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C. Bradley Thompson on America’s Revolutionary Mind

Close Encounters: Episode VII
October 16, 2020

C.Bradley Thompson joined Ben Weingarten to discuss the moral revolution of the American founding, the meaning of the Declaration of Independence, and a great deal more. You can watch at the link below or read a full transcript of the interview, which has been slightly modified for clarity.

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Ben Weingarten: Welcome to Close Encounters, a joint production of Encounter Books and The New Criterion. I’m your host, Ben Weingarten. And today, I’m joined by C. Bradley Thompson, author of the new Encounter book, America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration that Defined It. Mr. Thompson is the BB&T Research Professor in the Department of Political Science at Clemson University, and the Executive Director of the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism. Brad, thanks so much for joining us.

C. Bradley Thompson: Good morning, Ben, it’s great to be with you.

BW: So let’s start at the most fundamental question relating to your book, which is, what is the significance of the Constitution absent the Declaration, or what would the Constitution mean without the Declaration?

CBT: Well, I think the Declaration is the moral heart and soul of the Constitution. The Constitution would just be a political constitutional framework of institutions, but without that moral core, the golden apple, as Abraham Lincoln once referred to the Declaration, framed within the picture of silver which is the Constitution, it would be a… not a hollow document, but it would be a document, a political document, not much different from political constitutions of other countries. It’s the Declaration of Independence and its moral principles that I think give real meaning and direction to the Constitution.

BW: Yeah. I’ve always thought of it, and Lincoln puts it better than anyone else could, but it’s sort of the spirit to the letter of the Constitution and probably worth re-reading every single year, certainly on July fourth, because it is really what the country is about.

CBT: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely true. The single most important words in the American lexicon are, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” That is the foundation on which this country was founded.

BW: The crux of your book, I think, is encapsulated well in this assertion. You write, “For John Adams, something important and transformative happened in the inner lives of people’s minds, beliefs and sensibilities in the years just before and just after the passage of the Stamp Act.” Adams’ comments raise obvious questions. How and why was the American mind revolutionized in the years before 1776? And more particularly, what new moral ideas define America’s emerging revolutionary consciousness? What were the moral causes of the American Revolution and why are they relevant today?

CBT: So John Adams, in a famous letter that he wrote in 1815 to Thomas Jefferson, referred to the American Revolution as a revolution that had taken place in the minds of the American people. And this, he said, took place in the 15 years before a shot was fired at Lexington. So that dates, really, the true American Revolution at 1760, the beginning, to 1775. And I think what he was referring to was a revolution in th Americans’ conception, particularly of the idea of rights. So you have to remember, in 1765, the American colonists were loyal subjects of the British crown, and they were genuinely Englishmen. And so they initially resisted the Stamp Act on the grounds that it violated their rights as Englishmen, but they quickly came to see that the notion of the rights of Englishmen, which are the rights of a particular people in a particular place at a particular time, was an insufficient foundation on which to resist the depredations of the British Parliament.

CBT: So they began a search, a search for a kind of granite-like, rock solid moral foundation that unlike the rights of Englishmen, which are historic in nature, the rights of Englishmen were rights that had developed over the course of approximately 800 years through the British common law. The Americans then decided that they needed to find an understanding of rights on which to resist British laws that was grounded in nature. Nature, because it is absolute, permanent and universal. So I think that was the great turning point in the minds of the American people, was when they transitioned from defending their rights and liberties as grounded in history, to defending those rights as grounded in the moral laws and rights of nature.

BW: And related to that point, you also write that the core ideas that grew out of the enlightenment, launched by Bacon, Newton and Locke, can be summed up in three words: Nature, reason and rights. These three concepts provide a systemic philosophic framework, i.e., in metaphysics and epistemology, and in ethics, by which to examine the Enlightenment and its relationship to the formation of the American Revolutionary mind. These organizing concepts also map directly onto the structure of the Declaration. So map them onto the Declaration for us, if you would. Nature, reason and rights.

