Magazine | December 09, 2019, Issue

Taking the Founders’ Moral Ideas Seriously

Detail of a portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Mather Brown, 1786 (National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia Commons))
America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration That Defined It, by C. Bradley Thompson (Encounter Books, 584 pp., $32.99)

America’s Founding Fathers often said that a “frequent recurrence to fundamental principles” is essential for the survival of freedom. They meant that in bustling commercial republics, such as they expected the United States to become, people can be distracted from the basic premises on which freedom depends, or duped by demagogues who, in the words of The Federalist, “possess [the people’s] confidence more than they deserve it.” In America’s Revolutionary Mind — the first half of a planned two-volume study — C. Bradley Thompson lays out those fundamental principles in a comprehensively researched and patiently organized way. The result is a work that will likely become a standard reference for teaching the ideas of the American Revolution.

Although labeled “history” — specifically, what Thompson calls “the new moral history,” which “studies the what, why, and how of moral reasoning” — America’s Revolutionary Mind is not organized in chronological order but in a philosophical order that explains the “self-evident truths” of the Declaration of Independence point by point and demonstrates just how thorough was the colonists’ consensus on those principles. Rather than stopping with familiar quotations from celebrated revolutionaries, Thompson, a political-science professor at Clemson University, musters evidence from scores of writings by lesser-known figures, many never published before, and deftly assembles it all into a logical sequence that begins with fundamentals (one section is entitled “The Meaning of Truth”) and works its way up to such concepts as entrepreneurialism and “the ideal of the self-made man.”

The result is a clear and thorough exposition of the ideology that underlay the American Revolution, with every step assiduously supported by examples drawn both from famous thinkers such as John Locke and Thomas Jefferson and from less renowned ones such as the antislavery writer John Allen, who scolded his fellow Americans in 1774: “Blush ye pretended votaries for freedom! Ye trifling patriots! . . . who are thus making a mockery of your profession, by trampling on the sacred natural rights and privileges of the Africans.”

Thompson’s presentation is valuable because it helps correct modern mischaracterizations of the revolutionaries’ natural-law theories and shows just how rigorous and thorough their thinking was. His exploration of such questions as the relationship between natural rights and natural law, and between Lockean thought and the republican theories that the Founders drew from the ancient Romans, does justice to the ingenuity and depth of Revolutionary-era thinking.

In fact, America’s Revolutionary Mind stands as a refutation of two noxious trends in recent American historiography. The first, which Thompson mentions only briefly in a few endnotes, is the effort to downplay the impact of Locke’s ideas on the Founding Fathers. Scholars of the “classical republican” persuasion have argued that, important as Locke may have been, American revolutionaries were more influenced by Greek, Roman, and Puritan writers who placed less emphasis on the rights of the individual than on the stability of society, the importance of tradition, and the need to sacrifice for the common good. Thompson, by contrast, argues that “America’s revolutionary mind is virtually synonymous with John Locke’s mind” and backs that argument up with an arsenal of examples.

While the Founders certainly consulted the writings of such classical thinkers as Aristotle and Cicero, Thompson argues that they modified the ancients’ republicanism in light of their Lockean commitment to liberty: “For traditional republicans going back to ancient Greece and Rome, the sacrifice of individual interests for the common good was the ultimate standard of moral and political value,” he writes. But thanks to the influence of now-forgotten intellectuals such as Massachusetts minister Jonathan Mayhew, who wove Lockean theory together with Christian doctrine, the Founders adopted “a new and improved understanding of republicanism” that focused on what the Declaration calls “happiness and safety,” the twin pillars of the bourgeois commercial republic.

Thompson spends relatively little time on this important insight — perhaps because he plans to address it in his second volume. He focuses more attention on combating a second, more insidious trend: modern intellectuals’ fundamental scorn for the Revolution’s principles. This often manifests itself in the attitude of some historians that their duty is to peel away the ideals that the Founders expressed to find what they were really after. Howard Zinn (to take an extreme example) wrote that “the language of liberty and equality” was a “device” that the Revolution’s leaders found “wonderfully useful” in fooling ordinary colonials into supporting a war that was actually aimed at increasing the elites’ “own wealth or power.” And the New York Times’ recent “1619 Project” takes it as a given that the Revolution was not really intended to foster universal human rights but was on the contrary aimed at preserving slavery.

