American Political Thought

Name: Patrick Coby
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Professional Email: pcoby@smith.edu
Professional Status: Full Professor
Institution: Smith College
Scheduling Preference: Thursday Afternoon
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Paper Title: The Proportional Representation Debate at the Constitutional Convention: Why the Nationalists Lost
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Representation in the national legislature, whether proportionate to people or equal for all states, was the signature issue of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The resulting Great Compro-mise was the signature achievement. This paper argues that the nationalists’ loss on proportional representation cannot be explained simply as a pragmatic accommodation in the face of obdurate opposition by small-state delegations. Such obduracy existed, and it mattered. But it was met by obduracy in kind and in defense of a position that was inherently stronger. Why then did the nationalist coalition fail? It failed because, in addition to the opposition it encountered, the three-part argument it mounted required that the states be abolished and the regime founded be a democracy. The large-state nationalists yielded in the end because they were not consolidation-ists and not egalitarians.


Name: Gregory Collins
Section: American Political Thought
Professional Email: gregcollins11@gmail.com
Professional Status: Graduate Student
Institution: Catholic University
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Paper Title: "Beyond Politics and Natural Law: The Anticipation of New Originalism in Frederick Douglass' Constitutional Theory."
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Scholarship on Frederick Douglass' contribution to American political thought has focused on his natural law and natural rights philosophy and on the political implications of his break with Garrisonian abolitonists over the question of whether slavery is compatible with the U.S. Constitution. My paper seeks to depart from these conventional readings by addressing the merits of his strict constitutional philosophy. I argue that Douglass' emphasis on a plain reading of the Constitution's semantic content and skepticism of intents-driven interpretation anticipate some of the fundamental tenets of the modern legal theory called New Originalism. Therefore, Douglass' contribution to American political thought can be better understood as setting a foundation for contemporary debates over originalism, thereby enhancing our efforts of reconciling the Constitution with progressive social values.


Name: Stephen Del Visco
Section: Identity Politics
Professional Email: stephen.del_visco@uconn.edu
Professional Status: Graduate Student
Institution: University of Connecticut
Scheduling Preference: No Preference
Proposal Type: Paper
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Paper Title: U.S. Conservatism and Anti-Communist Discourse As A Form of Racialization
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In a recent article discussing the state of historical scholarship on U.S. conservatism, historian Kim Phillips-Fein contended that the media’s role in crafting and refining conservative thought has been seriously understudied (Phillips-Fein 2011). Despite this oversight, print media has nonetheless had a profound impact on shaping U.S. conservative ideology, political practice, and racial boundary making. Indeed, because of the finite space of print media, those at the helm of important conservative periodicals had to make choices regarding the scope of their vision, resulting in the production of specific racial ideologies and political subjects. More specifically, U.S. conservative boundary making has received little attention is in the area of race and identity formation. Moreover, while this scholarship contributes important elements of conservative economic, political, and social philosophy by highlighting the role of racialization within the black/white binary, little attention is paid to other forms of racialization within U.S. conservatism. In this article, I advance the argument that the anti-communist rhetoric in mid-twentieth century U.S. conservatism held close a particular racialized content by conflating its anti-communist stance with a vision of East Asia as a economically, socially, and politically backward locale that had failed to reach U.S. conservatism’s vision of an Anglo-Saxon West. I show this tendency using a content analysis from a unique data set comprised of the entirety of the conservative periodical National Review between the years of 1955 (National Review’s inception) and 1980, ending with the election of Ronald Reagan.


Name: Bernard Dobski
Section: Modern Political Theory
Professional Email: bdobski@assumption.edu
Professional Status: Associate Professor
Institution: Assumption College
Scheduling Preference: Thursday Afternoon
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Paper Title: “Personal Recollections” on the Divine Right of Kings: Mark Twain on the Theological-Political Problem
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In his preface to “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”, Mark Twain announces his intention to explore the Divine Right of Kings, namely whether or not a providential deity unerringly selects a person of the requisite moral qualities to serve as the chief executive of a nation. Judging that such an investigation admits of at least two “tacks” and that the current effort, which adopts one of those “tacks”, will not by itself settle the matter, Twain declares that he will pursue the remaining approach in his next book. That next book is “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc.” Though Twain calls his work on Joan of Arc his “best book,” “Personal Recollections” is a difficult and deeply puzzling novel and is perhaps for these reasons, among others, widely neglected by those interested in Twain’s political wisdom. This paper attempts to show why one might consider Twain’s work on Joan of Arc to be his “best” by exploring the political wisdom linking these two novels. In Twain’s hands, Joan represents what men take to be noble. In portraying her brief but dazzling career, Twain roots the susceptibility to the appeal of “the noble” in human nature, thereby illustrating the political psychology behind men’s religious beliefs.


