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What America's Founding Fathers had that we've let slip away

The Lost Soul of American Politics, by John P. Diggins. New York: Basic Books. 409 pp. $23.95. John Diggins, a history professor at the University of California (Irvine), has written a piece of US intellectual history that even amateur students of history will find hard to put down. Not unmindful of the approaching bicentennial of the US Constitution, Professor Diggins delves into the origins of this republic. Unhappily, he finds that it has strayed from its moorings.

Those who see some providential design expressed in the formation of the United States may find it discomfiting to be reminded that various leaders have disagreed whether the key expression of the American experiment lay in the moral sentiments of the Declaration of Independence (Jefferson and later Lincoln) or in the complex fabric of the Constitution (Adams, Hamilton, and Madison).

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The first chapters of the book deal with the debates over the source of authority and the ways of channeling personal self-interest. Professor Diggins not only examines the views of the founders, but he also critiques the various interpretations of US history that have had waves of popularity over two centuries.

The framers of the Constitution were properly suspicious of human mischievousness and formed a system with ample checks and balances to prevent the abuse of power. But Diggins goes beyond this fairly traditional explanation to note that the framers worked in an atmosphere in which religion played a key role. In doing so, he restores an element almost overlooked in modern-day interpretations of those foundation years from 1776 to 1787.

Implied, although not stated, in the system of government they established at Philadelphia were the restraints of a religious consciousness. This worked in a curious fashion, he claims: ``The role of religion in the Founders' thought is as complex as it is ironic. The irony lies in the curious fact that those who remained under the influence of Calvinism and Hume -- Adams, Hamilton, and Madison -- doubted the vital importance of religion in preserving the Republic, whereas those who remained free from the mistrusts of skepticism and a concern for sin -- Washington and Jefferson -- often looked to religion as one of the foundations of political morality.''

Without this understanding of the ethos in which the founders worked, he maintains, the documents themselves don't tell it all. In a later chapter, he quotes the Frenchman de Tocqueville as sensing the religious nature of early American governance. ``American society, governed ostensibly by political institutions but more deeply by religious sentiments, offered a new species of authority that could both elicit respect and sustain freedom.''

Diggins also shows how American dealt with a changing nation as the 19th century progressed.

Emerson and Thoreau were, of course, not concerned mainly with politics. In their own emphasis on the individual and his potential, they did have differing reactions to the burgeoning Industrial Revolution. Emerson praised wealth and commerce, while Thoreau could write that ``a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.'' In seeing work as ``a stultifying activity,'' Thoreau departed from America's ``liberal predilections for labor, property, and the pursuit of material happiness.''

A poignant section on Henry Adams shows his concern at the drift of an industrial, materialistic America in the late 19th century.

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Herman Melville and Abraham Lincoln are Diggins's heroes. Both men ``could view slavery as a primal act of violence against humankind because their outlook was as much theological as political.'' Lincoln, says Diggins, saw the conflict between the legitimate promise of the dominant individual liberalism in America and the sins of ``ambition, envy, and self-satisfaction'' that sometimes accompanied that individualism. He remains for Diggins the consummate American politician, for he introduced ``the critical sting of spiritual conscience'' into US politics.

It is the absence of self-doubt, of humility, that Diggins finds missing from the American experience today. One cannot easily disagree with that assessment. But I would also like to see a successor to ``The Lost Soul'' that deals with the America of the 20th century. Sensing that this society -- and the whole world -- has changed too much to ever find moorings entirely in 1787, one may ask what is the glue that might still hold it together? At least part of the answer surely lies in Diggins's own statement that ``classical political thought remains morally empty if it lacks the insights of Christianity.''

Richard A. Nenneman is the Monitor's managing editor.

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