We the Fallen People
The Gospel Coalition Book Awards Honorable Mention
What we must do, argues the historian Robert Tracy McKenzie, is take an unflinching look at the very nature of democracy—its strengths and weaknesses, what it can promise, and where it overreaches. And this means we must take an unflinching look at ourselves.
We the Fallen People presents a close look at the ideas of human nature to be found in the history of American democratic thought, from the nation's Founders through the Jacksonian Era and Alexis de Tocqueville. McKenzie, following C. S. Lewis, claims there are only two reasons to believe in majority rule: because we have confidence in human nature—or because we don't. The Founders subscribed to the biblical principle that humans are fallen and their virtue is always doubtful, and they wrote the US Constitution to frame a republic intended to handle our weaknesses. But by the presidency of Andrew Jackson, contrary ideas about humanity's inherent goodness were already taking deep root among Americans, bearing fruit in such perils as we now face for the future of democracy.
Focusing on the careful reasoning of the Founders, the seismic shifts of the Jacksonian Era, and the often misunderstood but still piercing analysis of Tocqueville's Democracy in America, McKenzie guides us in a conversation with the past that can help us see the present—and ourselves—with new insight.
"In this rollicking and insightful book, Robert Tracy McKenzie explores the Founders' deep skepticism about human nature and 'democracy,' and shows why the uncritical American turn toward a gospel of populism has had such serious consequences. This is scholarly but accessible history at its best."
"In the spirit of Reinhold Niebuhr, Tracy McKenzie places original sin at the center of American political history. We the Fallen People weaves American history, historical thinking, and public theology into a compelling narrative that forces readers to rethink the meaning of our democratic experiment."
"Tracy McKenzie's book We the Fallen People is an exercise of deep objective thought that will help Christians process the tumult of American government and politics. McKenzie helps us to think Christianly as American citizens about the future of our democracy. This book couldn't have come at a better time."
"Tracy McKenzie has managed to do what few historians can—make the seemingly familiar story of American democracy unfamiliar. We the Fallen People leads the reader on a journey to some of the most important events and places that shaped American democracy—the creation of the Constitution, the rise of Jacksonian democracy, and the cultural and political landscape of Tocqueville's Democracy in America. In this passage through the American past, McKenzie demonstrates how many Americans have idolized democracy as an intrinsically positive good, often to their own detriment and the destruction of others. Calling on Americans to replace faith in democracy with a Tocquevillian hope for democracy, McKenzie challenges his readers to hold the same sort of skepticism of human goodness that guided the Founding Fathers. In doing so, he reminds us that the greatest threat to democracy is not a foreign power or domestic political enemy but ourselves."
"Robert Tracy McKenzie has incisively identified one of the most subtle and insidious dynamics contributing to the present state of partisanship in America. That is, our stark societal divisions are often fueled by flawed approaches to making sense of the past. The genius of McKenzie's book is in his challenge to us to think both Christianly and historically, demonstrating that the two are not mutually exclusive. He shrinks not from the exceedingly difficult task of drawing moral wisdom from history, and he does so with characteristic care and aplomb. We the Fallen People helps us to see the past more clearly, giving us the ability to think more rightly about ourselves. These are the indispensable first steps for us as we pursue the common good."
"Robert Tracy McKenzie convincingly argues that the health of a nation depends on its citizens' ability to grasp an old, old idea, that of original sin. America's founders believed it, but it's the rare politician, pundit, or citizen who does today. This is a bracing call for Christians especially to reintroduce this idea into the national conversation and restore some sanity to our public life together."
Prologue: "America Is Great Because . . ."
Introduction: The Consent of the Governed
Part One: Governing a Fallen People: The Founders, the Constitution, and Human Nature
1. Asking Different Questions
2. "We Must Take Human Nature as We Find It"
Part Two: The Great Reversal: "The People's Candidate" Exalts the People's Virtue
3. "The People Thought Gen. Jackson Worthy"
4. "A Triumph of the Virtue of the People"
Part Three: "Servitude or Liberty": Jacksonian Democracy in Action
5. "By Permission of the Great Spirit Above, and the Voice of the People"
6. "The People Are Incapable of Protecting Themselves"
Part Four: "I Cannot Regard You as a Virtuous People": A Conversation with Alexis de Tocqueville
7. Puncturing Faith in Democracy
8. Nurturing Hope for Democracy
Part Five: Remembering, Reminding, Responding: Lessons for Today
9. We the Fallen People: Renewing Our Thinking
10. We the Fallen People: Transforming Our Behavior
Epilogue: "If America Is Good . . ."