James W. Ceaser has written some very good books, including this and this., and I think I’ve read them all and profited from them all. This one may be his best. It is called Nature and History in American Political Development. It was the inaugural Alexis de Tocqueville Lecture at Harvard in 2004 and has comments (chapters, really) from Jack Rakove, Nancy Rosenblum, and Rogers Smith. Ceasar’s lecture (about 100 pages, or half the book) is simply terrific. He traces what he calls foundational concepts throughout American history, from Nature as a permanent, unchanging, or standard of right, to the idea of the Historical School (tradition), and then to the Philosophy of History (progress). To be short about it: Jefferson says we did not need to search musty records to "investigate the laws and institutions of a semi-barbarous ancestry. We appealed to those of nature, and found them engraved in our hearts." Then compare Woodrow Wilson, who said this (at a Jefferson day celebration, no less!): "if you want to understand the real Declaration of Independence, do not repeat the preface."
Ceasar understands that the two make claims of right. He artfully explains and interprets our history in light of this battle, explains how and why customary history is often sufficient to be used on behalf of natural right (see the Whigs elevation of tradition pre-1850’s), and then why Republicans (and then Lincoln’s statesmanship) came to see the necessity of an emphasis on nature again. And then Ceasar traces the
dark ages during the Reconstruction period when the Darwinian (Hegelian) ideas were allowed deep entry into American political life: "The original idea of natural right lost ground, and with it any plan for securing for the rights of all citizens."
Then came the Progressives--and Ceasar says that the name does not deceive--and their
full-throated attack on the idea of natural right, "making Progressivism the first major national movement to offer the concept of History as the nation’s primary foundational idea." He then talks about the present and how Progressivism has collapsed and how the new element has been introduced into American politics: "a restoration of the foundational concept of nature." And this has been done not on the basis of myth or convenient fiction (or something merely salutary), but "as something intelligible based on an account of the nature of human beings and of the political order."
You get the drift. Ceasar has it right, the essay is elegant and will lead you to all manner of good ideas. Get the book and chew on it.