Pufendorf, Grotius, and Locke: Who Is the Real Father of America's Founding Political Ideas?

By Eicholz, Hans L. | Independent Review, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Pufendorf, Grotius, and Locke: Who Is the Real Father of America's Founding Political Ideas?


Eicholz, Hans L., Independent Review


Scholars frequently initiate debates by offering bold claims for their proffered interpretations. The liberal and republican exchange in American political history was first cast as a choice of either/or, but not both. The former claimed all for John Locke and liberalism, whereas the latter asserted everything for republicanism and tradition (see, for example, the debate between Lance Banning [1986] and Joyce Appleby [1986] on the nature of Jefferson's ideological commitments and the proper interpretation of the politics of the early republic). Other controversies have witnessed much the same stances. Perry Miller long insisted on giving pride of place to New England in the shaping of the American mind (Zaki 1985). Jack Greene (1988) later proclaimed the southern colonial experience as primary, leaving little or nothing for the Puritans. John Philip Reid (1993) gave all glory to the common law in America and had little time for anything or anybody else. Debates often proceed in such fashion. Stating the extreme case can clarify the contours of an issue. Doing so aids, rather than impedes, the quest for truth so long as we take the next step: a considered application to the inevitable complexities of history.

The lasting influence of such debates has been a tempered, more richly variegated sense of the past. Now comes Mark Hulliung's The Social Contract in America: From the Revolution to the Present Age (2007). It is an ambitious title. From it, we might legitimately expect an attempt to grapple with the questions that these earlier works in the history of ideas have left to us and to provide guidance in fitting together the various pieces of the puzzle. Hulliung indeed claims that "theories, not a single theory, will be my concern, for the social contract was not one but several." We quickly realize, however, that several means exactly three: "Mine is a study of the Americanization of Hugo Grotius and Samuel Pufendorf as well as of the more widely recognized John Locke" (p. vii, emphasis in original). Moreover, well before one reaches the end of the work, it becomes clear that even with the acknowledgment of Pufendorf and Grotius, primacy of place is to be accorded to Locke alone. That conclusion is not by itself a bad thing, but Hulliung, rather than giving us a wider perspective on the context of these ideas, treats us to an ever more streamlined trajectory of one particular vision of the social contract. I am not saying that the author should have written a different book, but that to write on the broader historical subject he staked out, he needed to take into account certain historical facts his predecessors unearthed that are essential to his topic.

Hulliung's approach is all the more startling given that one of his primary readership targets is historians. He writes in large measure to convince them to get involved in the public arena. To many devoted scholars, this exhortation would be alarming in itself. Although I am not generally averse to getting involved in public debate, the instinct to maintain more distance would be correct in this case. Hulliung is making his appeal to historians of a particular political stripe, not to the profession in general. This focus makes his neglect of certain aspects of the subject more understandable, if still regrettable.

Hulliung asserts that current political debate generally sends historians running for the exits. Rather than suffer a litany of inaccuracies, scholars generally retreat to the security of their libraries. He would like them to linger a while, to correct the misapplication of the ideas of popular consent and social contract that pop up from time to time. Everyone seems to claim primacy for some social-contract theory, but all too frequently we are treated to a theoretical hodge-podge uninformed by an awareness of the ideas' origin (p. viii). Unless we are deeply read in the history of political theory, we cannot know whether the ideas being invoked originated with John Locke, Samuel Pufendorf, or Hugo Grotius. …

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