What Does John Roberts's Harvard History Thesis Tell Us About Him?

News at Home

Ms. DeLucia is an undergraduate at Harvard.

Direct Textbooks Textbook resource center

When Supreme Court nominee John Roberts wrote his senior history thesis at Harvard in 1976, he revisited the Edwardian Liberal revival of early twentieth-century British politics. His “Old and New Liberalism: The British Liberal Party’s Approach to the Social Problem, 1906-1914,” submitted "in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Degree of Bachelor of Arts with Honors," asks two central questions: First, did the Liberals “confront or neglect” issues concerning the working class—the so-called “social problem?” (p.163). Second, what were the implications of the Liberal approach to reform for the viability of the party on the brink of World War I? (The Liberal Party was one of two major political parties in Great Britain from 1832 to 1931. Its rather sudden collapse has sparked generations of debate, many attributing its downfall to an alleged refusal to abandon laissez-faire capitalism even as it embraced progressive reforms such as Home Rule for Ireland, old-age pensions and unemployment insurance.)

His thesis, 166 pages of terse prose and measured arguments, traces the rise and decline of the Liberal Party. His analysis is decidedly ambiguous. He concludes that on the eve of World War I the Liberal Party was “neither doomed nor saved. Its response to the rise of political labor had been neither complete neglect nor total confrontation of the social problem. Rather, the response involved the subtler interactions between the Party as a whole and its most dynamic leaders, who were at first compelled to reform and then directed the sources of their reformism to other ends.” (p.165)

Much of the thesis focuses on the Liberal response to a new factor in modern Britain: the growing political clout of the working class. “Could the party of Gladstone adapt to meet the political threat of labor?” Roberts asks. “Would the working classes find shelter under the Liberal umbrella, or would they gravitate to independent labor organizations?” (p. 8) He pursues this labor angle throughout the thesis in an attempt to shed new light on the “mystery” of the Liberal Party’s death. (p.9) His seven chapters begin with an examination of the issues competing for the attention of Liberals including social reform, then describes the nature of social reform in the Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman era in relation to later reforms pursued under Herbert Asquith. Lloyd George, a Liberal, and Winston Churchill, the erstwhile Tory turned Liberal, are described as champions of reform. Much of the thesis covers the effect of reform on multiple constituencies.

The thesis attempts to break new ground on several fronts. Roberts criticizes several previous interpretations of the Liberal Party's rise and decline, noting that the history of interpretation had often been warped by partisanship. Those sympathetic to the Liberal Party blamed the Party's decline on vague historical contingencies. Labour historians argued that the Liberal Party inevitably would be replaced by one focused on the working man. Roberts has little patience with such partisan approaches. He prefers, he says, the interpretations offered by historians who pursued a “more detached view than the partisans had.” (p. 10) Questioning both classical and revisionist accounts of the Liberal Party's downfall, he insists that attributing the Party's decline to "a rising proletariat" is an inadequate explanation. He adds that non-labor factors need to be taken into consideration, including the Party's support for Home Rule for Ireland. (p. 17) He explains how various reforms supported by the Liberal Party leadership alienated various constituencies.

Roberts accords particular weight to the role of two personalities in the Party’s success and eventual failure: “If the Liberals did not die before World War I, this was due in large extent to the doctoring of Lloyd George and Churchill. But when these physicians decided they had more important tasks than tending to the Liberal Party, the patient’s condition perceptibly declined.” (p. 22) Roberts deems it “very significant that the two ministers could swing the Party to reform, for this indicated that the Party, though not on the whole committed to reform, could become a vehicle of reform regardless of what its members thought.” (p. 163) Or, as Roberts writes in one of the few passages that sparkle, “Lloyd George and Churchill gave the commitment, and they took it away. They were the gods of Liberal reform.” (p. 161)