These writers often portray themselves as hard-nosed realists who have shuffled off any naïve belief in the Founding Fathers’ sloganeering. But scoffing at the Founders’ words on the assumption that they must actually have been pursuing some other, hidden, materialistic agenda isn’t realism at all. It’s just a variation on a conspiracy-theory mentality, which results in what psychologists call “pareidolia”: the tendency to see what one is predisposed to see rather than what’s there. True, political leaders sometimes insincerely recite idealistic slogans when in fact seeking only personal gain. But any historian who claims that people who said X, acted to promote X, fought the enemies of X, and sacrificed other interests to achieve X didn’t really believe X, but only said so to disguise their interest in Y, probably is not seeking the truth, but instead is hoping to denigrate X in his own time.

As Thompson shows, the Founding Fathers did not, as today’s fashionable intellectuals claim, mean only white men when they wrote that “all men are created equal.” In fact, they recognized slavery’s evil and the inescapable contradiction between it and their principles, and took unprecedented steps to eradicate the institution. They founded the world’s first antislavery societies — the very first, organized in Philadelphia in 1774, boasted Ben Franklin as a member — and between 1776 and 1810 they freed more than 100,000 slaves, which was “the largest emancipation of slaves in world history.” Revealingly, when states passed early emancipation acts, they employed the same phrase — “all men” — that was used in the Declaration, indicating their recognition that the equality principle did, indeed, extend to people of all races. Rhode Island’s law abolishing slavery in 1784, for example, declared, “Whereas all men are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, . . . no person or persons, whether Negroes, Mulattos, or others, . . . shall be deemed or considered as . . . slaves” (emphasis added).

Slaves themselves recognized the incompatibility of slavery with the revolutionary commitment to equality, and some petitioned states to free them for that reason. “Slaves did not suffer from false consciousness,” Thompson concludes, “in thinking that the principles of the Declaration applied just as well to them as to white Americans.” Writers such as the New York Times’ Nikole Hannah-Jones, who claims that “this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy,” are implicitly accusing slaves of just that.

“Modern historians,” Thompson concludes, “never understood the principles, temperament, and character of the American revolutionaries, which means they never understood their deepest motives.” Where historians went wrong is suggested in an epilogue in which Thompson sketches the transformation of thought that began in the 1830s, when pro-slavery intellectuals sought to overthrow the Founders’ classical liberalism and substitute a new ideology that rejected the ideas of natural rights and self-evident truths. These writers “were the first to introduce in America the philosophy of historicism, which advanced the idea that truth (especially moral and political truth) is historically relative to one’s own cultural horizon.” Historicism, of course, survived the demise of slavery; it was dusted off by 20th-century Progressives such as Woodrow Wilson, who employed it when fashioning the administrative state. “To dismantle individualism, limited government, and capitalism, they first had to destroy the underlying epistemological and moral principles of the Declaration,” writes Thompson. But the history of the influence of pro-slavery thought on 20th-century Progressives, which he sketches here, remains to be written in detail.

Although Thompson calls his approach “new moral history,” it’s not new so much as a return to an older style of historiography — one the Founders themselves were familiar with. Edward Gibbon, no less than Tacitus and Thucydides, saw history in terms of the causes and consequences of moral beliefs. (Jefferson called Tacitus his favorite writer because “his book is a compound of history and morality of which we have no other example.”) But historiography today has become so saturated with the historicism and relativism that Thompson describes that the notion of moral ideas’ being true, as opposed to merely influential, is viewed as quaint superstition. The only hope of combating such attitudes — and of vindicating and preserving the principles of the American Revolution — is to be found in careful and faithful scholarship such as this.

This article appears as “America’s Moral Mind” in the December 9, 2019, print edition of National Review.

Timothy SandefurMr. Sandefur is the vice president for litigation at the Goldwater Institute and the author of The Conscience of the Constitution.

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