Is there an enduring American character?
For those who view our nation as at a tipping point, the question is urgent. Others scoff, “Why?” After all, if the American character is truly enduring, it will endure — the ship eventually will right itself to the extent it is off course. And if not, history will inevitably evolve it into something better, right?
My friend Mark Levin would counter that this is the wrong way to look at it. The foundation of Americanism, he posits, is natural law. That does not just spontaneously appear, nor passively persevere. Understanding our natural-law roots, reaffirming our attachment to them in the teeth of the progressive project to supersede them — this is hard work.
Necessary work, though. Discovering natural law is a prerequisite to rediscovering Americanism, an aim that, not coincidentally, is announced in the title of Mark’s ambitious new book, Rediscovering Americanism: And the Tyranny of Progressivism. It is ambitious not merely because it endeavors to outline what it takes to grasp natural law, never an easy proposition and made all the harder by two centuries of contrarian political philosophy — with modern opinion elites poised to drive the last nail in the coffin.
Levin further undertakes to acquaint the lay reader with the political philosophers and theorists in the competing camps, in their own words.
Locke himself would have cautioned that this is an uphill climb. Not one he shied away from, of course. As philosophy students who have plowed their way through his much-debated oeuvre will recall, Locke divided his readers into the “hunters” and those “content to live lazily on scraps of begged opinions.” Levin, with his wide reach as a popular talk-radio host, best-selling author (yet again), and constitutional litigator, is not just looking for hunters. He’s trying to create them.
Or at least enough of them to stem the tide of change — change being the radical antithesis of reformation, the restorative enterprise Levin channels Burke in championing. As Levin reads Locke, “the fact that every person has the ability to reason and discover natural law . . . does not mean that all people will do so.” A critical mass of them must try, though. We are a deeply divided nation, and the prospect of that’s easing any time soon is dim. The solution, as Levin sees it, is for lovers of America not merely to feel patriotic fervor but to become knowledgeable of and conversant with the ideals on which it is founded. That means going to the sources.
It all goes back to natural law because of the Declaration of Independence, which is not the foundation but the reflection of the American character, already formed. So says none other than Jefferson, the Declaration’s principal author. Reflecting on his handiwork nearly a half-century later, Jefferson explained (in a letter to Henry Lee) that the founders were striving “not to find out new principles,” nor to say things never said or thought before, but to set down “an expression of the American mind.”
Levin’s point is that there was — and is — an America that pre-existed and gave essential content to the American nation.
Levin’s point, the same one made in Paul Johnson’s magisterial A History of the American People, is that there was — and is — an America that pre-existed and gave essential content to the American nation. It is an interesting observation given the heavy emphasis on the primacy of the Constitution in much of Levin’s work. But the march is straightforward: The Constitution promotes the principles and safeguards the liberties of the Americanism that the Declaration represents but did not create.
The Declaration is impelled by “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” the force that drove the American people “to assume among the powers of the earth, [their] separate and equal station.” Why the laws of nature? Why not simply nature itself? Because nature has fitted us out with needs and drives that can lead to destructive as well as to beneficial behavior. It is natural law that points us to human flourishing: the application of human reason to the forces of nature.
Yet, not the autopilot kind of reason that Locke described as our “faculty of understanding which forms the trains of thought and deduces proofs.” That is, not the everyday kind, innately exercised by everyone. The lamp of natural law, Locke elaborated, is right reason, “certain definite principles of action from which spring all virtues and whatever is necessary for the proper molding of morals.”
Here, Levin finds the 18th century’s echoes of Cicero: “True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting.” It is reason that learning has cultivated for the pursuit of happiness. It is not a sensor distinguishing pleasure from pain. It is reason that assimilates what is in the highest interests of beings of our immutable nature. Right reason is what Aristotle saw as “this divine element of human nature,” thanks to which there is a “natural justice and injustice common to all, even to those who have no association or covenant with each other.”
Natural law thus leads to the discovery of what the founders memorialized as our “unalienable rights.” It also requires the restraint of the state so that these rights to live freely and happily may be pursued by every person.
This calls for a civil society that respects the rights and equal dignity of all, within the framework of traditions and customs derived from our nation’s accumulated experience. Natural law is the basis for our conceit that no one may rule over another without his consent. It forms what Lincoln called “the great principles on which the temple of liberty was built” — the principles of the Declaration that inexorably demanded the end of slavery.
In the absence of natural law, we would be left to the tyranny of will — arbitrary morality and rights, dictated by those who had muscled their way to dominance. For Levin, rationalizing such a muscular state is the 20th-century progressive project spearheaded by Herbert Croly, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, John Dewey, and their progeny. They built on the utopian foundation of the “philosopher-kings”: Rousseau’s radical egalitarianism, Hegel’s historicism, Marx’s economic determinism and class struggle, and so on.
After a century’s ascendancy, this project has transformed the governing system, the federalist balance of power, and our core assumptions about government: its role, form, competence, and relationship to the citizen. The rights of self-determination, self-governance, and private property — the blessings of liberty that are the heritage of natural law — are in peril, if not of extinction, at least of irreversible atrophy.
Mark Levin has not been content to inveigh against statism. In the last few years, he has offered concrete plans to roll it back, including a campaign for a convention of the states under Article V of the Constitution, aimed at stripping down Washington from without, since it will never reform itself from within. He is clearly frustrated by the lack of progress against “progress.” But he has rightly come to the conclusion that the cause is lost absent the renewal of first principles. As Rediscovering Americanism illustrates, the need is acute and the hour is late.