Understanding the Founding

The Crucial Questions

Second Edition, Revised and Expanded

Alan Gibson

The first edition of Alan Gibson’s Understanding the Founding is widely regarded as an invaluable guide to the last century's key debates surrounding America’s founding. This new edition retains all of the strengths of the original while adding a substantial new section addressing a major but previously unaddressed issue and also significantly revising Gibson’s invaluable conclusion and bibliography.

In the original edition, which was built upon his previous work in Interpreting the Founding, Gibson addressed four key questions: Were the Framers motivated by their economic interests? How democratic was the Framers’ Constitution? Should we interpret the Founding using philosophical or strictly historical approaches? What traditions of political thought were most important to the Framers? He focused especially on the preconceptions that scholars brought to these questions, explored the deepest sources of scholars’ disagreements over them, and suggested new and thoughtful lines of interpretation and inquiry. His incisive analysis brought clarity to the complex and sprawling debates and shed new light on the institutional and intellectual foundations of the American political system.

“It is a singular strength of Gibson’s work that, while he is always ready to take seriously the received wisdom about the Framers, he is equally ready to offer a thoughtful, substantial counterpoint.”

American Review of Politics

“A lucid and often trenchant analysis of some of the most persistent questions surrounding the nations founding.”

See all reviews...

Gibson has now added a path-breaking new chapter entitled “How Could They Have Done That? Founding Scholarship and the Question of Moral Responsibility,” which reprises and critiques on of the most important and vexing contemporary debates on the American founding. The new chapter focuses on how the men who fought a revolution in the name of liberty and declared to the world that “all men are created equal” could have supported the institution of slavery and even owned slaves themselves, accepted the legal and social subordination of women, and been responsible for Indian removal and genocide against Native Americans. Efforts to criticize or defend the Founders on these issues now constitute a daunting body of scholarship addressing what David Brion Davis has called the “dilemmas of slaveholding revolutionaries.” Gibson’s astute and fair-minded analysis of this scholarship offers keen insights into how we might move toward more mature and responsible evaluations of the Founders.

About the Author

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 Interpreting the Founding: Guide to the Enduring Debates over the Origins and Foundations of the American Republic.

Additional Titles in the American Political Thought Series