We showed long excerpts of Roberts's thesis to Boston College Professor of History James Cronin, also an affiliate of the Center for European Studies at Harvard where he co-chairs the British Study Group. “For a B.A. thesis," he told us, "this is an impressive piece of work—it is well-written and quite thoughtfully argued and it appears that Roberts has done a good deal of research and has read the most recent literature. Roberts does not appear to be in any serious way an ideologue in this piece of work. He's fairly cynical and hard-headed, but not overtly ideological. In fact, he accepts the fact that the ‘social question’ was real, not imaginary, and that it needed to be addressed by programs of the sort that today constitute in their combination the welfare state.” Significantly, Cronin remarked, in the thesis’s conclusion, “Roberts does not here bother to praise the Liberal Party for its previous embrace of laissez-faire, nor does he lament its drift away from it and towards a more interventionist conception of the role of the state. All in all, this would seem to indicate that Roberts is not someone who regrets the passing of the 19th-century liberal state and who might therefore be inclined to reject the legislative legacy of the New Deal.” Without having read the thesis in its entirety, and leaving room for changes in Roberts’s views in the intervening three decades, Cronin added, “[W]hat I've read provides little cause to regard Roberts as especially right-wing or ideological.”

While a student at Harvard Roberts won awards for two other pieces of work, as earlier reported on HNN : “Marxism and Bolshevism: Theory and Practice,” which won the William Scott Ferguson Award, and "The Utopian Conservative: A study of Continuity and Change in the Thought of Daniel Webster," which earned him the Bowdoin Prizes for Undergraduates. In this thirty-page examination of Daniel Webster’s career and philosophy, Roberts argues that despite the fact that Webster changed his political positions over time on various subjects, his “thought was essentially consistent, founded on the solid bed-rock of a world view which remained consistent despite the vicissitudes of politics.” (pp.1-2) The essay is perhaps most interesting for the insight it provides into Judge Roberts's own decision to pursue a career as a lawyer rather than as a professor of history, as he originally intended. In the paper on Webster he dwells on Webster's dazzling legal profile. He takes particular note of Webster's celebrated appearance before the Supreme Court in the famous Dartmouth case. Webster's arguments, Roberts writes admiringly, "struck a responsive chord in Chief Justice Marshall, whose decision closely followed the lawyer’s reasoning. Bar and bench cooperated in securing the rights of property and vested interests.” (p. 9). Furthermore, “Through his appeals to national authority as a recourse from the meddling of states, Webster came to recognize that the security he sought for property could only be sanctioned by a strong national government. These appeals led him not only to elevate the position of the Supreme Court, and contribute to the expansion of its powers, but also to enhance the prerogatives of the Congress.” (pp. 11-12)

Revealingly, perhaps, the essay describes at length a particular type of “Websterian man,” whom Roberts characterizes as “not bound by the sectional and divisive influences of party politics….a disinterested, self-sacrificing man of wisdom who continually worked with others of his sort to resolve any controversy which threatened national harmony. The man of character did not fight in the think [sic] of political battles, but rather raised himself above the conflict and stilled it through dispassionate compromise.” (pp.18-19)

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

To the author's credit, her interesting synopsis attempts no serious evaluation of Robert's political views or suitability for Supreme Courtship.

The angle this expose raises in my mind is the apparent deterioration of the quality of undergraduate prose over the past 30 years. While Roberts was obviously a prize-winning top undergrad at a top institution, it seems that the brilliance of his history-writing shines more dazzlingly from today's vantage point than it did at the time it was composed.

Laura DeLucia - 8/25/2005

Christine does the world of journalism justice by leaving speculation as to the partisan leanings of Roberts to the wonks and players in the sport of political spectating, focusing solely on its academic merit.

Frederick Thomas - 8/1/2005

Mr. Luker:

Thank you for your comments. Perhaps some day one of us will convince the others of something.

Mr. Luker, I am the least right wing of anyone you will find. We really need to stop this outdated polarization.

Instead I am anti-big-government, regardless of what it is called. I need not tell you that Bush is damned near as big-government-oriented as Kerry, so the last one was a Hobson's choice for me. I voted Bush, but with my nose held.

But of the big government types, the ideological leftists kill the most people, by far, and that is what most concerns me. I am just not into government murder.

