Starting Points: Republicanism in America

Treaty of Paris, Benjamin West

Starting Points: “Republicanism – A Going Concern”

Following the Jack Miller Center’s August Summer Institute, fellows Aaron Kushner, Colleen Mitchell, and Max Skjönsberg were inspired to continue the discussion of the republican tradition:


An introduction by Starting Points associate editor and JMC fellow, Aaron Kushner:

This August, I had the pleasure of attending the Jack Miller Center Summer Institute, the theme of which was “America in the Republican Tradition.” The week-long conference offered scholars the chance to debate the contested American republican tradition in daily seminars and roundtable discussions. The opening topic—one that loomed large the entire week—led by Daniel Cullen, was republican citizenship. If a republic means the well-being of everyone, then how are republican citizens to behave?

According to Pierre Manent, the fear of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Alexis de Tocqueville, that democracy would disassociate people from one another, has become reality in the United States. In America, an obsession with individual rights displaces the authority of the common. Unlike the ancient republics, Manent argues, modern republican citizens do not attach themselves to anything common. This has led to a great undoing of the social knot. While the United States has in many ways legally rectified its initial lack of concern for the rights of blacks, indigenous peoples, women, and other groups, the primary focus on securing equal individual rights has paradoxically promoted the kind of individualism that disassociates citizens from one another.

Is there a way to reconcile the noble pursuit and maintenance of individual rights with the need for a common good that is common to all? The exercise of individual rights, after all, is liable to divide people from one another—the right of each citizen to free speech alone is enough to secure niche friendships and hostile enemies. If the exercise of individual rights has the potential to tear apart the social fabric, what may bind it back together?…

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Aaron KushnerAaron Kushner is the Associate Editor of Starting Points: A Journal of American Principles & American Practices and a Postdoctoral Fellow at Arizona State University’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership. He currently is working on the Arizona Living Constitution Project and is primarily interested in citizenship, both as a legal distinction and a concept, and the interaction between liberal and ancestral political traditions. His dissertation focused on the development of citizenship in the Cherokee Nation.

Kushner is a JMC fellow.

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“Experts vs Citizens in the American Republican Tradition”

By Colleen Mitchell


This past August, I had the good fortune to attend a week-long summer institute on “America in the Republican Tradition,” hosted by the Jack Miller Center in Philadelphia. The daily roundtable discussions provided an opportunity to grapple with many contested questions in the American republican tradition, including what it means to treat people as citizens. Connected to this question, Wilfred McClay encouraged participants to consider what the role of experts should be in a citizen-led republic. Based on the preceding conversation, as well as the tone of the question, it seemed that McClay expected a rebuke of technocracy and a hearty endorsement of rule by citizens, however those terms might be defined.

The irony of a group of academics sitting around a seminar table on a sunny summer afternoon in Philadelphia, discussing the relative merits of expertise, was not lost on me. It is perhaps precisely scenes like these that make ordinary citizens think of experts as out-of-touch, technocratic elitists—or worse, know-it-all liberal arts professors.

Although some experts, Nate Silver for instance, seem to be lauded for their ability to run the numbers and predict future outcomes, such praise tends to end once the predictions don’t shake out. It’s not necessarily the case that these experts’ method of statistical analysis changes, but public perception of it does. And if the so-called experts seem to predict wrong outcomes, what qualifies them to be experts anyway? Why should we listen to them rather than trust our own reason and experience?…

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Colleen MitchellColleen Mitchell is the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Notre Dame. She is a scholar of the history of political thought, particularly the ancient, medieval, and early modern periods. Her work is broadly focused on examining the possibilities and limits of necessarily imperfect politics, as well as the roles of morality and religion in political life. Mitchell also works on feminist political thought, politics and literature, constitutional interpretation, and American political thought, particularly from the Founding through the Civil War. She received the Political Science Department’s Excellence in Teaching Award in 2018 and an honorable mention for the Graduate Student Union’s Outstanding Graduate Instructor Teaching Award in 2019.

Mitchell is a JMC fellow.

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The Problems and Promises of Party in History and Politics

By Max Skjönsberg


Political parties are an integral part of modern representative democracy. Among other things, they are instruments for finding and promoting political leaders, organizing competition for office, representing and adjudicating between various interests and opinions, and formulating policy. Yet it was not easy for Americans in the early republic to learn how to live with party politics. When the world looks at the current intensified partisanship in the United States, it is important to recognize that party strife is by its nature a messy activity – a fact demonstrated by any examination of the place of parties in history and politics. People should not have unrealistic expectations about partisan politics, which is meant to produce a winner – and later hold winners accountable – rather than a consensus. This does not mean, however, that we should disregard civility and toleration within party conflict, since these values are critical to the possibility of peaceful disagreement.

David Ramsay closed his 1789 History of the American Revolution from 1789 by saying that the new republic needed to “[a]void discord, faction, luxury and the other vices which have been the bane of commonwealths.” We often hear that the Founding Fathers were disgusted with parties and partisanship. Of course, many of them were, perhaps especially John Adams and George Washington. As Richard Hofstadter argued in his seminal book, The Idea of a Party System (1969), an important shift took place between the generation of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, and the following one of Andrew Jackson and (especially) Martin van Buren (President in 1837–41). The first generation was influenced by the British eighteenth-century party debate, and philosophical questions about human nature, as well as ideological and constitutional considerations. By contrast, Van Buren and the second generation of American politicians had much more practical views of what party organization could accomplish…

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Max SkjonsbergMax Skjönsberg is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Liverpool, working on a collaborative project on “Libraries, Reading Communities and Cultural Formation in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic.” He is interested in concepts of political party in eighteenth-century discourse and his research incorporates a contextual reading of thinkers such as Lord Bolingbroke, David Hume, Adam Ferguson, Edmund Burke, and others. His first monograph, The Persistence of Party: Ideas of Harmonious Discord in Eighteenth-Century Britain, will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2021.

Skjönsberg is a JMC fellow.

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