A longstanding contribution to the present nervous state of the nation is a systematic discontent with its Founding on the part of some of its citizens. The phenomenon saw its birth in the 1960s, that decade of calculated commotion whose activists, energized by the twin obsessions of youth and sex, came eventually to settle upon an ingenious general principle for thought and action: that whatever is established is suspect, simply by reason of the fact that it is established. That left the way wide open for all sorts of disruptive social experimentation. Since that time, the discontent over the country’s Founding—fueled and fomented in good part by academic intellectuals who were undergraduates in the Sixties—has grown steadily and gained in intensity.
The phenomenon could now qualify for the status of a movement, made up of two principal parties, which can accurately enough be labeled respectively as progressive and conservative; both parties criticize the Founding, but from distinctly different points of view; both focus attention on the key documents of the foundation—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—with greater emphasis given to the latter. The progressive point of view is emphatically secular, and for that reason its advocates are disquieted by the importance that the Founders characteristically assign to religion. Their reading of the Constitution comes from a historicist point of view, meaning that they believe the ideas the document contains must be reassessed from a twenty-first-century perspective. This implies not that the Constitution needs to be rewritten, but that the words it contains must be interpreted to resonate with contemporary consciousness. The sensitive interpreter learns not to be slavishly literal in his reading; he has developed the capacity, so to speak, to look above the words just as written, in order to discover any penumbra which might be emanating from them, within which can be found any number of useful revelations. The progressive attitude toward the Founding documents could be generally described as one of creative expectation.
The conservative point of view is dominantly Christian, more specifically Catholic, given those who are today its most prominent and articulate spokesmen. Their attitude toward the Founders is more sharply negative than that of the progressives, as is their attitude toward the Declaration and the Constitution. In both documents they see very little of merit, making them unworthy of our continued respect and loyalty. The most outspoken members of the party are Patrick Deneen, a professor of constitutional studies at the University of Notre Dame, and Michael Hanby, a scholar at the Vatican’s Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. It is specifically to the position advocated by these two scholars that Robert R. Reilly directs the defense of the Founding that he impressively presents in America on Trial. In general, Deneen argues that the Founding is based on a false anthropology, a lie about the nature of man, while Hanby sees it as based on a false metaphysics: the Founders were wrong about the nature of reality. The most trenchant charge both men level against the work of the Founders is that it is the origin and cause of the decadent state of American culture we now bear witness to. Reilly does not deny the current enfeebled condition of American culture. This sorry state of affairs, however, is not caused by the Founding principles, he argues, but rather by factors totally extraneous to them, and which over time have served to undermine their efficacy. The result is that we now find ourselves in a situation where “the Christian and natural law perspective that animated [the] Founders is being lost.”
The approach Reilly takes in defending the Founding is to demonstrate that the principles upon which it was based were the most positive and productive ideas of Western culture. The application that the Founders gave to those principles was unquestionably original, but the principles themselves were not. The Founders took full advantage of the pregnant ideas that had been bequeathed to them by a tradition whose three originating sources were the thoughts of ancient Greece, Judaism, and Christianity. His book, Reilly explains, “is not so much about the Founding itself as the provenance of its ideas,” the ideas that made the United States possible.
The Founders believed that the signal mark of man, his essential nature, is that he is a rational creature, one whose life is rightly ordered when reason governs the passions.
The thinking of the Founders was thoroughly informed by the elemental ideas of Western theology and philosophy. They believed that the signal mark of man, his essential nature, is that he is a rational creature, one whose life is rightly ordered when reason governs the passions. They saw man as living within nature, an objective order of things, structured, on the one hand, by the laws that governed the physical world and, on the other, by the singular law that governed the specific world of man, the natural law, or the universal moral law. Civil law, which constitutes and governs human communities, is supreme in its own sphere, in that all the members of a political community are subject to it, very much including the leaders of the community. For the Founders, it was a truism that the world was created by God. They believed in the primacy of the human person, established by the fact that man was created in the image and likeness of God. Man is an end-oriented or purposeful creature; his proper end is the good, that which, when attained, is perfective of his nature. Man’s freedom to pursue happiness is fittingly exercised when he sees happiness to be, as Aristotle taught, a life lived according to virtue. Any political community is a just society to the extent that it is founded upon virtue, and because virtue comes from religion, which is the giving of due honor and praise to God, no political community can reasonably be alienated from religion. The Founders were not fideists; for them, faith was not a blind act of the will; the will is informed and guided by intellect. Faith and reason are not only compatible, but are reciprocally supportive.
