From Hull House to the White House

James Kloppenberg explicates Barack Obama’s perspective on the American democratic ideal of melding individual views and interests into the common good.

Another excerpt from Reading Obama, "A Nation Arguing with Its Conscience," was printed in the November-December 2010 issue.

Excerpted from James Kloppenberg’s new book, Reading Obama, to be published this month by Princeton University Press. Copyright © 2010 Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.


 On factions, elections, and productive disagreement in the building of American community


As the first generation of Puritans and equally contentious colonists up and down the Atlantic seaboard experimented with diverse forms of self-government, they gradually accumulated the experience that enabled them to forge different varieties of more or less democratic government during the 1770s and 1780s. As the colonists wrangled with each other in public forums ranging from the town and county to the state and eventually the nation, they slowly and unsteadily developed an unusual degree of competence in the tricky business of making, administering, and altering their own laws. That experience of democracy both required and bolstered the “humility” that comes from knowing that one’s own convictions are not always shared by one’s neighbors. Moreover, whether one is in the majority or the minority, the awareness that circumstances change and majorities are fleeting also necessitates a rejection of absolute truth—at least de facto, and at least in the political sphere. The experience of having to accept the results of elections, as unpalatable as those results might be, can help individuals appreciate the power and, at least occasionally, the value of other points of view. From that awareness can—not must, but can—arise a degree of toleration that makes differ-ences acceptable even when they still seem undesirable. That was the sensibility demonstrated so clearly not only in James Madison’s writings in the 1780s but in his behavior from the revolution through the 1820s, a long period during which he showed himself both a champion of high democratic principles and a cagy partisan operative, the architect of the political party that coalesced around Thomas Jefferson and against Alexander Hamilton.

Many Americans still prefer the comforting fable of founders who discovered unchanging Truth and distilled it into the Constitution. Others prefer the rousing tale of a noble people duped and disempowered from the start by the duplicitous architects of the Constitution. The record of Americans’ squabbles in the early national period, however, shows that neither picture is accurate. Americans from different regions and states did not trust each other very much, and they were not sure their Constitution embodied any principles they should defend when their opponents were in power. They grudgingly agreed to put their faith in the possibility that provisional agreements might emerge through the unpredictable, agonistic experience of democratic contestation and compromise.

Only through that discursive process, as Madison observed, as Alexis de Tocqueville confirmed in the 1830s, and as Obama clearly understands, did Americans come to know—or rather to create—what they called a common good. They understood that the ideal of a common good appeared and then receded along the horizon. It did not exist before they argued about it, and it changed shape as they tried to implement it. As Obama points out in The Audacity of Hope,  the framers set up “a community in which a common culture, a common faith, and a well-developed set of civic virtues” enabled citizens to contain the inevitable “contention and strife” on which democracy depends. By experiencing such struggles, he concludes, Americans learned that the individual’s “self-interest” is “inextricably linked to the interests of others.” Although Obama does not make the point himself, that was just what Madison proposed—repeatedly—in his contributions to the Constitutional Convention and in his essays in the Federalist, not only in numbers 51 and 57 but also in his most often cited but too seldom read essay, Federalist number 10. There Madison explained why deliberation matters.

Because Federalist number 10 is reputed to provide evidence for Madison’s hardheaded calculations and his acceptance of the inevitable role of factions, less attention has been paid to the purpose Madison thought such conflicts serve. Like the countless Americans who wrote and rewrote local and state constitutions during the 1770s and 1780s, Madison referred repeatedly to advancing “the public good” and the “good of the whole” as the aim of the Constitution and the result of debates among the people’s representatives. And Madison was not alone. Because of our tendency to turn Hamilton into the champion of centralized authority he later became, it is easy to forget that he was able to ally with Madison to write the Federalist because the two shared enough ideas to blur their disagreements. It was Hamilton, as Obama notes, who wrote that “the jarring of parties” and diverse opinions could “promote deliberation and circumspection.”

