C. Bradley Thompson on America’s Revolutionary Mind
Exploring a Moral History of the United States
“We now live in a world wrought by the unidentified, unacknowledged union of proslavery and progressive thought.”
These words come from the epilogue of C. Bradley Thompson’s monumental new book, America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration That Defined It.
To understand this important sentence, we must contrast this unholy union with the philosophical and moral idea both schools of thought sought to uproot. That opposing idea is best summed up by the immortal words of the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
What did the founders really mean when they penned the Declaration of Independence with words like “rights,” “liberty,” “equality,” and “the pursuit of happiness”?
While we don’t have direct access into the minds of the founders, Thompson’s book takes us as close as we can get. Using extensive quotations from letters, speeches, and essays from the founding period, he makes clear that the historical changes wrought by the American Revolution began in the hearts and minds of a small number of truly revolutionary statesmen.
Thompson, a political science professor and the Executive Director of Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism (CISC), is known for his studies of John Adams — the “colossus of liberty” who stood out even among his exceptional peers as the model revolutionary. What made these revolutionaries unique, Thompson writes, was their emphasis on moral philosophy in deducing sound principles for government.
As products and proponents of enlightenment era thought, the founders grounded their actions in the intellectual revolution brought about by figures like Francis Bacon, John Locke, and Isaac Newton. Armed with a new understanding of the physical and moral universe, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and others were able to conceive of a new ideal of liberty. It was this spiritual victory that made the military victory against the British government possible (perhaps even inevitable).
Thompson goes on to ask, “What ever happened to the spirit of liberty in the United States?” Although the first century after the American founding continued the realization of this ideal — chiefly with the abolition of slavery — Thompson identifies a turning point in the early 20th century. The underlying philosophy of the defeated southern states did not disappear after the Civil War. Instead, it adopted fashionable historicist ideas coming out of Europe to cloak its opposition to the Declaration in so-called “progressive” thought.
The Revolutionary Wary was won more than 200 hundred years ago, but the battle continues to this day in new forms, as progressives seek to redefine liberty and equality, and downplay the unique genius of the framers of the Declaration of Independence.
Hear in the founders’ own words why the Declaration and Constitution furnish texts, “to which those who are watchful may again rally and recall the people.”
Lastly, learn what texts Thompson is using to educate the next generation of statesmen at Clemson — only on the show of ideas, not attitude.
Bob Zadek: The United States of America is in the history of the planet the nation which was formed to carry out moral, economic, and political principles. Other countries were formed because of borders, commonality of languages or cultures, or because they were simply there and others around them had control or power. No other country has been formed around a series of moral principles. Yet here were are, 240 years later and it’s easy to despair that we are losing the very moral foundations that gave us our country in 1788.
This morning’s guest, Bradley Thompson, has written an important book, America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration that Defined It. I’ve asked Bradley to join us this morning to remind us how we got here, where we are, and what we must keep in our collective minds if we are to continue the principles on which we are founded. Thank you for being here Bradley and thank you for your book.
Bradley Thompson: Thank you very much. I’m delighted to be here today with you and your audience.
Bob Zadek: Bradley teaches political theory and American Studies in the Institute for Leadership in Americas. He’s the BBT research professor in the department of political science at Clemson. And of great importance, he is the executive director of the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism. I don’t want to take up too much of our time, but if you could just explain to our audience what is the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism? And I ask you to do that because it is easy for me and for many others who are not on college campuses to despair about what is happening on college campuses in relation to our founding principles of freedom of speech, capitalism, free markets and the like. What I learned about institutes such as yours will give our listeners hope. So before you get into the book itself, Bradley and what you have learned, tell us about the Institute.
Bradley Thompson: We are America’s premier university-based teaching and research center dedicated to exploring the moral foundations of capitalism. There are a lot of University-based think tanks concerned with exploring the economics of free market economies. But we focus on the moral foundation, which I think distinguishes us from every other similar kind of program in the country. Our premier academic program is something called the Lyceum scholars program, which uses a great books approach to studying the history of liberty, capitalism, the American founding, and the principles of moral character. And to your audience, I would say if you have any high school students who are interested in these ideas and that approach to intellectual life, please come to our website at the Clemson Institute and look at the Lyceum program. I encourage your high school son or daughter to apply to the Lyceum scholars program.
