Western Political History:
A Select Bibliography
by Jefferson White
Below is a select bibliography of the books that have decisively shaped my understanding of Western political history. I have written a brief annotation for each entry.
Before Philosophy: The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (1946)
Henri Frankfort (et al)
Frankfort, together with his wife and two other scholars, authored what was probably the most important twentieth century attempt to explain, to a general audience, the unique character of the ancient consciousness of reality. Before Philosophy is not just a classic work of scholarship; it remains relevant to any attempt to understand the ancient mind.
Frankfort (1897-1954) was an Egyptologist, archeologist, and historian. He was among the first to comprehend the unique character of Israel within the ancient world and the radical break that Israel made with the dominant consciousness of that world. The ancient world was literally incapable of distinguishing between the gods, nature, and the state, which were seen as differing aspects of a single reality. Israel alone broke with this unitary conception of reality, recognizing that God not only transcended nature, but also transcended politics. The prophets sent by God possessed a spiritual authority that was independent of the authority of the state. This conception of spiritual authority was unique to Israel.
This was something new in history. The idea of two separate and independent authorities, the spiritual and the political, begins in ancient Israel.
Israel and Revelation (1956)
Eric Voegelin (1901-1985), political historian and philosopher, has undertaken the best systematic analysis of the radical difference between the consciousness of the ancient world and that of Israel in relation to politics. Unfortunately, Voegelin's scholarship is framed in terms that make it accessible primarily to the academic specialist. Although I am an admirer of Voegelin's achievement, I am also in radical disagreement with a key aspect of his analysis. That disagreement is spelled out in an essay entitled “The Bad Faith of Eric Voegelin.”
Still: Voegelin's philosophical analysis of the Israelite political order is without parallel.
Constitutionalism and the Separation of Powers (1967)
M. J. C. Vile
M.J.C. Vile (1927- ) authored what is widely considered to be the standard history of the separation of powers. If there is one book to be read on the topic, this is that book. Vile has done an extraordinary job in narrating the invention of the idea of separated powers in the seventeenth century and its development in the eighteenth century.
However, Vile's account is concerned with the classic understanding of separated powers. As he notes, both the idea and the phrase first appear during the English Civil War. It denoted, for the first time, the political belief that king and Parliament were independent and equal sovereign powers. A century and a half later, this conception of government then became the core doctrine of American Constitution, with the judiciary added as a third separation of powers.
My use of the term “separation of powers” is more expansive than Vile's. Although the idea and the phrase do not exist before the seventeenth century, my view is that the idea of “separated powers” is inherent in the Judaic and Christian understanding of politics and that the Christian understanding has radically shaped Western political history from the beginning.
Separated powers as a political reality begins with the sovereign independence of the prophets of Israel from the kings of Israel. This conception of separated powers then enters into the Western political order with the birth of the Christian church and with the radical spiritual independence of that church from the pagan Roman state. This was the direct result of Christ’s teaching that a radical distinction was to be made between the authority of God and the authority of Caesar. The medieval struggles between the popes and emperors of the West were a further historical iteration of this conception of divided powers. The Reformation era only energized this Christian revolution in separated powers, which was followed by the formal invention of the concept during the English Civil War.
Vile wonderfully narrates the birth of the idea of separated powers as the basis of modern constitutional government. But the modern idea is only an explicit development of a doctrine that was already implicit in Judaism and Christianity.
Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (1983)
Harold J. Berman
Harold J. Berman (1918-2007) was a legal scholar and historian who fundamentally altered our understanding of the Western legal and political tradition.
During the first half of the twentieth century, historians had already begun to reject the accepted understanding of the European Middle Ages. A comprehensive historical case was now being made that the twelfth century, in particular, was an era of revolutionary political and legal change. Berman took this analysis to the next level through his study of what he called “The Papal Revolution.” After Berman, it was impossible to understand the political history of the late middle ages except along the lines of his analysis. The twelfth century was one of the great epochs of the political history of the West. It witnessed the creation of a fully independent Western church standing apart from the state, as well as the creation of a fully independent state standing apart from the church. Western law, as an independent political institution, was created in this same period, its independence arising within the interstices of the new system of church and state.
The Western idea of law begins in the twelfth century.
The Federalist (1787-88)
James Madison (1751-1836) is called “The Father of the Constitution.”
But the American document was not the product of a single mind. Indeed, had Madison been the sole architect of the Constitution it would have been quite different document. But like the other Founders, Madison viewed the document that did emerge with both misgivings and hope, considering it to be the best constitution possible given the political circumstances.
Together with Hamilton and Jay, Madison then published a series of newspaper essays in favor of ratifying the new Constitution. Those essays were later published in book form as The Federalist. As historian Clinton Rossiter wrote in a 1961 introduction to that book: “The Federalist is the most important work in political science that has ever been written, or is likely ever to be written, in the United States.”
Above all, it is Madison’s essays that concisely explain the separation of powers doctrine that is the essential structure of the Constitution. To understand Madison's essays is to understand the American political experiment.