The 21st century issue I pursue is simple fairness. Roberts' senior paper is attacked. Hillary's is exempted. That is not fair, sir. Let's see the paper.

Frederick Thomas - 8/1/2005

Mr. Almer:

Thank you for your comments.

Perhaps you were unaware that Thomas Paine was not a founding father, only spent 4 years here, and failed at everything he did in his whole life except "Common Sense," beginning with his expulsion from school at age 12.

Perhaps you were not aware that he failed even as a soldier in the revolution (cowardice, I understand), or that, following his "assistance" to the Americans, he lent his polemical talents to the gang of butchers who brought us the French revolution, even justifying "Bloody September" 1792, when Marat (a prototype for Mr. Alinsky) organized several hundred Corsican cutthroats to murder over 3000 Parisians, only a handful of whom were even "aristos," with their blood pooling knee-deep on the Rue de la Seine, in the opening act of the terror.

These thugs even butchered the Princess de Lamballe, an innocent 16 year old kid who had initially fled to England, but returned out of loyalty to Marie-Antoinette. She was raped over 30 times before being killed by a pike thrust, then raped dozens of time more, by some real upstanding guys, before being dismembered. Thomas Paine cheered that insanity.

Thomas Paine was an embarassment, except for one successful pamphlet. If he is a hero to you, fine. But please do not assume that he is one to everyone.

Yes, I use online encyclopaediae, as quite clearly do you. It is a fast way to verify and excerpt factual information. Are you somehow implying that becuase this information comes from an encyclopaedia, it is incorrect, or is your argument hinged entirely upon the citation from Mr. Paine?

Frederick Thomas - 8/1/2005

Mr. Luker:

Thank you for your comments.

I believe that the founding fathers advocating a war for independence is anything but comparable to the comments of Marxists such as Mr. Alinsky advocating that we liquidate his neighbors, oops, pardon me, I mean "middle class", and steal their property.

I noted earlier that his incendiary pronouncements were not even terribly original-he paraphrased Trotsky and to a lesser degree Lenin in many of them.

Once again, please consider honestly: would Hillary go to such lengths to protect this paper if it were not extremely volatile politically? Would Alinsky have attempted to recruit her if he did not see a kindred spirit there? It seems that you avoid the issues which anyone else at least find cause for concern.

Such statements as "get a life" are meant to be dismissive, I suppose, but instead reveal your lack of confidence in your argument, that you must resort to diversions from the point rather than dealing with it.

William A. Henslee - 7/31/2005

I lived for many years in a town where a tiny minority used the Alinski playbook to disrupt public meetings and impose their will. The Alinski followers claim their tactics are a legitimate way for a minority (who are in the right)to change the system.

Shouting people down, and physical confrontations to intimidate is a long way from the American ideal of letting everyone have their say in a reasoned debate on issues. Frankly, it reminds me of the methods of the Reds, Anarchists and Brownshirts in Europe.

William A. Henslee - 7/31/2005

Well said, Hillary MIGHT have been completely against Saul Alinski's tactics for taking power, but since the Senate Democrats are in full cry about the "world view" of Roberts, why not get a sense of where Hillary was coming from in her college days as well.

It's pretty rare for a college like Wellesley to censor our right to knowledge and the free use thereof.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/30/2005

Three cheers and a Boston Tea Party for Michael Dean Almer!

Michael Dean Almer - 7/30/2005

Mr. Thomas has certainly done his homework on the suppposedly dangerous Mr. Alinsky. However, he should have his grade lowered. I notice that he seems to have lifted his entire list of damning Alinski quotes from an article in Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia. While Wikipedia simply labeled the collection "famous quotes", Mr. Thomas manages to discern within each of them a coherant rant for violent revolution. What? Maybe he should read them again.

And if you follow the tell tale footnote 3 Mr. Thomas left on the second quote, Wikipedia takes you to an article containing this outrageous, probably Marxist quote:

"Let them call me rebel and welcome, I feel no concern from it; but I should suffer the misery of devils, were I to make a whore of my soul."