A History of Liberty: The Concept of Natural Rights
Bob Zadek: That phrase, “the history of Liberty,” reminds us all that there was a time that Liberty simply didn’t exist. When you say the history of an idea, that means there was a time when it never existed at all on earth. That’s an important reminder that if there was a time that Liberty didn’t exist, there can be a time where it will not exist in the future, and therefore it prevents us from taking Liberty for granted. So that phrase has a strong message attached to it. In your book and in the Declaration of Independence, which we will be referring to throughout this discussion, is the very important concept of rights. And the reason I focus on that word is because in political debate, the concept of rights has been cheapened. Just because individuals want something doesn’t mean they have a right to do it. So rights are special things. The concept of rights was important in Locke’s writings, which was the basis in many ways of the Declaration and of the structure of our political system. So let’s start just with the concept of rights in general.
Bradley Thompson: For most of human history, governments have not recognized the idea of rights. This notion of rights, however, did begin to develop in the English speaking world in the 1300’s in the form of what we might call the rights of Englishmen. In 1764, at the very beginning of the Imperial crisis that would then launch the American revolution, even liberty loving colonial Americans believed in the concept of the rights of an Englishman. But this idea is unique to the people of England and at the premise of this idea is the notion that rights are attached to particular people at particular times. At the deepest level of what the American revolution was all about was that Americans claimed that rights are natural and that there are rights of man that transcend place and time.
This was at the very heart of the American revolution, beginning in 1765. In The Stamp Act, Americans appealed not to the rights of Englishman, which they had formerly always appealed to, but to the rights of nature or the rights of man or natural rights. And I think that is the most important moral revolution of the 18th century. The idea of individual’s having natural rights freed the American people and are at the heart of the abolitionist and anti-slavery movement in the 19th century.
Bob Zadek: What is important and what you point out in your book is that it is not that scholars sat down and thought up rights. It wasn’t created artificially the way a statute might be created. Certain rights transcend everything and are arrived at by observation of humanists. They have a scientific rational basis. It is not what some ruler decided.
Bradley Thompson: Yes, these rights are not created by government. These rights are not inherent in man. Rights are in effect a discovery. They are a discovery by examining human nature. It begins with the idea of the individual as the primary unit of moral and political value and says that rights are necessary and objective requirements of human life. What that really means is that there is a natural standard of what is right and wrong for human beings in the way that they ought to live. Rights recognize in effect what man is.
That is to say, that he is a rational and volitional being. These rights of nature define a man’s moral requirements in a social context. Rights recognize that it is necessary and right that man should be free to choose and pursue actions that are required to support his life. It is necessary and right for a man to exercise his rational faculty and that it is necessary and right to act in order to acquire, keep, use, and dispose of one’s property, and that it’s necessary and right to benefit or suffer from one’s own choices and actions in life. Rights are a discovery. The concept of rights was discovered by enlightenment philosophers, most notably John Locke, and then was institutionalized by America’s founding fathers.
Bob Zadek: When you say institutionalized, that goes to the very formation of government. In other words, as many scholars have observed, there is often a phrase “rights first, government second.” The existence of rights preceded the existence of government. And if you just read the plain words of the declaration, which we will be discussing today, it teaches us that governments which come after the realization of rights because it was essential that once we understand what rights humans have, that those rights must be protected by government. That explains to the world why our country was formed. To protect these fragile rights. Walk us through how the declaration accomplishes that and what it teaches us.
Bradley Thompson: American revolutionaries didn’t all come to this idea of the rights of nature immediately during their conflict with British Imperial officials. It was something that they came to over the course of a 10 year period before 1776. There were some leading revolutionaries like the Adams cousins, John and Samuel, who from the very beginning, started to use the concept of the rights of nature. But most colonial Americans in 1775 were loyal British subjects who supported and believed in this of the rights of Englishmen. But once the British government passed the Stamp Act, started violating the rights of Americans, and then through the Townsend and Tea acts and finally the coercive acts in 1774, the Americans launched a search for new principles on which to found their government.
