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Interpreting the Founding

Guide to the Enduring Debates over the Origins and Foundations of the American Republic

Second Edition, Revised and Expanded

Alan Gibson

February 2010
248 pages, 6 x 9
American Political Thought
Cloth ISBN 978-0-7006-1705-0, $35.00
Paper ISBN 978-0-7006-1706-7, $16.95

Book cover imageNow widely regarded as the best available guide to the study of the Founding, the first edition of Interpreting the Founding provided summaries and analyses of the leading interpretive frameworks that have guided the study of the Founding since the publication of Charles Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution in 1913. For this new edition, Gibson has revised and updated his study, including his comprehensive bibliography, and also added a new concluding chapter on the “Unionist Paradigm” or “Federalist Interpretation” of the Constitution.

As in the original work, Gibson argues in the new edition that scholarship on the Founding is no longer steered by a single dominant approach or even by a set of questions that control its direction. He features insightful extended discussions of pioneering works by leading scholars of the Founding—including Louis Hartz, Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, and Garry Wills—that best exemplify different schools of interpretation. He focuses on six approaches that have dominated the modern study of the Founding—Progressive, Lockean/liberal, Republican, Scottish Enlightenment, multicultural, and multiple traditions approaches—before concluding with the Unionist or Federalist paradigm. For each approach, Gibson traces its fundamental assumptions, revealing deeper ideological and methodological differences between schools of thought that, on the surface, seem to differ only about the interpretation of historical facts.

While previous accounts have treated the study of the Founding as the sequential replacement of one paradigm by another, Gibson argues that all of these interpretations survive as alternative and still viable approaches. By examining the strengths and weaknesses of each approach and showing how each has simultaneously illuminated and masked core truths about the American Founding, he renders a balanced account of the continuing and very vigorous debate over the origins and foundations of the American republic.

Brimming with intellectual vigor, Gibson’s new edition is sure to reinforce this remarkable book’s reputation while winning new converts to his argument.

Praise for the first edition:

“A remarkably helpful guide. . . . Scholars will long be indebted to Gibson for this succinct description of a capacious scholarship as well as for his clear-headed call to further study.”—Journal of American Studies

“Anyone interested in the enduring questions that the Founding poses will want to enter the grounds with Gibson’s map in hand.”—Political Science Quarterly

“Lucid in its analyses and imaginative in its coverage, Gibson’s grandly comprehensive and comprehensible study will satisfy the most exacting critic.”—Joyce Appleby, author of Inheriting the Revolution

ALAN GIBSON is associate professor of political science at California State University–Chico and has been a Fellow at the James Madison Program of Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. He is also the author of Understanding the Founding: The Crucial Questions. 

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