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InsiderOnline Blog: June 2010

What’s the Best Reading on the Founding?

We’ve solicited some thoughts on the American Independence and Founding from a variety of conservative and libertarian leaders. Between now and July 4, we’ll post some of the most interesting answers. Here is the first installment.

What is the single best book or article you have read about the American Founding?

Matt Mayer, President of the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions: Outside of the fairly obvious The Federalist Papers, the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence, I’d have to settle on Russell Shorto’s The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America. Short’s excellent book is a timely reminder for all Americans of the vital role the Dutch played in our country’s founding. Two of the principles that make America exceptional come directly from the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam/New York

First, the long Dutch history of tolerance that became the basis of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses. Many Americans likely forget that the Pilgrims didn’t come directly from England to America; rather, the Pilgrims left the intolerance of England for the tolerance of Leiden, The Netherlands. From Leiden, the Pilgrims came to America. Our Founding Fathers adopted this Dutch tolerance when they wrote and ratified the Constitution, thereby making America the destination of the world’s oppressed for four centuries.

Next, under the Dutch leadership, New Amsterdam itself started as a melting pot of many nationalities who came together and built a city that eventually became one of the world’s greatest cities. Of course, it was rough and violent in the early days, but it eventually became a functioning city of New Yorkers. This early adoption of a melting pot mentality helped America develop into the world’s first real country of immigrants. New Amsterdam, as New York, famously became the center of the New World’s entry point for new immigrants with the Statute of Liberty welcoming all. As Frank Sinatra sang in 1980, but really established in the early 1600s, if you could make it in New York, you could make it anywhere.

So, although Shorto’s great book doesn’t really cover the 1787 founding era, it really does go to the heart of America’s early founding and two of the core principles that have made this country the world’s “last, best hope.”

Lawrence W. Reed, President of the Foundation for Economic Education: Forrest McDonald’s Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution is the best book on the American Founding that I’ve read. McDonald explains superbly well the ideas percolating in the minds of the Founders in the 1780s and how those ideas affected their debates and work on the construction of the Constitution. To understand what the Founders did, one should understand why they did it and McDonald spells it out better than any other authority of the era.

David Boaz, Executive Vice President of the Cato Institute: My favorite book on the Founding is Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Bailyn shows the sources of American Revolutionary thought, placing special emphasis on Lockean radicalism, as transmitted through the libertarian ideas of Trenchard and Gordon, the authors of Cato’s Letters (for which the Cato Institute is named). A shorter summary of Bailyn’s thesis of the transforming libertarian radicalism of the Revolution can be found in his essay “The Central Themes of the American Revolution: An Interpretation” in Stephen G. Kurtz and James H. Hutson, eds., Essays on the American Revolution, where Bailyn writes: “[T]he major themes of eighteenth-century radical libertarianism [were] brought to realization here. The first is the belief that power is evil, a necessity perhaps but an evil necessity; that it is infinitely corrupting; and that it must be controlled, limited, restricted in every way compatible with a minimum of civil order. Written constitutions; the separation of powers; bills of rights; limitations on executives, on legislatures, and courts; restrictions on the right to coerce and wage war—all express the profound distrust of power that lies at the ideological heart of the American Revolution and that has remained with us as a permanent legacy ever after.”

When I am being provocative with conservative audiences, I ask: What does it mean to be a conservative in a country founded in libertarian revolution? If it means conserving the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the limited government of the Constitution, then an American conservative is a classical liberal or a libertarian.

Posted on 06/23/10 11:55 AM by Alex Adrianson

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