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A Republic, If You Can Keep It

Remembering American government, before it was distorted by bureaucrats and activist judges.

By 12.2.08

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Defending the Republic: Constitutional Morality in a Time of Crisis; Essays in Honor of George W. Carey
Edited by Bruce P. Frohnen & Kenneth L. Grasso
(ISI Books, 352 pages, $30)

"A republic," voiced Scipio in Cicero's Republic, "is the property of the public." But, for republican Romans, the republic was not an abstraction. It was a concrete institution, the "public thing" as the Latin suggests, one grounded not in lofty ideals, but in the mos maiorum, in ancestral tradition. It was a peculiar, organic body, passed on through blood and progeny.

Raised on Tacitus and other classics, American colonists and framers of the U.S. Constitution were all too familiar with the excesses of empire -- corruption, degeneracy, foreign interference -- and sought to avoid past mistakes. As a result, the framers instead sought a republic, emphasizing civic virtue, citizen participation and limited government. In an era of big government and activist judges, however, it is clear that all is not well with our republican tradition.  

In honor of one of the nation's foremost constitutional scholars, Georgetown University's George W. Carey, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute presents a new volume of essays, Defending the Republic, edited by Bruce P. Frohnen and Kenneth L. Grasso. The purpose of this study is to discuss and develop Carey's ideas on the American republic, namely, the "origin, development, and derailment of the American political tradition."

Our republic, the editors warn, has slowly deteriorated. Part of this is due to the tension between an older political tradition that was not individualist or egalitarian and the newer American creed based on liberal abstractions from the Enlightenment. This newer tendency maintains that America, above all, must be committed to freedom and equality, and it does so with a religious zeal. A hallmark of this tendency is "messianism," setting men up as gods and appointing America as "the arbiter of all mankind and supreme judge of the world."

In the first part of this volume, Paul Edward Gottfried traces the ideas of Carey as they are related to Willmoore Kendall, who co-authored with Carey The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition and participated in the founding of National Review. Gottfried notes that Carey, like Kendall, viewed the Constitution as a product of an evolving political tradition going back at least to the Mayflower Compact. This tradition, however, is in peril in part because of the increasing heterogeneity of society. Pluralism engenders social discord, and Carey inevitably accepts a Rousseauean assumption: "republican self-government can work only where widespread consensus exists." Consensus, however, is unable organically to develop in communities -- at least not while centralization prevails, a symptom of which is judicial activism. Frohen, in a later essay, laments, "The Supreme Court in particular has imposed its ideological vision of a national community on states and localities, stripping them of their proper functions." This activist court undermines local modes of life, and forges a "centralized tutelary state."

And how does this tutelary state act on the world stage? Claes G. Ryn, in the third and final part of the book, addresses the "neo-Jacobin" tendencies of contemporary American politics. The original Jacobins, champions of universal principles, led the French Revolution of 1789. The new Jacobins, as radical as their predecessors, desire to replace the America "of history, with its roots in classical, Christian, and British culture," with their own America, which is defined "by ahistorical, allegedly universal, and rational principals, specifically freedom and equality." Espousing "enlightenment ideals of universal applicability," this new regime is for all people, and must be spread over the entire globe. Largely supported by neoconservatives and neoliberals, this hyper-interventionism is "God's cause," which Casey thought to be one of the "false myths" that "produce fanatics among us." Ryn aptly notes that any notion of universality that does not acknowledge the "opacity and infinite complexity of life" is an "ideological fiction." It is unsurprising, then, that these new Jacobins are not unlike Marxists in their general outlook.

This reviewer has only two minor complaints about this insightful book. While Ryn and others criticize the universalizing tendencies of contemporary America, a few authors invoke the bogeyman of historicism or relativism. Donald S. Lutz, for instance, imagines Carey as decrying historicism, saying "there are truths that transcend history and culture." The real threat, however, facing the republic today is not one of relativism, but a Procrustean universalism that makes unrealistic "moral" demands upon the republic and her people. As Ryn and others point out, any true universality must synthesize with historical particulars.   

Second, it would have been refreshing had this volume included an essay on mass immigration and the republic. Carey wrote about the quagmires of social heterogeneity and lack of consensus but does not address how high immigration levels can amplify these problems. Widespread demographic replacement usually results in at least a different style, if not form, of government.

Other contributors to Defending the Republic include John S. Baker, Jr.; Francis Canavan, S.J.; William Gangi; Kenneth L. Grasso; Gary L. Gregg II; Peter Augustine Lawler; Gordon Lloyd; Jeffry Morrison; E. Robert Statham, Jr.; and Quentin Taylor -- all of whom address various aspects of our republican predicament. Characterizing the origin, foundation, and derailment of our republic, these essays contain valuable information. And perhaps some roadmaps to restoration.

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About the Author

Matthew A. Roberts writes from Parkville, Missouri.