The Social Contract in America

From the Revolution to the Present Age

Mark Hulliung

Because most Americans believe that government requires the consent of the governed, the idea of the social contract may come as close to a public philosophy as we've ever had. And, as Mark Hulliung reminds us, we have frequently fought our greatest political battles by wielding one or another version of social contract theory.

Hulliung's book is the first to examine the role of the social contract across the entire sweep of American history, well beyond the Revolution and Founding periods. While he pays close attention to the contested versions of the social contract from 1765 to 1861, he also underscores its relevance after the Civil War, from late nineteenth-century land reform to the rights revolution of the late twentieth century.

“Era specialists, intellectual historians, and others likely will be comforted by Hulliung’s depth, commitment to generalization, and longing to be relevant for comprehending ‘the ambiguities of the present,’ which impress while still leaving plenty of opportunities for thoughtful reflection and critique.

—American Historical Review

“As historian Hulliung argues in his provocative study, the origins, interpretation,and utilization of the social contract in America were much more varied and contested than has been previously understood. . . . One of the major contributions of Hulliung’s book is an examination of the various treatments of the Declaration of Independence in American history. . . . This insightful study contributes to the reader’s understanding of the social contract in the varied past of the United States. It will provide historians with a valuable tool to appreciate the intellectual heritage of the United States, and more importantly, it subtly reminds readers that ideas have been and will remain important.

—The Historian
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By considering this lengthy timeline, Hulliung demonstrates the life and death of what may be the most expansive and persistent form in our country's political discourse, one that has figured in virtually all major controversies in American history. He shows how it has been enlisted by advocates of seemingly every major cause, from Henry George to Martin Luther King and Justice Clarence Thomas, whose view that constitutional authority rests in the consent of the people of each individual state, rather than of the nation as a whole, echoed the version of the social contract once held by southern slave owners.

Hulliung treats the social contract as not one theory but several, considering the Americanization of Grotius and Pufendorf as well as Locke. He examines alternative readings of the contract in the struggles between claims of alienable versus inalienable rights; between consent given once and for all versus consent reaffirmed with each generation; and between the sovereignty of the people in various states versus the sovereignty of the people of the nation.

Innovative and provocative, Hulliung's study clearly shows that, until we come to terms with the centrality of the social contract in American history—and the significance of its possible demise—something essential will be missing from our accounts of the past and our understanding of the present.

About the Author

Mark Hulliung is Richard Koret Professor of the History of Ideas at Brandeis University and author of five other books, including most recently Citizens and Citoyens: Republicans and Liberals in America and France.

Additional Titles in the American Political Thought Series