American Political Thought


American Political Thought Essay, Research Paper

The United States of America in known throughout the world as the benchmark of a free society. The U. S. A. believes in a complex philosophy of liberalism. The question is where did this complex idea come from? Well I say it was inherited from the early settlers of the American Colonies and it has been transforming ever since and is now the form we see today. I intend to prove that Puritan Theology and culture, Anti-Federalist arguments, and Federalist political thought, have all been profound influences on this idea of liberalism.

By liberalism we mean that Americans tend to look first to the individual as the source of value rather than to an imposed dogmatic creed or hierarchy (American Political Thinking). The way we look at liberalism in America today there are two strands of it. The first strand which is called Classical Liberalism , is the idea that peoples property rights, their protection and a free economic market are more important than human welfare. This was the only type of liberalism there was for a while until some people thought that human rights were more important than the latter. This change in thought is called the progressive movement. This movement was created by a rise in the great concentrations of urban wealth. This movement was in opposition to the Laizze Fair attitudes of the Classical Liberals. They did not see the poor as being poor because they were stupid, lazy or inferior, but rather because of an unfair social and economic system. This leads progressive advocates to want to redistribute the wealth among all of the people. It is important to realize that both these ideas are considered to be contained in the general term of liberalism. A good example of it in today s American society is are ever-present political parties. The Republicans consist of ideas that are generally based on classical liberalism and Democrats lean more towards the progressive side. However it is important to remember that both these parties are considered liberal in the sense that they are both based on ideas of liberalism.

A liberal is basically someone who believes in seeing the individual as rational and self-interested and being entitled to a collection of rights, such as those leading to the preservation of life, liberty, and property. Governments are created by consent of the participating parties. Governments are to be limited to the protection of individual rights and maintaining public order. Governments should also be feared as a source of tyranny. It is also important to know that all liberals believe in the same core set of values. Those values being individualism, limited government, natural rights, property rights and the idea that individuals are more important than society. They also believe the government exists for the purpose of individuals seeking the pursuit of happiness.

The Puritans are a people that struggled working their theology into their everyday life. They have many paradoxes in their world and through these conflicts they have contributed to American political thought. The first of the main paradoxes is the idea of political liberty vs. theocracy. Through these challenges the Puritans came up with many revolutionary ideas. The Puritans did not believe in any source of human authority, only in the authority of the Old Testament. They believed in the Old Testament because it was written with the hand of God. They did not believe in any other religious authorities, especially the Pope. Their thought was, if there is no religious authority, then it is wrong and immoral and will damage your soul if you tried to make everyone have the same religious belief. This created religious toleration, which is one of the more progressively liberal ideas most Americans hold today.

The second paradox is the belief in predestination vs. the need for human action. Unlike the ideas of Catholicism the Puritans did not believe that anyone could go to heaven. They did not believe that the more virtuous a life you lead the better chance you d have at getting into heaven. They believed it was predestined and that only the elect would get into heaven. However the Puritans were very active people, they believed that virtue was a sign of being one of the elect. So people would work hard at being virtuous so they could show that they were one of the elect. This is not a liberal theme, unlike the progressive idea that all humans were created equal and had a certain amount of natural rights. The Puritans believed that there was a group of elect among them that were superior to everyone else, because God made it that way. They were the elect and they were the only ones that would be allowed into heaven.

It is in Roger Williams writings that we see some of the early formation of the idea of American liberalism. He boldly proclaimed that all people have a natural right to religious liberty and attacked the undemocratic nature of contemporary governments. He argued that sovereignty lies with the people, not with kings, parliaments, states, or governors (American Political Thinking). This being a revolutionary idea at the time almost sets the stage for the train of thought that passes through the American colonies. However other writers such as John Winthrop also make points that break down the idea of liberty and rights. In his speech A Little Speech on Liberty , he distinguishes between natural and civil liberty (American Political Thinking). Natural liberty as he describes it is the enemy of great truth and peace. It is the idea that every man can do as he pleases just because he can, nature gave him the liberty to. Civil liberty on the other hand is a kind of moral liberty. It is a covenant between God and man in moral law. It is the liberty to create and recreate the authority, which you live under. Winthrop saw that personal freedom must end somewhere, but didn t let go of the notion that the people should be in control of where that freedom ends. This is an idea that is still being debated, where should we draw the line and is a very active liberal question.

The Puritans were far from what we might consider Liberal , but you can see signs of some liberal themes in their notion of Covenant, government by agreement, and their aggressive strains of individualism. In the Puritans we also see early forms of Capitalism, justified by their work ethic and comfort with worldly success as a sign of being one of the elect. They also confronted liberalism with a challenge though their notion of a vengeful God. They also offer us a sense of humility and limits, which a dynamic liberal society lacks.

The Constitution of the United States of America is said to be one of the most liberal documents ever written. Its makers however still battled with the idea of liberalism and didn t quite come up with what we have today. The Federalists the main group of people behind the creation of the Constitution created this document because they saw a need to regulate and create a government for a liberal society that needed more authority and structure. Although this may be a good idea it is not a very liberal one, because it takes power and freedom away from the people and gives it to a government. The federalist design for the U. S. Constitution was a negative one geared toward preventing evils from occurring rather than a positive one geared toward establishing a democratic utopia (American Political Thinking). However you may look at it the balance of authority and freedom in America today was set by the standard put forth by the Constitution and the Federalists ideology, which is very deeply imbedded with liberalism.