Name: Dustin Gish
Section: American Political Thought
Professional Email: dgish@uh.edu
Professional Status: Associate Professor
Institution: Honors College, University of Houston
Scheduling Preference: Friday Afternoon
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Paper Title: The Obligation to Punish: Captain Vere's Capital Dilemma in Melville's Billy Budd
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As early as 1778 in the midst of the Revolutionary war for the newly independent States in America, Jefferson proposed a more reasonable and humane apportionment of crimes and punishment for Virginia's code of laws. Jefferson, as Governor of the State during the British invasion, recognized the need for enforceable authority to maintain law and order. Nevertheless, he opposed the barbarity of capital punishment as much for civil crimes as for religious ones (heresy), and proposed revisions to the law codes eliminating capital punishment - except in the most dire cases: high treason, petty treason, murder (particularly of near relatives), and manslaughter (second offense). "Government would be defective in its principal purpose were it not to restrain criminal acts [of wicked and dissolute men who commit violations on the lives, liberties, and property of others], by inflicting due punishments on those who perpetrate them... [Yet] it becomes a duty in the legislature to arrange in a proper scale the crimes which it may by necessary for them to repress, and to adjust thereto a corresponding gradation of punishments." [1778 Bill] For Jefferson, natural rights of conscience cannot be the subject of political authority, but the "legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others." [Notes, Q. 17] Opposition to punishments that sacrificed natural rights also constituted resistance to the legal abuses of the tyrant George III, whose statutes (Georgian code) included over 100 offenses punishable by death.The dramatic action of Melville's Billy Budd, set in 1797 during the confrontation on the high seas between the British Empire and the revolutionary French Republic, raises fundamental questions about the legitimacy of capital punishment, the duties and obligations of authority, and the natural rights of citizens. Written almost a century later, Melville's preoccupation with capital punishment reflected his unease with the continuation of the death penalty as a punishment for high crimes in his home state of New York. (Most northern States had abolished the death penalty entirely by the middle of the 19th century; southern States, however, utilized capital punishment not infrequently to punish crimes by slaves and freed/free blacks until the late 19th century.) Vere's dilemma in the enforcement of his official duties, especially in war-time, centers upon his public support for the death penalty in response to Budd's conviction for the murder (manslaughter) of Claggart, despite his private sympathy for Budd himself and his thoughtful consideration of the involuntary intent of Budd's action. Vere's private speculations about Budd's innocence, to which we as readers are privy, would seem to be a confession warranting our own condemnation of the upright Captain for his excessive enforcement of the law. However, as Captain, his obligations to the law (as promulgated) - and his principal concern for the welfare of the State (his ship as microcosm of the body politic) - equally demand our attention. In representing Vere's capital dilemma in Billy Budd, I will argue that Melville captures the tense balance between the protection of natural right within the social contract and the obligations of political justice, as expressed through the execution of the laws, through legitimate institutions, even (or especially) when a philosophic perspective would counsel clemency.


Name: Ava Mack
Section: American Political Thought
Professional Email: ammack@bu.edu
Professional Status: Graduate Student
Institution: Boston University
Scheduling Preference: No Preference
Proposal Type: Paper
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Paper Title: Rules of Prudence: An Analysis of the Concept of Prudence in The Federalist Papers
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The word "prudence" or variants thereof appear a total of twenty-eight times in The Federalist Papers, a collection of 85 essays written in defense of the United States Constitution. Under the pen name Publius, the essays defend the articles of the Constitution, the three branches of government and their various national powers against Antifederalist arguments. Within the larger argument for the Constitution, The Federalist speaks extensively on human nature. Publius famously recognizes that men are not angels and that human passions do not conform to reason without constraint by government institutions. The Framers' well-known solution to guarding against demagogues and tyrants, against the passions of ambitious men and the inevitable failings of good men, was to write a prudent government, under the Constitution into existence. Yet Publius also praises the redeeming qualities of human nature, and "what is government itself," Publius observes, "but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?" If American government is a reflection of human nature, and the government institutions are prudent, aren't citizens and statesmen, at least to a degree prudent? The dichotomy between individuals and institutions has produced a dichotomy in scholarly literature over whether the Founders were "civic republicans" or "Lockean sympathizers." If civic republicans, the Constitution would depend on the leadership of virtuous statesmen and active citizens. If Lockean sympathizers, the government itself is designed to withstand the depravity of ambitions politicians. This paper argues that prudent institutions, in tandem with prudent and active individuals, is what the Constitution intends and Publius argues for in The Federalist. Neither strictly civic republican or Lockean, The Federalist advocates for a government that responds to prudent statesmen and citizens, but can likewise withstand the lack of both or the designs of ambitious leader or a divided citizenry.


