Harvey C. Mansfield

National Humanities Medal


Political philosopher Harvey C. Mansfield looks at contemporary politics through the lens of past thinkers. His thirteen books delve into subjects such as Edmund Burke and the nature of political parties and Machiavelli and indirect government. He has translated Machiavelli from Italian and Tocqueville from French.

Though he wrote in the 1840s, Tocqueville's insights are relevant to modern American politics, and he appeals to both the Right and the Left, says Mansfield. "He worried about big government, which is a theme of conservatives today. He was very impressed with the way Americans actually practice free government and democracy through elected government with many different layers and types of officials, which speaks to the value of civic engagement or participation that we hear from liberals. In fact, not only are Tocqueville's views applicable today, Democracy in America is the best book about American government today."

In Taming the Prince: The Ambivalence of Modern Executive Power, Mansfield focuses on Machiavelli's understanding of the executive office. "Machiavelli made it a principle of free government, and I think he was responsible for the original insight behind the American presidency. Our country is the first republic that had strong executive power, as previously it was thought that executive power was contrary to republican principles. But we managed to combine this princely power with the people's authority."

Executive power, says Mansfield, is one of the important constitutional principles drawn from Machiavelli by the framers and is a crucial element in the American government's separation of powers. "You see instances of one-man rule everywhere in our public and private institutions--in corporations, universities, and our governments, and we hardly think about it," he says. "It's one important constitutional principle that we have maintained. The executive can be strong or weak, according to the demands of the times, but the most successful executive is the one who is able to govern under the approval or legitimization of the people who elected him."

However, Mansfield contends, there are some original constitutional principles from which American governance has strayed. These include the idea that the Constitution is based on a fixed human nature, guarantees and limits freedom, and maintains a certain distance between the people and their government so that government is not too closely tied to public opinion. "Constitutional space is good because it allows the elected leaders to use their initiative and discretion to do something important and even urgent," he says. "And it also allows people to judge them when they come up for reelection without having been too involved in those decisions."

"I did these translations to make available a more literal version of these works for students and colleagues," says Mansfield. Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, which Mansfield translated with his wife Delba Winthrop, reveals, as he puts it, Tocqueville's subtle insight while his three translations of Machiavelli were designed "to expose Machiavelli as the mastermind behind modernity."

The recipient of Guggenheim and NEH fellowships, Mansfield has been a fellow at the National Humanities Center and, from 1991 to 1994, a member of the National Council on the Humanities. He received his undergraduate degree from Harvard University in 1946 and joined the faculty in 1962, where he is now the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Government.

At Harvard, he has gained a reputation as a hard grader and has campaigned against grade inflation. Aware that it was a courageous act for students "to take my course and accept a lower grade or stain on their record," Mansfield devised a two-grade system to "provoke new thinking" about grading. He gave students in his political philosophy course two grades--one for the registrar that was in line with typical Harvard grading and, another, divulged in private, that was "the real grade they deserve from me."

Mansfield doesn't object to being called a conservative. He says it means "conserving the best American principles with necessary adaptations to new circumstances. So I don't look at it as an absolutist position, nor is it nostalgia for an unrecoverable past. In fact, I would say today that conservatives have the new ideas."


About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.