America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration That Defined It
By C. Bradley Thompson.
Encounter Books, 2019.
Hardcover, 461 pages, $32.99.
Reviewed by Gerard T. Mundy
On the fusionist political right, there are several groups, branches of thought, and ideologies that show great similarity with contemporary leftist-progressivism in terms of their adherents’ practice of sophistry and disregard for the genuine discovery of truth. Rather than seeking to engage in true thought, these rhetoricians pursue confirmation of their biases and presuppositions. The political theorist Russell Kirk was among the chief opponents of many of these specious ideologies in the second half of the twentieth century.
Among these groups are the pugilistic “West Coast Straussians,” generally the most prominent of whom in the public intellectual square are the Americanists. A significant amount of their thought is based not on Leo Strauss directly, but rather on one of Strauss’s students, Harry Jaffa, who took some of Strauss’s teachings and then applied them to, and repackaged them into, the thought of the American Framing.
Sometimes split into the “West Coast” and “East Coast” Straussians, many of those of the West Coast group, Jaffa’s cadre, have affiliations with a handful of academic institutions, journals, and think-tanks, but their reach is much greater than the number of their institutional homes. Untold numbers of American students, readers, and others within the conservative-minded right, however, have been unknowingly influenced by individuals of this group.
The Strauss-Jaffa Americanists
In the thought and arguments of Strauss-Jaffa followers, not every single building block in their thought is the same, but there are general similarities. Among the Jaffa group is an unabashed devotion to a brand of Americanism with vigor mirroring that found in other secular cultism. The West Coast Straussians, and those they have knowingly or unknowingly influenced, believe that the American framers had an extraordinary grasp on all of preceding philosophical thought. (They mostly reject the term “framers” and use “founders.” Some like-minded editors often ensure that they remove the term “framers” from writers’ completed manuscripts before publication.)
The Straussians’ commitment to natural law and natural rights have seen them ally themselves with Catholic thinkers, who, in accord with Church teaching, also believe in the existence of natural law and natural rights. (In line with their sophistry, among their revisionist exercises to keep court with Catholics includes a revision of John Locke that makes him appear to be a pro-Catholic thinker.) Alliances can be helpful in terms of achieving goals in the public and political arenas, but Catholic thinkers differ from the Strauss-Jaffa followers in that they do not believe that man can achieve his rightful end in a temporal political administrative state. Much can be learned from Straussians with regard to some of their core general arguments on the topics of natural rights and natural law; their excesses, however, are many, and are evident especially in their Americanist applications of their general principles.
In The Public Discourse, Nathanael Blake provides a good two–part overview of some of the thought of Jaffa and his students for those unfamiliar with those aligned with this intellectual disposition. Blake’s analysis focuses mostly on the Jaffa commitment to Enlightenment ideals, which this essay has not the space to discuss. Blake argues that the Jaffa work “was not an exercise in historical scholarship but an effort at mythmaking.”
The influence of Jaffa can be seen clearly in a recent new book, America’s Revolutionary Mind, by C. Bradley Thompson. Although it becomes quickly apparent that many of the dogmatic claims of Revolutionary Mind have striking similarity to the arguments of other Strauss-Jaffa followers, Thompson is different from Jaffa in some ways.
Jaffa eventually moved to attempt reconciliation of a “virtue-less” American framework with the belief that Ancient, particularly Aristotelian, virtue was requisite for human beings’ flourishing. Jaffa—correctly—realized that a nation without virtue could not subsist, and so some of his later work attempted to argue that the American framers intended to construct a nation of virtue. Only with these claims could Jaffa and his closest-in-mind students then argue that American Framing thought was the fulfillment of all “true” philosophical thought that came before it. Thompson, however, rejects the lineage with the Ancients, preferring to start from scratch with Enlightenment philosophy, particularly Locke, while also fusing together many of the Jaffa arguments with an extreme libertarianism. In opposition to genuine philosophical inquiry and historical study, both other Jaffa followers’ and Thompson’s projects are alike in that they are extraordinary stretches that seek to invent what they desire the Framing thought to have been rather than discuss what it was in truth.
The Declaration of Independence
Thompson follows the narrative of the Jaffa-influenced: The Declaration of Independence must be stressed above all else in understanding American thought and Lincoln’s evocation of the Declaration is further proof of the document’s everlasting influence and value, as well as its bedrock status in American philosophical thought.
On the Declaration’s importance, Thompson and the Strauss-Jaffa followers are correct. If one agrees with the document’s claims or not, the Declaration was indeed the colonists’ general summation of their bedrock philosophical beliefs and it captured both the philosophical conclusions on which most of the framers largely agreed and also a general essence of the thought of the public.
Indeed, the Declaration was a general understanding of the revolutionary colonists’ beliefs and thus embodies the general, organic “American mind” that persists to this day: A general belief in personal liberty, a general distrust of authority, especially governmental authority, and a general belief in freedoms of expression, including, but not limited to, of the press, religion, and protest. Thompson is right when he places weight on the Declaration, but he goes wrong in several ways.
