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Yuval Levin

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If you went to college in the United States and took a Western Civ class, you’ve probably read at least a bit of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) and Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791). The two are so often paired in history and political science classes that they are sometimes published together. No wonder, really, because Paine’s Rights of Man was written in response to Burke’s Reflections.

It’s easy to understand why these two book are standard fare in college: arguably, Burke’s and Paine’s books are the intellectual well-springs of what we call the republican (with a small “r”) “Right” and the “Left.” Much of what American Republicans think can be traced to Burke; much of what American Democrats think can be traced to Paine. For this reason, Burke and Paine are–with the possible exception of J.S. Mill–the most important political thinkers in the modern Western republican tradition.

And for all these reasons, Yuval Levin‘s wonderful The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left (Basic Books, 2013) is very relevant today. Levin masterfully explains not only why Burke and Paine thought what they thought (that is, he provides the historical context for their ideas), but he also makes clear how their ideas matter today. Listen in and find out why.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark Oates January 4, 2014 at 3:02 am

Hey guys,

Just thought I’d let y’all know that, at the moment, your upload under this title is actually an upload of your “Divine Fury: A History of Genius” interview. Just to be sure, I checked over at Stitcher, and here at the website. Both are uploads of the ‘divine fury’ episode.

I love the Podcast, though. Y’all do a wonderful job. Thank you.

Ben Peterson January 6, 2014 at 2:03 am

In Salem Ma this played out in the nineteenth century. The town was split into two regions. One for the Democratic Republicans with their exposed beam and brick houses. The second for the Federalist manors of wainscoting and wallpaper. One in accord with nature and the other superior.

For the second group this created a sense of superiority. If one could prove superior to the sea and fate, where would he stand next to the average man? Head and shoulders above. This created a sense of duality in legislated law; in means of who had to abide by it.

Couple this with the fact many of these men made their initial fortune by tar and feathering the local British custom officials and then becoming privateers against the crown. What were the men in Washington but inferiors to the ancient nobility in England they had opposed? They had stood up against the largest empire in the world and won!

These Federalist also presented a weird twist. The Federalist were very similar in attitude with how Henry had opposed the Pope and started another religion, but remained a Catholic in heart til his death. They still served England. They even brazenly painted their chimneys of their homes white and black, the colors of a Tory during the Revolution. Especially they held England’s attitude that a colony should not gain economic independence through manufacturing. Even if they did not import directly from England, as long as they imported instead of creating manufactures England would be happy. This can be seen as one reason beyond the barring of English trade during that these Federalist resented the Embargo Act, the Embargo Act resulted in the creation of the mill towns throughout the new nation.

As this passion play was played out in Salem we can see the rise of Liberalism in the first and Conservatism in the second. Even right down to the control of the House. Many of the smugglers in Salem who were avoiding paying Jefferson’s custom duties in 1801 were members of the House of Representatives. Granted the Democratic Republicans Superior Court Justice Joseph Story and the Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Crowninshield were also smugglers but indeed the majority were of the Federalist Party. It was even said that Joseph Story as Liberman in our time was the favorite Democrat of the Federalists.
To find out more about the real tunnels in Salem about read Salem Secret Underground:The History of the Tunnels in the City and then take the cool Salem walking tour about them. Learn how 144 people hid behind the creation of a park to build a series of tunnels in Salem utilizing the nation’s first National Guard to build them so a superior court justice, a Secretary of the Navy, and a bunch of Congressmen could avoid paying Jefferson’s custom duties. Engineered by the son of America’s first millionaire.

pamunkey February 14, 2014 at 11:11 am

This interview is a WONDERFUL introduction to Edmund Burke & Thomas Paine. This is not my area at all & yet it was very accessible & fascinating. Burke is timeless, & Paine, well he seems timeless, but after we turn 30 or 40, we began to appreciate Burke. Thank you – I better donate again:)

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