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Introduction and Origins of American Political Thought

Plato: The Republic

PlatoThe argument of the Republic deals with the central issues of political philosophy: what ought to be a person's relationship to society and which forms of government and social existence are most likely to produce justice and the ideal state? As suggested in the dialogue by Socrates, the first care of the rulers is to be education providing only for an improved religion and morality, and more simplicity in music and gymnastic, a manlier strain of poetry, and greater harmony of the individual and the State. We are thus led on to the conception of a higher State, in which "no man calls anything his own," and in which there is neither "marrying nor giving in marriage," and "kings are philosophers" and "philosophers are kings;" and there is another and higher education, intellectual as well as moral and religious, of science as well as of art, and not of youth only but of the whole of life. Such a State is hardly to be realized in this world and would quickly degenerate. To the perfect ideal succeeds the government of the soldier and the lover of honor, this again declining into democracy, and democracy into tyranny, in an imaginary but regular order having not much resemblance to the actual facts.

Source: Institute for Learning Technologies Columbia University

Magna Carta 1215

   Magna Carta   

"...No Freeman shall be taken, or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any otherwise destroyed; nor will we pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful Judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land..."

      In 1215, King John of England agreed to the demands of his barons and bound himself and his "heirs, for ever" to protect the rights and liberties of "all freemen of our kingdom". With Magna Carta, King John placed himself and England's future sovereigns under the rule of law.

Source: National Archives and Records Administration

 The Prince, Nicolo Machiavelli

In his classic treatise, The Prince, Nicolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) was the first philosopher to deal with the practical problems a monarch faces in staying in power, rather than more abstract issues explaining the foundation of political authority. Machiavelli argues, for example, that the ruler should know how to be deceitful when it suits his purpose, but should attempt to avoid disclosure of his deceptions to his subjects.

Source: Institute for Learning Technologies Columbia University

Letter of Christopher Columbus to Luis De Sant Angel Announcing His Discovery

They explored for three days, and found countless small communities and people, without number, but with no kind of government, so they returned.....
As I know you will be rejoiced at the glorious success that our Lord has given me in my voyage, I write this to tell you how in thirty-three days I sailed to the Indies with the fleet that the illustrious King and Queen, our Sovereigns, gave me, where I discovered a great many islands, inhabited by numberless people; and of all I have taken possession for their Highnesses by proclamation and display of the Royal Standard without opposition. To the first island I discovered I gave the name of San Salvador, in commemoration of His Divine Majesty, who has wonderfully granted all this. The Indians call it Guanaham. The second I named the Island of Santa Maria de Concepcion; the third, Fernandina; the fourth, Isabella; the fifth, Juana; and thus to each one I gave a new name. When I came to Juana, I followed the coast of that isle toward the west, and found it so extensive that I thought it might be the mainland, the province of Cathay; and as I found no towns nor villages on the sea-coast, except a few small settlements, where it was impossible to speak to the people, because they fled at once, I continued the said route, thinking I could not fail to see some great cities or towns; and finding at the end of many leagues that nothing new appeared, and that the coast led northward, contrary to my wish, because the winter had already set in, I decided to make for the south, and as the wind also was against my proceeding, I determined not to wait there longer, and turned back to a certain harbor whence I sent two men to find out whether there was any king or large city. They explored for three days, and found countless small communities and people, without number, but with no kind of government, so they returned.....

The Mayflower Compact of 1620

...solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civill body politick, for our better ordering and preservation....

In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereigne Lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britaine, France and Ireland king, defender of the faith, etc. having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honour of our king and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the Northerne parts of Virginia, doe by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civill body politick, for our better ordering and preservation, and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enacte, constitute, and frame such just and equall laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meete and convenient for the generall good of the Colonie unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape-Codd the 11. of November, in the year of the raigne of our sovereigne lord, King James, of England, France and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fiftie-fourth. Anno Dom. 1620.

Source: The National Center for Public Policy Research

John Locke and the Social Contract

Shortly after the English Revolution of 1688 brought William of Orange and Mary to the throne, Oxford philosopher John Locke's Two Treatises of Civil Government were published. Locke's theory of natural law and natural rights distinguishes between legitimate and illegitimate civil governments, and supports the legitimacy of revolt against tyrannical governments. His writings had significant influence on the American colonial leaders later arguing for independence from the British Crown.

Colonial Charters

In addition to the agreements among themselves entered into by settlers on how they would govern their settlements illustrated by The Mayflower Compact, the various charters issued by those receiving grants of land from the Crown establishing colonial governments later evolved as key sources for the legal and political arguments leading to the Revolution. Sometimes issued to encourage settlers to take the risks of moving to the New World, these documents often included guarantees of such rights and liberties as due process of law, taxation only by vote of representatives and religious freedom. When the Royal government and parliament later sought to assert more direct control of the colonies, these charters and related guarantees would frequently be cited by the colonists to support their position that these commitments had been broken.


The Fundamental Constitutions for the Province of East New Jersey in America, 1683

....Nor shall any law be made or enacted to have force in the Province, which any ways touches upon the goods or liberties of any in it, but what thus passeth in the great Council; and whoever shall levy, collect or pay any money or goods without a law thus passed, shall be held a publick enemy to the Province, and a betrayer of the publick liberty thereof: also the quorum of this great Council shall be half of the Proprietors, or their proxies, and half of the freemen at least; and in determination, the proportionable assent of both Proprietors and freemen must agree, viz. two parts of whatever number of freemen, and one half of whatever number of Proprietors are present....

Source: The Avalon Project at Yale Law School



The Avalon Project at Yale Law School

Political Philosophy/Political Theory >> University of British Columbia Library

American Political Thought on the Web

Foundations of Political Theory >> American Political Science Association

Political Philosophers in the World >> Italiano per la Filosofia,
Department of Political Science, University of Pisa

Project Gutenberg

The Keele Guide to Political Thought and Ideology on the Internet >> School of Politics, International Relations and the Environment, Keele University, United Kingdom

Nations, States & Politics >>, Peter Ravn Rasmussen

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy >> Professor James Fieser, University of Tennessee at Martin

Educational Tools

American Political Thought, Syllabus, Politics 321 >>Professor Jennifer Hochschild, Princeton University

Teaching Materials on the History of Political Thought>> Professor R.J. Kilcullem Macquarie University

US Political Thought, Syllabus, Political Science 308 >> J. Boland, University of Oregon