CBT: Sure. I think you see the concepts, very sophisticated philosophic concepts of nature and reason, in the first sentence of the Declaration. The first sentence, of course, says, “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them to another,” and it refers to the laws of nature and of nature’s God. So right there in the first sentence, Jefferson and the signers of the Declaration are grounding their principles in what they called the laws of nature and of nature’s God. And so what I do in the book is I devote an entire chapter to the concept of the laws of nature and of nature’s God.

And I do a kind of deep dive into 17th century moral philosophy that developed in the writings of Bacon, Newton and Locke. And I try to examine how the Americans took Newton’s ideas of the scientific laws of nature, and then applied them to moral issues, so that you get moral laws and rights of nature. And then the Declaration also says that they are appealing to the decent opinions of mankind, in that first sentence. So in other words, what the Declaration is saying is that through reason, they are appealing to the reason of mankind who they believe can understand the principles that are being enunciated in the Declaration of Independence— the moral principles that are being laid out, but also the charges against George III. So the Declaration enunciates 27 charges against George III, and what the Declaration is therefore saying is that the reason of mankind is capable of understanding the arguments that the Americans are using against George III, and they can also use their minds to understand these moral laws and rights of nature.

BW: It occurs to me, and you’re talking about using reason to get to these moral laws, that those who today would be described as morally relativistic will say that they believe in science, they believe in nature, they believe in reason. How do we reconcile that the Founders on the one hand, many of whom were religious, but not all of them were religious, came to these moral conclusions and propositions based upon their reason, and today those who claim to adhere to reason, believe in reason, above all else, come to a completely different conclusion.

CBT: Sure. The people today who claim to believe in reason and science are the very same people who argue that we live in a post-truth society. They believe that truth is not possible, which means that reason is incompetent to discovering and knowing what truth is. America’s revolutionary founders had a very different conception of what truth is. They believed in the concept of truth, that a truth that is absolute, permanent and timeless. Now the question is, how do you apply the concept of truth to moral action? And in the 1740s and in the 1750s, there was a kind of an American enlightenment, the ideas of 17th century English enlightenment, the ideas of Bacon in the Novum Organum, Newton in the Principia Mathematica, and then John Locke in his essay concerning human understanding and his Second Treatise of Government, those ideas, those books came to America and they were being adopted at America’s best universities.

CBT: So I’ll give you a concrete example. So when John Adams was a student at Harvard, that’s where he first read both Bacon and Newton, and you can see a very young John Adams just after he graduated from Harvard taking the methodology that he learned or the modes of reasoning that he learned from Bacon and Newton in discovering the scientific laws of nature and attempting to discover moral laws of nature. And so Adams, when he was 21 years old, as a school teacher at a small schoolhouse, a one room schoolhouse in Worcester, Massachusetts, used the occasion to study the young boys in his room, as a way to study human nature.

And Adams said that there are basically three ways in which we can study human nature. The first is through extrospection; you look out onto the world and you observe how individuals behave and the motives and the causes of their behavior, particularly in the passions. The second method is to introspect; you look in on yourself and you examine your own ideas, your own passions, your own motivations. And then finally you turn to history and you examine how great individuals and peoples, over time, how they have acted and how they acted in certain situations. And from those three methods of analyzing human nature, you can then induce certain moral laws and rights of nature.

BW: Word only that at our greatest schools we still read Enlightenment thinkers. One of the critical points in your book that I think is not emphasized enough is the idea of this profound concept that Locke put forth of self-ownership and the essentiality to the Western world. I wonder if you’d expound upon that.

CBT: Yeah, so this occurs in chapter five of Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, in the chapter on property, and Locke’s view of private property begins with the individual. John Locke, I think is the great philosopher of the individual, it’s Locke who really, in a sense, discovers the individual. Most thinkers and certainly theologians had viewed men as connected to society as a part of a kind of social organism. Locke by contrast, discovers the individual, the individual as self-owning, self-governing and as morally sovereign. I think this is Locke’s great contribution to Western moral and political philosophy and this is a position that is clearly adopted by American Revolutionaries, so their idea of individual rights, of natural rights is grounded on the notion that individuals are by definition, by nature, self-owning and self-governing, and in the same way that no man is the master of another, no man is the slave of another. All men are by nature equal in their self-governance.