For instance, Thompson alleges that the Declaration achieved perfection in terms of some of its universal philosophical conclusions. For Thompson, the Declaration, written by mortal, secular politicians, is an infallible guide for guidance on some of the truths of humanity. The epistemological and metaphysical consequences of Thompson’s thought can be described as implausible.
Thompson begins by promising a grand work: “In something of an epiphany, I came to realize how little is actually known about the Revolution’s deepest causes and consequences … What is most needed today is a book that challenges us to rethink the deepest causes and consequences of the American Revolution, one that will allow us to see this world-changing event in a new light. I have attempted to do that with America’s Revolutionary Mind.” If those hubristic words were not enough, Thompson claims later that he has “developed a new approach to history writing that I call the new moral history.” Thompson’s most certainly does not create “a new approach to history writing”; rather, his book is generally composed of regurgitated Strauss-Jaffa followers’ arguments fused with libertarian principles and outlandish, ahistorical claims.
America ‘Freed’ from the Past
Thompson’s fusionism of Enlightenment ideals with contemporary libertarianism brings him to interpret the Framing as one that afforded the Americans a “freedom” from the past.
When the Declaration was signed, Thompson contends, “A new civilization—a republican civilization—was born, free from the dead weight of the past, free from the encrusted hierarchies of old-regime Europe, free from artificial privilege and haughty arrogance, free from ostentation, decadence, and corruption, free from vicious, medieval laws, free from overweening state power, and free from the cynicism of low expectations.” Not only is this language imprecise and hyperbolic, the claims are simply outrageous.
When Thompson asserts that the American Framing was highly influenced by Enlightenment principles, he is indeed correct. The author, however, reveals his partialities as he describes modern philosophy thus: “The Enlightenment represented an era of philosophic and scientific thinking that provided a new way to see the world and man’s place in it. It stood for the ability of the reasoning mind to unlock nature’s secrets, and it inspired men to sweep aside superstition, mysticism, prejudice, and the brutalities of the past.”
Thompson has more in common with contemporary progressives than conservatives as he celebrates how the Enlightenment philosophers, in his words, “discarded the traditional Platonic-medieval viewpoint that treated nature as a shadowy, imperfect reflection of a transcendent dimension, which was said to reflect true reality. They also rejected the Aristotelian-Christian view that saw nature teleologically … [original emphasis].”
Thompson’s obvious, sometimes implicit and sometimes explicit, distaste for Thomas Aquinas and the Catholic philosophical synthesis shows by way of his own clever wording and his many quotations of other philosophers’ loathing of scholasticism. Here is a sample, in Thompson’s own words: “One thing was certain during the Enlightenment: faith, revelation, mystic insight, innate ideas, and a priori speculation were rejected.”
A great advocate for Enlightenment ideals, and echoing Rousseau’s exhortation that men must be freed from the “chains” that bind them, Thompson makes a revisionist declaration: “Quite possibly the greatest achievement of the American Revolution was to free men to follow the dictates of their own minds, guided by unencumbered reason.”
It is the case that as a community of men determined to reform the political arrangement with the Crown, the colonists attempted the creation of a new government and association that would better achieve their political goals and, indeed, protect their natural rights. Contra Thompson, this was not done by “unencumbered reason” but rather by use of reason in accord with the knowledge and lessons that came from those before them.
Thompson’s term “unencumbered reason” is oxymoronic in and of itself, for reason cannot be “unencumbered.” Reason is, by its very nature, positively “encumbered.” In the case of the colonists, their reason was “encumbered” by knowledge of the past, by Enlightenment principles that put into words some of their sentiments, and by the collective memory of the colonists as settlers in America, and as Christians, as English men, as Westerners, and as human beings. It is preposterous to argue, in a Cartesian fashion, that the framers were somehow able to formulate major, bedrock truths in the span of only a few years. Western written philosophy had come down for two thousand years before the framers. Plato was writing about these topics long before Thomas Jefferson; the American ideas on republicanism were formed by the English, whose law itself was formed over many hundreds of years; and Cicero was writing about Roman republicanism long before modern England.
Thompson’s arguments that the framers found truth solely by reason are self-refuting, for, as Aristotle argued, right reason itself requires the reason to be informed. Right reason is informed by all that helps man reach truth, including religion, experience, and tradition. Reason can never be “right reason” if used improperly or informed improperly.
Thompson is most certainly right when he argues that the Framers believed in the existence of universal truths, natural law, natural rights, a fixed human nature, and “universal and eternal standards of moral action and justice.” Thompson is also right that the freedom to choose is good; for, as Aristotle taught, it is choice that ultimately makes a man’s character.
