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Basic American government Hardcover – 1993
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Basic American Government by Clarence B. Carson is a constitutionally oriented book which includes a valuable and lengthy description of the nature our government, followed by a history of its founding principles, tracing them from the ancient Hebrews, the Greeks, the Romans, the Medieval and reformation background, and the British sources. From there it goes to description of the making of our national and state constitutions, the 19th century development, and 20th century departures.
The tone of the book is set in these opening observations: It would be a considerable fraud to do a book on American government which talked as if the Constitution were still being substantially observed, that pretended that when Presidents took the oath of office they intended to observe the bounds set by Constitution, that Congressmen recited their pledges with the same intent, and that federal judges were still construing the Constitution as it was written. In sum, any book on American government ought to make clear how remote from the Constitution the government has become.
From the Sonlight Curriculum Ltd. catalog: We looked at dozens of texts before settling with delight on this volume. It provides exactly the kind of basic outline we need for a high school civics class. Mr. Carson offers an astonishingly broad perspective on the entire range of cultural and historical sources that lay behind America’s constitutional government as it was being born. He also provides a thorough view of the historical events that have permitted our national government to become the Leviathan it is today. For a work that covers so much difficult and complex material, this book is astonishingly thorough, well-organized, and easy to read.
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The book is divided into four sections : - Section 1 (35p) deals with the basic principles of the American system of government. It starts by reminding the reader that the United States, contrary to the platitudes that are mouthed by today's journalists and politicians, « is not a democracy. It is a Constitutional Federated Republic. » Carson then goes on to explain what these concepts of « constitution », « republic » and « federalism » mean exactly, thus presenting the « sum and substance » of American govenment. - Section 2 (150p) delves into the intellectual background of the American political system, from authorities such as Aristotle to the English heritage of the 17th and 18th century, including 12 pages on John Locke, Trenchard and Gordon, William Blackstone and Adam Smith alone. The American colonial experience, the American Revolution and the Constitutional Convention are then summarized, but of course with much less detail than in Carson's « Basic History of the United States » or his « Rebirth of Liberty ». - Section 3 (130p) traces the evolution of the American system of government in the 19th century, from the establishment of the Federal Government after the ratification of the Constitution through the major decisions of the Supreme Court and the upheaval of the Civil War and Recontruction. - Section 4 (135p) deals with the 20th century and the advent of Leviathan (or big government), examining how socialism, by deliberately refusing to call itself by that name, entered the American mainstream ; and how Franklin D. Roosevelt « broke the constitutional dam » with his New Deal and the Court Packing Plan of 1937- a process culminating in a government that has become « out of control ».
First published in 1993, Clarence Carson's masterful volume « Basic American Government » ranks among his best, and is to my knowledge the most profound, principled and systematic treatment of the subject ever printed- far better than R.V. Denenberg's « Understanding American Politics », and incomparably superior to David Cushman Coyle's pitiful « The United States Political System and How it Works».
True to the founding principles of the Founding Fathers, enlightened by a genuine understanding of economic principles (Carson is well-read in both the classical economists and the Austrians, and is the author of a helpful treatise on « Basic Economics »), it opens with what I consider to be the most powerful statement ever printed on the current condition of the US government : « It would be considerable fraud to do a book on American government which talked as if the Constitution were still being substantially observed, that pretended that when Presidents took the oath of office they intended to observe the bounds set by the Constitution, that Congressmen recited their pledges with the same intent, and that Federal judges were still construing the Constitution as it was written. In sum, any book on American government worthy of the name ought to make clear how remote from the Constitution the government has become. »
Carson's own suggestions as to how to restore the integrity of the US political system are extremely simple. As he says, the text of the Constitution itself is still intact, so what is necessary is merely to make US government officials obey it. Did you know for instance that, in the Constitution, « there is no authority granted to levy taxes or to contract debts to provide for any foreign country » and that « the United States is specified alone as the beneficiary for all tax collections » ? (p445) More specifically, Carson suggests repealing the 17th Amendment (which undermined the federal system by reducing the power of the states to check the central government) and making it a treason for any US government official to betray the Constitution.
