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  • The Long Shadow of the Founding
  • Aziz Rana (bio)
Luigi Marco Bassani . Liberty, State, and Union: The Political Theory of Thomas Jefferson. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2010. 227 pp. Notes and index. $35.00.
Eric T. Kasper . To Secure the Liberty of the People: James Madison's Bill of Rights and the Supreme Court's Interpretation. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2010. x + 301 pp. Appendices, notes, table of cases, references, and index. $38.00.
Alison L. LaCroix . The Ideological Origins of American Federalism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010. 312 pp. Notes, selected bibliography, acknowledgments, and index. $35.00.

Two hundred plus years later, the Founding era and the personalities who dominated it continue to loom large over American legal and political life. Politicians across the ideological spectrum call on citizens to hold true to the values of the Founding Fathers. Popular biographies praising the wisdom and courage of the generation's key figures abound, emphasizing their skill in political creation and the importance of such wisdom for today's social order. A major school of constitutional interpretation, "originalism," argues that lawyers and judges should approach the federal Constitution primarily through the meaning that ratifiers and those early framers gave to it. In fact, all this is part of a political culture that, as Mark Tushnet has noted, presents the Revolutionary generation as composed of near mythic individuals, who bestowed contemporary Americans with a "perfect Constitution"—one infinitely flexible to address whatever problems we may now face.1 Thus, for citizens and scholars alike, the continuing political influence of the Founding era raises a series of critical questions. What in actuality is the country's institutional and ideological inheritance from the period? To what extent do the Founders offer Americans guidance for addressing contemporary legal and political concerns? Are the dilemmas and normative frameworks that shaped the early republic so distinct from present circumstances that the goal of producing a "usable" history obscures more than it illuminates? Three recent books implicitly and [End Page 42] explicitly engage these questions, revisiting the key events and personalities that shaped American independence and constitutional construction: Liberty, State, and Union by Luigi Marco Bassani; To Secure the Liberty of the People by Eric Kasper; and The Ideological Origins of American Federalism by Alison LaCroix.

In Liberty, State, and Union, Luigi Bassani directly confronts what he views as New Deal liberalism's appropriation of Thomas Jefferson. According to Bassani, since the work of Vernon Parrington and Charles Wiltse in the 1930s, a line of Jefferson scholarship has maintained that the third president was a "protosocialist," critical of property rights and supportive of "intervention in the free economy" (p. 10). Bassani argues that not only does this "nonindividualistic, antiproperty Jefferson" misrepresent the actual beliefs of the man, it allows his iconic stature to be employed on behalf of purposes he would have found deeply suspect (p. 11). Outside the academy, the long-term consequence has been a left-leaning political tradition that links Jefferson to Roosevelt and views the "'marriage of Jefferson and Marx'" as not only coherent but as the heart of "democratic radicalism" in America (pp. 11, 216). For Bassani, it is this "view of democratic radicalism as the characterizing feature of Jeffersonian thought that is . . . a historiographical detour, whose enduring after effects must . . . be challenged by any scholar" (pp. 216-17).

Bassani's self-conscious task is therefore twofold: historiographic and normative. While his primary goal is to recover Jefferson's true beliefs, he nonetheless hopes that, in the process, he can remove a powerful intellectual weapon on behalf of interventionist policies. He goes about these dual tasks by presenting the importance of natural rights theory in Jeffersonian thought. Bassani highlights how, for Jefferson, as he wrote to Samuel Kercheval, "the true foundation of republican government is the equal right of every citizen, in his person and property, and in their management" (quoted on p. 83). Property rights and land ownership were sacrosanct because they were central to individual autonomy and provided the necessary basis for a stable political order (not to mention a key check on an overweening government). As Bassani emphasizes, Jefferson's focus on property directly connected to his...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6628
Print ISSN
0048-7511
Pages
pp. 42-51
Launched on MUSE
2012-03-17
Open Access
No
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