Reilly devotes the bulk of his book to describing how these foundational ideas have developed over the centuries, focusing on those that pertain specifically to the political realm. It was by no means a continuously smooth and steadily ascending trajectory. The principal ideas have come to us relatively unscathed, but some came in limping. The medieval period was exceptional for the clear identification and definition it gave to principles and concepts which were later to become mainstays of democratic governance, such as consent, representation, and the universal rule of law. Alcuin of York, brought to Europe by Charlemagne to found his school, had written as early as the ninth century that every government’s authority “derived solely from the common agreement of the subjects.” This idea was later given solid legal status by the canon law principle that “whatever concerns and affects everyone must be approved by everyone.” The two semi-autonomous powers that defined medieval society, Church and Kingdom, “could only exist peacefully,” Reilly notes, “through shared recognition of the rule of law, its supremacy over each.” Pope Innocent III (1161–1216) in his decrees joined the principle of consent with that of representation. Bishop Peter Damian, later declared a Doctor of the Church, wrote that “All political authority derives from God, but resides essentially in the people.” John of Salisbury, eventually to become the bishop of Chartres, in his book Policratictus (ca. 1159), a work that was widely influential at the time, argued that God’s law is equity, which “is a certain fitness of things, which compares all things rationally, and seeks to apply like rules of right and wrong to like cases, being impartially disposed toward all persons, allotting to each what belongs to him.” Thomas Aquinas’s detailed treatment of the natural law remains definitive to this day. In all, the political thought that was developed in the Middle Ages provided the rudiments for later constitutionalism.
The good work that was done in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was in great part undone in the fourteenth century with the appearance of nominalism and voluntarism, both of which can be attributed principally to William of Ockham. Nominalism is essentially the denial of the fact that things have natures or essences. The nominalist maintains that there is no factor intrinsic to pointers, poodles, and pekinese, for example, that unites them; in other words, there is no common canine nature. He calls them all “dogs” simply for practical sorting-out purposes, to distinguish them from those creatures he calls “cats,” for which there is no feline nature. The same basic line of reasoning can be applied to human beings, resulting in the conclusion that there is no human nature. Voluntarism describes the attitude that assigns primacy to will, not to intellect; accordingly, the actions of the dedicated voluntarist are guided principally by will, not by reason. The adverse affects which this attitude has had, when lived out in a social context, have been varied but uniformly detrimental. It explains the idea of the divine right of kings, as promoted by James I of England, and as defended by Robert Filmer, as well as, arguably, the majority of wars fought over the course of human history. The contemporary French philosopher Pierre Manent opines that all modern political philosophy founds legitimate political order on the will of the individual. Whether reason or will should rule, Reilly pointedly remarks, comes down to “a conflict of might makes right versus right makes might.”
Martin Luther is singled out as having instigated the destruction of Christendom, and with it that which gave coherence and essential unity to Western culture. It remains an open question whether that culture is now moribund. Luther was educated at the University of Erfurt, where he became thoroughly schooled in nominalism, which he expectedly applied principally to the religious realm, leading him to advocate a form of fideism. Luther also qualified as a voluntarist; he regarded William of Ockham as “without a doubt the leader and most ingenious of the Schoolmen.” In the late sixteenth century there was an earnest effort to shore up the faltering medieval consensus by Richard Hooker, an Anglican divine who returned to the thought of Aristotle and Aquinas. The Founders were cognizant of and benefited from his work.