The most important discovery was that these rights of nature ought to be the moral foundation of government. So in 1776, when they declared their independence in the declaration of independence, Jefferson himself says, as the third self evident truth of the declaration, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” That means that the sole purpose of government is to secure man’s natural rights.
It doesn’t say that the purpose of government is to provide men and women with free stuff. It doesn’t say the purpose of government is to make men good or virtuous. It simply says that to secure these rights, governments are instituted. That’s the sole purpose of government.
The kind of government that is created with that moral foundation will by definition be a limited government, a government that has a narrow functions, the sole purpose of which are to protect us from external force, foreign invaders, to protect us from criminals inside our nation, and a court system to adjudicate disputes between conflicting individuals. That’s it. That’s the limited nightwatchman kind of government that was promoted by America’s founding fathers. And it rests on the foundation of the object of absolute permanent universal rights of man.
The Slow Erosion of Liberty
Bob Zadek: What is so important is that given that limited purpose of government, that is not arbitrary. As Bradley has pointed out, that is founded upon rational, scientifically concluded principles of the relationship of humans to one another. You start with that truth, and therefore any change in the role of government should be founded on a more compelling truth than the truth on which our country was founded. It should not be based on vague statements like “some people deserve it.”
Or whatever other social policies would be nice to accomplish. That erosion of the moral and philosophical basis of our founding was never based upon an equivalent equally powerful truth. It was based simply upon the operation of the political system and the inherent powers that government has been given. So there has been over time a clear erosion of these founding principles. This erosion is not based upon the absolute truths the founding principles were based on. Is this correct?
Bradley Thompson: I think that’s exactly right Bob. The first attack on the principles of the Declaration of Independence in American began in the late 1830’s when post-slavery writers began to turn against the principles of the declaration. They rejected the very idea that there could be absolute certain permanent truth. Instead they adopted the ideas of 19th century German philosophers like Hegel who believed that history is changing, that manners and morals are changing, that in fact one’s rights are changing.
Along with their rejection of the principles of the declaration and most particularly their rejection of the Declaration’s first two truths which are summed up in one word, equality and rights, they did not believe that all men were created equal and they did not believe that in such a concept as natural rights. They believed that rights were specific to historical times and places, thereby justifying the institution of slavery.
What’s really most interesting in American history is that in the late 19th and then in the early 20th centuries progressive thinkers adopted the view of the declaration of independence that is virtually identical to that of the pro-slavery writers of the antebellum period. They rejected idea of truth, right? It is now said that we live in a post truth society. This society actually began in the late 19th century and into the early 20th century with philosophers such as John Dewey, and political thinkers like Woodrow Wilson, who liked the post-slavery writers, rejected the core principles of the Declaration of Independence, including truth, equality, and rights.
With this transformation in the idea of rights, what you now get is the idea that rights are rights to things, not the right to be free in order to act or in order to pursue one’s own interests, but rather we have a right to food, clothing, shelter, education, and more recently, healthcare, et cetera, et cetera. This notion of rights completely undermines and rejects the founder’s view of rights.
The Frankfurt School: A History of Pro-Slavery, Marxist Ideology
Bob Zadek: One of the things that was so instructive in your book is that parallel between the philosophical underpinnings of the pro slavery thinkers to the thinkers of the progressive era, like Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, etc. You start to get this scary feeling that we are almost getting this descent into the Dark Ages where reason is rejected in favor or something else, the absence of reason.
Here is a scary Woodrow Wilson quote from a speech at Princeton University. He said, “The Declaration did not attempt to dictate the aims and objects of any generation but their own.” In other words, he challenged the intellectual honesty and the integrity of the founders. And he represented maybe the very top of intellectual and political life in America at the time he said it.
Help me understand, in your opinion, what was the motivation for challenging the moral underpinnings of the American Revolution, of the Declaration of Independence, and of the founding principles? It seemed to me, given those principles and the country that was created to protect them, Americans had it all. It couldn’t get any better than that. How did it start to slip away?
