TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The Historiography of America’s Founding: Lockean Liberalism versus Republicanism

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Michael Millerman looks at Luigi Marco Bassani’s “The Bankruptcy of the Republican School,” from Telos 124 (Summer 2002).

Luigi Marco Bassani’s essay “The Bankruptcy of the Republican School” (2002) consists of an overview of the conflict in American historiography between two schools of thought. The first—Lockean liberalism—insists that America was founded on principles that recognize an abstract, natural right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of one’s private happiness. These natural rights are liberties that define a private sphere, to be protected from government interference. By contrast, the second school proclaims that not Lockean liberalism, but rather republicanism informed the Founders’ vision of what America is and should be. Republicanism elevates such notions as “the common good” and “the public sphere” above those of “individual liberties” and “private happiness.” Indeed, it can justify infringing on the latter for the sake of the former. Hence, it is in conflict with Lockean liberalism.

The historiographical conflict concerns the question, which of these political teachings—Lockean liberalism or republicanism—lies at the basis of America’s founding. To the extent that the past has normative relevance for the present, however, this conflict of historical accounts has become, Bassani argues, a partisan polemic between those who wish to defend liberalism in America today and those who wish to attack it.

Bassani is part of this polemic: he belongs to the defenders of contemporary American liberalism. He argues first of all that the republican school’s account of America’s founding is factually wrong. Moreover, he asserts that their errors are deliberate and serve the purpose of fabricating a precedent among the Founders for opposition to liberalism. But because there is in fact no such precedent, he continues, the republican school can claim no justification from the Founding for opposing contemporary American liberalism. Finally, irrespective of historical considerations, republicanism should be rejected insofar as it denies the philosophical and anthropological truths at the basis of Lockean liberalism.

In other words, for Bassani, it is not just that America is liberal, according to its founding principles, but also that it should remain liberal, because non-liberal or anti-liberal theories have no philosophical leg to stand on.

Bassani does not dwell on this philosophical point, yet it is an important component of his argument against republicanism. In considering why the liberalism of America’s Founders has not been taken seriously by historians, for instance, he blames the fact that “sophisticated scholars can no longer believe in any system deriving its tenets from a precise idea of human nature.” Such scholars, he writes, “have been convinced by the arguments of Bentham, Marx, and countless others that nature does not prescribe anything” (131). The liberalism of the Founders must appear unsophisticated to such scholars, he implies, because it continues to refer to “natural rights” and to “human nature.”

Now, although he thinks that the philosophical critique of the ideas of human nature and natural right should not obscure the fact that the Founders believed in those ideas, Bassani might also have argued that those beliefs are nevertheless philosophically problematic in themselves. Instead, he seems to suggest that the sophistication of non-liberal scholars is little more than sophistry, hardly to be taken seriously. Unlike them, Bassani has not been convinced by any philosophical critique of liberalism.

Indeed, he quotes as a summary of “what seems to be wrong with republicanism” a passage that argues that republicanism’s “central assumptions” are “highly uncongenial to modern ontology and epistemology.” These central assumptions are that “human nature has a uniform purpose or telos that can be fulfilled only through participation in political activity, that there exists an objective public good apart from individual goods, and that this objective good can be discovered through virtuous political debate” (145). As is clear, this argument has nothing to do with the question of whether or not America’s founders favored republican principles over liberal ones. Instead, this is a separate claim about the philosophical standing of republican assumptions, one that Bassani cites sympathetically and leaves without further comment.

In my view, Bassani is on much better ground historically than he is philosophically. His uncritical reliance on “modern ontology and epistemology” to support Lockean liberalism opens itself to the charge that precisely the destruction of modern ontology and epistemology entails the fall of Lockean liberalism. As Leo Strauss once remarked, after Heidegger, “all rational liberal philosophic positions have lost their significance and power.”[1] Moreover, it is not necessary to be a “Straussian” in order to agree with that assessment.

To return to Bassani’s stronger point, he does present a very compelling case against the republican school’s historiography. For example, he offers abundant evidence that the Founders held Locke in the highest esteem, and an equal measure of evidence that the republican school has sought to downplay this fact. Bassani documents the manner in which the republican school has mounted a “general attack on Locke’s influence that not only purges the whole generation of the Founding Fathers of any Lockean influence, but does not allow any historical figure of importance to remain a Lockean, in spite of anything he might have written or said” (136). Against the backdrop of these efforts, the reader will be surprised to learn of Lincoln’s reference to Locke, together with Newton and Bacon, as one of “the greatest men that ever lived without any exception” (136–37).

The most incisive and compelling part of Bassani’s essay comes at the end. There, having steadily built momentum against the republican school throughout, he quotes, as a grand finale, a passage from John Patrick Diggins’s The Lost Soul of American Politics (2006), in which Diggins offers a “rewriting of the Declaration using the rhetoric of republicanism.” This passage constitutes for Bassani the “most succinct refutation of the entire republican construction” (156). It is a fitting finish to his passionate criticism of republican school historiography and to his implicit, yet palpable, eschewal of republican political theory:

We hold these truths to be historically conditioned: that all men are created equal and mutually dependent; that from that equal creation they derive rights that are alienable and transferable depending on the larger question of needs, among which are the preservation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of virtue in close cooperation with all fellow citizens dedicated to the commonwealth; that to fulfill these needs government is instituted among men that derives its legitimacy from the active participation of the governed . . . . Whereas the very identity of Americans lies in their symbol-forming, language using nature, whereas we the colonists have no recourse to God, nature or history to guide our actions, and whereas, therefore, we must rest our case on language and its context, we hereby appeal to parliament to organize a committee of Whig historians to show us the true path to virtue.

Notes

1. Richard Velkley, Heidegger, Strauss, and the Premises of Philosophy: On Original Forgetting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), p. 112.

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