The seventeenth century saw the appearance of two of the major formulators of modern political theory, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. In his Leviathan, a book which drew lively responses from his contemporaries, most of them negative, Hobbes advocated an absolutist state where the power of the ruler was total and the ruled were not so much subjects as simply subjugated. Locke, by way of contrast, has been enshrined, for his political thought, as the principal theoretician and architect of liberal government. That Locke had substantial influence on the Founders is not to be gainsaid; his imprint is on both founding documents, though how deep it is and whether its presence is positive or negative are issues around which contending arguments continue to swirl. In the minds of the Christian critics of the Founding, the influence of Locke was altogether deleterious, and they argue that the seeds of his thought found in the Declaration and Constitution have had the effect of delayed-action time bombs that are now exploding all over the place and account for the current disjointed state of American culture. In response to this and like charges Reilly devotes an entire chapter to Locke, in which he provides a measured analysis of the man’s thought. Locke’s philosophy is not without its serious problems; to cite but a single case in point, his psychology, as spelled out in the Essay Concerning Understanding, is seriously askew, a fact explained, in my opinion, by his shaky metaphysics. Locke has trouble with substance, which for Aristotle was the focal concern of metaphysics. Locke’s works are copious and treat of a wide variety of subjects, and one must be cautious about making comprehensive generalizations of his thought.
Reilly culls a number of quotes from Locke’s writings that do not at all match the sinister portrayal of the philosopher presented by his Christian critics, nor do they square with their unqualifiedly negative estimate of his thought. Doubtless there are other quotations that corroborate the critics’ argument, as Reilly freely admits, but the passages he cites serve to “emphasize that there is ample reason for the Founders to have seen him within the tradition of the other thinkers they embraced, such as Aristotle, Cicero, Hooker, and Sidney.” Is it reasonable to assume that the Founders were naively unaware that Locke’s philosophy was a mixed bag of ideas, and that they were incapable of distinguishing between ideas that they deemed to be appropriate for their project and those which were not? In response to the strained contention that Locke was no more than “a covert clone of Hobbes,” Reilly conclusively shows that to be unfounded. He enumerates ten key issues regarding which the two philosophers were completely at odds. To cite but three:
Locke said that the law of nature was the “eternal, immutable standard of right”; Hobbes held that the rule of the sovereign was the only standard of right. Hobbes said that the sovereign was unaccountable; Locke, that he was accountable to the people. Locke believed that men could be self-governing; Hobbes did not.
If Locke supposedly shared the same basic philosophical mind-set as the author of the Leviathan, it is more than passing strange that in Locke’s ample writing the name of Hobbes is not once to be found.
In reading the Founders one discovers that they habitually use language which reflected a natural law tradition traceable back to Aquinas, Cicero, and Aristotle.
Reilly’s thesis, that the Founders were the inheritors and the continuers of a rich tradition of religious, philosophical, and political thought that has its roots in the origins of Western culture, is supported by the words of the Founders themselves. In reading them one discovers, for example, that they habitually use language which reflected a natural law tradition traceable back to Aquinas, Cicero, and Aristotle. “The evidence is overwhelming that they expressed themselves in terms of this tradition and meant the same thing by it.” Jefferson attested that, in writing the Declaration, “I did not consider it any part of my charge to invent new ideas.” John Dickinson wrote that men are free only when taxes are imposed on them “with their own Consent, given personally, or by their Representative.” James Otis wrote: “There can be no prescription old enough to supersede the law of nature and the grant of God almighty, who has given to all men a natural right to be free.” In another place, offering a perfect match for the thought of Sir William Blackstone, he writes: “Should an act of Parliament be against any of [God’s] natural laws, which are immutably true, their declaration would be contrary to eternal truth, equity, and justice, and consequently void.” James Madison maintained that “The laws of nature are the laws of God, whose authority can be superseded by no power on earth.” James Wilson, whom Reilly identifies as “the greatest exponent of classical natural law teaching in the American Founding,” wrote that “the law of nature and the law of revelation are both divine,” in that they come “from the same adorable source.” The two cannot be separated for they share the same object “to discover the will of God—and both are necessary for the accomplishment of that end.” It is noteworthy that “Wilson’s influence on the writing of the Constitution was second only to Madison’s.” The French philosopher Jacques Maritain called the United States Constitution “a great political Christian document.” This arresting statement would not have surprised John Adams, who once remarked: “The Americans did not invent this foundation of Society. They found it in their religion.”
