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We the Fallen People: The Founders and the Future of American Democracy

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The success and survival of American democracy have never been guaranteed. Political polarization, presidential eccentricities, the trustworthiness of government, and the prejudices of the voting majority have waxed and waned ever since the time of the Founders, and there are no fail-safe solutions to secure the benefits of a democratic future. What we must do, argues the The success and survival of American democracy have never been guaranteed. Political polarization, presidential eccentricities, the trustworthiness of government, and the prejudices of the voting majority have waxed and waned ever since the time of the Founders, and there are no fail-safe solutions to secure the benefits of a democratic future. What we must do, argues the historian Robert Tracy McKenzie, is take an unflinching look at the very nature of democracy--its strengths and weaknesses, what it can promise, and where it overreaches. And this means we must take an unflinching look at ourselves. We the Fallen People presents a close look at the ideas of human nature to be found in the history of American democratic thought, from the nation's Founders through the Jacksonian Era and Alexis de Tocqueville. McKenzie, following C. S. Lewis, claims there are only two reasons to believe in majority rule: because we have confidence in human nature--or because we don't. The Founders subscribed to the biblical principle that humans are fallen and their virtue is always doubtful, and they wrote the US Constitution to frame a republic intended to handle our weaknesses. But by the presidency of Andrew Jackson, contrary ideas about humanity's inherent goodness were already taking deep root among Americans, bearing fruit in such perils as we now face for the future of democracy. Focusing on the careful reasoning of the Founders, the seismic shifts of the Jacksonian Era, and the often misunderstood but still piercing analysis of Tocqueville's Democracy in America, McKenzie guides us in a conversation with the past that can help us see the present--and ourselves--with new insight.


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The success and survival of American democracy have never been guaranteed. Political polarization, presidential eccentricities, the trustworthiness of government, and the prejudices of the voting majority have waxed and waned ever since the time of the Founders, and there are no fail-safe solutions to secure the benefits of a democratic future. What we must do, argues the The success and survival of American democracy have never been guaranteed. Political polarization, presidential eccentricities, the trustworthiness of government, and the prejudices of the voting majority have waxed and waned ever since the time of the Founders, and there are no fail-safe solutions to secure the benefits of a democratic future. What we must do, argues the historian Robert Tracy McKenzie, is take an unflinching look at the very nature of democracy--its strengths and weaknesses, what it can promise, and where it overreaches. And this means we must take an unflinching look at ourselves. We the Fallen People presents a close look at the ideas of human nature to be found in the history of American democratic thought, from the nation's Founders through the Jacksonian Era and Alexis de Tocqueville. McKenzie, following C. S. Lewis, claims there are only two reasons to believe in majority rule: because we have confidence in human nature--or because we don't. The Founders subscribed to the biblical principle that humans are fallen and their virtue is always doubtful, and they wrote the US Constitution to frame a republic intended to handle our weaknesses. But by the presidency of Andrew Jackson, contrary ideas about humanity's inherent goodness were already taking deep root among Americans, bearing fruit in such perils as we now face for the future of democracy. Focusing on the careful reasoning of the Founders, the seismic shifts of the Jacksonian Era, and the often misunderstood but still piercing analysis of Tocqueville's Democracy in America, McKenzie guides us in a conversation with the past that can help us see the present--and ourselves--with new insight.

37 review for We the Fallen People: The Founders and the Future of American Democracy

