The Classical and Christian Origins of American Politics: Political Theology, Natural Law, and the American Founding
By Kody W. Cooper and Justin Buckley Dyer.
Cambridge University Press, 2022.
Paperback, 225 pages, $34.99.

Reviewed by Bradley C. S. Watson.

The Declaration of Independence famously asserts that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights; further, that their separate and equal station stems not from human agreement, but from the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God. And finally, it appeals to the Supreme Judge of the world. Yet those words flowed largely from the pen of Thomas Jefferson, who was among the least religiously orthodox and most intellectually radical of the major figures of America’s founding generation. So how are we to understand the extent to which America is rooted in classical and Christian natural law thinking—as opposed to more uniquely modern philosophic innovations?

Kody W. Cooper and Justin Buckley Dyer answer this question in their carefully researched and convincingly argued book. As the authors note, America’s founders were caught chronologically between the materialist individualism of Hobbes and the nihilistic atheism of Nietzsche. But their thought does not derive from the former, nor tend toward the latter. Approaching from a variety of angles, the authors forcefully argue that “the background assumptions of American public life during the American founding were derived from and compatible with the Christian natural-law tradition that developed from the long engagement of Christianity with classical political philosophy.” The founders, in their affirmation of the rule of law and the principle of consent, resoundingly rejected modernity’s embrace of unlimited and largely arbitrary state power. Such a rejection depends ultimately on man being made in the image and likeness of the Christian creator God, each individual being politically and morally equal and of infinite worth. This understanding was in turn reinforced by colonial and founding-era cultural sensibilities and educational institutions, which rejected the sovereignty of the self and systematically privileged liberty over license. With William Blackstone, the founding generation understood the law of nature to be “coeval with mankind and dictated by god himself…superior in obligation to any other.”

The authors are therefore at odds with a variety of scholars who have argued that the founders sought to subvert biblical theology with a modern natural rights philosophy that affected a secular revolution radically incompatible with the God of Abraham. Among the most en vogue versions of this argument is presented by political theorist Patrick Deneen, who argues there is a straight line from America’s purported Lockean (and ultimately Hobbesian) founding to virtually all of our present discontents—and that because of the original sin of the founding, regime change is called for. Instead, the founders understood popular sovereignty always and everywhere to be under a higher law that can be rationally apprehended. 

In support of their thesis, Cooper and Dyer bring to the surface evidence that “has been hiding in plain sight.” They fruitfully engage both primary sources and contemporary scholarship, albeit they do so in a piecemeal fashion—which is probably inevitable insofar as the book is based on previously published materials. Readers will occasionally find themselves wishing for greater streamlining of the argument, along with a more concentrated effort to eliminate repetition and collect the main points. Nevertheless, these are minor criticisms of an important and path-breaking work.   

The authors begin with the pamphlet debates of the 1760s and 1770s, which culminated in the Declaration of Independence. In response to various unjust parliamentary measures, including the Stamp Act of 1765, the Americans argued that parliament was acting both unconstitutionally and contrary to the principles of natural justice. And eventually they argued that parliament had no jurisdiction at all over the colonies. The pamphlets betrayed a distinct theistic, natural-law orientation. “The shared background assumptions of those pamphlets include the existence of a providential God whose governance of the world was an essential premise in their natural-law theories.” 

For example, the influential pamphleteer James Otis argued that government has “an everlasting foundation in the unchangeable will of God, the author of nature, whose laws never vary.” Furthermore, he offered an anthropology of man as political animal with a distinct teleology—a view almost universally shared by the colonists. To the extent the colonists relied on modern state of nature theory, it was a heuristic to clarify the unchanging nature of created man; it was far from being incompatible with classic natural law philosophy. “The state of nature was a device for asserting man’s fundamental political equality. It was not a claim about prehistory or about the right [being] prior to duty and good or about the a-sociality of man.” And Otis, like other pamphleteers, nowhere celebrates acquisitiveness or autonomous individualism in his defense of property rights, wherein he links property to the common good and the pursuit of happiness. As rational politically equal beings, we can know that rights entail reciprocal duties. Modern scholarship that reduces the founding to deracinated Lockeanism fails to take full account of its Aristotelian and Christian framework.

The authors next turn their attention to Jefferson’s theological heterodoxy in order to show the continuities between even his natural rights republicanism and classical natural law theory. Despite Jefferson’s innovative views, and his attempt to rid religion of what he regarded as its superstitions, he proclaimed that God “called [man] into being,” and referenced “supernatural interference” in overturning the injustice of slavery. But was he being esoteric in such formulations? Cooper and Dyer suggest the answer is a resounding no. “The burden of proof is on the interpreter who would reduce Jefferson’s providential-moralistic theism to intentional deception…there is strong evidence that Jefferson shared in the general consensus of the colonists, that Nature’s God symbolically expressed providential, moralistic theism as the essential foundation of natural rights precisely in virtue of God’s creation of nature.” Far from being a philosophical pantheist, Jefferson repeatedly avers to an omnipotent prima causa.

