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Liberty and American National Character: A Law & Liberty Symposium

The essays in this Law & Liberty symposium emerged out of the Ryan Foundation’s second conference on American National Character. These conferences represent the early stages of a concerted effort to reinvigorate the spirit of liberty and republican self-government among the American people.

There is a deep sense of crisis in our country today. In our view, the root cause of this sense of crisis is significant disagreement about the most fundamental matters, including the nature and goodness of our regime. St. Augustine wrote that a people is defined by what it loves in common. We can illuminate the nature of our present discontent by asking: what, if anything, do Americans love in common today? Are we still animated by a shared love of liberty and self-government?

The character of a regime ultimately depends on the character of its citizens. Our project is therefore an empirical and political-philosophical inquiry into the character of the American people—who we are, how we got here, and where we appear to be going. Our goal is to determine how we can preserve (or restore) the republican principles of our constitution and sustain the political character that is appropriate to such a constitution under present and future circumstances.

We believe the character of our regime can still be a matter of “reflection and choice,” but fear it will become one of “accident and force,” if we do not take up the challenge of envisioning—and the work of cultivating—a republican future in America.

The authors in this symposium are not univocal in their views on the sources of our divisions or what to do about them, but they come together in a shared concern for the future of our country. We have observed already a burgeoning scholarship and informed opinion on this important question, and it is our hope that still others will be encouraged to address the question of our national character in a discussion of the future of our regime. They include:

No People? No Constitution!

by W.B. Allen

Ruin or Renewal? Thoughts on America’s Third Century

by Henry Olsen

Civic Friendship in America: A Madisonian Retrospective

by Colleen Sheehan

The Fraught Battle to Create an American Nationhood

by Colin Woodard

The Ryan Foundation is grateful to Liberty Fund, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado for supporting the American National Character Project.

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