The Gothic Thesis

In “Are We All German Now?“, Samuel Goldman (assistant professor of political science at George Washington University) discusses the ‘Gothic thesis’:

We like to think of Jefferson drafting the Declaration of Independence with Locke or Cicero at his elbow. But shortly after the Declaration was signed, Jefferson proposed as symbols of Americans’ new freedom “Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon chiefs, from whom we claim the honor of being descended and whose political principles and form of government we have assumed.”

Although it has become unfamiliar, the argument about the Teutonic sources of American liberty is not new. Until about the First World War, the so-called Gothic thesis was a staple of American historiography. In works with titles like The Germanic Origin of the New England Towns, historians such as Herbert Baxter Adams, a founder of the American Historical Association, argued that the British settlers of North America were “merely only one branch of the great Teutonic race, a single offshoot from the tree of liberty which takes deep hold upon all the past.”

The stakes in this debate were political as well as intellectual. Proponents of the Gothic thesis aimed to prove, in James Ceaser’s words, that “constitutionalism derived from mores or ‘culture’ rather than from theoretical principles.” One implication was that people or peoples of non-Germanic origin lacked the habits and assumptions necessary to sustain ordered liberty. Not coincidentally, most admirers of Gothic liberty were old-stock Americans who opposed immigration from outside northern Europe…

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