Thompson is wrong, however, in his argument that the “American revolutionaries assumed that the individual is the primary unit of moral and political value,” and “that each man is a morally autonomous and sovereign agent, which means that each man is an end in himself and not the means to someone else’s end.” There is little doubt that the Framing thought placed an emphasis on individual rights, but Thompson’s interpretation is, as are many of his allegations and claims, extreme. The colonists were deeply attached to their families, towns, and colonies (states). These attachments led them to band together to fight the strongest military in the world in a bid to gain home political rule. As Tocqueville chronicled, American men had deep affection for their local townships.
Although most certainly more “freedom-minded” than many who came before, they were not rabid libertarians as Thompson claims. Thompson argues that “The founding generation viewed self-interest as the motive and happiness as the end.” But individual selfishness was not the “motive” for moving men to action during the revolutionary era.
Unlike most of the book, some of Thompson’s arguments on the subject of slavery in Framing-period thought are argued well and have scholarly backing. The author did well proving—by citing actual legal documents—that the country gradually came to the see the Declaration’s philosophy as mandating abolition.
Absurdities and Excesses
Thompson contradicts himself on topic after topic; his writing is hyperbolic and imprecise. Space permits discussion of only some of the misinterpretations of the book. Thompson chooses the Framers’ words selectively to advance his own agenda. If a particular fact or interpretation of the Framers does not fit his agenda, he interprets it as he sees fit or he interprets an isolated thought divorced from larger arguments and considerations.
Several of his arguments are simply preposterous, no matter from what persuasion the reader is coming. When the book attempts to create a so-called “new moral history,” it deludes itself by a confused application of philosophical processes aimed at finding truth. So much anger and dislike emanate from the unscholarly pages, which are filled with hyperbole, revisionism, and sophistry. Many of the citations, arguments, and evidence are disingenuous. Like many of his allies, Thompson attempts to re-create a fairytale American Framing packed in a neat, tellable story, just as Socrates said the ruling guardians must do in the city.
Page after page of Thompson’s work is footnoted with selective claims made by anonymous and pseudonymous individuals in letters to the editor. These citations for letters to the editor pages are, for Thompson, part of his claim that his book contains “new research.” Even when it comes to named persons, Thompson fills his pages with the quotes of obscure individuals from the colonies, while, as mentioned, selectively citing the authoritative Framers and colonists.
Thompson’s arguments are often as elementary and ridiculous as they sound, such as: “The real revolution was to free the minds of men to pursue the truth in the light of day. Men were now no longer ‘afraid to think.’ The [American] Revolution changed everything—it forever changed the way men viewed the world.” Rather than a statement for comic effect, this is Thompson’s actual argument—that American independence instantaneously changed all of human beings’ thought everywhere and forever. Never mind that there are some aboriginal tribes even to this day unaware of the existence of the United States, or the vast majority of the world’s population who know little about this North American political union.
The author’s dogmatic rhetoric is so tremendous at times that it seems rather unreal: “Governments hitherto owed their origin to accident and force, but the Americans could now design and build governments on the basis of rationally discernible and true moral principles.” In short, Thompson claims that all political thought in the history of man was “wrong,” while the American Framers had reached the Hegelian end of history and obtained knowledge of all truth by using “reason.” Indeed, Thompson claims, without showing any sign of embarrassed blushing as he writes, that “The Declaration’s self-evident truths were actually discovered, developed, formulated, and validated throughout a fifteen-year period from 1760 to 1775.”
Thompson’s exhortation that the Declaration’s preamble was a “libertarian creed,” likewise, is inaccurate. The Framing thought did not fit neatly into any ideology. Rather, the thought was a construction based on, and in response to, common experiences, Enlightenment philosophy, especially with regard to natural rights, constitutional republicanism as taught from the past, Christian values, and English traditions.
Although many of Thompson’s contentions and interpretations are astonishing, claims in the book’s ninth chapter compete for the title of most preposterous. Thompson argues that “With the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Anglo-Americans found themselves in a Lockean state of nature without a Lockean solution to escape it and advance to a state of civil society.” There are often fruitful debates on the possibility of proper theorizing from a “state of nature,” but Thompson goes where others do not, arguing that the Americans somehow “re-entered” a “state of nature” upon the Declaration’s signing. Even Locke would find the claim to be absurd. Thompson summarizes some of his claims here: “The American conception of a social contract was developed over the course of fifteen years in response to the imperial crisis and then to the condition in which they found themselves after the publication of the Declaration of Independence.”
Thompson, it would seem, seeks to reframe truths to serve his individualistic purposes. (This is a man who, erroneously, and without citation, claims that the Framers did not believe in men’s “equality of dignity.”)
On a handful of points, Thompson is right, but these points are overshadowed by the rest of the book, which can be characterized as the antithesis of history and serious political theory and philosophy. Contra the title, the book is not a “moral history” and analysis of “American’s Revolutionary Mind,” but rather an unscholarly, near-fanatical polemic.
Gerard T. Mundy is a writer and teaches philosophy at a private college in New York City.
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