BW: Given the understanding of rights of Locke and the Founders who read him and incorporated his thinking and philosophy into their work, how do we reconcile or how would the Founders reconcile the concept of today goods and services being called rights?

CBT: It would have been utterly inconceivable to them. They had no conception that rights could be interpreted to mean that you have a right to things, rights that are to be given to you by other people. Right? There is no… From their Founding Fathers’ perspective, there is no right to violate the rights of other people, and that’s of course what the post-New Deal understanding of rights says, which says that if you have a right to things, that of course means by implication that somebody has a moral duty to provide it for you, and America’s Founding Fathers could not have recognized and certainly would have rejected that view of individual rights.

BW: In your research for this book, who did you find to be sort of the most underrated but influential Founder or thinker during the Revolutionary era in terms of their impact on America’s revolutionary mind?

CBT: There were many. I’ve spent my career trying to resurrect, for instance, John Adams. My first book was on John Adams, John Adams’ political thought. And in the context of the 20th-century historiography on the American founding, John Adams was always the forgotten Founding Father, so Adams plays a very big role in this book. And his cousin, Sam Adams, I think is a neglected thinker. He was, of course, best known for being an activist, a political activist, but I think Sam Adams was in his own right a serious and deep thinker. Now, the book, though, in addition to examining the writings, the pamphlets of America’s best known revolutionary thinkers, James Otis, Daniel Delany, Richard Bland, John Dickinson, James Wilson, John Adams, James Madison, etcetera, etcetera, the book also examines scores of what we might call second and third-tier American thinkers, pamphleteers writing in small towns and villages all over the 13 colonies.

And I would identify one group in particular who I think are very interesting, and that is a group that I call the Berkshire Constitutionalists, which was a group of uneducated hard-scrabble farmers living in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, out in the far western part of the state.

BW: Tough lifestyle.

CBT: Who had a very tough life and… But what’s interesting is that these uneducated farmers were very familiar, intimately familiar with the writings of John Locke, so all of their petitions and remonstrances are just a precis of Locke’s ideas.

BW: Speak a bit to the genesis of the notion of equality that came to characterize the American mind and then was enshrined in the Declaration by the statement, “All men are created equal.”

CBT: Initially, the idea of equality comes up in the American Revolution with the passage of the Stamp Act. And of course, the Americans’ great rallying cry was, “No taxation without representation.” And the argument was that they were equal to their fellow Englishmen in that they should not be taxed without representation, which of course is precisely what the Stamp Act was. So in other words, their initial understanding of equality was grounded in the traditional historic rights of Englishmen. Over the course of the next 10 years, as the imperial crisis deepened, after the Townshend Tea, Coercive and Prohibitory Acts were passed, the Americans really started to think more deeply about the nature and meaning of the concept equality. And I think what they really ultimately came to was the idea that all men are by nature equal, so it’s a deeper, they had a deeper philosophic view.

Now, and we all know this through our vicarious experience of the world. You look out into the world, you look into any group of people, and what do you first see? Well, what you first see is not equality, but rather inequality. And Thomas Jefferson and John Adams spoke about the natural aristocracy, the natural aristocracy of talent and ability, and of course, we see this, right? Every time I go into and teach a class, I see tall, short, presumably fast, slow, strong, weak, and then I grade their papers and I have another marker for distinction. So the question then is, in what way are all men created equal? And, so the Founding Fathers, I think Jefferson in particular, understood that what we might call quantitative equality does not exist, because there are these measurable differences in human beings. What they meant by equality was what Locke in the Second Treatise calls species equality. That is, human beings share certain qualities and characteristics, the primary qualities of which were reason and free will, and this is what distinguishes human beings from dogs and horses. So men are equal in that they share the same faculties, but these faculties are precisely the faculties that make each and every individual self-owning and self-governing. So ultimately what they meant by equality is that all individuals have equal freedom and equal rights.