In other words, the way for Americans to bring the government back to its function of protecting their rights to « life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness » is simply to make their servants obey the charter which was initially adopted to limit their powers.
The book is divided into four main sections. The first section is entitled "Introduction and Examination of American Government." In it Mr. Carson introduces his main theme of a current governmental crisis. He also gives an overview of the structure and form of the American government. Details are also given concerning the intents of the Founding Fathers to create a balanced and limited government.
In the second section, "Background of Political Thought and Practice," Mr. Carson carefully documents the legacy of political ideas gathered by the framers of the Constitution from various sources throughout history. He includes the Judeo-Christian, Greek, Roman, and Middle Age heritages. In recording the more recent influences he touches upon the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Age of Reason, and finally concludes with the impact of the English governmental system on American political ideas. Mr. Carson also examines the role of natural law in shaping early political thought. He concludes the section with a look at the colonial period and an overview of the writing of the Constitution.
"American Government in the 19th Century," the third section, is a history of the progression of political ideas through the 1800s. The establishment of the government is documented as well as the early beginning of political parties in the United States. Mr. Carson then proceeds to give a thorough account of the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian views of strict constitutional construction, followed by an account of the founding of the Supreme Court and an overview of the state governments. The chapter is concluded with an analysis of the constitutional liberties taken during the American Civil War.
The climax of the book comes in section four, "Leviathan: American Government in the 20th Century," in which the author examines the great separation between the government and the Constitution created in the 1900s. He begins by exploring the groundwork for "Leviathan" laid by the Progressives and others with liberal interpretations of the constitution. Mr. Carson continues by exposing how the President, the Congress, and the Federal Courts have all moved far beyond the restrictions of the Constitution and have restricted and removed the freedoms of the States. Finally, using fiscal irresponsibility, bureaucracy, and crime as evidences, he offers his conclusion that the American government is currently out of control. He ends the book by proposing a constitutional amendment that would punish any civil officer exceeding his powers under the Constitution.
This book gives a very good representation of the historical influences on American political thought and a thorough review of early American history. Unfortunately, however, as the book progresses towards the conclusion, Mr. Carson seems to turn farther from facts and more towards unsupported conjecture. He offers many clear demonstrations of the usurping of power by the Federal government, but also pushes many of his own right wing doctrines as fact. For example on page 469, as an illustration of government being out of control, he states: "One of the greatest weaknesses of the United States government...is in dealing firmly and forcefully with groups.... At the level of wars among nations, the United States has not declared war on any nation since World War II.... It is not simply that declaring war has gone out of style - which it has - but rather that formal war with its rules, its restrictions...has been repudiated. War is no longer acceptable as a civilized undertaking; therefore, it does not occur. Rather than using force, the ideal is to negotiate a settlement. As soon as fighting breaks out, the aim is to get a cease fire, institute talks, begin negotiations, which may go on for days, weeds, months, or however long. A considerable tribe of negotiators for various nations arose after World War II to engage in these long winded negotiations, and when there were not enough cease fires to keep them going, they could be kept busy negotiating arms reduction treaties, which negotiations often lasted even longer than those to settle fighting outbreaks." Some of his other comments come across as quite prejudiced, for example his assertion on page 469 that "many Hispanics [are] scofflaws," or page 464's pronouncement that "crimes [are not] evenly distributed among races," which may be true but which adds nothing to the item under examination, namely that crime has increased in recent years.
So, should you read this book to gain a comprehensive understanding of "basic American government?" The first sections will give an excellent, though not overly interesting, overview of the historical context of the influences on the founders of the nation and of early American governmental history. The end of the book, however, might be better suited to those interested in "Basic Right-Wing Ideology."