Cover image for Power versus liberty : Madison, Hamilton, Wilson, and Jefferson
Power versus liberty : Madison, Hamilton, Wilson, and Jefferson
Read, James H., 1958-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Charlottesville : University Press of Virginia, [2000]

Physical Description:
xi, 201 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm

Format :


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JA84.U5 R37 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Does every increase in the power of government entail a loss of liberty for the people? James H. Read examines how four key Founders--James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, James Wilson, and Thomas Jefferson--wrestled with this question during the first two decades of the American Republic.

Power versus Liberty reconstructs a four-way conversation--sometimes respectful, sometimes shrill--that touched on the most important issues facing the new nation: the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, federal authority versus states' rights, freedom of the press, the controversial Bank of the United States, the relation between nationalism and democracy, and the elusive meaning of "the consent of the governed."

Each of the men whose thought Read considers differed on these key questions. Jefferson believed that every increase in the power of government came at the expense of liberty: energetic governments, he insisted, are always oppressive. Madison believed that this view was too simple, that liberty can be threatened either by too much or too little governmental power. Hamilton and Wilson likewise rejected the Jeffersonian view of power and liberty but disagreed with Madison and with each other.

The question of how to reconcile energetic government with the liberty of citizens is as timely today as it was in the first decades of the Republic. It pervades our political discourse and colors our readings of events from the confrontation at Waco to the Oklahoma City bombing to Congressional debate over how to spend the government surplus. While the rhetoric of both major political parties seems to posit a direct relationship between the size of our government and the scope of our political freedoms, the debates of Madison, Hamilton, Wilson, and Jefferson confound such simple dichotomies. As Read concludes, the relation between power and liberty is inherently complex.

Author Notes

James H. Read is Associate Professor of Political Science at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University of Minnesota.

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Read (College of St. Benedict and St. Johns Univ. of Minnesota) explores the relationship between power and liberty in James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, James Wilson, and Alexander Hamilton. His purpose is to present an accurate reconstruction of the views of those four thinkers on the problem of national power. Read poses this central question: "Whether and in what respects increasing the power of government diminishes the liberty of those subject to its authority?" The work illuminates important differences among the four thinkers. Read explores how the problem sheds light on an understanding of the founding and on the argument over national power, which, along with slavery, was one of the crucial issues that instigated the Civil War. Finally Read asks, "what form does this peculiar problem--deciding how much power to vest in national government--take in our own time?" He suggests a way to conceptualize the problem in the context of the recent devolution of national power to the states. Read provides an excellent context and corrective to Garry Wills's more polemical and less nuanced A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government (1999). Well written and well organized. General readers, undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and researchers. P. J. Galie; Canisius College

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsp. viii
Prefacep. ix
1. Introductionp. 1
2. James Madison on Power and Libertyp. 25
3. Alexander Hamilton as Libertarian and Nationalistp. 55
4. James Wilson and the Idea of Popular Sovereigntyp. 89
5. Thomas Jefferson, Liberty, and the Statesp. 119
6. Conclusionp. 157
Notesp. 177
Bibliographyp. 193
Indexp. 199