Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Rogers reviews Hulliung, The Social Contract in America

Mark Hulliung, The Social Contract in America: From the Revolution to the Present Age (University Press of Kansas, 2007) is reviewed for H-Law by Donald Rogers, Central Connecticut State University. Rogers writes:

The great success of The Social Contract in America is to show that the social contract was not just a fossil of Lockean theory left over from the American Revolution in the Declaration of Independence, but alive idea very much at play throughout American history. The book is not a systematic study of social contract theory, but an examination of the social contract's role in American political discourse from the revolutionary era to the present. Indeed, it treats social contract thinking as a sign of American exceptionalism. Whereas historicist and utilitarian theories quickly supplanted social contract philosophy in Europe, the book contends, "America stands alone in its preoccupation... with the social contract" (p. 7). In the fashion of Louis Hartz's The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), Hulliung maintains that Americans across the political spectrum embraced social contract theory, and he specifically denies that they sustained conservative thought in the tradition of Edmund Burke. With social contract theory a given, he asserts, Americans typically argued about which version of the social contract should apply....

In the opening chapter on the revolutionary era, the book makes clear that most Americans, patriots and loyalists alike, were Whigs who rejected English Tory Robert Filmer's patriarchal views of government, and worked from social contract theory instead, though not initially John Locke's understanding of it. Like most English Whigs, Hulliung explains,future American loyalists and patriots both for a long time drew onHugo Grotius's and Samuel Pufendorf's conservative conceptions of the social contract. Putting their emphasis on the preservation of"constituted authority" (p. 16), both of these theorists imagined contracts in which the people surrendered certain rights to their rulers to secure social stability, including the right to rebel....

Unlike historians like John Phillip Reid who regard American revolutionary rhetoric of the 1770s as largely a reiteration of the Whig "original contract," Hulliung sees the American Revolution as an event that truly, if belatedly, transformed American thinking. The need to justify rebellion and then establish new state governments, he argues, prompted Americans to adopt and then apply John Locke's more radical reasoning from first principles--that governments originate in contracts formed by the people emerging from the state of nature, and that the people always retain residual rights to abolish governments not protecting their natural rights....

Subsequent chapters of The Social Contract in America demonstrate that the social contract idea enjoyed a lively career in America after the revolution, even as it died in Europe....

Continue reading here.

No comments:

Post a Comment