Monday, October 20, 2014

The Rethinking of Political “Thinking”

Freeden, Michael.  The Political Theory of Political Thinking.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, November 2013.

In a highly erudite and comprehensive manner, the prominent British political theorist Michael Freeden (University of Nottingham) raises fundamental questions about how students of politics and others engage in political thinking.  The author is concerned about the increasingly “slippery” language employed in political discourse, and while admitting that the meaning of political terminology is always undergoing change, there is nevertheless a need for decisiveness and finality to sustain the body politic (p. 74).  Most importantly, Freeden urges a reorientation and renewed linguistic refinement among political theorists, suggesting that such a process would reinvigorate the how we think about politics.  The complexities of the analysis in the work are necessary and do obfuscate from the author’s mission.  For example, “micro” level studies of political language usually fail to provide “interpretative flexibilities” that facilitate broad level of understanding.  Similarly, the goal of encouraging fluidity in political thinking may not always prove useful, suggesting an element of skepticism regarding relativism as a guiding principle for politics.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

New Work on Burke Reviewed

My review of one of the best books on Edmund Burke's political thought to appear in the last half century, Ian Crowe's _Patriotism and Public Spirit: Edmund Burke and the Role of the Critic in Mid-18th Century Britain_ (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press 304 pp. ISBN: 9780804781275), just published in Perspectives on Political Science:

Friday, September 12, 2014

Remembering W. Wesley McDonald: Marylander, Friend, and Kirk Disciple

On September 9th, with the passing of Dr. William Wesley McDonald, the American academy lost a talented teacher and defender of humane learning.   The American conservative movement, or what remains of authentic conservatism, has also lost a strong advocate for restraint in social and political life.  From a very early age, Wes came to the realization that politics, properly understood, was the pursuit of the good the true and beautiful; and, at this early juncture, Wes also appreciated the imperfectability of humankind, and the necessary limits of politics.  As a great lover and sophisticated student of the limits of politics, Wes feared the inappropriate and increasingly commonplace aggrandizement of liberty by the modern state.  He spent his life fighting the usurpation of fundamental liberties. 

Wes loved his native Maryland, and within our federal arrangement, he considered Maryland to be a southern state in many regards, often referring to the “old Maryland” as a model of political moderation and civility.  Of course, as a realist, Wes derided the political class in power in Maryland during most of his lifetime, composed of career politicos and apparatchiks, whose guiding principles were antithetical to the inherited tradition Wes cherished.  With some regularity, Wes would recollect the role of Maryland in the Founding and in the evolution of the regime, and pray that all was not lost if a recovery of principle could take place.  Graduating from Baltimore’s Towson State University in 1968 with a degree in political science, Wes pursued graduate study in political science, earning a Masters of Arts in political science from Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, in 1969.  He considered several options for graduate school before selecting The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.  At Catholic, Wes studied with and wrote a dissertation under tutelage of the eminent conservative scholar, Dr. Claes G. Ryn.  He successfully defended his dissertation, entitled “The Conservative Mind of Russell Kirk: 'The Permament Things' in an Age of Ideology,” in 1982.  The dissertation would eventually be revised into a book, and the tome would serve as his most important contribution to scholarship.

No tribute to Wes would be appropriate without some stress upon his importance as a friend and mentor.  I first encountered a mention of Wes on the last page of Kirk's The Portable Conservative Reader (Viking Penguin, 1982), in a section entitled “A Note of Acknowledgment."  At the end of what is still the best single-volume collection of conservative thought available today, Kirk made the following comment: "Mr. Wesley McDonald spent months in close collaboration with me, choosing selections and finding accurate texts, and editing them."  This rather obscure reference introduced me to Wes, his work with Kirk, and Kirk’s willingness to take on research assistants who could benefit from studying with the Duke of Mecosta.  Having spent the final years of my undergraduate years engrossed in Kirk’s writings, and reading the corpus of the Intercollegiate Review, I came to view Kirk as a beacon of light amidst my academic darkness.  In 1983, I began my graduate studies at The Divinity School of Duke University.  I was totally unprepared for what was to follow, and instead of reading the assigned texts, I turned to Kirk and Voegelin.  During the semester, I also attended an Intercollegiate Studies Institute conference, and in the middle of a banquet event, I recognized Wes at an adjacent table from his picture in an I.S.I. speakers bureau booklet.  I approached Wes, and he immediately encouraged me to write to Kirk, telling him of my plight, and Wes also urged me to ask Kirk if he could use a wayward research assistant.  Thanks to the encouragement I received from Wes, my life was never the same.  In fact, I am now one of the more aged individuals who were blessed with the opportunity to work and study with Kirk in Mecosta.

