The Natural Rights Republic
By Michael Zuckert
University of Notre Dame Press 304 pp. $34.95
In The Natural Rights Republic , Michael Zuckert takes up a question that has long divided American historians and political philosophers: Was the American founding inspired by classical republican, Christian, Whig historical, Scottish enlightenment, or modern liberal conceptions? Zuckert unambiguously chooses the latter: America, he says, is the natural rights republic-not in the sense that liberalism was the only element present at the creation, but in the sense that it was the dominant one, and showed a power to make peace with and indeed assimilate important aspects of classical antiquity and Christianity. Nor is Zuckerts argument merely descriptive-he is very much an advocate of the natural rights republic.
The first part of the book develops the authors account of the natural rights philosophy of the American founding. He offers a painstaking analysis (textual and structural) of the Declaration of Independence, a detailed discussion and critique of other interpretations of the founding (e.g., Garry Wills and Morton Whites), and a close reading of Jeffersons Notes on the State of Virginia . The Declaration is interpreted particularly in conjunction with Lockes Second Treatise on Government and with contemporaneous expressions of the American Mind, especially the Virginia and Massachusetts Bills of Rights.
Zuckerts analysis of the Declaration is generally convincing: he seems to me correct in his structural reading of the Declaration as a fundamentally Lockean or liberal document. At the same time, his tendency to minimize the importance of religion in the American political tradition as anything more than a useful prop of politics at times appears excessive, as in the quick move, in his analysis of Jeffersons handiwork, from Creator to nature: Jefferson himself in the Declaration traced . . . rights to the creator, that is, nature. The very use of Jefferson as the touchstone for understanding natural rights philosophy magnifies the tendency to minimize religion. It tilts the board in favor of a certain understanding of American republicanism that would not have been acceptable to a majority of the people Jefferson was writing for when he penned the Declaration.
On the whole, however, Zuckert is very persuasive in making his case for the natural rights republic. His critiques of alternative views are particularly powerful. Zuckert confronts his opponents head-on, portraying them fairly, but then going effectively (if always politely) for the jugular.
Zuckert speaks of Convergences in the American political tradition. But for him this means not so much a convergence of equal strands as an assimilation by the natural rights tradition of other traditions: Old Whig constitutionalism, Puritan political theology, and the progressive realization of democracy understood as a variant of classical republicanism. America was indeed, Zuckert says, an amalgamation of these views, but the natural rights philosophy remains Americas deepest and so far most abiding commitment, and the others could enter the amalgam only so far as they were compatible, or could be made so, with natural rights.
Take, for example, the argument that traces American political thought to its Puritan roots. Zuckert surveys various versions of this position: strong continuity (the major principles of the founding can be found in the Puritans), minimal continuity (while accommodating themselves to a Christian citizenry, the leading founders held ideas incompatible with Puritan political thought), secularized continuity (there is continuity through a secularization of Christian concepts, e.g., covenant), and eclectic continuity (political and social theories of Puritanism are one of several major sources for the founding). Zuckerts mode of argument here is essentially negative: his demolition of the strong, secularized, and eclectic continuity theses leaves only minimal continuity in place. The Lockeanized Protestantism of the eighteenth century represented a substantial break with the reigning political theology of the previous century, the God of supernature giving way to the God of nature. The Protestant impulse to deny magistrates the power to serve the good of the soul, which led to a dissociation of the political realm and the spiritual realm, thereby prepared the way for the liberal focus on rights as the central category of politics.
Having dissected the Puritan continuity thesis, Zuckert goes on to the Whig constitutionalism thesis of John Phillip Reid and the classical republican thesis of scholars such as J. G. A. Pocock and Gordon Wood and shows them to be equally subordinated to natural rights philosophy.
Over time, Zuckert argues, America has developed a successful synthesis of Jeffersonian and Madisonian republicanism. The large and less strenuously republican Madisonian constitutional system is the fundamental frame, but it has become more infused with a Jeffersonian spirit (by, for example, political parties, formal modification of the Constitution, and the mass media), so that it is not so far removed from the people.
There are tensions, of course, between the expressive (participatory) and the instrumental (rights-protecting) elements of Jeffersons republicanism. Zuckert joins Madison in criticizing Jefferson on two grounds: 1) his insufficient attention to the tension between the popular right to control government and the rights to be protected by government, and 2) the unlikelihood that Jeffersons localized ward republics would supply the energy, competence, and prudence necessary for effective national government. Nonetheless, Zuckert says, the validity of Jeffersons ideals is reinforced by our persistent concern about the quality of democratic life. We live in a tension between the expressive and instrumental dimensions of republicanism. Current debates between liberals and communitarians are simply one manifestation of this tension-a tension that cannot and probably should not be resolved.
A question that Zuckert needs to take up more explicitly is whether one can move from careful textual analysis of the Declaration and other major public documents to such a conclusive characterization of the nature of the American regime. How much do the views of those who are not leading founders, and of the citizenry at large, deserve to be weighed? How much do the premodern elements imbedded in American institutions-e.g., the common law and much state legislation (including, in many states, religious establishments)-count?
Perhaps Zuckert would argue that time has told the story: it is the leading founders and the natural rights philosophy they adopted that won out, and those elements have transformed and decisively subordinated the other, nonliberal elements. But an historical argument is not entirely sufficient, since one might view that victory as unfortunate in important ways, as Zuckert would think unfortunate some twentieth-century developments away from the natural rights philosophy.
Zuckert would, I think, argue that the natural rights philosophy is a superior form of political thought and practice. But that is an argument that requires much more than this book, which is more a detailed explication of natural rights philosophy and its influence than it is a compelling argument for its superiority. Some of us who harbor more serious doubts about the liberal/natural rights/republicanism synthesis, and who believe that many contemporary problems cannot find effective solutions in either contemporary liberalism or in an older liberal amalgam, will remain convinced of the need for a healthier dose of religion and of (non-Lockean) natural law in some form.
Whatever ones view of what America needs, however, it is important to understand the general character of the American founding, and Zuckerts book is a powerful exposition of the most central political principles of that founding. Its elegant articulation of its own thesis, together with its insightful analysis and critique of a wide variety of alternative views, makes it an extremely important contribution to debates on our national origins, which all serious students of the founding and of liberalism will have to confront.
Christopher Wolfe is Professor of Political Science at Marquette University.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?