  1. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Robert Tracy McKenzie, and InterVarsity Press for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review. As a former student of politics and one who enjoys the analytical side of things, I grabbed this tome by Robert Tracy McKenzie with great interest. His basic premise is that America is neither GOOD, nor GREAT in its current political state, even as politicians would espouse this falsehood freely. First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Robert Tracy McKenzie, and InterVarsity Press for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review. As a former student of politics and one who enjoys the analytical side of things, I grabbed this tome by Robert Tracy McKenzie with great interest. His basic premise is that America is neither GOOD, nor GREAT in its current political state, even as politicians would espouse this falsehood freely. While one could look at insurrectionist activities, the treatment of certain races, or even the state of protection from the pandemic that some state governments offer their people, McKenzie chooses to look at the political core, democracy. McKenzie asserts clearly that the democracy embedded in the US Constitution is not what is being practiced today, nor has it been throughout the ages. McKenzie does not pretend that even the original democratic foundation in America was perfect, nor does it have the fluidity of a textbook presentation. However, the Founding Fathers worked with what they had and could not have foreseen every eventuality, some of which were abused in years to come. A number of democratic shortcomings are explored in the tome itself. The general sentiment that there is a need for proper democratic input and output holds true, though it is impossible to run a country in a vacuum. McKenzie presents some of the struggles with trying to run a new country that sought to forge its own rules, pitting democratic ideals with everyday goings-on. Protecting the minority in a system where majority rules was one such example and there is significant ink used to explore this. The balance is both essential and complicated, though McKenzie makes fair points about its implementation. McKenzie would be remiss if he glossed over some of the larger democratic abuses in the early stages of American democracy. His focus on the treatment of Indian resettlement during the Andrew Jackson presidency is a blight on the entire process. This continued when Jackson sought to wrest control of the banks during his time in the White House. McKenzie clearly espouses that there are gaping holes in democracy, which Jackson used to his advantage. An interesting contrast emerges when McKenzie pulls in the analysis that Alexis de Tocqueville made when he came to America and penned his magnum opus, Democracy in America. Tocqueville spent numerous months in the country and sought to present his findings for all to synthesise. However, as McKenzie argues, the end result was a massive tome that was completely indigestible for the common person and remains so today. Tocqueville offered some poignant comments about how America ran its political affairs and some key lines have been taken out of context while also falsely presented in the years that followed. McKenzie makes clear that there are problems, and that America is in need of some major changes. He is not of the opinion that it is impossible to rectify, though it is not as simple as reading the book and gloriously shaking off the shackles of the past. There is work to be done, beginning at the grassroots. Whether this is something someone wants to undertake is another matter. That said, “democracy isn’t intrinsically intolerant and authoritarian, but it can be”, given ongoing ignorance. While I have read my fair share of political non-fiction over the years, the span of ‘readability’ is not equal. Some books are able to boil things down to the basics and make it easily digested by the layreader, while others are more academic and seek a deeper understanding to comprehend the detailed analyses. McKenzie is part of the latter group, though I did not find this to be a deterrent. I need to flex my brain at times and really get to the heart of the matter. This makes it a denser read, which is fine if I am expecting it. McKenzie offers strong arguments with many core examples to substantiate them, without belabouring too many points. In a handful of well-structured chapters, McKenzie makes his thesis clear and keeps the reader engaged. If I had to offer any critique, it would be the layout of the footnoting, though the sloppiness may simply be a part of the ARC I received. The mish-mash took away from the flow throughout, though I suppose some readers prefer easy access to citations as they read. Kudos, Mr. McKenzie, for a decent read and some strong arguments. My brain is buzzing and it’s just what I needed. Love/hate the review? An ever-growing collection of others appears at: http://pecheyponderings.wordpress.com/ A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/...

