How to Think Like the Founders
A Review of "America’s Revolutionary Mind," by Brad Thompson
Faced with the rise of illiberal doctrines on both the left and the right, it is clear that we have dangerously neglected our advocacy and understanding of the basic principles of liberalism. As Ronald Reagan used to say, freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.
The place to start our rebuilding is with the original architects of our liberal system, who embraced it as a political theory and turned it into a working political system. We need to start with America’s Founding Fathers, and with the ideas that animated them.
An indispensable new resource for those who want to reclaim liberalism is America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration That Defined It, by Clemson University historian C. Bradley Thompson. The main virtue of this book is that it takes the ideas of the Founders seriously—more seriously than I think anyone has done to date—and more than that, it conveys to us a sense of how they thought.
America’s Revolutionary Mind is what academics call a “close reading” of the Declaration of Independence, examining its opening philosophical passage word by word. When they said “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” what did they mean by “truth”? What did they mean by “self-evident”? What did they mean by “equal,” by “rights,” by “the pursuit of happiness,” by “the consent of the governed”? Thompson illuminates the answers by delving into the other writings of the Founders, into the debates raging at the time in newspapers and pamphlets, and into the writings of the philosophers and intellectuals who influenced the Founders.
The result is a thorough intellectual history of the Declaration of Independence. Thompson traces all the strains of Enlightenment thought that came together in America in the late 18th Century and how they came to be used by the founding generation to deal with the problems they faced in their struggle with the imperial power of Great Britain.
By the nature of his task, Thompson is looking at the Founders’ most overtly philosophical arguments and inquiries, but in today’s context what stands out is how common these are. Over and above the many useful clarifications on what the Founders thought about rights and equality, what stands out is their distinctive thinking method: a habit of taking every issue down to its deepest roots and foundational principles. When the British Parliament passed a tax on sugar or on tea, they didn’t commission studies on the optimal tax rate for beverages. They wrote essays and letters to the editor starting with the question of why we have a government in the first place.
In 1775, a writer “from the County of Hampshire” explained in the Massachusetts Spy: “Personal liberty, personal security, and private property are the three only motives, the grand objects for which individuals make a partial surrender of that plentitude of power which they possess in a state of nature, and submit to the necessary restrictions, and subordinations of government.”
Across the border in New Hampshire, the pseudonymous “Spartanus” summed up what it is that “men relinquish, and what they obtain,” when they enter a state of civil society and government....
To the south in Rhode Island, an “American Whig” wrote one of the clearest statements of social-contract theory. In a series of five essays written for the Providence Gazette in 1779, this pseudonymous author extended Locke’s theory by claiming that there were actually three distinct steps and covenants in the creation of a body politic.
These writers, not professional intellectuals or political activists but ordinary men writing under pseudonyms, were clearly echoing earlier natural rights theories, particularly those of the English philosopher John Locke. But the point is that these theories were widely read, understood, and used by the founding generation.
It was common for colonial newspapers to quote long passages from the Second Treatise without attribution because everyone knew Locke’s ideas were being quoted. The Englishman’s ideas were the common currency of the age. In 1767, an anonymous writer in Boston claimed that “All Men are by Nature in a state of Equality, in respect of Jurisdiction or Dominion: This I take to be a Principle in itself so evident, that it stands in need of little Proof.” He then goes on to quote extensively from the Second Treatise of Government on equality.
The Founding Fathers were relentlessly ideological, but not in the pejorative sense. That is to say, they were not dogmatically ideological. Rather, they drew on big ideas in a quest for answers to real problems, and they were drawn deeper into this intellectual quest by the requirements of their conflict with Parliament.
Specifically, Thompson shows how the Founders moved from a historical concept of rights, invoking traditional privileges won over centuries as part of the unwritten English constitution, to a philosophical concept of rights, one based not on tradition but on a consideration of the basic nature of man. They moved from talking about “the rights of Englishmen” to talking simply about “the rights of man.”
Transitioning from the traditional rights of Englishmen to the rights of nature came with remarkable ease and speed for the American colonists. Over the course of the next few years, they searched for a more permanent grounding for their rights—rights abstracted from their embodiment in ancient common law. In 1762, the year after the writs of assistance case, the Massachusetts Assembly, quoting directly from Locke’s Second Treatise, sent the following instructions to its London agent, Jasper Mauduit: “The natural rights of the colonists we humbly conceive to be the same with those of all other British subjects, and indeed of all mankind. The...principal purpose of these rights is to be ‘free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but to have only the law of nature for his rule.’” In the context of the time, one could hardly imagine a statement that would have been more alien to British officialdom than this one. The Americans were claiming a principle of moral right higher than the law of the British constitution, but the British constitution—the polestar of all British legal thought and practice—did not recognize the Americans’ moral law and rights of nature idiom. The Americans were expressing their grievances and core moral and political philosophy in a language so distant from the comprehension and experience of Whitehall’s tradition-bound, legalistic ruling elite that the new vocabulary must have seemed either oddly quaint or potentially dangerous to English ears.
