Rosen, “William Howard Taft”

9781250293695We round out this week’s book posts with a new biography of William Howard Taft, who managed to serve both as President and Chief Justice of the United States and who was, incidentally, the last American President to deny the divinity of Jesus Christ. (It’s true. He was a Unitarian. You could look it up). The publisher is Macmillan and the author is law professor Jeffrey Rosen. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

The only man to serve as president and chief justice, who approached every decision in constitutional terms, defending the Founders’ vision against new populist threats to American democracy

William Howard Taft never wanted to be president and yearned instead to serve as chief justice of the United States. But despite his ambivalence about politics, the former federal judge found success in the executive branch as governor of the Philippines and secretary of war, and he won a resounding victory in the presidential election of 1908 as Theodore Roosevelt’s handpicked successor.

In this provocative assessment, Jeffrey Rosen reveals Taft’s crucial role in shaping how America balances populism against the rule of law. Taft approached each decision as president by asking whether it comported with the Constitution, seeking to put Roosevelt’s activist executive orders on firm legal grounds. But unlike Roosevelt, who thought the president could do anything the Constitution didn’t forbid, Taft insisted he could do only what the Constitution explicitly allowed. This led to a dramatic breach with Roosevelt in the historic election of 1912, which Taft viewed as a crusade to defend the Constitution against the demagogic populism of Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Nine years later, Taft achieved his lifelong dream when President Warren Harding appointed him chief justice, and during his years on the Court he promoted consensus among the justices and transformed the judiciary into a modern, fully equal branch. Though he had chafed in the White House as a judicial president, he thrived as a presidential chief justice.

Thanks to the Madison Program

Just a note to thank Princeton’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions for hosting a faculty workshop yesterday on my current draft, “The Future of Religious Freedom.” I gained a lot from the discussion. Looking forward to dinner with the undergraduate fellows this evening!

Catlos, “Kingdoms of Faith”

97804650558761It’s often impossible to know whether religious conflicts are a cause or a symptom of wider social dysfunction. A new history of Muslim Spain from Basic Books, Kingdoms of Faith: A New History of Muslim Spain, by Brian Catlos, maintains that disputes among Christians, Jews, and Muslims during the centuries of Islamic rule were typically not about religion. It also offers a corrective to the many popular histories that assert that Al-Andalus was a sort of tolerant religious paradise. Readers can assess the arguments for themselves:

A magisterial, myth-dispelling history of Islamic Spain spanning the millennium between the founding of Islam in the seventh century and the final expulsion of Spain’s Muslims in the seventeenth.
In Kingdoms of Faith, award-winning historian Brian A. Catlos rewrites the history of Islamic Spain from the ground up, evoking the cultural splendor of al-Andalus, while offering an authoritative new interpretation of the forces that shaped it.
Prior accounts have portrayed Islamic Spain as a paradise of enlightened tolerance or the site where civilizations clashed. Catlos taps a wide array of primary sources to paint a more complex portrait, showing how Muslims, Christians, and Jews together built a sophisticated civilization that transformed the Western world, even as they waged relentless war against each other and their coreligionists. Religion was often the language of conflict, but seldom its cause–a lesson we would do well to learn in our own time.

 

Schlereth, “An Age of Infidels”

spring2018catalogcoverHere is an interesting-looking new book from the University of Pennsylvania Press on conflicts concerning religious liberty in the early Republic, An Age of Infidels: The Politics of Religious Controversy in the Early United States. The author, University of Texas at Dallas historian Eric R. Schlereth, maintains that Americans in the Framers’ generation decided to handle religious accommodation as a political rather than a legal matter. Here is the description from the publisher’s website:

Historian Eric R. Schlereth places religious conflict at the center of early American political culture. He shows ordinary Americans—both faithful believers and Christianity’s staunchest critics—struggling with questions about the meaning of tolerance and the limits of religious freedom. In doing so, he casts new light on the ways Americans reconciled their varied religious beliefs with political change at a formative moment in the nation’s cultural life.

After the American Revolution, citizens of the new nation felt no guarantee that they would avoid the mire of religious and political conflict that had gripped much of Europe for three centuries. Debates thus erupted in the new United States about how or even if long-standing religious beliefs, institutions, and traditions could be accommodated within a new republican political order that encouraged suspicion of inherited traditions. Public life in the period included contentious arguments over the best way to ensure a compatible relationship between diverse religious beliefs and the nation’s recent political developments.

In the process, religion and politics in the early United States were remade to fit each other. From the 1770s onward, Americans created a political rather than legal boundary between acceptable and unacceptable religious expression, one defined in reference to infidelity. Conflicts occurred most commonly between deists and their opponents who perceived deists’ anti-Christian opinions as increasingly influential in American culture and politics. Exploring these controversies, Schlereth explains how Americans navigated questions of religious truth and difference in an age of emerging religious liberty.