  2. 4 out of 5

    Bob

    “America is great, because America is good.” Have you heard that phrase? Likely, it was attributed to writer on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville. Except that Tocqueville never said it. Rather, he said, “I cannot regard you as a virtuous people.” And his two volume work, which many believe to be a paean of praise to American democracy is in fact much more guarded in its appraisal according to Robert Tracy McKenzie. He contends, along with Tocqueville himself, that this work is often m “America is great, because America is good.” Have you heard that phrase? Likely, it was attributed to writer on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville. Except that Tocqueville never said it. Rather, he said, “I cannot regard you as a virtuous people.” And his two volume work, which many believe to be a paean of praise to American democracy is in fact much more guarded in its appraisal according to Robert Tracy McKenzie. He contends, along with Tocqueville himself, that this work is often misunderstood, if it has been read. While there is a good amount of material about Tocqueville here, the real concern of this book is about a Great Reversal that occurred in American history concerning American goodness. He begins with the Founders and the writing of the Constitution. The young nation just wasn’t working. Dependence upon the good will of the states to contribute to the upkeep of a national government just wasn’t happening and the national government had no way to compel it. They were depending on virtuous behavior and it was not forthcoming. In writing the Constitution, the framers started from a different premise, “taking human nature as they found it.” In biblical terms, they assumed a fallen people. On one hand, they created a federal government with a strong executive office to implement the laws passed by Congress. Congress had two houses, one that represented local interests, and one representing broader concerns to balance each other. They could override the executive’s veto. At the same time a third branch, the judiciary, could check laws that overreached the power of the Constitution. It both guarded against excessive influence of popular power, and any concentration of power within the government. They wouldn’t trust anyone too far. They assumed human fallibility and fallenness. McKenzie proposes that a Great Reversal occurred with the election of Andrew Jackson, who presented himself as the people’s president. He represented himself singularly as the people’s representative. He described his victory as “a triumph of the virtue of the people.” The great reversal in all of this was a growing belief in the inherent goodness of the American people, and those they elect, an assumption that has continued to the present day. Accruing great power to himself, he encouraged the abrogation of treaties with the Cherokee people and their removal via the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. In a lesser discussed move, he worked to end the second Bank of the United States. Tracy sees in this Jackson’s use of populism, the People versus the Monster, although the Bank had engaged in no wrongdoing. It is this extension of the power of democratic majorities, a “we versus them,” where “they” are not worthy, that is deeply disturbing. Democracy provides no protection from abuse of power when unchecked by the structures and the underlying premises behind those structures conceived by the founders. It was this that was Tocqueville’s concern, writing during this period. Tocqueville witnessed the rise of partisan politics in which Congress failed to check Jackson’s moves, nor did the judiciary. While he recognized the great energy and productivity of the country, and the breadth of freedom its white male citizens enjoyed–greater than in Europe–he also recognized how democracies could be turned to ill, depending on how majorities wielded their power. He recognized how people could exchange liberty and justice for safety. At the same time, Tocqueville finds that it is not virtue but self-interest that can be a safeguard–the temporary denial of benefit for long term profit that produces a kind of discipline, and counters individualism with collaboration on shared self-interests like good roads. Tocqueville also believed religious piety of importance, not because of his religious views, but as an early sociologist and political thinker. Belief in an afterlife in which one gives account can serve as a partial, not total, restraint on egregious evil. Tocqueville saw the separation of church and state as a good thing, recognizing the loss of spiritual force churches experienced when intertwined with political power. All of this challenges the rhetoric of American goodness and greatness. McKenzie believes there can be great danger in being blind to human depravity, whereas the recognition of this gives reason for the countervailing powers of government and punctures the pretensions of political leaders. In his concluding chapter, he not only applies this to our current political scene, but if anything, even more forcefully speaks to his concerns for the ways the church has allied itself with political power. This also explains to me the efforts to sanitize the teaching of American history, expunging our sorry dealings with native peoples, our involvement with slavery from our earliest settlements, and the structures that continued to oppress blacks, other minorities, and women even after Emancipation. None of these things ought surprise those of us who believe in human fallenness, who also believe in the biblical remedies of repentance, just restitution, and reconciliation. But those who must hold onto the myth of our inherent goodness cannot admit these things–the only solution is suppression–a strategy that has been a heavy burden on our nation This is a vitally important book for our time. It not only takes a deep dive into the Great Reversal of the Jackson presidency but also uses Tocqueville to challenge the stories we tell about ourselves. It calls us to be clear-eyed about the future of our democracy, and questions the naïve notion of our inherent goodness. Perhaps a severe mercy of the pandemic is that it has challenged such illusions. But do we still hide behind them by attributing wickedness to “them”? Or will we learn from Samuel Thompson, a Massachusetts delegate in a ratification convention in 1788, to whom McKenzie introduces us. He declared, “I extremely doubt the infallibility of human nature” and gave for the basis of his doubt “Sir, I suspect my own heart, and I shall suspect our rulers.” Will we suspect our own hearts and put our trust not in rulers but in the God who searches hearts? ________________________________ Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jacob Vahle