            The next year my old friend from my undergraduate years, Dr. Al Gilman, a mathematician qua political theorist, and an acquaintance of Kirk’s, created an academic entity at Western Carolina University entitled the Center for the Study of Cultural Decadence, following the insights of Joad and Kirk.  Three decades later the center’s title and organizational focus appears a little quaint, as we now take such a high level of societal decadence for granted, and in some quarters we even celebrate decadence as the “new enlightenment.”  Nevertheless, the center was a noble, yet short-lived pursuit, but not before Gilman held a national conference on the topic of decadence.  Both Wes and I presented papers at the conference, and Wes’s contribution on Kirk was eventually published in the Hillsdale Review.  Before the conference ended, Wes advised me to dedicate my year in Mecosta to spending as much time with Kirk and to read constantly!  This was some of the best advice one could receive!

            After Mecosta, I returned to graduate school, and Wes quickly invited me to present a paper at the annual meeting of the Pennsylvania Political Science Association.  In 1987, under the kind auspices of Wes, I presented my first professional paper, and this effort would become my first published article.  For the remainder of his life, Wes and I remained friends and regular correspondents. 

            Of much greater importance than my personal narrative, Wes’s “mission” as a popular faculty member and student mentor at Elizabethtown College defined his professional life.  The devotion to teaching and mentoring students was Wes’s greatest gift–and his enduring legacy–and it is this academic witness that separated Wes from most of his colleagues.  In some respects, members of the professoriate are the last nomads to be found in American today.  Professors often make career moves to enhance their status or salary with reckless abandonment (and this writer is among the ranks of those who have followed such paths), and with the shrinking number of full-time academic positions, not to the mention the influence of the proprietary, on-line programs, the growth of institutional academic bureaucracies, and other threats to academic life, a professor with a lifelong commitment to an institution is hard to find.  Wes was a most honorable exception.  Wes taught at Elizabethtown College for nearly three and a half decades.  He was beloved by students and his resiliency of purpose is a model for us all.  He mentored countless students who would pursue graduate studies, legal studies, and become political practitioners of one variety or another.  When Wes was a candidate for full professor a decade ago, he asked me to write a letter of recommendation on his behalf.  He thought my status as an academic vice president, and my strong letter of support, would make his promotion a certainly.  In my letter I simply asked the President and the Trustees of they could name a more loyal and devoted professor at their college?  Wes was quickly promoted.

Finally, any celebration of Wes’s life should praise the importance of his great study, Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology, published by the University of Missouri Press in 2004.  In essence, the book is a valuable survey of a leading (nay, seminal) thinker of the 20th century, although Kirk’s contribution has for the most part been neglected for ideological reasons and assessed by less perceptive scholars than Wes (There are exceptions, however; see Russello’s The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk [Missouri, 2004], and Brad Birzer’s forthcoming study from the University of Kentucky Press.).

            Wes argued that Kirk was a political thinker, historian, historian of political ideas, journalist, and one who served in many other capacities.  Kirk’s significance was not limited to the conservative movement.  Wes was correct, and he teaches us a lesson that we should not easily forget.

In the first chapter of his work, entitled “Kirk and the Rebirth of American Conservatism,” Wes provided an excellent survey of Kirk’s plea for the return to traditional concepts of political order and power.  The description of Kirk’s education experiences was alluring, and at my insistence, he included Kirk’s private reading as an undergraduate at Michigan State, where he was engrossed in Donald Davidson’s Attack on Leviathan; and the influence of his two mentors at Duke, Jay Hubbell (English) and Charles Sydnor (History).  Additionally, Wes’s inclusion of  Kirk’s own commentary as contained in his Sword of Imagination made this an exemplary introduction to Kirk’s early intellectual life.

