Arts & Culture

Finding the founding ideas

7 min read

Harvard prof guides teachers through centuries of political thought on republics

In 1788, Thomas Shippen of Philadelphia, a citizen of the world’s newest nation, visited the French royal court at Versailles. He was awed by its pomp, its riches, and – as he wrote – its “Oriental splendor.”

But Shippen was also repulsed. He remarked on the arrogance and waste of royal life, and on the fact that it required great suffering among France’s unrepresented poor.

“A certain degree of equality is essential to human bliss,” Shippen later reflected. “Happy above all Countries is our Country.”

In large part, that happiness hinged on one fact: The young United States was a republic, a form of government distinguished – first – by not having a monarch.

The idea of a republic was not invented in 1776, but appeared in a nascent form at least 2,500 years before, in ancient Rome.

And many related ideas had long predated electoral democracy in the United States, including parliaments, the rule of law, petitioning, and civic participation.

From Rome onward, the idea of what “republic” meant kept evolving, unspooling in a train of thought going back to Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero.

By Shippen’s day, “republic” had come to mean a government that had a constitution; suffrage (the right to vote); elected representatives; and a government founded on civic virtue: moral and selfless action on behalf of the common good.

The idea of a republic is fundamental to understanding the origins of modern American democracy, yet it is little taught and little understood, said Daniel P. Carpenter, Harvard’s Allie S. Freed Professor of Government. “People often don’t know what it means.”

To correct this seeming gap in our common education, Carpenter teaches a course on republicanism to Harvard undergraduates.

And for the past two summers, at the Center for Government and International Studies’ Knafel Building, he has offered an intense abbreviated version of that course to Boston-area high school and elementary school teachers.

The annual summer institute, part of Harvard’s two-year-old American Republic Initiative, is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

The Harvard initiative is administered by the Center for American Political Studies, where Carpenter is director.

During the July 13-16 summer program, mornings were devoted to lectures. Carpenter spun out a centuries-long narrative on the political theory and history of the republican idea.

He encouraged interruptions from his audience of teachers. One concern: In the modern urban classroom, how do you translate political theorizing from long ago into palatable lessons?

“You can’t text message the U.S. Constitution, or its meaning,” acknowledged Carpenter – but you can ask good questions and present texts that provoke discussion.

Afternoons were devoted to closer readings of assigned texts, with discussions moderated by Eric Lomazoff, a Ph.D. candidate in government.

“[The teachers] have things they want to talk about,” he said – including one afternoon given over to money and banking issues in Revolutionary-era America.

The challenge for all the teachers, said Lomazoff, “is how to really engage the material beyond memorization.”

The nine teachers worked through hundreds of pages of reading. They sampled the Roman, Greek, Italian, French, and English political thinkers who for centuries had puzzled over the republican ideal.

They moved from ancient Rome’s “mixed regime,” which endured for 500 years; to 17th century England, where a frustrated parliament briefly overthrew the monarchy, weakening it forever; and to the new United States, which rewrote again the idea of republicanism.

“I wish I had learned stuff like this in high school,” said Carpenter. “That doesn’t mean I would require reading the whole of Montesquieu’s ‘Spirit of the Laws’ in high school – but I wish I had understood something of the philosophical and historical traditions and patterns that produced American government and American democracy.”

Getting to what Carpenter called “the way of thinking” behind the republican idea requires some challenging reading. “Most of the texts that govern our lives are complicated,” he said. “You understand the complications of modern life by understanding the complications of the past.”

In the Twitter age, the teachers are aware that strands of political thought centuries old are a hard sell, so Carpenter offered some pedagogic strategies.

For one, he said, read a text in class that seems familiar, and mine it for nonstandard information.

The Declaration of Independence, for instance, is both a declaration and an enumeration – a list of grievances against English monarch George III, who “sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.”

Or assign an unfamiliar text that reveals what today is a surprising idea. Among others, Carpenter suggested Alexander Hamilton’s essay No. 84 from the Federalist Papers, which argues against the Bill of Rights – based on the idea that listing rights puts obstructive boundaries on the concept of liberty.

And why not use the idea that early republics, like the United States, left out so many people – blacks and women, for example.

“How do you get these students interested in a document and in a history that often excluded them and people like them?” asked Carpenter, talking about the Declaration of Independence. “That’s a nontrivial problem.”

The class reading list included a series of political philosophers who pondered the meaning of republicanism, including Livy, Polybius, Machiavelli, and Montesquieu.

There were also close readings of two state constitutions that predated the 1787 U.S. Constitution: Pennsylvania (1776) and Massachusetts (1780).

These documents illustrate “the real-time evolution” of republican thinking, said Carpenter, and mark what he called the world’s most intensive period of “constitution-making.”

The students also read seven of the essays now called the Federalist Papers, which reveal behind-the-scenes arguments on which direction the new republic and its constitution should take.

There were readings from scholars: historian of ancient Rome Andrew Lintott, historian of Britain Rebecca Fraser, Americanist Gordon Wood, and Michael Sandel, Harvard’s Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government.

Carpenter used Sandel’s 1997 “Democracy’s Discontent” to offer one vision of what has become of the republican idea. The sense of “collective liberty” understood by the Founding Fathers, he said, was today trumped by the idea that individual liberty trumps all other kinds.

“Collective liberty” at the time of the American Revolution took a form that today seems radical.

Carpenter quoted Benjamin Rush: “Every man in a republic is public property. His time and his talents – his youth – his manhood – his old age – nay more, life, all belong to his country.”

When they hear such deeply anti-individualistic sentiments, said Carpenter, “my Harvard students always drop their jaws.”

Teaching to a text like that can engender a lot of discussion, said Carpenter.

Another example is Frederick Douglass’ 1852 speech, “The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro,” assigned reading for the last day of class.

It illustrates that early republican ideals sometimes fell short, said Jewell Royster-Bratton, who teaches at predominately black William Monroe Trotter Elementary School in Boston – and it’s a way to fill in the gaps.

“These kids know nothing of their history,” she said of her students. “There was slavery, then we were free – and nothing in between.”

Carpenter also offered the teachers a largely untapped source of primary documents: the great flood of anti-slavery petitions sent to the 25th Congress (1837-1838) – and largely unread even then.

In the early American republic, these brief supplications, part prayer and part legal argument, “were more and more a tool of the dispossessed,” said Carpenter – in particular African Americans and women.

He and his colleagues have digitized about 7,000 of these petitions in the National Archives, and they just submitted an NEH grant application to have thousands more digitized from the Massachusetts state archives.

Any discussion of the evolution of republican thought – including its ironies and gaps, said Carpenter – has to include the very modern concerns of race and gender.

“Part of what you want to do in any class is examine people’s cozy assumptions,” he said – and about America’s founding documents, “a lot of people have cozy assumptions.”