That's Alinsky quoting Thomas Paine in "Reveille for Radicals". Alinsky is an All-American rabble rouser, more of a Sam Adams than a Stalinist seeking power and blood. Get off his dead back.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/29/2005

Mr. Thomas, No one, but right wing ideologues like yourself, believes that the Nazis were of the Left. German businessmen, who helped to put them in power, did not think so and neither should you. And Mr. Alinsky no longer wants anything. You're really fighting 20th century ideological battles when they are largely over.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/29/2005

Mr. Thomas -- get a life. Read the examples you cite. How many of the 10 actually advocate violent revolution? They _might_ be part of an argument for violent revolution. In and of themselves, they aren't, certainly no more so than that espoused by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence.

Frederick Thomas - 7/29/2005

Mr. Davin:

Thank you for your comments, but if you have something factual to say, I would like to hear it. You have made a really silly statement here:

"Alinsky does not 'prescribe" "violent revolution" in either of his books."

Actually he does, mainly by paraphrasing Trotsky, his hero. 10 Examples follow. Please read them, and perhaps you will be qualified to enter into debate without having your argument so easily overturned. By such rationales as these, millions have been murdered.


"Society has good reason to fear the Radical. Every shaking advance of mankind toward equality and justice has come from the Radical. He hits, he hurts, he is dangerous. Conservative interests know that while Liberals are most adept at breaking their own necks with their tongues, Radicals are most adept at breaking the necks of Conservatives."

"Once you accept your own death, all of a sudden you're free to live. You no longer care about your reputation. You no longer care except so far as your life can be used tactically to promote a cause you believe in." [3]

"The Radical may resort to the sword but when he does he is not filled with hatred against those individuals whom he attacks. He hates these individuals not as persons but as symbols representing ideas or interests which he believes to be inimical to the welfare of the people."

"If you have a vast organization, parade it before the enemy, openly show your power."

"If your organization is small, do what Gideon did: conceal the members in the dark but raise a clamor that will make the listener believe that your organization numbers many more that it does."

"If your organization is too tiny even for noise, stink up the place."

"Change means movement. Movement means friction. Only in the frictionless vacuum of a nonexistent abstract world can movement or change occur without that abrasive friction of conflict."

“Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins – or which is which), the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom – Lucifer.” -Rules for Radicals

"Power goes to two poles: to those who've got money and those who've got people."

"Liberals in their meetings utter bold works; they strut, grimace belligerently, and then issue a weasel-worded statement 'which has tremendous implications, if read between the lines.' They sit calmly, dispassionately, studying the issue; judging both sides; they sit and still sit."

Frederick Thomas - 7/29/2005

Mr. Luker:

Thank you for your comments. My responses follow:

“Saul Alinsky was no hard core Marxist of the totalitarian of the sort (sic) you wrongly claim all Marxists are and your claim that Leftist governments are uniquely responsible for massive exterminations…”

Mostly, of course, the Marxists are responsible for mass killing, or “liquidation”.

Mr. Alinsky advocates the “have nots” taking the property from the “haves” by violence or the threat of violence and by seizing the government through violence, not free elections. You are engaging in wishful thinking to assert that SA is different than his Soviet buddies, whom he openly admired, despite their murder of 63 million countrymen (“Murder by Government”)


“(this) obviously ignores the experience of democratic governments on the Left in Scandanavia, Great Britain, France, Italy, post-WWII Germany, India, Australia, and many countries in Latin America.”

None of these were Marxist governments, although all of them hurt their economies and were ejected from office, as the German and French examples will again demonstrate at their next elections. In those two cases, the countries suffer 12% unemployment because of socialist economics, and the leftie parties command less than 30% of the electorate.


“It ignores the Holocaust, as well. But I wouldn't be bothered by evidence, if I were you “

The “holocaust”, in which I for completeness must include the holocaust of the Chinese free farmers (35 million), Ukranians (12 million), Armenians (2 million), Gypsies (1 million), Cambodians (2-3 million) Germans (ethnic cleansing of Eastern provines) (3-4 million,) as well as the Jews, is universally the result of over-centralization of government power such as takes place under Marxist “theory”.