The next two chapters are central to his book.  Wes thoughtfully conveys Kirk’s defense of the moral basis of social and political life, and the appropriate role of rights and natural law.  Wes depended heavily on Irving Babbitt to explain Kirk, and the effort to distinguish Kirk explicitly from the Christian tradition of natural law thinking evoked some criticism.  While Wes may have overemphasized Babbitt’s influence and the insights of the New Humanists (and their contemporary disciples), he was still prescient in his understanding of Kirk’s worldview.  He was also correct to suggest the important role of literature and humane letters upon Kirk.  For example, Wes’s analysis of Kirk’s Enemies volume by is wonderful and this contribution alone will encourage a new generation of readers to encounter this tome. 

Wes’s chapters (four and five) on Kirk’s contributions to political theory scholarship are the best assessment of Kirk’s political thought every written.  Chapter six delineates the centrality of community to Kirk’s thought, and is presented with great accuracy and clarity.  Wes’s stress on the role assumed by self-restraint makes the chapter an important contribution to Kirk scholarship.  Kirk believed that humankind’s primary obligation lies in his or her community.  Self-discipline and love of neighbor begin with the individual, and spread to the community, and then to society as a whole.  In other words, Kirk’s concept of community serves to define the limitations of society and politics on hand, while on the other it presupposes and defends the necessity of a properly constituted community for securing the moral and ethical results concomitant to society's perpetuation. 

There remain among us many who knew and loved Russell Kirk, but very few of us who have devoted our lives to the exegesis of his boundless wisdom for the rising generation.  With the departing of Wes for the Heavenly Banquet, we defenders of the “permanent things” should remember one of the finest comrades and gentlemen to have come our way.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Georgia Political Science Association to Host Panel on EGSC Professor’s Book

The annual meeting of the Georgia Political Science Association will include a panel devoted to analyzing an East Georgia State College professor’s recent book.  The decision to organize a panel on a recently scholarly book at a professional meeting signifies the importance of the work, as well as the timeliness of the issues contained in the book.  The professor, Dr. Lee Cheek, and his new book, Patrick Henry-Onslow Debate: Liberty and Republicanism in American Political Thought, was published by Lexington Books, an internationally-respected publisher, will be featured at the meeting.  Dr. Cheek co-edited the volume, which gathers documents on one of the most momentous political debates about the meaning of republican government in the decades before the Civil War.
The debate followed the disputed Election of 1824. After an indecisive electoral college vote, the House of Representatives selected John Quincy Adams as president over the more popular war hero, Andrew Jackson. As a result, John C. Calhoun ended up serving as vice-president under Adams. Neither man was comfortable in this situation as they were political rivals who held philosophically divergent views of American constitutional governance. The emerging personal and philosophical dispute between President Adams and Vice-President Calhoun eventually prompted the two men (and Adams’s political supporters) to take up their pens, using the pseudonyms “Patrick Henry” and “Onslow,” in a public debate over the nature of power and liberty in a constitutional republic. “The great debate,” notes Kevin Gutzman of Western Connecticut State University, “arrayed Calhoun’s Jeffersonian republican vision of constitutionally restrained power and local autonomy against Adams’s neo-Federalist republican vision which called for the positive use of inherent power—a view that would become increasingly compelling to future generations of Americans.” The debate between Vice President John C. Calhoun (‘Onslow’) and President John Quincy Adams or his ally (‘Patrick Henry’) captures the clash between Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian views at a pivotal moment in American history.
While the debate has not received the scholarly attention it deserves, the organization of this panel suggests renewed interest in the debate, as well as its continuing importance to American politics.  The annual meeting of the Georgia Political Science Association will take place from 13-15 November in Savannah, Georgia.  The panel was organized by Dr. Hans E. Schmeisser of Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, and will include scholars from around the country
Dr. Cheek is Chair of the Social Sciences and Professor of Political Science at East Georgia State College, in Swainsboro, Georgia.  His many publications include Calhoun and Popular Rule (2001) and Order and Legitimacy (2004).

