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-by Daniel Walker Howe


America's Communitarian Roots

The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Thought

-By Barry Shain

Princeton University Press

416 pp.; $39.50, hardcover, $17.95, paper

Natural Rights and the New Republicanism

-By Michael Zuckert

Princeton University Press

397 pp.; $39.50

The Lincoln Persuasion: Remaking American Liberalism

-By J. David Greenstone

Princeton University Press

352 pp.; $45, hardcover, $13.95, paper

For a long time it seemed indisputable that America was a nation whose constitution and politics were based on the belief that government exists in order to protect the rights of individuals. In recent years, however, a number of historians have undertaken to challenge this conventional wisdom. They have argued that the founders of the American Republic were less interested in the rights of individuals than we had supposed and more concerned with the welfare of the community. Their conclusions, although varying, run something like this. Early Americans were by no means unanimously and simply dedicated to an individualistic philosophy of natural rights. Instead, they were in touch with a multiplicity of political ideas, including some that were strongly communitarian in nature.

As a result of these scholarly labors, we now realize that the set of political theories with which America began was diverse and complicated. Alongside the philosophy of natural rights for which John Locke and Thomas Jefferson are famous, historians of the new school have put a variety of other political philosophies, including the corporate ideal of balanced government inherited from the ancient world, medieval peasant or artisan notions of a "moral economy," the communal ideals of Protestant sectarians, Renaissance humanist ideals of patriotic virtue, and the moral philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment. At the same time, however, other historians have been stoutly defending the primary importance of Lockean liberalism in defining the American political tradition.

But why should we care about these ...

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