Ben Peterson’s argument for “national sovereignty” as the “political idea of the year” was so challenging and so persuasive that it seems almost cavalier for me to have observed in commenting upon it that it under-explains the fretwork of national sovereignty. My praise of the argument is sincere, and I do think that it should issue in further discussion. I place at the center of that discussion, however, the urgent necessity to clarify what I have in the past called “political prosperity.”
The idea that people embrace national sovereignty for the sake of national sovereignty, in other words as a mere political abstraction, fails to enlist in its support those political dynamics that give currency to national sovereignty in the first place. Of those dynamics, none is more significant than the conditioning of support for national sovereignty upon the aspiration for humane conditions of life. The nation does not exist for its own sake and, more importantly, in a free society the people do not exist for the sake of the nation.
A nation riven by a contest of authority between implacable foes describes the world of shame about which Shelby Steele writes.
George Washington provided explicit direction for biographers and analysts seeking to capture the substance of his public service. In his September 1796 “Farewell Address,” he wrote:
Though in reviewing the incidents of my Administration, I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend. I shall also carry with me the hope that my Country will never cease to view them with indulgence; and that after forty five years of my life dedicated to its Service, with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the Mansions of rest.
As we can see, Washington identified as the term of his service to the United States, a continuous period dating from 1751 to 1796. Every Washington biographer inherits an obligation to tell the story at least with reference to that “body of work,” if not comprehensively reproducing it. To date, no one has presented that coherent account (including the present author). But Edward J. Larson has taken large strides toward compensating for the lack with The Return of George Washington. The book focuses on what is arguably the most under-appreciated period in that 45 years, the time between Washington’s resignation of his command of the Army of the Revolution and his inauguration as the first President of the United States.
Celebrations of the Civil Rights Act at 50 remind us just how anachronistic the common understanding of civil rights has become. They are treated as the product of a momentary movement in the latter portion of the 20th century or as a work of legislative artistry by President Lyndon Johnson. Today it seemingly suffices to name President Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to say all that is necessary about civil rights. Ironically, the observations most associated with each of these men undermine their claims to be advocates of civil rights constitutionally understood. In Johnson’s case, the observation was…