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Kind Praise from a Thoughtful Reader of My Cat Essay

Ashes From Burnt Roses: The Art of the Essay: An Ode to the Greatest Cat: I had to come up with a new category for this: an essay by someone I came across that I thought was noteworthy.  Since this is the first of...

Thursday, July 31, 2014

An Ode To Sophie, The World’s Greatest Tabster

Sophie, Constitutional Law Tutor: Cleveland, Tennessee (2004)

            As a traditionalist, a defender of the tried and true against the new and untried, a devotee of personal restraint when faced with overriding challenges, and a defender of the inherited tradition, the present writer has been a critic of change, especially dramatic upheavals, for all of his life.  However, twelve years ago he was encouraged to accept an addition to his family that changed his life.

By birth an agrarian, raised in rural, Piedmont North Carolina, in what the eminent historian Clyde Wilson describes as the Promised Land, old folkways persevere and nurture each successive generation.  In this world, hunting dogs are one of the most valued companions a gentleman can have in his life; for my family, our prized companion was the North American Beagle.[1]  These creatures were a source of great companionship and occasional sporting pride.  On the other hand, felines of all varieties were the most despised of creatures, especially the domestic house cat.  As a young man, I shared this unfortunate bias, an error of my ways that I eventually overcame.  During my childhood, only exceptional men of great perception, skill, and manly virtue were not willing to succumb to this ideological worldview.  Perhaps the greatest example of such a spoudias, or weighty man, was my paternal grandfather, William Spencer Cheek, one of the last mountain men, a native of Yadkin County, North Carolina, a center of the moonshining trade in the 1930s, and the genesis of NASCAR.  Grandpa Cheek, the sort of fellow often also described as a “man’s man,” was surprisingly a devotee of the American Domestic Shorthair, or the “tab cat.”  He went to great lengths to care for his cats, along with his other animals.  The seeds of this writer’s eventual feline redemption were planted early in his life.

Most of childhood was spent unaware of the beauty, grace, and love exhibited by felines.  In fact, I could not fathom how a cat could transform my life.  Providentially, while on a “sabbatical” from Duke Divinity School, I was given the opportunity to serve as the research assistant to a remarkable scholar and lover of cats, Russell Amos Kirk.  As a leading political thinker and man of letters of the 20th century, Kirk possessed many friends and admirers.  For Kirk, cats were a special gift from the Divine, and to be protected and cherished.  One of his friends, Thomas Stearns Eliot, composed the great affirmation of the feline, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, and this obviously influenced Kirk, and eventually, your servant.

Guided by the inspiration of Grandpa Cheek and Russell Amos Kirk, even though closed to the prospect of having a feline in our house, some openness emerged after making a professional transition to Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, an exemplary liberal arts college.  My wife, Kathy, convinced me that we needed a cat.  I was adamantly opposed to the prospect initially, but my life experiences allowed me to consider the possibility.  In August of 2000 I walked gently into a pet store on Keith Street in Cleveland, Tennessee, and a beautiful tab cat kitten with white paws ran up to me without provocation; her paws glistened in the bright lights of the store, suggesting she had chosen me as her new factotum.  Little did I know that this kitten would change my life.  In a day or so we brought Sophie to our Georgia Bell Circle home.  Sophie was an adorable kitten, not in the typical sense that all kittens are adorable; she seemed to be able to discern your attitude and you intentions, and responded in due course.  At the beginning of her first night with us, we placed her in the kitchen, and between the kitchen and the dining room we placed an inflatable bed (vertically) so as to block her exit from the kitchen.  Sophie cried and obviously wanted to spend the evening with us, but she eventually settled down and we went to sleep.  Much to our surprise and excitement, in middle of the night, she was able to make her way into her bedroom, overcoming the “great wall” we had placed in her way!  We quickly discerned that Sophie was unstoppable and unflappable, even in the midst of difficult situations!  As she overcame her inflatable bed as barricade, she would overcome many challenges during her twelve years on this earth.

