News

4th Annual Society of Fellows Summer Seminar

August 8-11, 2017

“Imagined Romes and Virtuous Republics”
with MU Professor of Classical Studies Dennis Trout

To kick off our fourth annual Society of Fellows Summer Seminar, MU Professor of Classical Studies Dennis Trout took this year’s class on a journey between the 18th century and the ancient world—and across terrains both real and imagined—as a way to examine what attracted Enlightenment-era thinkers, and the American Founders in particular, to the narrative of Rome’s transition from monarchy, to republic, to empire.

These categories, Prof. Trout noted in opening his August 8 keynote lecture, aren’t quite as neat as this statement of political transformation makes them out to seem. Especially in the period on which the lecture focused—the 2nd century B.C., near the beginning of the republic’s decline—Rome was, in effect, a constitutional monarchy that looked like a republic that was already in the process of empire building. The innovation of this mixed constitutional form, Prof. Trout observed, was what enabled Roman philosophers and historians including Livy, Cicero, and Polybius to envision a state that could break out of the then familiar cycle of monarchy devolving into tyranny, aristocracy into oligarchy, and democracy into mob rule. More than offering a basis for stability, Prof. Trout went on to explain, theorists of the time likewise saw the cooperation and checks and balances that came with mixed government as modeling and inculcating citizens in the civic virtue—the willingness to sacrifice for a common good—that was necessary for a state to prosper.

Interestingly, Prof. Trout pointed out, the interrelation of constitutional form and civic virtue is what led 18th century thinkers to focus their attention more on the fall of the Roman republic than on its rise. Especially for figures like Adams, this link between waning civic-mindedness, decreased commitment to constitutionalism, and, ultimately, the collapse of the state underscored the threat to republican welfare posed by disunion in the body politic and by a notion of individual liberty un-tempered by a compulsion for individual sacrifice. And during the Founding era, Prof. Trout concluded, the fascination with Rome extended beyond political theory and into creative life in the new nation. In their own ways, Trumbull’s Revolutionary War paintings, Addison’s Cato (immensely popular in the late-eighteenth century United States), and even Patrick Henry and Nathan Hale’s famous declarations of patriotic devotion all draw on the imagery and tropes of the Roman Republic in treating narrative as a morally educative means of revealing to citizens both the importance of civic virtue and the stagnancy and devolution that come when it flags.

Day 1: Wednesday, August 9, 2017

9:00 – 10:10 Dr. Justin Dyer, Political Science, “Political Philosophy and the Declaration of Independence

10:30 – 11:40 Dr. Jay Dow, Political Science, “Federalist and Anti-Federalist Republican Visions: Virtue, the Good, and Tyranny”

1:30 – 2:40 Dr. Marvin Overby, Political Science, “An Introduction to Alexis de Tocqueville”

On one hand, this year’s class of Fellows came away from Prof. Overby’s August 9 talk with invaluable, if not specifically Tocqueville-ian, practical knowledge: that ‘amateur’ is derived from the Latin amare (to love); that you have to see Life of Brian and Papillon if you haven’t yet; that you can always spot a 19th century French aristocrat by the number of pairs of gloves he brings on his trip to the United States. In between life lessons, they also got an introduction to Democracy in America, a seminal work of history, political theory, and sociology that Harvard Professor of Government Henry Mansfield described as perhaps both the best book ever written about democracy and the best book ever written about America.

Understanding the book and the trip that spawned it, Prof. Overby began, first requires understanding its author and the times in which he lived. The son of a prefect under Napoleon and the friend of famous French Romantic François-René de Chateaubriand, Alexis de Tocqueville grew up with family connections both at home and abroad, a keen sense of noblesse oblige, and a hand-me-down, post-Reign of Terror aristocratic notion of the cause and effect of democracy going awry. It is also important to remember, Prof. Overby added, that the lecture’s protagonist lived in a time of discovery and enlightenment and, as Tocqueville himself described it, a democratic age, when widespread implementation of the theories of Locke and Hobbes had rendered monarchy all but dead. In the more immediate context of the trip itself, though Tocqueville was sent to America to escape the upheaval of the July Revolutions in France, he was re-thrown into the turbulent crucible of the Jacksonian era once he got there, arriving in the States at a time when regional tensions were beginning to boil over.