Pincus, “The Heart of the Declaration”

bfd9b38e919a99d3dddede54acc5eb14In recent years, members of traditionalist religious groups have come to see activist government as one of the greatest threats to their religious freedom. And so they have made common cause with libertarians, who, on the face of it, would seem to have little in common with them, ideologically. Both groups would presumably have much to argue with in a new book from Yale University Press, The Heart of the Declaration: The Founders’ Case for An Activist Government, by Yale historian Steve Pincus. Here is the description from the publisher’s website:

An eye-opening, meticulously researched new perspective on the influences that shaped the Founders as well as the nation’s founding document

From one election cycle to the next, a defining question continues to divide the country’s political parties: Should the government play a major or a minor role in the lives of American citizens? The Declaration of Independence has long been invoked as a philosophical treatise in favor of limited government. Yet the bulk of the document is a discussion of policy, in which the Founders outlined the failures of the British imperial government. Above all, they declared, the British state since 1760 had done too little to promote the prosperity of its American subjects. Looking beyond the Declaration’s frequently cited opening paragraphs, Steve Pincus reveals how the document is actually a blueprint for a government with extensive powers to promote and protect the people’s welfare. By examining the Declaration in the context of British imperial debates, Pincus offers a nuanced portrait of the Founders’ intentions with profound political implications for today.

Cooper, “Citizenship, Inequality, and Difference”

Debates about religious accommodation often pose two values against one another: equality and freedom. Equality suggests that the state should apply the law uniformly to all citizens, without exceptions. Freedom, by contrast, suggests that citizens should be accommodated in their religious beliefs and practices. Balancing these two values, which often lead to different results, proves difficult in many cases.

A new book from Princeton University Press, Citizenship, Inequality, and Difference: Historical Perspectives, by NYU historian Frederick Cooper, shows that the debate on what equal citizenship means, and how equality relates to other values like multiculturalism, goes back a very long way. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

A succinct and comprehensive history of the development of citizenship from the Roman Empire to the present day.

Citizenship, Inequality, and Difference offers a concise and sweeping overview of citizenship’s complex evolution, from ancient Rome to the present. Political leaders and thinkers still debate, as they did in Republican Rome, whether the presumed equivalence of citizens is compatible with cultural diversity and economic inequality. Frederick Cooper presents citizenship as “claim-making”–the assertion of rights in a political entity. What those rights should be and to whom they should apply have long been subjects for discussion and political mobilization, while the kind of political entity in which claims and counterclaims have been made has varied over time and space.

Citizenship ideas were first shaped in the context of empires. The relationship of citizenship to “nation” and “empire” was hotly debated after the revolutions in France and the Americas, and claims to “imperial citizenship” continued to be made in the mid-twentieth century. Cooper examines struggles over citizenship in the Spanish, French, British, Ottoman, Russian, Soviet, and American empires, and he explains the reconfiguration of citizenship questions after the collapse of empires in Africa and India. He explores the tension today between individualistic and social conceptions of citizenship, as well as between citizenship as an exclusionary notion and flexible and multinational conceptions of citizenship.

Citizenship, Inequality, and Difference is a historically based reflection on some of the most fundamental issues facing human societies in the past and present.

Movsesian at Columbia Law

I’m a little late posting this, but I’d like to thank Professor Philip Hamburger and the Morningside Institute’s Nathaniel Peters for inviting me to participate earlier this month in a session of Columbia Law School’s Reading Group in the American Constitutional Tradition. The Reading Group is a for-credit seminar for 2Ls, 3Ls, and LLM students at Columbia Law. For the session in which I participated, the students read excerpts from Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Among the issues we discussed in class were Tocqueville’s famous observation that lawyers form a sort of conservative aristocracy in America, a class of quasi-mystics with the ability to speak oracularly in the name of tradition. We still try around here. #TraditionProject

Wimpfheimer, “The Talmud”

9780691161846Here is an interesting-looking new book from Princeton University Press on the foundational text of Jewish law, The Talmud: A Biography. The author is Northwestern University religious studies professor Barry Wimpfheimer. The description from the Princeton website follows:

The life and times of an enduring work of Jewish spirituality

The Babylonian Talmud, a postbiblical Jewish text that is part scripture and part commentary, is an unlikely bestseller. Written in a hybrid of Hebrew and Aramaic, it is often ambiguous to the point of incomprehension, and its subject matter reflects a narrow scholasticism that should hardly have broad appeal. Yet the Talmud has remained in print for centuries and is more popular today than ever. Barry Scott Wimpfheimer tells the remarkable story of this ancient Jewish book and explains why it has endured for almost two millennia.

