Overview

In this inaugural volume of the Alexis de Tocqueville Lectures, political scientist James Ceaser traces the way certain ideas, including nature, history, and religion—which he calls foundational ideas—have been understood and used by statesmen and public intellectuals over the course of American history, from the Puritans to the current day. Ceaser treats these ideas not as pure concepts of philosophy or theology, but rather as elements of political discourse that provide the ground or ultimate appeal for other ...

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Nature and History in American Political Development: A Debate

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Overview

In this inaugural volume of the Alexis de Tocqueville Lectures, political scientist James Ceaser traces the way certain ideas, including nature, history, and religion—which he calls foundational ideas—have been understood and used by statesmen and public intellectuals over the course of American history, from the Puritans to the current day. Ceaser treats these ideas not as pure concepts of philosophy or theology, but rather as elements of political discourse that provide the ground or ultimate appeal for other political ideas, such as liberty or equality. At times, they have critically influenced the course of American political development, offering various opportunities and constraints for political leaders. Ceaser traces the histories of these ideas and their relation to other ideas, to practices, and to the fortunes of successive partisan regimes.

Three critical commentators—historian Jack Rakove and political theorists Nancy Rosenblum and Rogers Smith—challenge Ceaser’s arguments in several ways. They suggest that other ideas may be considered foundational, and they prod him to clarify further how foundational ideas work politically. Ceaser responds with vigor, and the result is a spirited debate about large and enduring questions in American politics.

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What People Are Saying

James A Morone
This first Alexis de Tocqueville Lecture fully lives up to its name. These are wise, elegant, witty, subversive reflections on the role of ideas in political life. Nature and History is a rich meditation on America, a feisty debate about history, and a complete delight to read. --(James A Morone, Brown University)
Jeffrey K. Tulis
James Ceaser has uncovered a profoundly vital aspect of American politics known by political leaders for centuries but ignored by the discipline of political science. His lecture on foundational concepts stimulated a vigorous debate on the ways students of politics should understand the role of ideas. The responses by Jack Rakove, Nancy Rosenblum, and Rogers Smith pose tough questions and Ceaser responds to their challenges in a wonderful exchange. Nature and History in American Political Development opens up an arena in the study of American politics that is new and especially important. --(Jeffrey K. Tulis, University of Texas at Austin)
Michael Zuckert
This book offers a double-header of a treat: James Ceaser provides the outlines of a new and altogether intriguing approach to the field of American political thought, and three of the field's most eminent scholars write appreciative but hard-hitting critiques. Ceaser has a reply, and the entire debate echoes in the mind long after the reader has put the book down. --(Michael Zuckert, University of Notre Dame)
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Theda Skocpol is Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University. Her previous works include the prize-winning States and Social Revolutions.

Jack N. Rakove is the William R. Coe Professor of History and American Studies and Professor of Political Science at Stanford University and author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution.

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Table of Contents

Foreword by Theda N. Skocpol

1. Foundational Concepts and American Political Development

by James W. Ceaser

2. Can We Know a Foundational Idea When We See One?

by Jack N. Rakove

3. Replacing Foundations with Staging: "Second-Story" Concepts and American Political Development

by Nancy L. Rosenblum

4. What If God Was One of Us? The Challenges of Studying Foundational Political Concepts

by Rogers M. Smith

5. Foundational Concepts Reconsidered

by James W. Ceaser

Notes

About the Authors

Index

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