Remember that the NAZIs were lefties, too, allied propaganda notwithstanding. Gregor Strasser a key leader, defined himself as “echt socialist”. NAZI is short for “National Socialist German Workers Party”, even though they hated their fellow lefties the Bolsheviks. Like other lefties, the NAZIs grew the government to control everything, and eventually led to ruin. Alinsky wants the same thing, Mr. Luker, and the reason Hillary won’t release the paper is probably that it gushes all over Alinsky-what else? Otherwise we could read it here as we are Mr. Roberts’.


“…for people like yourself who care only to use history for ideological purposes… “

I have not seen denser ideology masquerading as historical analysis than yours. Perhaps you were actually talking about yourself when you wrote this.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/29/2005


Ralph E. Luker - 7/29/2005

Saul Alinsky was no hard core Marxist of the totalitarian of the sort you wrongly claim all Marxists are and your claim that Leftist governments are uniquely responsible for massive exterminations obviously ignores the experience of democratic governments on the Left in Scandanavia, Great Britain, France, Italy, post-WWII Germany, India, Australia, and many countries in Latin America. It ignores the Holocaust, as well. But I wouldn't be bothered by evidence, if I were you -- it's inconvenient for people like yourself who care only to use history for ideological purposes.

Oscar Chamberlain - 7/28/2005

Good point, Thomas.

With an eye to the Hillary-bashing below, I would also point out that a thesis is a questionable guide to a person's political views 20 years later. It may suggest philosophical tendencies or deep moral concerns that still abide--but to use it alone as a basis for understanding how that person addresses those concerns today is questionable at best.

Eric Davin - 7/28/2005

Frederick Thomas attacks Hillary Clinton for advocating "violent revolution as Alinsky prescribes". Alinsky does not 'prescribe" "violent revolution" in either of his books. Either Thomas is completely ignorant of what Alinsky "prescribes" or he has a callous disregard for the truth and says anything which is politically expedient. If he is ignorant, then no one should take him seriously about anything he says. If he just lies for political advantage, he should be disdained.

Tony Luke - 7/28/2005

Forgive my ignorance, gentlemen, but isn't it possible that Mrs. Clinton could have written about Mr. Alinsky and his political-social beliefs without, herself, necessarily endorsing or advocating those beliefs? Frankly, I've never heard of the man or any of his writings and, while he sounds like he was just another radical Marxist hack, if he was in vogue back then, I can see why someone might have wanted to write a paper about him to learn more. Who knows, maybe she selected the topic because it was suggested to her by some radical professor trying to mold her thinking and impose his or her views on her, or she was trying to curry favor or an A by toeing the party line.

Frederick Thomas - 7/28/2005

Mr. Luker:

Thank you for your comments, although you were a little intemperate in tone. Perhaps we can bridge that gap a little.

"Saul Alinsky is as American as apple pie."

I suggest that Alinsky's prescription of minority violence to take over the majority is as purely bolshevik as anything I have heard in this country. Examples:

Organization for action will ... center upon America's white middle class. That is where the power is.

the Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. 'Rules for Radicals' is written for the Have-nots on how to take it away.

"Take it away"? Sounds like violence to me, Mr. Luker, and the exact polar opposite of "democracy".

"I take it that you prefer to change American political by the heavy grinding boot heel of oppression, rather than by democratic revolution."

The government I want it the smallest, weakest possible, which you would realize if you consider what I have often said in the past.

Strong governments, particularly strong leftist governments murder "the people," "the workers," "the masses," by the tens of millions. They averaged a million murders per year during the 20th century, whether Soviet, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese or Cambodian. That sir, is the real "boot heel of oppression," and Mr. Alinsky's concepts and language are identical to Lenin's and Stalin's, just substitute "bourgeois" for "middle class."

