U.S. Political Thought Essay

U.S. political thought encompasses different moral-political traditions largely organized around three different theories of politics: liberalism, republicanism, and ascription. Liberalism is a theory of the individual and the individual’s right to private property and liberty, with liberty defined as an equal right to be free from the harm of others. Republicanism, a theory of social relations and institutions, conceives of political liberty not only in individual terms, but emphasizes individuals operating within institutions—systems of property, the economy, social relations, and so on—and therefore takes a broader view of political life. Ascriptive ideas emphasize the political, social, or cultural primacy of one group over others based upon racial, economic, ethnic, and gendered categories. These three theories are distinct analytically, but in actual American history have been combined and reformulated in various ways. U.S. political thought can thus be deciphered through the intermixing of these different traditions.

Origins In European Political Thought

At its origin, U.S. political thought was most immediately formed by trends in English political thought developed during the seventeenth century. These ideas were themselves the product of the rich currents of Western political thought running back to ancient Greece and the republican era of Rome. The Framers of the U.S. Constitution and the political thinkers who created the American political project were therefore deeply connected to many of the core ideas in Western political philosophy. At that time, the most active ideas were the dual themes of liberalism and republicanism. In many ways, the development of U.S. political thought can be seen as an oscillation and recombination of different aspects of liberalism and republicanism and the ways they have confronted ascriptive impulses in American society.

Renaissance Republicanism

At the heart of U.S. political thought is the creation of a society free from the forms of feudal domination and privilege that characterized European society. This impulse originated in England during the seventeenth century with the evolution of antimonarchical sentiment. In addition, this perspective was a product of political ideas inherited from the Italian Renaissance, particularly the rebirth of political liberty and its centrality to the purpose of politics. Whereas the Middle Ages had relied on a Thomistic conception of politics that emphasized order and stability as the primary function of political institutions, the newer ideas generated out of Italy emphasized political liberty and human freedom as the central purpose of political life.

The rebirth of the notion of republican government in England during the seventeenth century had profound consequences for the politics of the time. Thinkers such as James Harrington in his Commonwealth of Oceana, John Milton’s Tenure of Kings and Magistrates and his pamphlet “Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth,” along with Algernon Sidney’s Discourses concerning Government among many others, put forth the radical idea that a free society can only occur if all forms of domination and servitude are removed from the relations between political subjects. For these thinkers, the notion of a commonwealth (the English word for the Latin term republic) meant that human freedom must contest the anachronistic notion of the monarchical state and feudal institutions. Also inherent in these ideas was for politics to become a form of civil association to promote political liberty.

Reformation Liberalism

The notion of human liberty was not a singular product of the force of republicanism inherited from Italy and classical sources; the theological impact of the Reformation on political thought was equally important. Reformation theology placed a primary emphasis on the notion that humans are born in a state of freedom. Martin Luther’s notion of Christian liberty maintained that humans were born free, in the image of God himself. As a result, John Locke would compose his Second Treatise of Government along the lines of human’s natural state of liberty. Whereas the republican thinkers of the first half of the seventeenth century were concerned with the problem of how to reshape the relations between political subjects, Locke an liberalism rethought the notion of liberty around the individual. Humankind, born free in a state of nature, would have to obey “no superior power on earth,” in Locke’s words. The idea was simple: since one is born free and possesses natural law, by which Locke defined the tendency inherent in human beings to not harm other persons, one’s natural state is one of peace, goodness, and liberty. Locke had already made a clear case against monarchy in his First Treatise of Government, where he argued against the legitimacy of monarchy and the theory of the divine right of kings. However, it was in his liberal theory of property that Locke had, and still has, the most enduring impact on American thinkers.

Both liberalism and republicanism made a serious impact on what is most distinctive in U.S. political thought—yet it is liberalism that has had a very high degree of influence. For Locke, it was through the notion of work, or labor, that one can possess property—he termed this a natural right to property, with property constituting anything with which one mixes one’s labor. The labor theory of property was central for the political liberal: if an individual could secure personal liberty through property—in the sense that no one would have the right to invade, interfere, or take from what rightly belong to that person—then the liberty of the individual is secure. Eighteenth-century American thinkers saw this as a crucial means to challenge feudal forms of privilege and order, since feudalism was based on the appropriation of one person’s labor for the benefit of another. In this respect, the central problem of U.S. political thought has been the confrontation of the theoretical notion of equality with its actual presence in society. Equality of talents and ability were seen as distributed by nature, not institutions; as a result, a republic made of laws protecting each from the harm of the other was seen as the most important means to protect a liberal society, a theme very distinctively evident in The Federalist Papers.

