Brett Williams's Reviews > A Student's Guide To American Political Thought

A Student's Guide To American Political Thought by George W. Carey
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it was amazing

Short, but good

Carey may be peerless in the ample insight he supplies concerning our Founder’s intent. This short historical survey of American political thought processes and their conclusions provides a first-rate foundation for the neophyte, or the advanced, pigeonholed in some specific corner of law or politics – quite suitable for the harried American. Though Carey holds a position (and after all what is education if not a search for the right answers?) he is remarkably adept at presenting other sides without torpedoing their thesis. But he doesn’t need to, as that is done by carefully reading The Federalist. However, were it not for books like this, revision - conservative or liberal - would have a free hand, putting words in the Founder’s mouth, or obfuscating what can be complex Founding issues, not so much through the inertia of these concepts but by their subtleties. Unlike science where erroneous understandings are rejected by nature or refined analysis, these subtleties are what makes the Founding intent a minefield, more open to alteration. Unfortunately, English has not the precision of mathematics, but Carey points us to clarification from the Founders and they’re reasonably clear, most often crystal.

Right from the beginning Carey sets the table: “On what principles is the government based? How is authority allocated within it? What is its primary purpose? Are there limitations to its powers? How can it be altered? On what assumptions about human nature is it based?” Past civilizations were “ordained by the gods” or “given by a mythical lawgiver,” but America’s Founding was a reasoned struggle, not only at the Convention but over decades of debate and State testing, resulting in the “will of the people,” not a god. The Federalist as defense of the proposed Constitution addressed these matters. It is, though, a “nuts and bolts” approach, writes Carey, not an extensive theoretical or philosophical treatise – practical vs. idealistic. And this is where much political thought separates from The Federalist, attempting to redraft its meaning to satisfy “the way things ought to be” regardless of what works. An example follows fifty years after our most lethal war with resulting elevation of the Lincoln era, retroactively recasting the Constitution in light of our Declaration through Lincoln’s moving speeches, making rights and equality paramount. For such interpretations, writes Carey “…democracy is primarily government ‘for the people’ not necessarily ‘by the people’,” bearing “a close relationship to those [ideals] that inspired the French Revolution.” The Constitution is then judged by how well it lives up to The Declaration. But Carey argues it does live up to central themes expressed there and is a continuation of the same political thought – once again by reference to The Federalist - just not the way revisionists want it to be.

Reading the Constitution cold is likely to leave one under-whelmed, but Carey transforms it. Like lifeless mathematical equations as abstract markings on paper, grasping their meaning and implications converts them to revelation, lifting them from the page to fly. Carey does this for the Founding, through him our Founders nearly live again. But based on our mutilation of their intent they’d probably rather be dead.
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Finished Reading
April 15, 2014 – Shelved

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