There is no such thing as a "democratic "revolution" for the Marxist. Such tortured wording is there to mask the fact that they want personal power and do not care how many they murder to get it.

Somehow I do not think that is you. Persuade me I am right, OK?

Thank you again.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/28/2005

Get off it, Mr. Thomas. Saul Alinsky is as American as apple pie. I take it that you prefer to change American political by the heavy grinding boot heel of oppression, rather than by democratic revolution.

Frederick Thomas - 7/28/2005

Mr. Luker:

Thank you for your comments.

Mr. Henslee may have misspoken-the thesis in question is from Wellesly, not Yale, but it certainly does exist. See my comments elsewhere regarding the reputed theme.

It is widely reported that Alinsky was so enthused with Hillary's revolutionary agitation potential that he wished to recruit her as an agitator, but that Bill talked her out of it as a bad career move.

The following is from the Wall Street Journal critical review of klein's book:

"... the senior college thesis she wrote on leftist organizer Saul Alinsky and how to change the American political culture, which her alma mater, Wellesley College, obligingly continues to suppress on her request."

I believe that the slightest suggestion by Hillary about "changing the American political culture" through violent revolution as Alinsky prescribes would mean the end of her presidential aspirations.

Frederick Thomas - 7/28/2005

Thank you for pointing out this connection, which has been much written about, although the exact paper itself has not to my knowledge been printed.

Hillary's central thesis is reportedly that a communist takeover for the "have-nots" can be achieved through "democratic" organizing for revolution on the Alinsky model. This is very hard Marxist stuff, and could have been written in Moscow.

This theme, if it is correctly reported, goes way beyond dishonest legal billing practices. If her thesis were published, Hillary could forget her presidential plans.

A few quotes from the ever radical Mr. Alinsky:

(Source: "Reveille for Radicals (1946)" and "Rules for Radicals" (1971)).

On subverting the middle class:

"Organization for action will ... center upon America's white middle class. That is where the power is."

On Satan as an exemplar:

"... the very first radical ... who rebelled against the establishment and ...won his own kingdom -- Lucifer."

On promoting violent revolution:

"The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. 'Rules for Radicals' is written for the Have-nots on how to take it away."

Thanks again for your comments.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/28/2005

You can stop drooling over the thought of Hillary's thesis at Yale. She is a Wellesley undergraduate and a graduate of Yale Law School. She might have done an honors thesis at Wellesley. If I'm not mistaken, commonly law schools do not require a thesis for the degree.

Christopher Alan Danielson - 7/27/2005

I recall Sean Hannity on Fox News calling Hillary's undergraduate thesis "Marxist" because it was on Saul Alinsky. At least something about its contents must be publicly known, unless Hannity is talking about something he knows nothing about (which is not beyond the realm of possibility).

Mike R Okey - 7/27/2005

Is it being kept a secret? Are these papers normally part of the public domain? I only ask because the question is loaded. If the papers aren't normally available to the public then she is not keeping it a secret and requiring her to make the effort to dig it up for us to look over would seem a bit unfair. Unless of course she decides to criticize Roberts based on his.

William A. Henslee - 7/27/2005

I have serious doubts that anyone's undergraduate thesis should be analyzed by an augur looking to predict the future course of a career from its entrails thirty years later.

However, wouldn't it be fun if Hillary Clinton's thesis at Yale was finally made public and analysis run on it as well?

Will a clamor for its release rise from the throats of Democratic politicians and media pundits?

Hugh High - 7/27/2005

Cronin writes : " All in all, this would seem to indicate that Roberts is not someone who regrets the passing of the 19th-century liberal state and who might therefore be inclined to reject the legislative legacy of the New Deal."

Sadly, he is probably correct -- despite the bogus legal underpinnings of that legislation.

Thomas R. Clark - 7/27/2005

Ms. Delucia's article is very interesting. But, even though I'm as much of a Supreme Court junkie as anyone, the fact that we are examining Judge Roberts' undergraduate history papers is a sure sign of just how little we know about him. Let the hearings begin!