Eighteenth Century: Jeffersonians Versus Federalists

The project of eighteenth-century U.S. political thought was therefore the creation and maintenance of a liberal republic: to forge political institutions that would protect against tyranny and still allow personal freedom within civil society. These ideas, however, were abstract in nature and became problematic as the nature of economic life changed over time. This is initially apparent in the contest between the Jeffersonian and the Federalists. Thomas Jefferson saw modern economic life as an assault against the moral fabric that supported any republic. The agrarian republic envisioned by Jefferson and his followers therefore viewed the emergence of urbanization and economic development as anathema to America’s republican civilization. Alexander Hamilton’s idea was that developing modern forms of industry—and the emerging forms of banking and finance needed to support it—would allow human beings to develop a strong and prosperous society.

This disagreement worsened during the first half of the nineteenth century. As Jeffersonian republicanism began to lose out to emerging capitalist interests, industrialism and a new concentration of wealth began to form. Using the language and concepts of liberal republicanism, a radical critique of this new inequality evolved within an emerging workers’ movement. Writers such as Langton Byllesby, Thomas Skidmore, Theophilus Fisk, Stephen Simpson, William Gouge, and many others began to argue that the emerging corporations endangered working people’s ability to act as equals with others. Now, with the wage system, they argued, working people would be reduced to servitude. As their ability to maintain their economic autonomy was robbed from them, they saw their liberty eroding alongside it. This discourse was cut off with the U.S. Civil War (1861–1865), and the resulting triumph of the industrial transformation of the U.S. economy, but it showed how liberal and republican themes were important in combating the interests of a small, but wealthy, minority. These ideas also gave impetus to the labor movements of the late nineteenth century as well.


Just as there was a reaction to the emergence of industrial and capitalist society, there were also new arguments attempting to legitimate it. Social Darwinism emerged in the decades after the Civil War while the industrial system ascended. Thinkers such as William Graham Sumner—the most articulate theorist of this doctrine—argued that social outcomes were the result of certain natural inequalities in skill, intelligence, creativity, and so on. As a result, the industrial order of the late nineteenth century, one characterized by massive economic inequality, was not to be critiqued from a moral point of view. It was not only that it reflected the real differences between people, it was also legitimated from a liberal point of view: people who work harder and better ought to accrue greater rewards. This was a certainly a selective reading of the liberal doctrine, yet it illustrates how liberal ideas could also legitimate inequalities between people and classes.

Social reformers soon felt the economic and social inequalities, and the social disruption, caused by the impact of urbanization, immigration, and industrialization during the end of the nineteenth century. Throughout the nineteenth century, the prevailing philosophy of government held by elites was a kind of laissez-faire liberalism: the state was to resist interference in civil society and, more specifically, economic life. A perceived sense of social breakdown and crisis resulted, with responses including Edward Bellamy’s deeply influential novel Looking Backward. Books like this put forth a new vision of political engineering and social cohesion that animated many of the next generation’s reformers. This new generation of social scientists and social thinkers—many of them educated in the German university system—began to see things differently. For these thinkers, the American state had to become more involved in social affairs and public life, bringing about an acute departure from the classical liberal ideas toward a reworking of republican themes.

The emergence of what became known as the Progressive movement held that expansion of the state was necessary, both in terms of its size and scope as well as a transformation of its function. This turn was the result of the resurgence of, and renewed emphasis on, republican themes, which were being turned against utilitarian and classical liberal ideas. In books such as Herbert Croly’s The Promise of American Life and Walter Weyl’s The New Democracy, the vision of a more integrated society with collective efforts of all citizens ought to replace what they saw as the outmoded laissez-faire model. These views were in sharp contrast to the radicals of their time— such as Bill Haywood from the International Workers of the World (IWW), socialists, and Marxists—who argued that capitalism alone was the cause for the crisis. Instead, they asserted that a more regulated industrial society could redistribute social surplus and legislate to protect the rights of working people that ought to be protected from the harms inherent in the industrial system. Thinkers such as John Dewey, in his book The Public and Its Problems, extended these insights, which argued that the public needs protection from the consequences—intended and unintended—of a complex industrial society. George Herbert Mead, and other representatives of what came to be known as pragmatism, argued that the concept of the individual was not separable from society as a whole, since each individual was intersubjectively related to the social world. These shifts in social theory began to reflect and aid a modern reworking of republican themes and led, in time, to the New Deal and the modern welfare state.

