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Nature and History in American Political Development

Nature and History in American Political Development

A Debate

James W. Ceaser

ISBN 9780674027237

Publication date: 03/31/2008

James Ceaser

Jack Rakove

Nancy Rosenblum

Rogers Smith

In this inaugural volume of the Alexis de Tocqueville Lectures, political scientist traces the way certain ideas, including nature, history, and religion—which he calls foundational ideas—have been understood and used by statesmen and public intellectuals over the course of American history, from the Puritans to the current day. Ceaser treats these ideas not as pure concepts of philosophy or theology, but rather as elements of political discourse that provide the ground or ultimate appeal for other political ideas, such as liberty or equality. At times, they have critically influenced the course of American political development, offering various opportunities and constraints for political leaders. Ceaser traces the histories of these ideas and their relation to other ideas, to practices, and to the fortunes of successive partisan regimes.
Three critical commentators—historian and political theorists and —challenge Ceaser’s arguments in several ways. They suggest that other ideas may be considered foundational, and they prod him to clarify further how foundational ideas work politically. Ceaser responds with vigor, and the result is a spirited debate about large and enduring questions in American politics.


  • James Ceaser has uncovered a profoundly vital aspect of American politics known by political leaders for centuries but ignored by the discipline of political science. His lecture on foundational concepts stimulated a vigorous debate on the ways students of politics should understand the role of ideas. The responses by Jack Rakove, Nancy Rosenblum, and Rogers Smith pose tough questions and Ceaser responds to their challenges in a wonderful exchange. Nature and History in American Political Development opens up an arena in the study of American politics that is new and especially important.

    —Jeffrey K. Tulis, University of Texas, Austin


  • James W. Ceaser is Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia and Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
  • Theda Skocpol is Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University. Her previous works include the prize-winning States and Social Revolutions.

Book Details

  • 240 pages
  • 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press
  • Foreword by Theda Skocpol