No memory or accounting of the life of Sophie would be complete without some mention of the special bond between Sophie and Kathy.  From the first time they encountered each other, a union of spirit and affection was created.  It is difficult to describe the connectivity between these two living creatures, a bond that never dissipated during Sophie's lifetime.  In many regard, Sophie should best be remembered as a feline genius.  At many points in her life, she approximated an understanding of human speech.  In addition to the spoken word, she was an expert at discerning human emotional needs as well.  She was a "two person cat," with only a duo of real friends for the duration of her life; it was a great honor to have been one of these persons, but I was the inferior of the two friends in Sophie’s estimation.

Dynamic Duo: Kathy and Sophie, Fort Walton Beach, Florida (c. 2001)

From an early age, Sophie was a source of profound amusement, occasional bewilderment, and inestimable joy.  When only a few months old, and still adjusting to life, we were visited by our longtime friends, the Teem family.  Our traditionally-designed house contained a long hallway.  During the Teem visit, in the midst of a  rambunctious series of movements, the youngest Teem, Kaitlyn, and Sophie, ran into each other at full speed in the middle of the long hallway without an exit of any sort.  The culmination of the head-on collision was the issuing of great shouts, and two living creatures making 180° turns away from each other!  Within a month or so later, Sophie had her first encounter with another cat.  Our dear friend, Dr. Mary Waalkes, brought over her cat, John Wesley, named after the great Methodist evangelist, to meet Ms. Sophie.  Yet again, Sophie would demonstrate, as she would on many more occasions, she was a two-person animal, holding every other cat and most humans in great disdain.

Sophie was a great lover of all games, but she had a particular preference for certain toys.  By accident, we discovered that an old belt renamed the “sneaky snake” would become Sophie's early favorite and lifelong source of entertainment.  She literally chased the improvised snake without ceasing when it was used to imitate an actual snake, often for hours, until both the snake enabler and the cat were exhausted.  She also loved small toy rats, and for that matter, any object a person would want to throw, and she would proceed to chase the object.  Unlike a canine, however, Sophie simply enjoyed the chase, and had no interest in retrieving any object. 

Within a year of her birth, we took Sophie on her first sojourn.  We traveled to Fort Walton Beach, Florida, en route to visiting Angie, my stepdaughter, in Tallahassee.  In 2001, they were fewer hotels willing to accommodate pets, but we hoped we could locate one nevertheless.  At the last moment, after not securing a pet-friendly hotel, and having Sophie with us for the duration of the journey, we faced the inevitable: a covert mission was the only course of action.  After being stowed away in my gym bag, and with the mid-afternoon Florida temperature rising, we decided to take her to our room.  What ensued was a week of feline hijinks, with Sophie scampering towards the door every time a housekeeper came to visit; ostensibly, she only wanted to introduce herself to the maid.  On several occasions, she tried to escape from a second-floor porch and explore the ocean and the sand more fully.  But this was not Sophie’s only trip to the coast.  Many years later we took Sophie to St. Augustine, Florida, on our historical tour of Spanish missions and other locales.  After arriving in St. Augustine—and much to our chagrin—we realized we had inadvertently chosen the Daytona bike weekend for our visit.  Because of the overflow of bikers, many of the self-professed easy riders were staying at our hotel in St. Augustine!  Sophie immediately became ensconced on the window ledge, scoffing at all varieties of bikers, from the ranks of counter culture hipsters, to doctors, lawyers, and indian chiefs—all with the same level of disdain.  Sophie was not a good traveler, but this did not prevent us from taking her on trips.  She traveled to Ohio, North Carolina, and many other places.