The result of the trip—the official purpose of which was to study U.S. penitentiaries—was a groundbreaking, two-volume study of political life and culture in America, the first published in 1835 to great success, and the second published in 1840 to much less fanfare and much more criticism. The first volume, which Prof. Overby categorized as broadly observing what Americans had done to democracy, was more light-hearted and optimistic. Yes, Tocqueville communicated in it his general fear about how an accumulation of wealth among the few might result in democratic society pulling apart at the seams and trending toward isolation and, eventually, landscape-shifting turmoil. At the same time, though, Tocqueville devoted much time in Volume One of Democracy in America not only to observing the mores and habits of Americans but also commenting on how citizens’ native impulse toward association and cooperation in particular might well be enough to ward off the devolution that he saw wealth potentially inspiring. The second of the two volumes, a broad observation of what democracy had done to Americans, provided a much bleaker forecast of the United States’ future. Specifically, Prof. Overby noted that Tocqueville focused in it on how the centralization of government in the U.S., when combined with the unequal distribution of wealth, might create an industrial aristocratic class that lacked a sense of the noblesse oblige which he believed central to national well-being.

And while, of course, some of Tocqueville’s observations proved more prescient than others, the book’s impact on how we think about and critique American democracy today is undeniable. To give but one of many, many examples of Democracy in America’s influence on contemporary political life and discourse, Prof. Overby ended his talk by reading from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), in which Kennedy quotes Tocqueville at length on marriage in articulating his support for extending this right to same-sex couples.

3:00 – 4:10 Dr. Jeff Pasley, History, “Back to the Future/Forward to the Past: The American Political Press in Historical Perspective”

Day 2: Thursday, August 10, 2017

9:00 – 10:10 Dr. Carli Conklin, Law, “The American Experiment”

10:30 – 11:40 Dr. Jeff Milyo, Economics, “A Social Science Perspective on the Voter ID Debate”

In providing an August 10 overview of how social scientists have approached the task of making sense of debates about the potentially discriminatory effect and, ultimately, the constitutionality of voter ID laws in the United States, Prof. Jeff Milyo began by showing how the issue’s somewhat circuitous 21st century timeline really boils down to one major thing: though they have been examined and re-examined by courts, and though they have taken on many different forms over time, both strict and non-strict photo ID laws have been consistently on the rise since the issue came to the fore in 2000.

With broad context set, Prof. Milyo then turned to outlining some of the normative conclusions that social scientists have drawn regarding three questions in particular that are central to partisan arguments for and against photo ID laws.

  1. Is voter fraud a myth? While there is circumstantial evidence that the frequency of illegal voting at least exceeds the low conviction rate for it, more important to the larger conversation about voter ID laws, Prof. Milyo explained, is the fact that statistical analysis shows no correspondence between stricter ID laws and a decrease in voter fraud.
  2. Is there a correlation between voter ID laws and voter turnout? The answer here, Prof. Milyo noted, is a bit more complicated. Most notably in Wisconsin, arguments have successfully been made that voter ID laws should be struck down on the grounds that even the smallest change in the cost of voting could have significant, negative impact on the probability of voting. However, he went on to show that, by using a slightly more complex voting calculus, one can arrive at the opposite conclusion. Particularly in studies that look at how public perception of the integrity of the electoral process is affected by voter ID laws, we see two things: (a) along partisan lines, ID laws do have a differential and not necessarily inconsequential effect, with democrats’ confidence and subsequently their turnout depressed by ID laws; (b) that even in accounting for this, there is no net effect of ID laws on turnout.
  3. Are voter ID laws racially discriminatory? Contrary to a highly publicized and since debunked study on the sizable discriminatory effects of photo ID laws, bipartisan teams of scholars at Harvard and Cal Tech (among other places) have gathered significant amounts of data showing that, on balance, ID laws neither place an undue burden on nor discriminate against minority voters.

Prof. Milyo closed with an important reminder: while these conclusions might present a different narrative than the one we hear shouted across the aisle in Congress, they by no means tell the full constitutional story. Specifically, he pointed out that the studies he cited draw conclusions from very large sample sizes; which is to say that, while they might show that a large number of minority voters are not burdened by ID laws, they likewise reveal that a small, and not insignificant because it is small, number of voters are affected, and we must remember that rights exist as much for the latter as they do for the former.

1:30 – 2:40 Craig Forrest, Ph.D. Candidate in History, “We Are Not Children: College Students and Constitutional Rights”

3:00 – 4:10 Dr. Jay Sexton, History, “Crisis in U.S. History”

Day 2: Friday, August 11, 2017

9:00 – 10:10 Dr. Andrew Robertson, History (CUNY Graduate Center), “Democracy: America’s Other ‘Peculiar Institution’”

Following the 9:00 seminar on Friday, students trekked up to Jesse Hall for a lunchtime presentation by Tim Parshall, Director of Mizzou’s Fellowships Office, and a brief introduction to the Journal on Constitutional Democracy, with Drs. Carli Conklin and Thomas Kane.