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

Article excerpt

Power versus Liberty: Madison, Hamilton, Wilson, and Jefferson. By James H. Read. (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, c. 2000. Pp. xiv, 201. Paper, $16.50, ISBN 0-8139-1912-6; cloth, $47.50, ISBN 0-8139-1911-8.)

Historians have long recognized that the Revolution and the early republic were crucibles for clashing ideas and contentious behavior. Individuals and groups grappled on a daily basis with highly charged events and elusive aspirations. Theorist-statesmen like Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, James Wilson, and Thomas Jefferson were more thoughtful and prolific than most in struggling with the critical questions and issues of these years, and no issue absorbed them more than the relationship between power and liberty. James H. Read's work offers a four-way conversation among these thinkers on how best to reconcile the power of government with the liberty of citizens in a republican political system. Specifically, he explores in what respects they believed increasing the power of government diminished the liberty of those under its authority. As Read demonstrates, conventional wisdom regarding these men's positions does not always hold up under scrutiny.

Because historians have concentrated on the Revolutionary generation's attitudes toward private and public liberty, Read argues, they have neglected or inadvertently misrepresented the era's views of power generally and the relationship between power and liberty specifically. By focusing on critical issues facing the young nation--the wisdom of the new federal constitution, the necessity of a Bill of Rights, freedom of the press, heated arguments over federal power versus states' authority, bitter debates over the legitimacy of the Bank of the United States, and controversy regarding the full implications of popular sovereignty--Read permits readers to observe how four of the most respected minds of the time struggled with the repercussions of power. …