Name: Dan McCool
Section: American Political Thought
Professional Email: mccool.gc@gmail.com
Professional Status: Adjunct Professor
Institution: Baruch College
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Paper Title: The New Politics of Authenticity: How the Right has Captured the Concept
Panel Title: In Search of American Conservatism
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Authenticity and sincerity have always been linked with democratic movements in modernity. They were originally invented by the left as a romantic reaction to Enlightenment rationalism. The politics informed by these values influenced the French Revolution and certain radical segments American Revolution, as well as revolutions throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Student movements and civil rights movements of the 1950s and 60s updated these early modern values to craft their own identity politics. Since the 1960s, the right, especially the Republican Party in America, has employed these normally democratic values for its own purposes. The most recent and poignant use of authenticity and sincerity has been employed by GOP nominee Donald Trump. This paper explores how even as these democratic values were invented by the left to make the modern world, they have become integral to conservative politics in America over the last few decades.


Name: Briana McGinnis
Section: American Political Thought
Professional Email: blm28@georgetown.edu
Professional Status: Adjunct Professor
Institution: McGill University
Scheduling Preference: No Preference
Proposal Type: Paper
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Paper Title: Democratic Housekeeping: Domestic Service Relational Equality in American History
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Some form of equality among citizens is essential to maintaining the democratic nature of a polity. Economic inequality – and especially the intersection of economic inequality with political inequality – presents an obdurate problem for egalitarian political theory. Rather than looking to theories based on the equality of conditions or on equal opportunity, relational egalitarians have turned to ideas premised upon equal standing among citizens of a bounded political community. This paper follows that tradition of thinking about equality, using it to evaluate evolving views of domestic workers in U.S. history – people who, in a less egalitarian era, would have been referred to as “servants.” In the early days of the United States, “domestic service” still heavily bore the stamp of old-world inequality. Both fictional and non-fictional texts show the relationship between domestic employer and employee in the United States as one fraught with inegalitarian tensions, depicting it as one site at which new, equal relations between fellow citizens were negotiated. Examples include Tocqueville’s analysis of the American servant-employer relationship in Democracy in America, but also lesser-known contributions like that of Harriet Martineau in The Domestic Manners of the Americans and of Catharine Beecher (once a household name in the United States, though now she is largely forgotten). These commentaries demonstrate the conflicts of recognition, affect, and contractual agreement characterizing domestic service in an egalitarian society. These historical concerns mirror contemporary ones. This discomfort the with the problematic relations between employer and domestic worker (or, in historical parlance, master/mistress and servant) indicate that there is a common intuition that the employment of one’s political equals as domestic workers is in some way incompatible with the egalitarian spirit of democratic society. Certainly, this intuition cannot be explained by luck egalitarian accounts, or those emphasizing the equality of opportunity. I argue that, even in the earliest American discussions of domestic employment, concerns about equality are, at base, relational. Exploring the nature of this inequality is not merely of historical interest. Re-framing the relationship between employee and employer in traditionally private spaces like the home can also shed light on contemporary questions of equality of standing.


Name: Moritz Muecke
Section: American Political Thought
Professional Email: moritzmuecke@outlook.com
Professional Status: Graduate Student
Institution: Hillsdale College, MI
Scheduling Preference: Saturday Morning
Proposal Type: Paper
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Paper Title: The Idea of Progress in the Political Thought of Antebellum America
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In antebellum America, the belief in progress was widespread and shared by Whigs and Democrats as well as Northerners and Southerners alike. As the Founding generation faded away, so did their skepticism concerning human nature and their belief in the possibility of decadence. With the expansion of US territory, economic growth, and the consummation of the American emancipation from the European world, the inauguration of an age of progress seemed realized. However, this development did not immediately affect Americans’ respect for the past and the ancestral tradition. Indeed, after the realism of the Founding and before the historicism of the Progressives, there was a time in the United States when the predominant belief in progress was compatible with a belief in trans-historical political principles.