    A book that "we the fallen people" so desperately need to read. Rather than embracing the Founding Fathers uncritically as some have been prone to do, McKenzie selectively applauds them for one key attribute: their recognition that man is fallen, an idea consistent with the idea of original sin. He then traces how we have (since the age of Jackson) rejected this idea and now see ourselves as fundamentally good and only our "enemies" as fallen and thus evil. I love how McKenzie organizes the book A book that "we the fallen people" so desperately need to read. Rather than embracing the Founding Fathers uncritically as some have been prone to do, McKenzie selectively applauds them for one key attribute: their recognition that man is fallen, an idea consistent with the idea of original sin. He then traces how we have (since the age of Jackson) rejected this idea and now see ourselves as fundamentally good and only our "enemies" as fallen and thus evil. I love how McKenzie organizes the book around a quote falsely attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville which preaches our "inherent American goodness" - the only problem is that Tocqueville never applauded us for our "goodness" but rather highlighted our self-interested character. Through analyzing the Founders, Jackson, Tocqueville, Dr. Mckenzie offers an admonishment for us in the present moment. A brilliant book that speaks prophetically and with wisdom to critical questions concerning our present democracy, and urges us to take our "fallenness" seriously. Dr. McKenzie's classes transformed the way I view the study of the past, and with this book I hope others are able to grapple with the questions I remember grappling with in his classes.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Michael Burress

    “We the Fallen People” is very detailed in the history of America as an idea with the notion that maybe we were never as virtuous as we have come to believe today. The author states that today people are unhappy and angry with government and many have a lack of trust for public officials. But as the author reminds us, it is going to take more than bumper stickers and slogans to turn it around. We all must be better stewards of intentional learning about democracy and what democracy is supposed t “We the Fallen People” is very detailed in the history of America as an idea with the notion that maybe we were never as virtuous as we have come to believe today. The author states that today people are unhappy and angry with government and many have a lack of trust for public officials. But as the author reminds us, it is going to take more than bumper stickers and slogans to turn it around. We all must be better stewards of intentional learning about democracy and what democracy is supposed to accomplish with the question always in mind how do we know what excellence in democracy looks like in our minds. The author talks about this by detailing how the founding Fathers, philosophers, and leaders were not disillusioned by what America was and the threat and challenges to democracy. However, over time this mythological narrative that America is great has been passed down through the generations without rigorous thought and in essence it was just story telling that we all came to believe is the goal of democracy. The author outlines this through in depth research and discussion of published and unpublished works of the founding fathers, philosophers, religious scholars, and leaders throughout history up through today. One of the most cited is A. Tocqueville, “Democracy in America” and the author outlines Tocqueville was not overly romanticized by America but found it to be the best example of democracy in the world at the time he was alive. For Tocqueville, the ultimate goal was not democracy but was love, liberty and human dignity for all. In other words, he didn’t have blind faith of democracy, but it was the best path toward the goals of love, liberty and human dignity. The major premise of the book is to remind us “American Christians remain unchanged: to think christianly about democracy and respond rightly to it and live faithfully within it”. We must remain diligent in defending democracy while understanding democracy’s limitations and not becoming overly romanticized with it but is the best form of government to continue to fulfill enlightenment, prosperity and human dignity. The author highlighted two quotes, first from Abraham Lincoln, “Think anew, act anew in confronting the crisis before them” and second from Madison “if men were angels, no government should be necessary”. This must be the battle cry for each generation to keep democracy working without being intoxicated with democracy. The author clearly develops this point throughout history from the challenges every generation has faced with democracy. Remembering, it is never over but is passed on to the next generation to continue. To sum it up with a quote from Benjamin Franklin who was asked in Philadelphia do we have a democracy and he replied “yes, if you can keep it”.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Josh

