Liberty and Coercion:
The Paradox of American Government from the Founding to the Present
This event includes a book signing
March 18, 2016
Harvard Book Store
1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138
This event is free; no tickets are required.
Harvard Book Store and Mass Humanities welcome historian GARY GERSTLE for a discussion of his book Liberty and Coercion: The Paradox of American Government from the Founding to the Present.
About Liberty and Coercion
American governance is burdened by a paradox. On the one hand, Americans don't want "big government" meddling in their lives; on the other hand, they have repeatedly enlisted governmental help to impose their views regarding marriage, abortion, religion, and schooling on their neighbors. These contradictory stances on the role of public power have paralyzed policymaking and generated rancorous disputes about government's legitimate scope. How did we reach this political impasse? Historian Gary Gerstle, looking at two hundred years of U.S. history, argues that the roots of the current crisis lie in two contrasting theories of power that the Framers inscribed in the Constitution.
One theory shaped the federal government, setting limits on its power in order to protect personal liberty. Another theory molded the states, authorizing them to go to extraordinary lengths, even to the point of violating individual rights, to advance the "good and welfare of the commonwealth." The Framers believed these theories could coexist comfortably, but conflict between the two has largely defined American history. Gerstle shows how national political leaders improvised brilliantly to stretch the power of the federal government beyond where it was meant to go—but at the cost of giving private interests and state governments too much sway over public policy. The states could be innovative, too. More impressive was their staying power. Only in the 1960s did the federal government, impelled by the Cold War and civil rights movement, definitively assert its primacy. But as the power of the central state expanded, its constitutional authority did not keep pace. Conservatives rebelled, making the battle over government's proper dominion the defining issue of our time.
From the Revolution to the Tea Party, and the Bill of Rights to the national security state, Liberty and Coercion is a revelatory account of the making and unmaking of government in America.
"Gary Gerstle is one of the country's best and most thoughtful historians. He specializes in shedding light on important parts of our national story that we have overlooked. After reading Liberty and Coercion you will never be able to think about our founding or our present in quite the same way. Gerstle shows persuasively how both impulses were present at the creation of our republic and how the states retained an enormous reservoir of coercive power long after the Bill of Rights was adopted. This is a genuinely pathbreaking work." —E. J. Dionne Jr., author of Souled Out and Our Divided Political Heart
"Terrific, engaging and deeply analytical. . . . An ambitious reinterpretation of American political history from the founding to the present." —New York Times Book Review
Walking from the Harvard Square T station: 2 minutes
As you exit the station, reverse your direction and walk east along Mass. Ave. in front of the Cambridge Savings Bank. Cross Dunster St. and proceed along Mass. Ave for three more blocks. You will pass Au Bon Pain, JP Licks, and TD Bank. Harvard Book Store is located at the corner of Mass. Ave. and Plympton St.
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Harvard Book Store's Friday Forum series takes place on Friday afternoons during the academic year as a way to highlight scholarly books in a wide range of fields, with a particular focus on local scholars.
Mass Humanities conducts and supports programs that use history, literature, philosophy, and the other humanities disciplines to enhance and improve civic life in Massachusetts. Learn more at masshumanities.org.
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