Providing a concise biography of this quintessential work of rabbinic Judaism, Wimpfheimer takes readers from the Talmud‘s prehistory in biblical and second-temple Judaism to its present-day use as a source of religious ideology, a model of different modes of rationality, and a totem of cultural identity. He describes the book’s origins and structure, its centrality to Jewish law, its mixed reception history, and its golden renaissance in modernity. He explains why reading the Talmud can feel like being swept up in a river or lost in a maze, and why the Talmud has come to be venerated–but also excoriated and maligned—in the centuries since it first appeared.

An incomparable introduction to a work of literature that has lived a full and varied life, this accessible book shows why the Talmud is at once a received source of traditional teachings, a touchstone of cultural authority, and a powerful symbol of Jewishness for both supporters and critics.

 

Bessler, “The Celebrated Marquis”

9781611637861Did you know that Cesare Beccaria’s monumental work, Of Crimes and Punishments, landed on the Catholic Church’s list of forbidden books? I didn’t. And that he once was a member of a group called the “Academy of Fists?” (Maybe resident Italophone Marc can explain). I did know that Beccaria’s early-utilitarian views on the purposes of criminal law greatly influenced the American Framers. All these subjects are covered in this new book by University of Baltimore law professor John Bessler, The Celebrated Marquis: An Italian Noble and the Making of the Modern World. The publisher is Carolina Academic Press. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

During the Enlightenment, a now little-known Italian marquis, while in his mid-twenties as a member of a small Milanese salon, the Academy of Fists, wrote a book that was destined to change the world. Published anonymously in 1764 as Dei delitti e delle pene, and quickly translated into French and then into English as On Crimes and Punishments, the runaway bestseller argued against torture, capital punishment, and religious intolerance. Written by Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794), an economist and recent law graduate of the University of Pavia, On Crimes and Punishments sought clear and egalitarian laws, better public education, and milder punishments. Translated into all of the major European languages, Beccaria’s book led to the end of the Ancien Régime.

Praised by Voltaire and the French philosophes, Beccaria was toasted in Paris in 1766 for his literary achievement, and his book—though banned by the Inquisition and placed on the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books—was lauded by monarchs and revolutionaries alike. Among its admirers were the French Encyclopédistes; Prussia’s Frederick the Great; Russia’s enlightened czarina, Catherine II; members of the Habsburg dynasty; the English jurist Sir William Blackstone; the utilitarian penal reformer Jeremy Bentham; and American revolutionaries John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. On Crimes and Punishments, decrying tyranny and arbitrariness and advocating for equality of treatment under the law, helped to catalyze the American and French Revolutions. In 1774, on the cusp of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress explicitly hailed Beccaria as “the celebrated marquis.”

Called the “Italian Adam Smith” for his pioneering work as an economist in Milan, Cesare Beccaria—like his Italian mentor, Pietro Verri—wrote about pleasure and pain, economic theory, and maximizing people’s happiness. Once a household name throughout Europe and the Americas, Beccaria taught economics before the appearance of Smith’s The Wealth of Nations but died in obscurity after working for decades as a civil servant in Austria’s Habsburg Empire. As a public councilor, Beccaria pushed for social and economic justice, monetary and legal reform, conservation of natural resources, and even inspired France’s adoption of the metric system. In The Celebrated Marquis, award-winning author John Bessler tells the story of the history of economics and of how Beccaria’s ideas shaped the American Declaration of Independence, constitutions and laws around the globe, and the modern world in which we live.

Movsesian at Princeton

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Movsesian (left) with Madison Program Executive Director Brad Wilson

 

St. John’s has posted a news item on my visiting fellowship at Princeton University’s James Madison Program this semester:

Professor Movsesian, who is the director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s Law, is devoting his time at Princeton to his current writing project, “The Future of Religious Freedom.” The project explores the cultural and political trends that make religious freedom increasingly problematic in American life, and shows how those trends are likely to affect constitutional law.

He presented an early version of the project, a paper on religion and the administrative state, at a conference at George Mason University Law School in March, and will present a revised version at a workshop at Princeton this month. Professor Movsesian will also participate in a panel, “Religious Freedom at Home and Abroad,” at the Madison Program’s annual conference in May.

“It’s a wonderful experience,” Professor Movsesian says of his fellowship. “I greatly appreciate the opportunity to spend time at Princeton and interact with so many serious scholars. I know my work will improve as a result.” Madison Program Executive Director Bradford Wilson adds, “Professor Movsesian brings to Princeton University his exceptional knowledge of the place of religious freedom in American constitutional and statutory law. His inquisitive and generous spirit has enlivened the never-ending dialogue in our Program on law and politics. We are honored to have him with us.”

I know we have some readers on the Princeton campus, so please stop by and say hello! I’m here through June.

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