    (Disclaimer: I received an advance reader copy of this book in exchange for providing a review for the journal Themelios.) McKenzie's basic argument is simple. There are two reasons to choose democratic government: either you believe in the goodness of the people, or you don't. The Founders designed our government built on the latter view of human nature; beginning with Jacksonian Democracy and continuing into the present, we have unquestioningly assumed the former. McKenzie wants us to reconside (Disclaimer: I received an advance reader copy of this book in exchange for providing a review for the journal Themelios.) McKenzie's basic argument is simple. There are two reasons to choose democratic government: either you believe in the goodness of the people, or you don't. The Founders designed our government built on the latter view of human nature; beginning with Jacksonian Democracy and continuing into the present, we have unquestioningly assumed the former. McKenzie wants us to reconsider. The book is very well-written, and I think McKenzie makes a tremendously helpful contribution to the discussion of contemporary American politics. I wish he had included more engagement with the Declaration of Independence and its implicit anthropology in dialogue with the Constitution as the Founder's commentary on human nature. For instance, does a Jeffersonian assertion of the universal right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" (devoid of a transcendent standard of what is liberty and what is license) stand in uneasy relationship with a Madisonian assertion that men are not angels (ie, might non-angels come to define that right in a way that is in rebellion to their Creator)? But that's not a critique of McKenzie's work. No book can do everything. This one stimulated my thinking considerably.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Tim Titolo

    I am about to start Pauline studies this quarter at Fuller Seminary. I am an attorney. I enjoyed Robert McKenzie's book on several levels. First it spoke in a historian's voice. Second, it taught about the questions surrounding whether our country was founded by Christians. It did not matter. What it was founded by were intelligent people coming from monarchy/aristocracy trying to create a better government which happened to align with Christian values. He then points to how 50+ years later the I am about to start Pauline studies this quarter at Fuller Seminary. I am an attorney. I enjoyed Robert McKenzie's book on several levels. First it spoke in a historian's voice. Second, it taught about the questions surrounding whether our country was founded by Christians. It did not matter. What it was founded by were intelligent people coming from monarchy/aristocracy trying to create a better government which happened to align with Christian values. He then points to how 50+ years later the country abandoned the reality of man's propensity for vice versus virtue, also shared in Christianity's doctrine of original sin. Speaking from a Tocquevillian view of American Democracy, McKenzie leaves us with both the good and bad of democracy and its fragility.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Nancy

    I won this in a Goodreads giveaway. A lot of good information. Little too much religion in the last few chapters.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Catherine

  9. 5 out of 5

    George P.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jordan

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jay Perkins

  12. 4 out of 5

    Brittany

  13. 5 out of 5

    Darlene Messenger

  14. 5 out of 5

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  15. 5 out of 5

    Edward

  16. 5 out of 5

    Micielle

  17. 4 out of 5

    Bettye Short

  18. 5 out of 5

    Brenda Maki

  19. 5 out of 5

    Ken

  20. 5 out of 5

    Nancy Adams

  21. 4 out of 5

    ReadingWithLisaMarie

  22. 4 out of 5

    Apick

  23. 4 out of 5

    Deborah Gerhart

  24. 4 out of 5

    Gary Clark

  25. 4 out of 5

    Producervan in Cornville, AZ from New Orleans & L.A.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Amanda

  27. 4 out of 5

    James Richardson

  28. 5 out of 5

    Janice

  29. 5 out of 5

    James

  30. 4 out of 5

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  31. 5 out of 5

    Heather

  32. 5 out of 5

    Lydia Wallace

  33. 5 out of 5

    Melissa ahmed

  34. 4 out of 5

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  35. 5 out of 5

    Erin

  36. 4 out of 5

    Samantha Ruger

  37. 5 out of 5

    Steff

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