The main idea of this book is to review intellectual underpinnings of American culture that logically led to revolution and consequent formation of completely new and unusual country based on constitution and common sense. This common sense came not from the magic, but from the Scottish Enlightenment, which is quite different than the French Enlightenment. This difference eventually led to quite different types of states that developed from two revolutions of 1776 and 1789: one being an American type state with constitution and democracy used as methods to find some generally accepted compromise between multitude of individual wills and another one of a French type with society driven by “general will” identified at best by democratic elections, but more often by will of elite or even individual in power with multitude of individual wills of regular people either subordinate or actively suppressed.
This is a discussion of American Enlightenment as product of British or more precisely Scottish Enlightenment, which has its own very distinct features quite different from usual understanding of Enlightenment based on its French patterns.
OVERTURE Locke’s Revolution
This about Locke, his treatises on government and, most important, his core idea that “The supreme power in every commonwealth (is) but the joint power of every member of society”
ONE: The Founders
This obviously is about formation of American founders as individuals with ideology that occurred under influence of Scottish immigrants who were their tutors. It is reviewed in some details based on example of Benjamin Rush. It also provides somewhat unusual look at constitutional convention as the drama founding and as the unique case of deliberative establishment of the state.
TWO: The American Enlightenment
This is a look at specifics of American Enlightenment and discussion of similarities and differences between it, French Enlightenment, and huge differences in societies that American and French revolutions produced.
THREE: The Declaration of Independence
This is a very interesting discussion on declaration of independence and ideological root of its key notion that by now became quite obscure and misunderstood such as “…Self-Evident”, “…Unalienable rights”, “… Pursuit of Happiness”, and “… All men created Equal”. This chapter also contains brief, but very important piece on the American idea of Property Rights.
FOUR: The Constitution
This is about constitution as an attempt to create such framework of the state that would take into account immutable characteristics of human nature, rather than try to change human nature to fit into framework of ideal state. Author uses juxtaposition between Madison and King George both treated as legitimate thinkers about nature of the state, but with critically different approach with Madison seeking establish new framework of society, while King George trying to protect god ordained order from “Presbyterian rebellion”.
FIVE: The Federalist Papers
This starts with Adam Smith’s “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” that author seems to consider to be underappreciated founding document of America and then goes to Madison’s argumentation in Federalist Papers on the Extended Republic, Representation, and legal framework of the society.
SIX: Religion and the American Enlightenment
This is about a religion being a necessary component of American creation that sprung from the very special creed of Christianity: not dogmatic, but tolerant, which paradoxically made America much more religious country than any other in developed Western world.
SEVEN: Turning Away from the Founders
This chapter moves us close to the contemporary world, retelling history of mainly successful so far attempt to destroy America conducted from within its society by supporters of French enlightenment of the big government and suppression of individual. The ranks of these supporters run from Woodrow Wilson to contemporary post-modern “Progressives” .
EIGHT: Common Sense Nation
This is about American Common Sense that still standing, but is severely wounded by 100 years “progressive” challenge. It directs a special attention to the currently victorious progressives in academia.
NINE: A Brief History of “Liberalism”
This is about American Liberalism that came to signify something directly opposite of Liberalism of XIX century. The latter was freedom movement, while the former statist and oppressive movement striving to move control of human lives to the big government bureaucrats. The chapter briefly looks at original progressivism of early XX century, FDR’s big government revolution of 1930s, and countervailing movement of conservatism as it developed by the end of this century.
POSTSCRIPT How to Misunderstand the Founders
This very short chapter stresses the typical mistake that people make trying to explain America by reference to English parliamentary system and the French Enlightenment. It is neither. America is the product of unique American Enlightenment and must be analyzed on its own terms.
MY TAKE ON IT:
I find the idea of America’s roots in Scottish Enlightenment very intriguing. The whole idea of two different approaches to the running of society: one from the top down via Reason of educated elite that is imposed by all means necessary on non-elite members of society and another one from the bottom up via Common Sense of regular members of society pushed up to elite for limited managerial functions, seems to me highly explanatory and consistent with real live experience.
The last couple hundred years after both methods where applied: the Common Sense in America after 1776 and the Reason in France after 1789 history produced some very good examples of implementation results for each approach:
- It is hard to imagine more Reason driven ideologies than Communism and National Socialism, both being products of pseudo-scientific reasoning of intellectual elite most often born to middle layers of society and raised to the top via self-education and revolutionary activities similarly to mother of them all elite of the French revolution.
- Correspondingly it is hard to imagine more Common sense driven society than early America were whatever Reason of elite dictated was practically impossible to implement due to huge distances, absence of well organized government power structures, and economic independence not only localities, but also individual farmers and mechanics.
It is obvious that with increased maturity of technology and society’s power structures America practically ceased to be the fully Common Sense nation. The dramatic growth of educated elite that has no place in market economy, but strongly demands level of resources provision consistent with their expectations, created strong base for movement to expand top down European Reason model in which such educated elite guarantied high level of resource transfer from actual producers. However the Common Sense part of America did not disappear and still maintains probably slight advantage among American population. All this indicates high probability of clash between these two models of society with one of them definitely ending on the top, taking over American society as the whole.