THE GREAT CHALLENGE: The Myth of Laissez-Faire in the Early Republic by Frank Bourgin

THE GREAT CHALLENGE: The Myth of Laissez-Faire in the Early Republic

KIRKUS REVIEW

Bourgin wrote a doctoral dissertation in the 1940's that argued that, contrary to our national mythology of laissez-faire, the early American government engaged in active and extensive measures to promote industrial and commercial progress. His dissertation was rejected by the Univ. of Chicago in 1945 and Bourgin's hopes of an academic career were crushed. In 1985, Bourgin brought his dissertation to the attention of historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who called it ""path-breaking work."" The Univ. of Chicago has since reversed its decision and awarded Bourgin a Ph.D. This volume is a well-written distillation of Bourgin's 700-page dissertation. He argues that the Founding Fathers were influenced by the mercantilist notions that prevailed at the time of the Constitutional Convention, and that the Constitution was actually designed to create a strong, activist central government. In particular, Bourgin aruges, the Convention sought to create a strong executive officer, the President. To bolster his point, Bourgin analyzes Alexander Hamilton's plan for a national bank and his efforts for industrial development, Thomas Jefferson's land policies, and Albert Gallatin's and John Quincy Adams' programs for developing a national transportation network. Bourgin insists that these early American leaders were actually engaged in ""national planning."" It is a very interesting thesis, but Bourgin seems to have overinterpreted his evidence. For example, Jefferson's land policies were mainly concerned with creating a firm foundation for property rights, a cardinal principle of laissez-faire economics. ""There has always existed the temptation to read into past events whatever present interest seems to prevail,"" writes Bourgin. How true; his dissertation was written during the New Deal and was apparently designed to find historical precedent to justify Roosevelt's interventionist economic policies. Nevertheless, his is a very accessible history that offers many insights into the formation of the early American republic.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1989
Publisher: Braziller