Name: John Presnall
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Institution: College of the Mainland
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Paper Title: Robert Penn Warren's Flood as a Plea in Mitigation: An Exegesis and Apology of the Democratic Soul in the Modern Times
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In his eighth novel (out of ten) from 1964, entitled Flood: A Romance of Our Time, RPW continued his literary exploration of the democratic soul -- and the dilemmas confronting that soul in the context of modern America. The novel's plot centers upon Fiddlersburg, Tennessee, a relatively obscure town about to be wiped out by a dam being constructed by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which will force the relocation of its inhabitants. The protagonist, a writer and screenwriter, returns to his home-town after many years away. With him is a movie director, and the two plan to develop a Hollywood movie about the impending flood. And the town. Jefferson -- in Query XII of his Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), a brief explanation of the state's "Counties and Towns" -- had written almost two centuries before that: "There are other places [along the navigable rivers of Virginia] at which... the laws have said there shall be towns; but Nature has said there shall not." This conflict between "laws" and "Nature" would seem to be overcome by the aspirations inherent in federal projects like the "great" dam. In place of that ancient quarrel, progress declares a modern alliance between the political and the natural pursues natural ends through a mastery of new technological means: "It was, as the young engineer told them, a natural place for a dam."


Name: William Sokoloff
Section: American Political Thought
Professional Email: jonathankeller@me.com
Professional Status: Assistant Professor
Institution: Manhattan College
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Participation Type: Moderator
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Paper Title: The Rhetoric of the Right in Edmund Burke and the American Tea Party
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Panel Description: On February 18, 2009, New Republic commentator Sam Tanenhaus spoke for many when he declared “Conservatism is Dead.” At the time – in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s sizable Electoral College and popular vote victories – this seemed a reasonable proposition. Little could Tanenhaus have known that the very next day, CNBC commentator Rick Santelli would stand in the well of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and call for the creation of a new national “Tea Party” movement. Nor could commentators have predicted that the Republican Party would soon be so buoyed by the momentum of this movement that it would wrest control of the House of Representatives in 2010 and the Senate in 2014, followed by a 2016 Republican Presidential primary season that in many ways is a contest over which candidate demonstrates the most authentic conservative bona fides. All told, American conservatism, the nebulous and hard to pinpoint moving target that it has always been, appears to be alive and well in the twenty-first century. These developments have sparked a renewed interest among scholars in the ideas that inspire various kinds of American conservatives, and a renewed effort to reconsider the boundaries and characteristics of the American conservative tradition. Some scholars have reiterated that conservatism rests on a notion which aspires to maintain stability via elite rule, exhibited best by the venerated American framers like Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, the inheritors of the Burkean tradition of a slow and steady change guided by a natural aristocracy. Other scholars frame conservatism differently, as “a meditation on—and theoretical rendition of—the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back” (Robin, 2011). Others see it in far more revanchist terms, animated by the jeremiads that lament the loss of bygone American eras. The three papers in this session will investigate various dimensions of the American conservative tradition. At the heart of the tradition in many ways is the long shadow cast by its intellectual father, Edmund Burke. To what extent and in what ways does the juxtaposition of Burke’s elite-driven reverence for the past differ from the contemporary conservative’s populist revanchism? At the same time, as many recent scholars have pointed out, much of American conservative thought is decidedly anti-Burkean, to say the least. Counter-movements against progressive reform in the US, such as the Liberty League, which reified the US Constitution in idiosyncratic ways in its fierce opposition to The New Deal, have caused scholars to give pause when considering the role of civil religion within American conservative thought, as well as American political culture more broadly. Other kinds of theocratic American conservatives, such as Joseph Smith, espoused a uniquely American variety of apocalypticism and an exceptional politics of continual revelation that came into direct confrontation with a pluralistic nineteenth-century American society. The papers all consider the legacy of these various forms of conservatism, their staying power in American political life, and to what extent each helps render the constellations of the modern right more intelligible to contemporary scholars of American political thought.
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Name: David Sollenberger
Section: American Political Thought
Professional Email: dsoll06@gmail.com
Professional Status: Graduate Student
Institution: The Catholic University of America
Scheduling Preference: No Preference
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Paper Title: "The Human Heart Everywhere Black": Walt Whitman's Personalism and the Civil War
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Political Theorists have largely limited their explorations of Walt Whitman's democratic political thought to his great poetic work Leaves of Grass and short treatise on American democracy Democratic Vistas. While this attention is certainly justified, it has left his writings during the Civil War untouched. Whitman experienced the war personally, through daily encounters with soldiers dying for the cause of Union, and as such, his Civil War poems and prose provide some of his most poignant reflections on the connection between the roles of soldier and citizen in a liberal democracy. It is in reflecting on the trauma of the war that the poet must reconcile a call to death for a political cause with his earlier reflections on the person as a “kosmos” that contains multitudes. In trying to find a way through this problem, Whitman provides his most important and unique reflections on the political theory of liberal democracy.