Alexander Hamilton one of the major contributors to the Constitution and the writer of a majority of the Federalist papers said, Money is the vital and principle of the body of politic, (American Political Thinking). He was a Federalist that wanted to use the Constitution to form a financial aristocracy in the United States. Hamilton envisioned a strong government by the wise, the good, and the rich, a dynamic, centralized form of aristocracy that would strive for industrial financial power, (American Political Thinking). Even though it seems as if Hamilton saw that United States was not to be an agrarian state like so many thought, his ideas of an aristocracy give an alternative to the ideas of the liberal society that has been described. We as a society did become the industrial power that Hamilton wanted us to be and some of his forms of thinking did come true with the formation of conglomerates such as a form of financial aristocracy. Their power was only that of influence, they had no definite or real political power. Hamilton as it was almost feared from living in a society that was too liberal. He did not like the idea of the redistribution of wealth, he foresaw a society where all the have nots’ would be taking from the haves’. Hamilton embodied all the central ideas of the Federalist, some which were liberal some which were not. He was for big government a somewhat anti-liberal idea, however he was for the freedom of everyone to seek self-profit which is the backbone of the notion of a classic liberal. Hamilton was a businessman that molded ideas as he saw fit to best benefit him and others like him. Some of his ideas were liberal and some were not, but he was important in shaping the American notion of liberalism and gives us other options.

The other great staple of the Federalists was the creation of the Declaration of Independence. This document primarily written by Thomas Jefferson was the reason given to the English and the rest of the world, for why the colonists were seceding from the king. The formal arguments in the document are based on very liberal ideas. The Declaration argues for the equality of man, it says that, We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; they are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (American Political Thinking). Jefferson is saying that it is obvious that all men are created equal, meaning that the differences that people do have are made among men. We make our own differences in opinion, but we are all entitled to the same amount of natural rights. These ideas are the basis for American Liberalism, almost every facet of thought that has come from the U. S. that is considered to be liberal contains this notion that every man has the same amount God given or natural rights as any other man.

The Federalists gave us the building blocks to put together our notion of liberalism, and they also gave us alternative courses to take if liberalism didn t offer a notion that fit into our way of thinking. They put in writing the cornerstone for what we deem to be liberal. They may have had different intentions when they wrote the Declaration, Constitution and the Federalist papers, but we now go back to those documents to debate law using them a our liberal guides to make sure we don t fall off track. We may now do what in our minds is liberal and is not the same idea either Hamilton or Jefferson had in mind, but it is to the same basic principle we look back on when we want verification. The Federalists had a huge and lasting effect on the American thought on the ideas of liberalism.

Now on the other hand what most people seem to think is the most ingenious part about the Constitution, was not advocated by the Federalists as much and the Anti-Federalists . The document I speak of is the Bill of Rights; this is probably the most liberal document in American History. It gives the people the rights, and makes sure that the government cannot take these rights away from the people. The Anti-Federalists were for small government; they wanted the Constitution to be a loose union allowing the states to govern themselves. The supremacy of people does not secure the rights of individuals and minorities against the majority, (What the Anti-Federalists Were For). The Anti-Federalists were afraid of a majority faction taking power and striping the minority of its rights. They wanted an equal distribution of power; they thought the best way to do that was to have many smaller governments not so tightly bound together by one lawful unit.

There are a few main points why they were against the Constitution and a large national government. First they thought that the ability to tax took away from the liberal idea of free commerce and the right for one to make self profit. They did not like the president to have so much power as to raise an army, they thought that this was too much power for one person to have and infringed on other s rights. They feared that the president could become a tyrant if not challenged. They also did not like the fact that in the Constitution it states, that Congress can make any law which would further the power of Congress. They were in most aspects fighting for the little guy, because they didn t like one body of government to have too much power. The Anti-Federalists brought the liberal idea to an almost extreme challenging any reduction in the rights of the people. They more often than not seemed to lean towards a more true democracy than do the Federalists.

There are however many points that both the Federalists and Anti-Federalists agreed on. They both believed that liberty and the protection of rights is the proper ends of government. The only legitimate source of political authority is consent. The only proper form of government was republican. That a republican government should be limited by a constitution and finally there should be a union among the states. Looking at these ideas it seems to me most are the foundation of American Liberalism, because not only do they lean towards the Classical Liberal , but the also share similarities with the Progressive Liberal .

The main thing that Puritans, Federalists and Anti-Federalists have in common is that they are American. Now that I ve stated the obvious let me explain how they all contribute in different way to the ideology of American political thought. The Puritans Theology forced them to think a certain way. They wanted to like in a virtuous society, but they needed to live a life that would be successful so that they could discover that they were one of the elect. They wished everyone would worship as they did; however their religion shunned such force. They gave us the notions of toleration for all people and an ambition to live the good life. The Federalists gave us our big government, and with that they gave us free commerce, freedom from tyranny, they gave us the notion that all men are created equal. No matter where you come from or who you are you ll have the same freedom to make anything you want of yourself. The Anti-Federalist gave us what the Federalists left out. They gave us our rights, defined them and said that no matter what; no one could take these rights away. They gave us the power over the government; they made sure that we were able to govern ourselves and they gave us one of the most precious gifts we have, freedom of speech. It always goes back to the saying, that I will stand there and listen to a man insult me and degrade my ideas while expressing his opinion, for the freedom to express my own. I think it is amazing that all these different ideas came together at once to create this fabulous nation and a very unique way of understanding liberty and freedom all under a theory of American Liberalism.

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