BW: I suspect you’re familiar with The 1619 Project that the New York Times has put forth, and when we talk about equality, the Founders and the Declaration, naturally, the question is, how do we reconcile the Founders’ views on equality with slavery? And so you write and I will quote, a bit at length here, “We cannot leave the subject of equality, however, without recognizing and examining the obvious contradiction between the Revolutionaries’ avowed principle of equality and the brutal reality of slavery in the United States. In fact, it is only in the light of slavery that the Americans’ understanding of equality can be fully understood.” And then later you go on to say, “The great story of the American Revolution is not that the founding generation failed to end slavery, but rather that it set in motion forces that would lead it to the eventual abolition of America’s peculiar institution.” I find your book to be a corrective to The 1619 Project, and I wonder if you would elaborate on those couple of passages that I read.

CBT: Sure. Well, let me just begin by saying that I think it’s now clear that serious scholars of American history and the American Revolution in particular regard The 1619 Project of the New York Times to be a complete intellectual abomination. It is fake news doing fake history, and it really is. I mean, they clearly have no understanding of how Americans thought and dealt with the issue of slavery. So I think the first thing that has to be done is that we have to understand that in 1776, which is the true American founding, not 1619, and let me also just say that, by the way, the attempt to establish 1619 and the arrival of slavery in America as America’s founding moment is an exercise in nihilism.

What it really says is that America was founded in sin and is therefore immoral and of course they want to teach this to every American schoolchild, the purpose of which is to teach American children to hate their country, and a country that hates itself cannot stand. Now, with regard to America’s revolutionary founders, the first thing to say is that there was a very broad spectrum of views held by American Revolutionaries on the question of slavery, so at one end you have people like John Adams, Sam Adams, Alexander Hamilton who were absolutely opposed to slavery in principle, in theory and of course never held slaves. And then moving more to the center you have people like Benjamin Franklin and John Jay who at one time earlier in their lives had held one or two what were called house slaves at the time, but they freed them, and then in the 1770s and 1780s then became leading anti-slavery men, founded anti-slavery societies.

And then moving a little further along the spectrum then you get Founding Fathers like, for instance, George Washington who, like Adams and Franklin, regarded slavery to be an abomination, lamented the fact that he owned slaves, and then freed slaves upon his death. And then finally the most important, the most interesting group to think about is someone like obviously Thomas Jefferson or Patrick Henry, both of whom, for instance, understood that slavery was morally wrong, there’s no question in the writings of Henry and Jefferson, they knew that slavery was morally wrong. Why? Because it violated the rights of slaves, and they believed that the doctrine of rights was the primary moral doctrine of the American Revolution.

So why didn’t they free their slaves? Now, this is a more complicated question and say in the case of Jefferson, I think the greatest challenge for Jefferson, and Jefferson was also, by the way, he was an anti-slavery man, he writes about his anti-slavery sentiments in his Summary View of the Rights of North America, he writes about it in a passage in the Declaration of Independence which was then later taken out, and he also drafted the language which served as the basis of the Northwest Ordinance which forbade the extension of slavery into the Ohio territory. So Jefferson was morally opposed to slavery but of course we know he didn’t free his slaves and he was a lifelong slave holder, so how do we square that circle?

I think the best that can be said of Jefferson in this instance is that he was tormented by what we might call the post-emancipation problem, that is, okay, it’s easy to say that you’re opposed to slavery, but if you live in a society and in a culture where there are tens if not hundreds of thousands of slaves around you, how do you free your slaves, and then what is to be done with the slaves. And Jefferson’s greatest concern, which I think was a legitimate concern, was the possibility of race war. If you immediately free your slaves then, as Jefferson said in the letter in 1820 referencing the Missouri crisis, he said, “We hold the wolf by the ears and we don’t know whether to hold on or let go,” and that sums up the dilemma of Jefferson and many of his generation.