Writing several decades later, Tocqueville likewise emphasized the liveliness of disagreements as a distinguishing feature of American public life in Democracy in America. Tocqueville learned a lot from traveling across the new nation, but the most important of his sources were three self-conscious champions of the idea of “ordered liberty” emphasized by Obama, the New Englanders John Quincy Adams, Josiah Quincy, and Harvard president Jared Sparks. Tocqueville stressed Americans’ willingness to participate voluntarily in community activities, not be-cause they were uniquely virtuous but because they discerned the meaning of what he called “self-interest properly understood.” From experience they learned to see their own individual interests in relation to the interests of their neighbors, and vice versa. Obama the community organizer turned professor of constitutional law has a solid grasp of the dynamics of American democracy. He knows the process whereby individual interests can become transformed into something larger. He learned the theory from American historian Gordon Wood and the civic republican revival; he saw—and for several years helped shape—the practice in the far south side of Chicago.


Obama realizes that Americans have always sought a variety of goals consistent with their very different ideals and aspirations. Democracy means squabbling about differences, reaching tentative agreements, then immediately resuming debate. He understands that disagreement is more American than apple pie.

Obama also sees something many of his most enthusiastic supporters on the left have trouble accepting: the willingness to endure acceptable compromises instead of demanding decisive victory over one’s opponents has been a recurring feature of American democratic culture. Tocqueville never tired of contrasting that characteristic to the fatal unwillingness of his fellow French citizens to reach accommodations with each other. Whereas the French Revolution foundered on the civil wars that erupted between monarchists and republicans, between champions of the old regime and the new, and between enlightenment fundamentalists intolerant of religion and Catholics who remained equally intolerant of atheism, Tocqueville marveled at the willingness displayed by Americans of different backgrounds to find common ground. Or at least to tolerate their differences. From a variety of experiences ranging from barn raisings to service on juries, Americans were learning to learn from each other.

In a similar vein, Obama observes that he became committed to American politics, and to running for elective office, because he believes that something lies beyond the undeniable cynicism and partisanship that prompt so much unpalatable political maneuvering. His inoculation against that cynicism has been tested again and again. Almost immediately after he was elected president, it was tested by the stupefying corruption of his state’s chief executive, who apparently sought to sell to the highest bidder Obama’s seat in the U.S. Senate. It has been tested since his inauguration by Republicans steadfastly resisting his attempts to forge bipartisan agreements and by his fellow Democrats who want him to ram their victory—and the less than overwhelming majorities Democrats enjoy in Congress—down their opponents’ throats. Obama’s rejection of cynicism and his wariness of partisanship have been among the defining features of his political career, and he knows that they have become more difficult to sustain amidst what he calls the “industry of insult” that now drowns out more moderate voices. Obama accounts for his continuing allegiance to civility by invoking a “tradition that stretched from the days of the country’s founding to the glory of the civil rights movement, a tradition based on the simple idea that we have a stake in one another, and that what binds us together is greater than what drives us apart.”

Appropriately enough for someone who has lived and worked on the south side of Chicago, in neighborhoods not that far southeast of Jane Addams’s Hull House, Obama’s reference to “that which binds us together” echoes the almost identical words that Addams wrote to explain the settlement-house movement in her memoir Twenty Years at Hull House (1910). Using a phrase she attributed to the founder of the English settlement-house movement, Addams professed her belief “that the things which make men alike are finer and better than the things that keep them apart, and that these basic likenesses, if they are properly accentuated, easily transcend the less essential differences of race, language, creed, and tradition.” Addams, like Tocqueville, derived her cultural cosmopolitanism from her democratic ideal. “Hull-House was soberly opened on the theory that the dependence of classes on each other is reciprocal.” Because “the social relation is essentially a reciprocal relation, it gives a form of expression that has peculiar value,” the value added by expanding the appreciation of individuals for those unlike themselves. Obama’s fondness for this formulation has become even clearer since his election as president. He used it in his Cairo address to the Islamic world and in his Nobel acceptance speech in Oslo, and it is a staple of the message he takes to meetings around the United States. For him it captures the heart of democracy.

Read more articles by: James T. Kloppenberg

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