What Binds Us?

In 1973, the distinguished political theorist, Wilson Carey McWilliams, first published perhaps his best-known work, The Idea of Fraternity in America. The book might be broadly placed within what was then the growing family of communitarian accounts of American culture. It distinguished two strains of thought and feeling in the United States, the religious and the liberal. The religious was represented in such literary figures as Hawthorne, Melville, Henry Adams, and James Baldwin, while the liberal had its literary spokesmen in the likes of Emerson and Whitman (to complement its political spokesmen in Madison and Hamilton). The project of The Idea of Fraternity was to investigate these two traditions of thought, but especially the first, the tradition that emphasizes affection, fellow-feeling (I’ve often thought that Charles Dickens, though of course not American, makes this a central theme of his novels), duty to others, and brotherhood. To oversimplify a great deal, McWilliams’ view was that liberty and equality were having their way in his time, while the tradition of fraternity was eroding, as the common civic American culture–the bonds of affection (as Lincoln put it)–steadily diminished. This latter tradition, McWilliams called “America’s Second Voice,” and in his view it was vital to sustain the American project.

McWilliams’ ideas are visible and vital today in many places. His broader train of thought can be seen as something of a precursor to the flowering of so-called post-liberalism today, as in, for example, the work of his student and Center collaborator and friend, Patrick Deneen. But it also appears in more mundane and less expected areas. One of the first concepts we begin with in Tort law is “duty.” What do we owe to each other, and what in turn binds us as a political and legal community? It is an urgent question and instructive also that many of the most prominent tort scholars in the 20th century deemphasized or even attempted to eliminate duty as a feature of the law.

This year, on the 50th anniversary of the original publication of the book, The University of Notre Dame Press publishes a new edition of The Idea of Fraternity in America. I am looking forward to investing some time with it. Here is the description.

The United States is currently experiencing a crisis of citizenship and democracy. For many of us, there is a sense of forlornness caused by losing sight of human connectedness and the bonds of community. Originally published in 1973, and long out of print, The Idea of Fraternity in America is a resonant call to reclaim and restore the communal bonds of democracy by one of the most important political theorists of the twentieth century, Wilson Carey McWilliams.

This sprawling and majestic book offers a comprehensive and original interpretation of the whole range of American historical and political thought, from seventeenth-century White Puritanism to twentieth-century Black American political thought. In one sense, it is a long and sustained reflection on the American political tradition, with side glances at other cultures and other traditions; in another sense, it is an impressive beginning to an original and comprehensive theory of politics, rooted in a new reading of a vast array of relevant sources. Speaking with a prescience unmatched by his contemporaries, McWilliams argues that in order to address the malaise of our modern democracy we must return to an ideal of our past: fraternity, a relation of affection founded on shared values and goals. This 50th anniversary edition, which offers a critique of the liberal tradition and a new social philosophy for the future, contains a new introduction from McWilliams’s daughter, Susan McWilliams Barndt. She writes, “At a time when many Americans are wondering how we got to where we are today . . . this book demonstrates that there is in fact a lot of precedent for what feels so unprecedented in contemporary American politics.”

Legal Spirits Episode 047: “Christianity and Constitutionalism”

For our first podcast of 2023, we are delighted to welcome Professor Nicholas Aroney of the University of Queensland Law School, a distinguished constitutional law scholar who has co-edited (with Professor Ian Leigh) a new book just published by Oxford University Press: Christianity and Constitutionalism. Marc and Mark interview him about the book’s themes, scope, and arguments, including questions about the overarching relationship of Christianity and law, and about growing scholarly interest in the connection between law and theology (in Australia and elsewhere!). Listen in!