Bradley Thompson: This has a long and sordid history. I believe that ideas have consequences and therefore any political or social or cultural change that you see in the United States is definitely a result of a change of ideas, which means principally a change of the ideas that are taught in America’s universities. The rejection of the principles of the declaration of independence as I indicated earlier began in the 1830s. The story really begins when the ideas of European, particularly German philosophers, were brought to America. Interestingly enough, it was the ideas of the German 19th-century German philosopher Hegel, which was initially brought to the United States by a pro-slavery southerner in the 1830s. Pro-slavery intellectuals during the entire antebellum period became America’s first great advocates of this German philosophy which rejected the principles of the Declaration.
And more particularly, these Southern intellectuals, rejected the very idea of an absolute and certain permanent universal truth. They also accepted the ideas of socialism. Now, this is one of the truly great ironies in American history. Post slavery defenders like George Fitzhugh defended the “”peculiar institution on the grounds that it was ideal of communism. The first three Marxian Marxists in America were pro slavery writers. They were trenchant critics of limited government and a free market or laissez Faire capitalism. And then in the post civil war period, a whole generation of American graduate students and intellectuals received their graduate training at European and more particularly German universities. And so there was a kind of philosophic tsunami that crashed upon American shores beginning in the 1870s that brought in all of these ideas of Hegel, Karl Marx, and of Nietzsche.
In one generation they transformed America’s universities. And so you that’s when you really get the strongest critique of not just the principles of the declaration of independence, but of the constitution itself as well. So Woodrow Wilson for instance, also attacked the principles of the Constitution as well. They also imported the ideas of German government and of the Prussian state. That’s when you get the first big movement in American intellectual and political life for the creation of a status government.
The Pursuit of Freedom and The Spirit of America
Bob Zadek: What I do not understand is that in the founding era, the colonists had it pretty good as compared to the rest of the world. They weren’t sharecroppers. They had a relatively large amount of freedom and yet they were willing to reject it all in favor of a country where their natural rights were protected and they were intellectually free. They rejected a pretty good life under British rule as British subjects for something better.
When these ideas of Marxism at the end of the 19th century start to get a toehold, why wasn’t there the same large group of Americans who said, “No, we want the same principles. We value them as much as the founding era.” Why was it so easy for America in that period to surrender those earlier values?
Bradley Thompson: This is a great question and it’s one that I have been contemplating for the last 25 years and unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer to it. It is a fact that in the post Civil War period, the ideas of the classical liberal tradition in America, not only did they come under assault, but they also just imploded. They collapsed in on themselves. You cannot find any really great political thinkers in the post civil war era, up through really up through World War II, who defended the idea of the principles of the declaration of the constitution or more broadly speaking of the classical liberal tradition. This is one of the great mysteries of our history. It is a great dissertation topic for some young graduate student out there who wants to try and solve that question.
But let me also say one other thing. You are absolutely correct. In 1765, the American colonists at that time were the freest and probably the wealthiest people anywhere in the world at that time, if not in the history of the world. And so the question is how and why would they risk it all? Why would they risk it all in a battle against the world’s greatest military power. I think it speaks to the Americans “Spirit of Liberty.” I don’t think that there was a people anywhere in the world at that time or since that time, that has genuinely appreciated and loved Liberty as the Americans did at that time.
Consider the Stamp Act of 1765, which was just a small tax but it served as an intellectual and moral tripwire which triggered Americans in defense of their liberty. At every step along the way in that 10 year period between 1765 and 1775, up through the battles of Concord and Lexington, the Americans resisted every attempt by British Imperial officials and the parliament and the King to either impose taxes on them or to try and control and regulate their freedoms and their ability to govern themselves. If you consider for instance, the very opening line of the declaration of independence, which says “when in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, et cetera, et cetera…”
Now the keyword is “necessary.” Why did the Americans think it was necessary? There’s a sense in which it wasn’t necessary. No one was forcing them. But the point is this, the Americans believed that if you’re going to talk the talk, you have to walk the walk. They believed that there was an intimate relationship between moral theory, moral principles and moral practice. And the virtue which connects them is the virtue of integrity. If I had to identify one virtue of America’s founding fathers, which separated them from all other generations, it was the virtue of integrity. They connected their moral principles with their moral action. And when the time came a decade later to declare their independence, they did it knowingly and they did it willingly and they did it because it was the right thing to do.