In his final chapter, Reilly provides a developed response to the negative stance toward the Founding taken by Patrick Deneen and Michael Hanby. Addressing the claim that the “rights” fostered by the Founders were no more than an open-ended endorsement for the kind of radical individualism that accounts for the country’s current moral degeneracy, Reilly points out that those rights were in fact “morally ordered to, and could be exercised only within, the very ‘Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.’ ” The current deplorable state of our culture is to be explained, not by the ideas and principles that informed the thought of the Founders and guided their work, but because those ideas and principles have been effectively abandoned. The remedy for our stressed situation is the revivification of those ideas and principles. As Reilly points out, “Deneen calls for replacing, not improving the American Founding—though he never says what should supplant it, a crippling omission.” In reply to Deneen’s assertion that the Founders’ idea of liberty was that of the Enlightenment, i.e., “the idea that liberty is the absence of obstacles,” Reilly cites the Virginia Bill of Rights, a document reflective of the shared views of the Founders, in which we read that “no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved . . . but by a firm adherence . . . to virtue.”
Michael Hanby maintains that “what the founders may have meant is less significant than what they actually gave us and how that gift was destined to be received by an emerging culture suffused with voluntaristic, nominalistic, and mechanistic assumptions about God and nature.” Are we then to suppose, Reilly asks, that “although the Founders may have believed they were appealing to transcendent truths, like it or not, they were imprisoned in an eighteenth century mind-set that denied those truths?” But this is to impute an advanced degree of dimwittedness to men who all reliable evidence has shown to have been unusually discerning in their judgments. Or, worse, are we to suppose that the Founders “were either stupid (by creating a Hobbesian regime and not noticing) or immoral (by doing it, but also cleverly disguising what they were doing)”? Reilly successfully reveals the flaws in the position taken by Deneen and Hanby, and he has a final admonishing word to say to them: they are committing a suicidal blunder. “Those who do so automatically exclude themselves from the public arena by conceding it to their opponents, thereby accelerating the very decline they decry.”
“If the Founding Was Good, Why Did Things Go Bad?” is the title of the book’s epilogue, in which Reilly offers, as a reasonable answer to the question, the fact that the country was invaded by a critical mass of dedicated historicists in the latter part of the nineteenth century. During that period there was a significant number of German scholars, immersed in historicist thinking, who immigrated to this country and took professorial positions in a number of colleges and universities. “By 1900,” the historian Ronald J. Pestritto explains, “the faculties of American colleges and universities had become populated with European Ph.Ds, and the historical thinking that dominated Europe (especially Germany) in the nineteenth century came to permeate American higher education.” The main tenet of historicism is that truth is fluid; what is considered to be a fixed fact in one era may be dismissed in a later era, justifiably, as a fiction—quaint perhaps, but baseless. The idea of absolute truth is itself a fiction. “Historicism erases the moral authority of Nature.” Indeed, it calls into question the very concept of nature as being without any real referent. The philosopher John Dewey, whose shaping influence on American education in particular and American culture in general cannot be exaggerated, was a devout historicist. He wrote that “living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and practice,” by which he meant that political constitutions must be constantly evolving, having no preconceived finality to guide their perpetual development. Woodrow Wilson was of the same mind, believing that government is vassal to evolutionary movement and “is accountable to Darwin, not Newton. It is modified by its environment, necessitated by its tasks, shaped to its functions by the sheer pressure of life.” Dewey wrote that the Founders “put forward their ideas as immutable truths good at all times and all places; they had no idea of historic relativity, either in general or in its application to themselves.” “What has happened,” he contended, “is that changes in knowledge have outlawed [sic] the signification of the words they commonly used.” President Barack Obama, in The Audacity of Hope, wrote that what is implied in the Constitution, “in the very idea of ordered liberty, was a rejection of absolute truth, the infallibility of an idea or ideology or theology or ‘ism,’ and any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single, unalterable course.” “Everything flows,” the Greek philosopher Heraclitus proclaimed, “and nothing remains the same.”
Robert Reilly has carried the day in America on Trial, providing a compelling case for the thesis that the Founders of the United States were situated within and fully informed by a tradition that has its roots in the accumulated thought of ancient Greece, Judaism, and Christianity, one that embodies everything that is good, beautiful, and true in Western culture. That tradition was operationally present in the work of the Founders; what they wrought reflects the intellectual and moral world they inhabited. A balanced reading of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution requires that we come to recognize the strong bond that exists between those documents and the nature of the thought that inspired them.
1America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, by Robert R. Reilly; Ignatius Press, 366 pages, $27.95.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 2, on page 26
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