Name: Douglas Walker
Section: American Political Thought
Professional Email: douglaswalker126@gmail.com
Professional Status: Graduate Student
Institution: Michigan State University
Scheduling Preference: Friday Afternoon
Proposal Type: Paper
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Paper Title: Tocqueville on the Patriotic Foundations of Federalism
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This paper evaluates the safeguards of American federalism through an examination of Alexis de Tocqueville’s writings on federalism. At the founding, many Americans feared that the states would lose their power under the new Constitution. Federalists sought to rebut these fears by arguing that the people would naturally favor local power over national power, such that electoral democracy would provide “patriotic safeguards” ensuring the dominance of the states in the federal system. Tocqueville repeated this argument, advancing a complex theory deriving the purportedly natural preference for localism from a mixture of rational and emotional causes. After unpacking Tocqueville’s theory, this paper critiques it, showing that his predictions have largely failed. Both the rational and emotional ties binding citizens more strongly to their state than the nation have been broken, and accordingly national patriotism is now stronger than local patriotism. Moreover, once people have transferred their loyalties to the nation and away from the states, the complicated balance upholding federalism is torn down, threatening the survival of meaningful federalism. I argue that this trend is related, in large part, to the decline of so-called “dual” federalism, accordingly to which there is a relatively clear and static federal division of power. In reality, it has proven difficult to establish coherent legal limits on the power of the federal government, and the consequent demise of dual federalism, in turn, undermines the continued viability of the “patriotic safeguards of federalism.”


Name: Aaron Weinstein
Section: American Political Thought
Professional Email: aaronqweinstein@gmail.com
Professional Status: Adjunct Professor
Institution: Salve Regina University
Scheduling Preference: Thursday Afternoon
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Paper Title: Breaking the Covenant: The Political Religion of the American Liberty League
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Between 1934 and 1936, the American Liberty League (A.L.L.) had the unenviable task of defending a political philosophy that many believed responsible for the Depression. In crafting its message, the organization rallied around traditional symbols of American exceptionalism: the nation’s great statesmen, its culture of individualism, and most notably its constitutional democracy. In so doing, the League penned what has been called the most concise statement of conservative principles since the Anti-Federalist Papers. Yet this focus upon the Constitution was more than a political philosophy. A careful reading of League documents reveals a complex belief system argued with religious fervency. Key among these, but underappreciated, was a moralistic outrage at Roosevelt’s departure from the 1932 Democratic Platform. This paper disentangles political philosophy, civil theology, and civil religion, offering fresh perspectives not only upon a historically salient pressure group, but also on religion in American politics generally.


Name: Brian Wolfel
Section: American Political Thought
Professional Email: bwolfel@syr.edu
Professional Status: Graduate Student
Institution: Syracuse University
Scheduling Preference: Thursday Afternoon
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Paper Title: Thomas Carlyle's American Reputation and Louis Hartz's Liberalism Thesis
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Louis Hartz contends that "when a liberal community faces military and ideological pressure from without it transforms eccentricity into sin." Thomas Carlyle's social criticism imported to antebellum and Civil War America from without (Great Britain) exemplifies a manifestation of eccentric ideological pressure. Carlyle has been called the Founding Father of American Transcendentalism, as he was the most prominent intellectual forebear of Emerson and Thoreau. Carlyle was in this regard among America's foremost public intellectuals, largely praised until 1850 when his writing began explicitly demonstrating hostility to the tenets of America's liberal tradition. Carlyle's significance to Hartz's thesis is as a case study in American political thought as to when, why, and how eccentric political thought gets transformed to sin and American opposition gets transformed to ostracism. As Carlyle was increasingly abandoned by the North, Confederate illiberal thought heralded him as an inspiration and guiding light. The dissolution of the Confederacy coincided with Carlyle's extinguishment from America's political sphere and a solidification of the American liberal tradition.