavery,” in order to demonstrate competing forces involved in “the drive for community against the drive for individual autonomy, the call of God against the call of a wild nature to be confronted in near isolation, the desire for wealth against the desire to be held virtuous, and the demand for equality against respect for established authority.”
The book can profitably be used as a text for introductory courses or seminars in political science or history for undergraduates, or legal or constitutional history for law students. Especially in the hard-cover version it might also make a fine gift or coffee-table volume for any American history buff. Some of these pieces are not easy reading, but the effort is worthwhile, and Frohnen’s comments elegantly illuminate the main themes in each.
While Frohnen may have nobly and properly sought a posture of Olympian detachment from these conflicts, it is very difficult for the fair-minded reader not to conclude, for example, that duty to God played a much larger role in American history (particularly during the colonial period) than is commonly conceded nowadays; that Jeffersonians, Jacksonians, and John Calhoun had more subtle constitutional arguments for a limited role for the federal government than is usually acknowledged; that the Bill of Rights was most certainly not intended to limit state governments; and that Christianity was a part of the American (and English) common law. One also learns that Judge Douglas had the better of the debates with Abraham Lincoln, who turns out to have been, if not flagrantly hypocritical, than at least deliberately provocative in his construction of the Dred Scott case, which is revealed to be Justice Taney’s sincere if ultimately unsuccessful attempt to respond to Southern concerns and avoid national conflagration. Frohnen rather fearlessly tackles difficult and incendiary issues, and even goes so far as to present, in the reading from George S. Sawyer, an almost-convincing defense of the South and its peculiar institution. With a little bit of effort, and the guidance of a wise teacher, undergraduates and law students using this book will have a better appreciation of the manner in which our courts, politicians, and people have misconstrued our past, will be better equipped to make political choices on their own, and may even emerge with an understanding that anti-elitism and self-actualization are not all there is.
This is, in short, terrific stuff, and Frohnen’s book now deserves a place among the four or five best teaching tools for the development of the American republic. As always in human efforts there is some room for improvement, which we ought to see in a second edition. There are several selections which could have benefited from more severe editing such as the Report of the Virginia House of Delegates, which, in its present form, will tax the powers of undergraduates at least. One might also hope that Frohnen will take on the task of producing a companion work that will bring the tale into the present. But these are quibbles. This is a discriminating, judicious, and—one is tempted to say—inspired and now indispensable selection of primary sources that will enrich the mind and soul of any American lucky enough to be taught from them.
Bruce Frohnen’s book mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This review originally ran in Volume 44, Number 1 (Fall 2005) of the University Bookman and is reprinted here with permission.