Sophie, Mountain Cat: Reliance, Tennessee (2004)

In Sophie's third year, will we moved to 600 8th Street NW in downtown Cleveland, Tennessee, just a five block walk from Lee University (my employer) into a Craftsman bungalow with asbestos shingles and a decorative metal roof, built during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson.  The bungalow had a beautiful window seat in the front of the house, and Sophie located this perch within a few minutes of initially touring the house.  She found great enjoyment in watching the cars, trucks, bewildered Lee University students, and others, pass by her house.  Regardless of the situation outside, Sophie was impervious to the distractions of the world.  The greatest challenges she ever faced were her encounters with a militant mockingbird.  The mockingbird, often only a few inches on the other side of a glass storm door, was the only animal to evoke a spirit of fear within Sophie.  Kathy was completing her college degree at Covenant College, often taking classes that did not end until late in the evening.  The ever prescient Sophie, realizing her “mom” was away, would wait anxiously by the door for her safe return.  Upon Kathy’s return, Sophie would become the most excited creature God ever created!  Such was the bond between Sophie and Kathy.  At this old house, Sophie experienced her best days, spending many long days in front of the fireplace.  She had already become a legend in our lives and in the stories I regaled my students with great regularity!

In 2005 we returned to South Georgia generally, and to Vidalia, specifically.  This move was Sophie's first extended sojourn out of Tennessee.  We were able to hire our good friend and cat whisperer, Dr. Mary Waalkes as well, so Kathy, Sophie, and I were reunited with our pal Mary who had encouraged us so much in our cat pursuits.  Mary was the only person outside of my wife and me, who really understood Sophie, but this was an understanding not always reciprocated by Sophie.  On one occasion, when we were out of town, we asked Mary to feed Sophie for us.  On her way to church, Mary attempted to feed Sophie.  Much to her surprise, Sophie was more interested in Mary’s ankle than the food.  From that moment on, Mary was always on her guard around Sophie, but undaunted in her willingness to help with the wildcat.  In  March 2006, another cat, Mr. Macavity, decided he would join our family.  Sophie and Macavity would never become best friends, although they reached a level of d├ętente, and they kept each other on alert at all times.  Little Miss Sophie, or Sophirina, as we occasionally called her, was already a renowned feline, and was even awarded the “pet of the week” honor in the Vidalia Advance Progress.  After receiving this recognition, Sophie’s picture and personage became even more well-known throughout all South Georgia!

Sophie, Local Celebrity: Vidalia, Georgia (2007)

One of the most potentially dangerous events in her life was her accidental visit to the attic in our old, restored house in Vidalia.  Against all odds, Sophie was able to force her way into the attic during the heat of a South Georgia summer, and upon escape, there was never an animal more happy to leave the confines of a manmade purgatory.

In 2009 we moved to Athens, Alabama, where I assumed the duties of the associate vice president for academic affairs at Athens State University.  Athens was a much colder environment than Sophie had ever encountered before.  She fared well, even with her erstwhile companion, Mr. Macavity.  Unfortunately, she continued to be plagued by feline calicivirus, a disease that would eventually bring about her demise.  It is terrible disease, which she inherited, but was not diagnosed with until she was a year or two old.  Sophie confronted the virus every day of her life, and she required regular shots to battle the disease.  In 2011, we moved to Gainesville, Georgia, and Sophie continued to prosper.

Sophie at Rest, Gainesville, Georgia (2012)

She spent most of her days on a large back porch watching birds fly near her and fish in her koi pond.  Her health was fragile, but on occasion, she would rally and impress everyone with her energy and agility. The next year we returned to Vidalia.  As the Summer became Fall, Sophie’s health began to decline, but she was a feline of great internal strength, and she fought the good fight, as St. Paul always urges.  In November, on her last night among us, and while sick, she jumped into my wife's lap, and was her old self, albeit quite ill.  The next day we were forced to put Sophie to sleep.  This was one of the most difficult decisions my wife and I have ever made.  Few days pass without our reflecting on Sophie and that difficult night.  As a Methodist minister and former Army chaplain, I have grieved over the loss of this wonderful, stubborn, and brilliant cat as much as I have grieved for many departed humans I have known.  I do not consider my sentiments to be sacrilegious or unusual or extreme; my views are merely a sign of my great love for this amazing animal.  We miss her, we love her, and we will remember her forever.