Foreordained Failure: The Quest for a Constitutional Principle of Religious Freedom (1995)
Steven D. Smith
Steven D. Smith (1952- ) is a law professor, legal historian, and constitutional scholar. If there is one book to read on the American legal conception of religious freedom, this is the book.
It is one of Smith’s key insights is that most Americans today no longer understand that legal conception. This is not the familiar argument between liberals and conservatives over the proper “interpretation” of the First Amendment. Instead, Smith conclusively shows that both liberals and conservatives are arguing from the same fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of that Amendment.
Smith demonstrates that the First Amendment is entirely jurisdictional in meaning. That is to say, the First Amendment established only that Congress (meaning the national state) possessed no authority at all on religious questions, which meant that the states alone were the political jurisdiction in which such questions were to be answered. Smith shows that this was always understood by Americans to be the meaning of the First Amendment until almost the middle of the twentieth century.
Of course, most Americans are now taught from childhood that the Supreme Court exists to define the rights listed in the Bill of Rights, including the right of “religious freedom.” As a matter of historical truth, however, every right listed in the Bill of Rights was defined in the common law and in state law – and never by the Supreme Court – until the middle of the twentieth century. And this is why no federal judge today, whether liberal or conservative, has a proper "interpretation" of the meaning of religious freedom in the First Amendment. And that is because that Amendment never defines that freedom.
The real meaning of American political experiment is that Americans established a radical decentralization of political authority, including the authority to define rights, with the Supreme Court having no role in the definition of the rights found in the Bill of Rights until it seized that role in the twentieth century.
Democracy in America (1835)
Alexis de Tocqueville
Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) is on virtually everyone’s short list of leading political philosophers. Tocqueville visited America in the early nineteenth century and the book that he wrote is still considered to be one of the best analyses of American democracy.
One of Tocqueville’s chief insights concerned the role that voluntary associations played in American life. Tocqueville was impressed by America’s Constitution, but he was even more impressed by the reality that Americans organized their society through voluntary organizations of ordinary people. Where the central government in France directly controlled society, and where the upper classes in England ruled over the British social order, ordinary Americans banded together to create the voluntary organizations that formed their society.
Government, Tocqueville noted, played only a limited role in American life. Thus voluntary associations enabled American democracy to be organized on the basis of individual liberty and preference, rather than upon elite governmental or social control. Tocqueville considered the American voluntary association to be something new in the world and the real revolution in American politics. Democracy and voluntary associations went together, Tocqueville argued, because such associations allowed the people to express their will through organizations of their own choosing.
The separation of powers was the foundation not only of the American political order, but of its social order.
Government By Judiciary: The Transformation of the Fourteenth Amendment (1977)
Raoul Berger (1901-2000) was a legal scholar and constitutional historian. In his book Government By Judiciary he brilliantly demonstrated how, as a matter of history, the Fourteenth Amendment had been falsely employed by the modern Supreme Court to substitute rule by federal judges in place of rule by the people.
It was the late 1940s that the Supreme Court declared, for the first time, that the 14th Amendment had given them the authority to “apply” the Bill of Rights to the states. Because that Amendment had been ratified in 1867, this meant that it had taken the Supreme Court 90 years to “discover” that it gave them this authority. Berger conclusively demonstrates that the Congressmen, Senators, and state legislators who ratified the 14th amendment never imagined that they were giving the Court that authority.
Unfortunately, Berger’s book is not written for the general reader, but for the legal and constitutional specialist. His book spawned a number of academic books in reply, which Berger then answered in detail in a subsequent work The Fourteenth Amendment and the Bill of Rights (1989) and in a revised version of Government By Judiciary (1997).
Raoul Berger is the indispensable guide to the decline and fall of constitutional government in America.
“The Rise and Rise of the Modern Administrative State” (1994)
Gary S. Lawson
Gary S. Lawson (1958- ) is a legal scholar and constitutional historian whose essay on the unconstitutional character of the administrative state makes him the third member of my trinity of constitutional scholars (Smith, Berger, and Lawson) who have restored the original understanding of the American Constitution.
In Lawson’s case this achievement came through writing a law review article, “The Rise and Rise of the Modern Administrative State,” Harvard Law Review, Vol. 107, 1231-1254 (1994).
Many Americans today are aware that the American federal system of government no longer exists, having been abolished in the nineteen thirties and forties. A few Americans understand, due to the work of men like Smith and Berger, that the Supreme Court has gone beyond its legitimate constitutional role and has usurped the authority of the people to determine their laws. What Lawson goes on to demonstrate, in a brief and concise essay, is that the separation of powers between the Congress, the presidency, and the judiciary also no longer exists. The unitary authority of the modern federal bureaucracy - the administrative state - has largely taken the place of the constitutional branches of government.
More recently, a mammoth, five hundred page exposition on Lawson’s theme has appeared. Written by legal scholar Philip Hamburger, Is Administrative Law Unlawful? (2014) is an exploration in depth of what Lawson outlined in just a few thousand words. However, there is still nothing that can beat Lawson’s masterful summary of the constitutional crisis entailed by the rise of the administrative state and its abolition of the separation of powers within the American central government.