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This book explains how the political ideas of America's Founders (Adams, Franklin, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and Washington) stand relative to long-term tendencies in the Western tradition of political thought. Rather than summarizing the scholarship of others on the range of issues that concerns him, Rahe prides himself on eschewing "the orthodoxy currently reigning in the academy" about republicanism in the ancient, early modern European, and eighteenth-century American fields of scholarship. (He is particularly disturbed by what he calls the neoclassical interpretation of republicanism that has become associated with the work of G. Wood and J. G. A. Pocock.) More specifically, Rahe wishes to challenge the "received wisdom" about how to evaluate "elements of continuity and discontinuity in the history of republicanism" from the Greeks on. In order to put the republican tradition in proper perspective, therefore, he proposes "to take a fresh look at classical republicanism at the political thought of the early modern period, and at the work of the American founders".
To achieve that aim, Rahe has written what he admits is a "tome" with a "long and labyrinthine argument" at its core. While informed by wide and deep reading in the scholarship of three chronological periods of Western history, Rahe provides readers with his own interpretations of many of the major themes and thinkers in the Western tradition of political thought. Accordingly, his book is divided into three parts of about 250 pages each (350 pages of endnotes accompany the text). There are groups of chapters on the emergence of republican thinking in ancient Greece; on the early modern European recovery, adaptation, and rejection of key aspects of this tradition; and on what aspects of ancient and early modern republicanism informed American thinking in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.(1)
Rahe's book, therefore, is at once a high level survey of major thinkers and important political themes in the history of Western thought, and an exercise in what he calls "comparative politics." As we shall see, the latter aspect of Rahe's project turns out to be an elaborate explanation of why the Founders of the first modern republic "deliberately turn[ed] their backs on the ancient model" of republican thinking.
A project of this scope--even a carefully circumscribed one--would be beyond the grasp of most scholars. Among today's leading political theorists, J. G. A. Pocock, Quentin Skinner, Charles Taylor, and Sheldon Wolin have tried their hands at projects with similarly broad chronological sweep; but even their works are modest in page count compared to Rahe's tome. All the same, Rahe's training in ancient history, his command of several foreign languages, and the assiduous attention he pays to questions of scholarship qualify him to undertake an ambitious (some would say audacious) study such as this.
Beyond the matter of his scholarly credentials, however, is the issue of whether Rahe has translated his considerable learning into a readable book--a book that will educate general readers and/or engage specialists. The sheer bulk of the book, I expect, will deter general readers, and the excessive demands the book places on the patience and knowledge of specialists will limit Rahe's audience still more. However, readers who have come to know Rahe as a scholar through his numerous and important essays of the last ten years will be eager to learn more from him about the history of republicanism in the West.
To encourage others to invest their time in this book, I want to offer an account of the book's overall thesis by discussing two of RAM's most salient features: (1) its heavy reliance on the idea of a commercial ideology to explain the differences between illiberal ancient and liberal modern republics; and (2) its implicit claim that the depoliticization of liberty and citizenship constitutes the genius of the political thinking of the Founders.
The point of departure of Rahe's book is the "primacy" the Greeks accorded to "politics" in the communal life of the polis. As with so many other issues in Western intellectual history, …