Fragile Circle

We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own, live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached.

Unable to accept its awful gaps, we still would live no other way.

We cherish memory as the only certain immortality, never fully understanding the necessary plan.

Irving Townsend

Here is Sophie in 2010 with Mr. Macavity, who always tried to be her friend!

[1] See Stuart Marks, Southern Hunting in Black & White: Nature, History and Ritual in a Carolina Community (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991).

Friday, July 25, 2014


Weighing Publius’ Constitutional Morality


Yet another academic book on The Federalist? While many scholars would agree with Clinton Rossiter that The Federalist is a sacred text for American politics and constitutional law, others have sought to diminish the importance of the work. In many regards, the scholarship of The Federalist resembles what the eminent historian Clyde Wilson has described as an uneven interpretative advancement of knowledge, with established efforts that improve our understanding of the text on one hand, but on the other, newer works that fail to resolve the omissions of previous scholarship. This study of The Federalist does not answer many of the longstanding questions of interpretation, but the book successfully raises new questions, and clarifies why we cannot ignore the great text, regardless of one’s perspective or ideological orientation.

Authorship and consistency of vision are issues of perennial interest to students of The Federalist, and Frank revisits these concerns with much thoughtfulness. While accepting the centrality of the The Federalist to American politics, he argues that its very success has made some of its key insights “obscure or illegible.” A shared vision of the authors who wrote as “Publius” is defended and the attempt to unlink the contributions of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay is refuted. Unfortunately, other scholars, especially George W. Carey and Albert Furtwangler, have more persuasively defended the concept of a unified Publius and disconfirmed the “split personality” thesis of earlier scholarship with greater textual accuracy.[1]

The first chapter addresses the challenge of constituency, or the means citizens assume in creating a republic. Frank acknowledges the tension between the vision of the Founders and the ever-changing needs of a diverse republic. This tension is viewed as a worthwhile, connective phenomenon by Frank, who notes:
The mythology of Founding and the appeal of our Great Lawgivers may serve in fact to keep us enthralled or captivated by the extraordinary moments of the appearance of the people’s constituent power, enthralled by the exception “in its absolute purity.”
The second chapter explicates the importance of political imagination in Publius’ project of promoting ratification of the Constitution. The role of political imagination aids the author’s thesis, but the concept deserves more refinement. Frank views American political discourse as unimaginative, although he also argues that the concept remains essential to the more enduring aspects of the American political mind. Instead of a Burkean conceptualization of the imagination as a moral guide that transcends a particular generation or political system, Frank suggests that the imagination assumes the form of “a heteronomic support to navigate the dilemmas of democratic self-authorization.” The imagination contains an element of diversity, according to Frank, but the role of “dilemmas” appear to only augment founding documents as empowering guides, without the possibility of the necessary and dynamic political restraint that must also be envisioned, if a regime is to endure.

The Federalist offers two central imaginative themes for Frank: Federalist #1’s juxtaposition of “reflection and choice” and “accident and force,” and Publius’ conversion to “the new science of politics” (Federalist #9) within the text itself. Frank accepts the famous dichotomy of Federalist #1 without reservation, and proceeds to explain its importance to the continuing political dialogue of the republic. He allows for an alternative reading, but fails to comprehend how many critics of the Philadelphia Convention could easily and correctly refute this problematic dichotomy.

The great Antifederalist “Centinel,” for example, responded that the republic should follow the wisdom of “time and habit,” suggesting the gradual evolution of political authority, guided by restraint and the acceptance of inherited practices. Centinel corrects Publius’ lack of understanding regarding political power, although these glaring limitations of The Federalist’s ill-formed political imagination are not encountered by Frank. What Centinel cherished has been described by M. E. Bradford as the “antecedent integrity” of the American republic—a neglected manifestation of political imagination itself—that existed among the states throughout the various periods of their political development before the Philadelphia Convention and the ratification process.[2] While Frank accepts Publius rather uncritically at some junctures, he is not without an understanding of the alternative, imaginative vision of the opponents of these ideas.
Thankfully, Frank departs from the once-dominant studies of James Allen Smith, Charles Beard, and Herbert Croly on the role of interest in The Federalist and American politics. Frank is, by the same token, not as preoccupied with the Progressives as are many conservatives, although he takes their criticisms of Publius seriously, avoiding a strategy of vilification. In other words, Frank offers a more prudent model of interpretation: Refrain from accepting a hagiographic view of Publius, while acknowledging that the Framers were interested in much more than personal and financial gain.