Bob Zadek: In your book, there was a wonderful discussion of that word necessary. What you explained in the book was this was not speculation. You point out what John Adams said which was that the war was the end result of the revolution. The revolution was not the war. The word “necessary” is an absolute. The declaration is such a self-confident statement and that shows the commitment of the authors and the colonies who rallied behind it. There was no doubt in their minds that this was the right thing to do.
Bradley Thompson: That is absolutely right. American revolutionaries began with the moral premise, what philosophers call a conditional imperative. They said if you want to live in a free society, given the actions of the British parliament during that 10 year period, then you must take the following steps in order to keep your freedom. And that is how and why in the context of the declaration of independence, it was necessary for the Americans. Their moral constitutions told them that it was necessary that they dedicate their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor as the declaration says in its last sentence, to the sacred cause of Liberty.
Moral Revolutions and The Restoration of Freedom
Bob Zadek: The signers of the Declaration could not have been more all in than that. Once you commit your life, your fortune and your sacred honor, there is not much else left. So every sentence of the declaration, putting aside Jefferson’s indictment of the King, were all in. It was absolute. This is it. No discussion. Sign here.
I am always puzzled how we have lost that and how we can get it back. That commitment to principle instead of when we cheapen rights, like the right to cheap housing or to be paid more than you are worth or the right to free stuff. That cheapens to oblivion the concept of rights. I am hoping that institutes such as yours that the concept of rights gets its rightful place in conversation. How do we get it back?
Bradley Thompson: We have to understand that there is no right to violate rights. So in other words, there is no right to food, clothing, shelter, healthcare and education, a free laptop, because that would require the redistribution of wealth that would require that we violate somebody else’s rights. No man ought to be a slave of another. If your rights are being violated to provide the false rights of somebody else, then there is a sense in which you are a slave to someone else’s will. Let’s take healthcare. There is no such natural right to force doctors to serve somebody else.
How do we restore the founder’s original understanding of rights? While I hope I can say without too much immodesty that it begins with books like mine. We have to re-appreciate and come to understand the principles of the American Revolution, of how and why America’s founding father developed this idea of the rights of nature. We need an intellectual revolution. Because as I said earlier, ideas have consequences and all ideas run through the universities in this country. So we have to find some kind of platform in America’s universities to teach these ideas. If we can’t do that, if we’re barred from the universities, then we have to do what we claim to do best. Namely thinking entrepreneurially and either create new programs or even if necessary, new colleges.
Bob Zadek: The proof of the concept of natural rights is the mass migration to America during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Never has there been any migration of that magnitude from one system of government to another like there was to America. It was the freedom that America offered at that time in comparison to all others. So now we have Americans in the late 18th century who gave up pretty much everything in support of an ideal. We have people on this planet from all over who are drawn to America, who gave up every little thing they had. They gave it up to come here in search of this ideal. And here we are, spoiled brats, ignoring the ideals that caused so many people to give up so much to be drawn to.
Bradley Thompson: The one thing we know is that freedom is a moral magnet and has been for people all over the world for the last 250 years. Look at what’s happening in Hong Kong right now. Those students are defending freedom on the basis of the principles of the Declaration of Independence. One of the great ironies of the world in which we live today is that you have tens of millions of people who want to come to this country for its freedom while at the same time you have an entire intellectual class of Americans, who want to get rid of that freedom. It is really just one of the worst ironies of today.
Bob Zadek: Tell us what motivated you to write this book.
Bradley Thompson: When I was seven years old and living in Ontario, Canada, I read a book called “The How and Why Wonder Book of the American Revolution.” And from that moment forward, I knew I was an American born in the wrong country. So I’ve had a lifelong love affair with the United States. A few years ago I read a horrible book on the declaration of independence by a Harvard professor that I was so deeply offended with, that I decided that I had to write my own book on the declaration of independence. So I started writing that book and then very quickly into the process, I read that quotation that you mentioned from John Adams when he describes the American Revolution not as the war but as a revolution in the minds of the people in the 15 years before Lexington and Concord. And at that moment I realized that the true story of the American revolution was this intellectual moral revolution. So I broadened the scope of my book to write about the moral ideals of the American spirit.
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