Nineteenth And Twentieth Centuries: Liberalism Versus Slavery And White Supremacy

Economic forms of inequality were not the only forms of social life assailed by liberal ideas. Ascriptive theories of political life have had an equally deep impact on the development of U.S. political thought. From the start, the idea that equality existed as an idea, but only for a select few, was problematic for American society. A key element in ascriptive theories of society is the emphasis on an inherent inequality between certain groups or classes in society. As a result of this inherent inequality, a hierarchical status system emerges and becomes rationalized and defended. However, as liberalism and republicanism came to permeate more of U.S. society, ascriptive ideas about social relations and political power were increasingly challenged. This problem emerged most forcefully around the institution of slavery in the nineteenth century. Writers such as John C. Calhoun argued for a natural hierarchy between classes, justifying the institution of slavery in the process.

Liberal political ideas, more significantly, combated ascriptive notions of separateness, difference, and hierarchy. Religious concepts were important in raising a radical consciousness to slavery, with John Brown’s radical abolitionism the result of a religious conviction easily seen as fanatical. Yet, religious ideas about slavery could go either way: denouncing the institution as inhumane or supporting it as part of the hierarchy of nature. Slavery became problematized most effectively in liberal politics since a response was workable through political, rather than merely moral, means.

Evident as far back as the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, Lincoln argued against Douglas’s claim for states’ right to choose whether or not to be a slave state—specifically with respect to Nebraska and Kansas. Lincoln argued that black slaves, although perhaps not racially equal to whites, still deserved to keep what they labored for with their own hands, invoking a liberal natural right to property theory. Indeed, liberalism became a most effective language against the inequalities of race and gender, but republicanism also emerged as an attempt to create equality between blacks and whites. During Reconstruction, members of the Radical Republicans, such as Thaddeus Stevens, argued that plantation owners’ land ought to be seized by the North and their properties divided and distributed among newly liberated blacks. This argument failed, and the South once again saw the rise of ascriptive notions of race manifest in Jim Crow laws.

Debates about the paths to freedom for blacks emerged around this time. W. E. B. Du Bois, in his book The Soul of Black Folk, argued that liberation could be obtained through cultural enlightenment. He advocated for a “talented tenth” to serve as an educated elite able to promote the interests of the black population more broadly. Booker T. Washington, on the other hand, argued that adopting craft skills and an ethic of thrift in economic life would give blacks social parity with whites; they could then advocate for further freedoms. However, it was not until the civil rights movement in the 1960s when figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. once again used liberalism to counter these ascriptive ideas about race.

The women’s movement adopted a similar strategy, also arguing for equal rights under the banner of liberalism. During the Progressive Era, women’s suffrage was granted along with a series of other popular democratic reforms (e.g., the direct election of senators).Yet this period also saw the emergence of tribal politics, in terms of populism and a new form of reaction against immigrants. But in each case, the victory of the rights for the disenfranchised was won through liberal arguments that emphasized equal rights along with toleration and acceptance of difference.

Twentieth Century: Rise Of Neoliberalism

After World War II (1939–1945), a new phase in U.S. political thought emerged. The defeat of fascism in Europe and the new bipolar relation between the United States and the Soviet Union influenced a shift toward pluralism and deepened democratic theory. Thinkers such as John Rawls in his Theory of Justice and Robert Dahl in Polyarchy forged a new understanding of liberalism and pluralistic conceptions of democracy. Their ideas signaled a new hegemony of a liberal idea emphasizing individual rights and the notion of fairness and a dispersion of power as essential to maintaining a democratic society. This current in democratic theory also attempts to merge certain aspects of liberalism and republicanism, since both try to show that individual liberty is also in some way bound with public and institutional responsibilities for the maintenance of individual rights and opportunities. These are axioms of democratic theory and remain the most robust attributes of contemporary U.S. political thought.


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