Frank’s third chapter continues this interpretative commitment by examining the role of interest as central to Publius’ theory of political obligation. He adopts Publius’ earlier plea for “the regulation of these various and interfering interests” (Federalist #10) as a primary requirement for American politics, but uncritically endorses Hannah Arendt’s notion of an intended “republic of interests.” More engagement with the contending arguments regarding theories of political economy associated with Publius would have made the author’s thesis more convincing.

The influence of Leo Strauss and his students in the interpretation of The Federalist, especially the work of Martin Diamond and Herbert Storing, is surveyed in Chapter Four. Frank herein dismisses the scholarship of Harry Jaffa and ignores the seminal contribution of W. B. Allen on The Federalist. the former is understandable, but the latter action can only be taken at the author’s peril.[2]

For Frank, Jaffa and many of his disciples are devoted to assimilating the rhetoric of Publius for the purposes of obtaining political power; such analysis has much merit. However, to neglect Allen’s extensive and focused commentary on The Federalist is to fail to confront the best and least ideological contribution of the Jaffa school to ongoing interpretative debates about The Federalist. Allen’s commentary provides the most accessible and best textual exposition of each Federalist essay available today, regardless of the occasional interpretative flaws of the book. To his great credit, Frank appropriately finds in other Straussians, especially Diamond and Storing, a deeper understanding of the “locus of authority” in The Federalist, a dynamic and enduring consideration often neglected by other students of Strauss.

Most of the final chapter of the book is devoted to The Federalist’s defense of elections provided by the proposed Constitution. Frank opines that Publius’ act of “envisioning—and institutionally interpellating—the people as an individualized and sociologically homogeneous electorate, and reducing their political agency to voting” established the new political order. He is concerned about what may have been lost in the process, but he generally sanctions the argument presented by Publius. For his part, Frank contends not only that elections are necessary events in a republic, but that these events also facilitate the governing of the regime. If some potential for popular participation was denied, an increased potential for stability was acquired. For Frank, “We the People” was transformed into “We the Electorate” by Publius, converting the “common deliberation of the citizenry” into an elitist arrangement for governing.

Ultimately, Frank agrees with Publius that republican institutions are sufficient for popular decision-making, but he is uneasy about such a conclusion. He also accomplishes his goal of “unsettling some of the prevailing notions” associated with Publius’ defense of elections specifically, and more generally, the political imagination of Publius so that Americans can “consider the tensions and foreclosed possibilities” for governing the republic that might be available.

The new approach to this subject in Publius and Political Imagination has many merits that deserve the attention of scholars. Its most important contribution is convincingly connecting The Federalist with refined views of citizenship and the continued evolution of and need for civic engagement. Jason Frank’s is a novel and engaging re-examination of The Federalist that should not go unnoticed.

[1] See George W. Carey, The Federalist: Design for a Constitutional Republic (University of Illinois Press, 1989), and Albert Furtwangler, The Authority of Publius (Cornell University Press, 1984).
[2] M. E. Bradford, Original Intentions: On the Making and Ratification of the American Constitution (University of Georgia Press, 1993), p. 68.
[3] William Barclay Allen, The Federalist Papers: A Commentary (Peter Lang, 2000; with Kevin A. Cloonan).

H. Lee Cheek, Jr., is Dean of the Social Sciences and Professor of Political Science at East Georgia State College. Dr. Cheek's latest book is Patrick Henry-Onslow: Liberty and Republicanism in American Political Thought (Lexington Books, 2013), and he is currently writing a new study of the origins of the American political system, The Founding of the American Republic (Bloomsbury, 2014).