In "The Liberal Tradition in America" (1955), Louis Hartz first put forth his thesis that the American political tradition derives essentially from consensual liberal principles. The many detractors to this theory include Bernard Bailyn, who argued that preliberal, republican values initially held sway in eighteenth-century American politics. In "The Shaping of American Liberalism," David Ericson offers an innovative reinterpretation of both positions by redefining the "terms" of the argument.
Focusing on three critical debates in American history--the debate between Anti-Federalists and Federalists over the ratification of the Constitution; the debate between the national republicans and the states-rights republicans over the nullification of the tariff; and the Lincoln-Douglas debates over slavery and pluralist democracy--Ericson shows that republicanism, rather than being opposed to liberalism, is in fact an offshoot of it. His descriptions of republicanism and pluralism represent the poles of an evolving tradition of liberal ideas in America: the former championing the claims of the public sphere, general welfare, and civic virtue; the latter protecting the rights of the individual to liberty, property, and privacy.
Republicanism and pluralism are therefore more properly understood as two sets of competing ideas that evolved from common roots. Ericson concludes that although republican themes persist in American politics, the profound transformations brought about by the Civil War made the ascendancy of pluralism virtually inevitable.
This highly original discussion of the relation between liberalism and republicanism--the central concern of much of the recent scholarship in American political thought--will be important reading for those interested in American politics, history, and culture.