- Political Moderation in America’s First Two Centuries
This book takes on the challenge of providing an interpretative framework for the wide-ranging literature treating political, religious, and legal aspects of America’s experience with political moderation from its [End Page 456] colonial period through the 1880s. Calhoon shows how political moderation was practiced by Americans during these years. Although the modern tendency is to regard political moderation as a mere “splitting-of-the-difference” and its practitioners as uncourageous compromisers, Calhoon persuasively shows that a principled tradition of political moderation was an important development in America’s history. He suggests that the concept of political moderation in America was a mixture of idealism and realism, often displaying nuanced, thoughtful positions that were not clear-cut.
Calhoon defines as moderates “persons who intentionally undertake civic action, at significant risk or cost, to mediate conflicts, conciliate antagonisms, or find middle ground” (6). Among the questions that he explores are how and why some Americans chose this position and what price they paid for doing so. Calhoon focuses on what he calls “the peripheral outer edges” of moderation that “made contact with political culture and where religion and ethics disseminated moderation into the civil order” (8). This tie of political culture with religion is one of his principal findings.
While tracing the roots of political moderation back to classical antiquity, Calhoon explores how Americans sought a political middle ground not only during the colonial and American Revolutionary periods but also through the antebellum period in the southern backcountry and the Middle West. A final chapter delineates the ways in which denominational and primitive Christianity had a moderating effect on politics and society.
From a methodological perspective, the strength of the book is its broad synthesis of a very large literature. It demonstrates the value of exploring the overlap of religious history, political culture, and the history of ideas—fields that are frequently studied in isolation from one another.
In addition to exploring the nexus between religion and culture in America, one of the principal achievements of Calhoon’s work is to demonstrate the dynamics of moderation. He follows the search for moderation by examining the actions of well-known and lesser-known Americans during times of crisis and controversy. Calhoon deftly reveals the complexity of their calculations, which were both intricate and situational. In the end, Calhoon emphasizes that moderates were made and not born.
On occasion, Calhoon’s application of moderation seems problematical. For students of American constitutionalism, for example, James Wilson, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton would be unlikely exemplars of constitutional moderation. Calhoon’s implicit assumption that America’s constitutionalism after the Revolutionary War operated with a necessarily moderating effect oversimplifies the contested nature of questions of constitutionalism in the early Republic.
Notwithstanding this reservation, Calhoon resurrects political moderation as an important American political and religious tradition. His [End Page 457] elegant treatment of ideas exemplified through political behavior will undoubtedly stimulate further study of this neglected dimension of American civic life.