The authors next concentrate on the Christian framing of Americans’ theoretical understanding of revolution—as well as the importance of divine providence to the self-understanding of participants in the Revolution. The Americans did not rest their case for revolution on abstract rights alone. They equally recognized the importance of appeals to custom and constitutionality, “because community and authority are necessary features of embodied human existence: place, context, history, and custom matter.” And in this they had an important ally across the Atlantic in the form of Edmund Burke, who argued that the Americans were not devotees of unbounded liberty, but of liberty linked to concrete objects, which included the right of self-government, given life in their legislative assemblies. Reason and revelation, always conjoined, provided the intellectual and moral ground for resistance. Rights granted by God to man could not legitimately be deprived, but revolution was called for only when “a long train of abuses and usurpations” could be shown, and it could succeed only with the “protection of divine Providence.” 

Christian providentialism would provide the theological backdrop to the Revolutionary War itself. The First Continental Congress opened with a prayer: despite “the religious diversity among the attendees, there appeared to be consensus as to the attributes ascribed to God in Psalm 35, including the quality of being a providential and just judge. Shortly after the first shots of the Revolutionary War rang out from Lexington and Concord, the Second Continental Congress called for public fasting and prayer in penance and supplication to God for forgiveness and aid.” Throughout the War, major figures from John Jay to Benjamin Franklin to George Washington understood the American cause in providential terms. The Continental Congress even “identified the unitive effects of British cruelty as a blessing of Providence,” showing that God would bring good from evil. The political utility of providential belief did not undermine the patriots’ commitment to its superintending truth.

As the authors turn to post-revolutionary times, they concentrate their attention on the American understanding of constitutional government, including the divine and natural limits to the sovereignty of the people. The founders understood this sovereignty in secondary terms—they had no Rousseauan notion of an unfettered general will. The Constitution delegates limited powers, and no power whatsoever to pursue objects contrary to natural law. Likewise, the states, wherein most police powers were to remain, showed a similar constitutional framework of secondary sovereignty. The people’s representatives were empowered to translate the precepts of natural law into human law, but never to transgress them.

The authors also devote a chapter to the manner in which James Wilson’s celebrated “Lectures on Law” were indebted to the Christian natural law tradition. Delivered in the early 1790s at what is now the University of Pennsylvania, Wilson’s lectures did not reflect modern scholarly conventions that insist on the distance between “enlightenment and religion, reason and revelation, or Nature’s God and the God of Abraham. In Wilson’s Lectures, these are not ‘either/or’ categories but are rather presented together in a synthesis.” Quoting Wilson: the “law of nature and the law of revelation are both divine: they flow, though in different channels, from the same adorable source. It is indeed preposterous to separate them.” These early and prominent lectures directly challenge the tendentious contemporary thesis that “the American founding entailed the grafting onto Western political thought of an anticlassical and anti-Christian anthropology.” 

This leads the authors to their final chapter, which shows the relevance of their arguments for contemporary controversies, including such matters as Christian nationalism, integralism, and identity politics—each of which they see as departing from the Christian natural law tradition on which America is based. Engaging the work of scholars such as Joshua Mitchell, the authors note the extent to which modern liberalism “trades in essential Christian concepts such as sin, death, guilt, and innocence,” dividing the world into oppressors and oppressed. “In this immanentist inversion of the biblical narrative, there is no original sin, but there are original sinners; there is no redemption, but there is a constant need for repentance and reparation. Christian concepts and categories have been transformed and brought into everyday politics.” Such a secularized political theology leads some on the right to a revulsion against the institutions and ethos of American liberalism, which they mistake for America itself, and provides the emotional fuel for their attempt to reclaim lost political and theological ground by reintegrating church and state along the lines of a premodern ecclesiastical polity. But in doing so, they “overstate Hobbes’ influence on Locke and Locke’s influence on the founding while neglecting the providential constitution.” In refusing to acknowledge the classical and Christian elements of the founders’ synthesis, they would throw out the Christian baby with the progressive bathwater—all in pursuit of an implausible and nakedly authoritarian alternative. “Although the founders did not embrace liberal neutrality about the good life, they did deny to the civil authority—both federal and state—competence to coerce citizens to accept the state’s judgment as to the content and meaning of the doctrines of divine revelation.” Broad toleration of publicly reasonable religious practices, and the prohibition on national establishment, were among the founders’ means to the Christian ends of a large republic, wherein civic friendship is essential.

Against the most pernicious trends of both progressivism and what nowadays passes for conservatism, Cooper and Dyer offer us a bold intellectual roadmap to reclaiming civic friendship and a functioning republican Constitution.

Bradley C. S. Watson teaches at the Van Andel Graduate School of Government at Hillsdale College in Washington, DC. Among his books are Progressivism: The Strange History of a Radical Idea (University of Notre Dame, 2020) and Living Constitution, Dying Faith: Progressivism and the New Science of Jurisprudence (ISI Books, 2009).

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