SOCIAL COMPACT, PROPERLY UNDERSTOOD: A BOOK REPORT
FROM THE CLAREMONT INSTITUTE FOR THE STUDY
OF STATESMANSHIP & POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY
By Glenn Ellmers
Were we to recommend a useful new book that explains social compact theory—and its place in American political thought—we doubt it would make it onto the Lt. Governor's reading list. But perhaps Precepts readers would appreciate the recommendation.
While other books about the Founding often stress the philosophical differences among America's Founders, a new collection of essays shows that there was a broad consensus around the theory of social compact. This term, used in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 and in numerous other Founding-Era documents, implies that human beings are by nature free individuals, and therefore that any legitimate government must be formed by the people's free choice—a social compact based upon their voluntary con- sent. This idea leads to the conclusion, embodied in the Declaration of Independence, that the purpose of government is to protect individuals in their natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The book, The American Founding and the Social Compact, is edited by Claremont Institute Fellows Thomas G. West and Ronald J. Pestritto—both Professors of Politics at the University of Dallas. It contains essays by several prominent scholars, including chapters by Peter Myers and Michael Zuckert examining social compact theory as it appears in the works of John Locke and William Blackstone, and by Brad Watson on an early critic of the theory, David Hume. Essays on what might be called the "official" American version of the social compact argument include editor Tom West on the political theory of the Declaration, of Independence, Jean Yarbrough on the political phi- losophy of Thomas Jefferson, and Edward Erler on citizenship in social compact theory. The book concludes with three chapters on individual Founders: Karl Walling on Alex- ander Hamilton, John Paynter on John Adams, and Steven Forde on Benjamin Frank- lin.
Friends of the Claremont Institute and its mission will find this new book an important contribution to their understanding of America.
The foregoing book report by Glenn Ellmers was originally published in the October 29, 2003, issue of Precepts, a publication
of the Claremont Institute for the Study of States- manship and Political Philosophy. The Claremont Institute, a Conservative political,
cultural, and educational organization in the U.S.A., describes its central purpose as the mission "to restore the principles of the
American Founding to their rightful, preemi- nent authority in our national life." Committed to American constitutionalism and
re- publicanism as well as representative democracy, the Institute's mission statement de- clares: "America's Founders endowed our
Republic with sound principles and a frame- work for governing that is unmatched in the history of mankind. The prosperity and
freedom of America can only be made secure if they are guided by a return to these basic principles as our country enters the 21st.
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