Power versus Liberty: Madison, Hamilton, Wilson, and Jefferson

Power versus Liberty: Madison, Hamilton, Wilson, and Jefferson

by James H. Read

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Does every increase in the power of government entail a loss of liberty for the people? James H. Read examines how four key Founders--James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, James Wilson, and Thomas Jefferson--wrestled with this question during the first two decades of the American Republic.

Power versus Liberty reconstructs a four-way conversation--sometimes respectful, sometimes shrill--that touched on the most important issues facing the new nation: the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, federal authority versus states' rights, freedom of the press, the controversial Bank of the United States, the relation between nationalism and democracy, and the elusive meaning of "the consent of the governed."

Each of the men whose thought Read considers differed on these key questions. Jefferson believed that every increase in the power of government came at the expense of liberty: energetic governments, he insisted, are always oppressive. Madison believed that this view was too simple, that liberty can be threatened either by too much or too little governmental power. Hamilton and Wilson likewise rejected the Jeffersonian view of power and liberty but disagreed with Madison and with each other.

The question of how to reconcile energetic government with the liberty of citizens is as timely today as it was in the first decades of the Republic. It pervades our political discourse and colors our readings of events from the confrontation at Waco to the Oklahoma City bombing to Congressional debate over how to spend the government surplus. While the rhetoric of both major political parties seems to posit a direct relationship between the size of our government and the scope of our political freedoms, the debates of Madison, Hamilton, Wilson, and Jefferson confound such simple dichotomies. As Read concludes, the relation between power and liberty is inherently complex.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780813924601
Publisher: University of Virginia Press
Publication date: 01/29/2000
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 201
File size: 592 KB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

James H. Read is Associate Professor of Political Science at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University of Minnesota.

What People are Saying About This

Jack N. Rakove

 In these deft essays, James Read offers an astute introduction to the four leading original architects of the American constitutional tradition: Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, and James Wilson. Few writers have captured their essential ideas so concisely or appreciatively.

Peter S. Onuf

Power versus Liberty provides fresh perspectives on the political thought of James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, James Wilson, and Thomas Jefferson, statesmen and theorists who played crucial roles in shaping the American experiment in republican government. Read shows how these revolutionaries struggled to reconcile tensions between liberty and power; his important book succeeds admirably in reconstructing a fascinating debate over fundamental questions that continue to command our attention. Historians and theorists alike will gain much from Read's judicious and thoughtful analysis.

Michael Zuckert

 James Read in effect returns to the themes Bernard Bailyn put at the center of his classic study of the American Revolution and rescues them from the so-called Republican Synthesis. He extends Bailyn's analysis into the period of the early republic and shows how much insight the related themes of power and liberty can give when deployed by a deft hand.

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