Foundational Ideas in American Political Thought

James Ceaser, University of Virginia
October 14, 2006

Summary: American thinkers and statesmen have sought to ground political life in first principles, or foundations, that derive from ideas of nature, history or faith. To achieve clarity about the American political thought and its development, each foundational concept must be defined and the important debates among them analyzed. This lecture will present and discuss some of the key controversies about foundational ideas from the period of the founding until the present day.

James Ceaser is Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, where he has taught since 1976. He has written several books on American politics and political thought, including Presidential Selection, Reforming the Reforms, Liberal Democracy and Political Science, Reconstructing America, and Nature and History in American Political Development. Professor Ceaser has held visiting professorships at the University of Florence, the University of Basel, Oxford University, the University of Bordeaux, and the University of Rennes. He is a frequent contributor to the popular press, and he often comments on American Politics for the Voice of America.

Session One —– The Meaning of History


  • Progress (Philosophy of History)
    • Condorcet, “Selection from sketch of progress of human mind”
    • Woodrow Wilson, “What is Progress” (New Freedom Chapter 2)
  • Historical School

Session Two –— The Meaning of Nature


Questions to Consider

  1. What is meant by a “foundational concept”?
  2. What are the different foundations that are attributed to History?
  3. What are the different foundations attributed to Nature?
  4. What differences follow from thinking in terms of History and of Nature?

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