Now, the last thing I will say on this issue is that the single most important event for the abolition of slavery in the United States was the writing and publication of the Declaration of Independence which says all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That is, that moment is a moral revolution. Now, moral revolutions, however, don’t happen overnight. In this case, tragically, of course, it took decades for those ideas to percolate down and through American culture and eventually leading to the freedom, the abolition of America’s slaves. It’s a very complicated issue, but the one thing I know with certainty is that the New York Times in The 1619 project got it entirely wrong.

BW: I want to jump to something that maybe is not dealt with directly in your book but I think it certainly begs the question, and that is regarding a natural rights understanding of the Constitution and of law more generally. And obviously there are very few federal judges who espouse these sorts of views, Clarence Thomas being the most prominent of them, and he gets attacked for natural rights jurisprudence. Make your best defense of Thomas’s and those who espouse similar views, their conception of our law as being based in natural rights.

CBT: Well, I don’t think there was any American Revolutionary during the entire founding period who did not think that the concept of the rights of nature was at the heart of American constitutionalism, it would be utterly absurd to think otherwise and, of course, almost every single state constitution that was drafted between 1776 and 1780 began with a declaration of rights or ended with a declaration of rights and a declaration that mirrored the rights established in the Declaration of Independence. So I think Justice Thomas has it exactly right, he understands America’s founding principles and the intention of America’s Founders better than his colleagues on the Court, and I think better than his colleagues on the Court for the last century.

Because, as you indicated earlier, most 20th century jurists believe in the idea of positive rights, that you have rights to things. And of course, that is a complete and entire corruption of the Founders’ understanding of rights. So bottom line is, I think Justice Thomas is the greatest 20th and now 21st century defender on the Supreme Court of the Founders’ original understanding of the rights, the natural rights, of individuals.

BW: Before the camera started rolling, you were describing a horrific experience that you had in Chile just a month ago, and it struck me that that experience has some bearing, or the context of your scholarship has some bearing on that experience. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about that story and how you think it might relate in some way to your work.

CBT: Sure. Very quickly, I was in an Uber going to the Santiago Airport to come home, and I got caught at ground zero of an anarcho-communist riot. My Uber driver and the car was attacked by five masked thugs who were punching and shaking the car, threatening us with sticks and fire extinguishers. It was a frightening moment, and then we got caught between these rock-throwing anarcho-communists and riot police shooting cannons of tear gas. It was generally a frightening moment, but what I really took away from that experience is the fragility of freedom. Chile has been one of the, if not the greatest country in Latin America to have instituted free market reforms, and as a result of those reforms, the Chilean economy has taken off like a rocket, and it’s done exceptionally well. And I’ve been to Chile now 11 times, it’s a beautiful country, it still has problems, to be sure, but it’s doing very well economically. But at that very moment, I saw not just the fragility of freedom, but I saw that the difference between civilization and barbarism is very thin.

Right, so in this highly advanced country, in that one moment when I had an anarcho-communist wearing a mask with his face six inches from mine, screaming at me and looking me straight in the eye, what I saw was not civilization, but rather barbarism. And in that moment, I realized that civilization can be much closer to barbarism than we think.

BW: We’ve been speaking with Brad Thompson, author of the great new book America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration that Defined It. Brad, thanks so much for joining us.

CBT: Ben, thank you so much.

In this Article

America’s Revolutionary Mind A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration That Defined It

America’s Revolutionary Mind is the first major reinterpretation of the American Revolution since the publication of Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution and Gordon S. Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic.

The purpose of this book is twofold: to elucidate the logic, principles, and significance of the Declaration of Independence as the embodiment of the American mind; and to shed light on what John Adams once called the “real American Revolution”—that is, the moral revolution that occurred in the minds of the people in the fifteen years before 1776.

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