Americans have never been big on “political theory.”  In our nation’s early decades—and arguably, up to World War II—folks were comfortable with their republican form of government and its tenets of self-reliance and self-government.  However, over the past 50 years, political thought—specifically concerning what the U.S. Constitution actually means—has undergone a radical transformation.  During that time, self-government has been all but obliterated.  Few, if any, Americans alive today have ever lived in a republic.  A recent Supreme Court decision—Kelo v. City of New London, allowing residential homes to be demolished in favor of commercial development—has effectively abolished private property.  Conservatives know something is wrong.  Alas, their remedy is to place all their hope in the Supreme Court, trusting that Republican presidents will appoint a conservative majority to that body, one that will roll back decades of judicial tyranny.

Professor Carey’s volume is the latest in a series of impressive student guides published by ISI Books, of which I have read—and recommend—John Lukacs’s guide to history, R.V. Young’s treatment of Western literature, and Mark Henrie’s introduction to the core curriculum.  Professor Carey’s book not only chronicles the descent into centralization but lays out the vexing questions that have driven political debates since the nation’s beginnings: the relevance of the Declaration of Independence; the role of Congress; and the problem of virtue in a republic based on limited government.

If America had a political tradition, it was one based on the decentralization of power.  Reading this book brought me back to M.E. Bradford’s magisterial studies of the Founding Fathers, especially A Worthy Company, which contains short biographies of each of the 55 Framers of the Constitution.  All of these gentlemen, whether from New England, the Mid-Atlantic States, or the South, insisted on local rule, and such was foremost on their minds as they struggled to draft and ratify a constitution.  And, keep in mind, the Antifederalists, those opponents of ratification whose numbers included such giants as Patrick Henry and George Mason, believed that the Federalists were far too interested in centralizing power.

Decentralization, of course, did not survive.  Professor Carey identifies the two major blows that brought down the Old Republic: the emergence of a strong presidency and the rise of judicial supremacy.  Beginning with Andrew Jackson, certain presidents sought to become men of the people, while conducting an activist presidency.  Woodrow Wilson, for one, championed such a model even before he was elected.  The process reached fruition with the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the first president to master the mass media.  The rise of the presidency has had its greatest effect in the realm of foreign policy.  Here, the president, serving as “commander in chief,” “the most powerful man in the world,” and, perhaps most impressively, the “leader of the free world,” must be given a free hand to wage wars, in any fashion he pleases, with whatever country deserves to be on the receiving end of American military might.

Still, a strong presidency has not necessarily meant the end of republicanism.  Many foreign adventures of recent decades have turned out badly, and American imperialism, like all other empires before it, is doomed to fail.  When Ronald Reagan, during the 1980’s, acted in a prudent manner (at least compared to the administrations of Bush I and II), the results were more satisfactory.  In that decade, many conservative pundits advised Reagan that he could, for instance, fund the Nicaraguan Contras without congressional aid.  Reagan, however, preferred to pursue the legal—i.e., congressional—route when carrying out that controversial policy (which led, even so, to the destructive Iran-Contra scandal).

Rather, it has been the Supreme Court that has inflicted the real blows to self-government.  Professor Carey does not take sides, but, in the book’s final pages, he pretty much confirms this view.  Consider only how the revolution prevailed:

Most of the Court’s defenders . . . do not dispute that the Court has legislated.  Some see the Court as making up . . . for the failures of Congress, as in the 1950s desegregation cases.  Others . . . see the Court as authorized, whenever the opportunity presents itself, to advance basic values, such as human dignity, that are tacitly embodied in the Constitution or Declaration of Independence.  Still, others view the Constitution as a “living” document, with the Court, sensitive to the values derived from the Declaration, providing much-needed updates and modifications in light of changing social values and practices.

Professor Carey has spent a long career teaching and writing about the Constitution.  His concise history has its melancholy moments, especially when discussing the role Christianity played in the formation of the Old Republic.  Nearly all of the Framers (and certainly their opponents) considered Christian morality an absolute necessity to maintaining a free and virtuous republic.  Yet here, again, the Court has acted as a big wrecking ball, having taken the “wall of separation” reading as a green light to wage war on the mere appearance of a Christian civilization.  Conservatives flail away at the darkness, accusing the Supreme Court of legitimizing “cultural debasement” and holding a “hostility toward religion” that itself has undermined those institutions charged with sustaining old-fashioned virtues.  “[The] modern Court’s understanding of the proper relationship between the state and religion is markedly different from that which prevailed during the founding era,” Professor Carey observes in his understated manner.

The author cites such progressives as Herbert Croly, longtime editor of the New Republic, for spearheading a revolution in the interpretation of the Constitution.  He also notes the public broadsides (which included FDR’s demagogic attacks) against the far more conservative Supreme Court of the 1930’s, which, in turn, put “considerable political pressure [on the Court] to change course.”

All this happened as the United States underwent her own enormous transformation from an agrarian republic to an urban-industrial mass democracy.  A Student’s Guide to American Political Thought has sent me back to Professor William Quirk’s recent essays in Chronicles, which maintain that only a Congress willing to control the Supreme Court’s docket and overturn dictatorial decisions can restore self-government to the United States.  Those conservatives who see a revamped Supreme Court as our only hope may be indulging in wishful thinking, while also displaying constitutional ignorance on their own part.


[A Student’s Guide to American Political Thought, by George Carey (Wilmington: ISI Books) 114 pp., $8.00]