Teaching American Government

by Peter Augustine Lawler

So here begins the grand experiment of having a professor contribute to the Corner.

In Georgia, school at all levels has already started. The classes I’m teaching are American Government, Ancient and Medieval Political Philosophy, and Constitutional Law — the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment.

How do you begin American Government? Well, by reading Alexis de Tocqueville on the Puritans. Our country in one sense had two foundings.

There were the original settlements — one in Virginia and one in New England. And ever since that time, you’ve had two conflicting impulses in American political life. The Virginians are all about liberty, as in Mr. Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. And the New Englanders — the Puritans or the Pilgrims — are all about participatory civic equality through the interdependence of the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty.

America works best when the Americans harmonize by curbing the excesses of both Virginia and New England. That’s what the compromise that was the completed Declaration of Independence, as opposed to Jefferson’s rough draft Yo, did. You see that in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which dedicated our country to the proposition that all men are created equal. And you see that in the rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr. at his best.

The Puritans, in general, tend to be too moralistically intrusive, to turn every sin into a crime. They’re an important source of our history of taking sexual morality very seriously, and for believing that American liberty depends on Americans sharing a common religious morality. They’re also the source of some of our most ridiculous and meddlesome legislation, such as prohibition (and, in some indirect way, Mayor Bloomberg’s legal assault on our liberty to drink giant sodas in movie theaters).

On the other hand, the individualism of American liberty sometimes morphs in the direction of cold indifference to the struggles of our fellow citizens. Mr. Jefferson spoke nobly against the injustice of slavery as a violation of our rights as free men and women. But he wasn’t ever moved to do much about it. And today members of our “cognitive elite” are amazingly out of touch with those not of their kind, living in a complacent bubble.

Puritans, you might say, care too much about what other people are doing, and they say “there ought to be a law” way too to often. But they’re free from the corresponding excess in the other direction: the cruelty of indifference.

You all see the Puritan–Vriginian divide in the American views of education. In some measure, Americans settle for education’s being merely middle-class, for free beings who work. So education is about picking up the competencies required to flourish in the 21st-century global competitive marketplace.

We Americans often tend to think that education that aims higher is for aristocrats, for those who unjustly believe that work is not for them. It’s true enough that Mr. Jefferson was quite the aristocrat — the follower of the great Greeks and Romans — when it came to his own education. But for most Americans, he believed that education should be almost entirely useful, for the freedom that came with being able to take responsibility for yourself and your own.

The Puritans, however, pushed public education, when they could, to a remarkably high level for everyone. Their thought was that everyone should be able to read the Bible for himself or herself. Otherwise, some are abound to be seduced by those Satanic deceivers called priests. And it’s a pretty hardy American opinion that vocation education should be supplemented by religious education, and so some liberal education, at least, should be for everyone.

For most of our history, contrary to what you might think at first, the Puritans have been on the American left, pushing for more equality. That’s true today. Check out the neo-Puritanical novelist Marilynne Robinson.

Our progressives owe something to our Puritanical founding.

But so do social conservatives who are so insistent about defending the right to life of every child of God.

Well, that’s a ridiculous reason to study American government, you might say. To which I respond: If you’re really against political correctness, you have to give students some sense of where our opinions came from. And that both sides of most our arguments have some reason and some nobility to them.

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