The founders & individualism.

Author:Claeys, Eric R.
Position:Correspondence - Letter to the editor

As a fellow law professor and Catholic, I agree with many of the things Mary Ann Glendon says about modern law, modern individualism, and the contemporary Catholic Church's teachings in relation to both ("Looking for 'Persons' in the Law," December 2006). But I disagree strongly with her to the extent that she traces the "hyper-libertarian, ultra-individualist" tendencies in modern America back to Locke and the American founders.

Glendon portrays founding America's political culture as an uneasy mix of religious local cultures (grounded in "families and tight-knit communities") and a rationalistic and individualizing national order (with "greater emphasis on the dangers human beings pose to one another than on the human capacity for cooperative living"). This portrait simply does not pan out as a matter of history. At least through the New Deal, the national government did not hesitate to legislate on morality in the rare cases when the Constitution allowed it to do so. The Confederation Congress and the first constitutional Congress both established schools in the Northwest Territories specifically to promote religion and morality. After the Civil War, Congress used its territorial powers to condition Utah's eligibility for statehood on its agreeing to extinguish Mormon polygamy. Also, after the Civil War, as the American economy grew, Congress used its interstate-commerce powers not only to regulate railroads but also to legislate interstate commerce in alcohol, lottery tickets, and prostitutes.

Nor can Glendon's portrait be sustained with The Federalist Papers. If one reads The Federalist in its entirety, Publius balances his discussion of faction with subtle but comprehensive appeals to man's social and political sides. Rivaling Tocqueville, No. 49 diagnoses how comprehensive political opinions shape and steady the soul of the democratic citizen. Papers 52 through 84 appeal to the specific and rare political virtues appropriate to particular offices in the new Constitution. When these passages are considered, No. 52's appeal to republican virtues is nowhere near as anomalous as Glendon makes it seem. Publius soberly worried that man's vicious tendencies make republican self-government next to impossible. (We are now relearning the reasons why in Iraq.) But it is not fair to interpret Publius' sobriety as libertine economic individualism.

As for Locke, his thought simply cannot be reduced to a series of "vivid pictures of man as free and...

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