Still, it was only as a result of their constitutional and political battle with Great Britain that the Americans came to understand the natural-rights teaching. It was in reaction to the Sugar and Stamp Acts that American revolutionaries discovered, as William Pierce put it in an oration, “how to define the rights of nature,—how to search into, to distinguish, and to comprehend, the principles of physical, moral, religious, and civil liberty.” From the beginning of the imperial crisis, declared Joseph Warren, the “attempt of the British parliament to raise a revenue from America, and our denial of their right to do it, have excited an almost universal enquiry into the rights of mankind in general, and of British subjects in particular.” By contrast, the king’s ministers “were looking into their laws and records, to decide what should be the rights of men in the colonies,” said Samuel Williams, while “nature was establishing a system of perfect freedom in America,” which the king’s men “could neither comprehend or discern.”
This also sheds light on the impact of the American revolution and the Declaration of Independence on the issue of slavery. The Declaration of Independence led to the beginnings of a moral awakening on slavery, including the first bans on slavery (in the newly independent Northern states) and the first abolitionist societies. The roots of these movements are contained in that switch from a historical to a philosophical conception of rights. If you are defending the traditional, customary privileges of a very specific group of people, this does not necessarily apply to other people, particularly those who have been deprived of their freedom by usage and custom. But if all men are created equal, if you are talking about the rights of mankind as such, then it does apply universally.
Thompson also provides an illuminating overview of how pro-slavery ideologues who rose up in the South in the early 19th Century specifically set out to reject this universalist argument and in so doing previewed many of the arguments of modern anti-rights “Progressives.”
One of the consequences of the Founders’ philosophical approach to thinking is that it primed them to see the big picture in small things and to stand up against dangerous precedents early, before they got out of control.
One of the most interesting sections in America’s Revolutionary Mind is about the concepts of the “spirit of liberty” and “obsta principiis.”
To modern historians, the notion of a spirit of liberty might seem like little more than flowery rhetoric. To Eighteenth-Century Americans, however, it meant something specific and essential. The word “spirit” as used in the phrase signifies both an idea and action. As Levi Hart put it, the spirit of liberty means to “assert and maintain the cause of liberty.” The phrase “spirit of liberty” united theory and practice for American revolutionaries; it implied an action in defense of a principle; it was characterized by certain virtues in the defense of liberty. In the words of an anonymous writer published in the Boston Gazette, “We know our rights, liberties, and privileges, and likewise men are determined to sacrifice all things else for their preservation.” The spirit of American liberty is a sentiment, a mindset, a disposition, a virtue. As a sentiment, it loves freedom and hates slavery. As a mindset, it is watchful, suspicious, and skeptical. As a disposition, it is active, jealous, restless, resolute, protective, and, most of all, vigilant. And as a virtue, it is defined by integrity, fortitude, perseverance, courage, and patriotism. The spirit of liberty, then, is a sense of life defined by independence in the fullest sense of the term.
Think of this “spirit of liberty” the next time you see a story about a college student pressured to issue a cringing apology about a trivial or invented offense, because the enforcers of the current orthodox are clearly relying on the absence of such a spirit of personal independence today.
The specific implementation of this spirit of vigilance is obsta principiis, “to resist the beginnings,” the idea that illiberal principles should raise the alarm at their first appearance.
[John] Dickinson attacked the Townshend duties precisely because they were so comparatively small. It would be a “fatal error,” he warned, to disregard and therefore to acquiesce in these new duties because of their trifling amount. In fact, the “smallness” of the duties is a trap. No matter how inconsequential the tax, no matter how reasonably and equitably applied, the colonists should regard the act with “abhorrence.” He suggested that the Townshend duties were intentionally designed to be small so that the Americans would not notice or object and a precedent could therefore be established.
Contrast this today to the very prominent people who try to tell us that the Capitol riot on January 6 is not worth raising the alarm because it didn’t really succeed, despite making a very sincere try, or those who assure us that we are blowing “cancel culture” out of proportion because it only affects a small number of people. It is worth taking small or abortive threats to a free society seriously and to ask where the principle behind them, once established, will lead.
This method of projecting principles out toward their ultimate end result sheds light on our current cultural and political battles in another way. Too many of our political debates start in midstream. Someone proposes a child credit automatically deposited into parents’ bank accounts. The debate is: How big should it be, should it be permanent, what are the other ways of doing the same thing? But the debate is never: What is government actually for? What would this precedent mean if it were extended to other similar policies or worked out to its logical conclusion?
We are constantly engaged in vicious political battles between rival factions whose full, consistent agendas almost nobody actually wants. Yet much of what we end up doing is a compromise somewhere in the middle between two repellent extremes.
We need to relearn the mental habit of starting with foundations and basic principles, and then projecting them out to their ultimate ends.
America’s Revolutionary Mind is itself an example of thinking like the Founders. It is able to convey to us the ideas and mindset that created this country precisely because it starts with basic principles.
In particular, Thompson rejects the all-too-common approach in history of starting in midstream with the pet political obsessions of the moment and then trying to project those back onto the past and see every event through this contemporary lens. For a long time, this was done with class, viewing the Founders and their cause and grievances through a narrow and usually materialistic economic lens. More recently, everything is filtered through our contemporary fascination with racial politics, and every idea of the Founders, no matter how impassioned or sincere, is written off as part of a “racial contract” intended to justify oppression.
Thompson’s book reveals the Founders on their own terms. First and foremost, they were thinkers, and if we don’t confront them that way, we will never understand them—nor will we be in a position to preserve and defend the liberal system they created.
We need to learn to think like the Founders again, and this book is the best place to start.