A review of “America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration That Defined It,” by C. Bradley Thompson (Encounter Books, 584 pages $32.99)

Was the Revolution About Reason?

The book’s intricate title, America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration That Defined It, enlists readers into the spirit of revolution. It appeals to thirsty intellects and to those who long for noble actions, with its careful reading of profound documents and appreciation of monumental actions, thus asserting the political and moral power of words. We gird ourselves for an exciting read.

The book has particular fascination for me, because I know the author—we were colleagues at Ashland University in the 1990s, and Brad Thompson is now professor of political philosophy at Clemson University. I have long admired his audacity, intellect, and love of America, even as I strongly disagreed with some of his ideas.

Thompson’s patriotism is that of an immigrant (from Canada) and his determination that of an athlete (track). And, given such self-made qualities of soul, one is not surprised to encounter insightful studies of the evolution of American identity, natural rights doctrine, and the founders’ prudence, all organized in the form of elaborations of key phrases of the Declaration.

Do I know the author too well to do an objective review? Despite the legitimacy of this question, I offer the review as a gentle corrective of his presentation of major issues of our time. The reader will have to judge—I am no objectivist in that sense at any rate.

The book proceeds with chapters on what the author takes to be the Declaration’s Enlightenment background, the laws of nature, self-evident truths, equality, slavery (well worth consulting in light of the 1619 Project), rights, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” consent of the governed, consent and justice, and revolution. It concludes with exhortations on Americanism and the American mind. The book as a whole is scholarship with a political purpose. As Thomas Pangle says, the book is “at once eloquent and erudite.”

With barely a mention of him, Thompson does not take up Harry Jaffa’s argument from A New Birth of Freedom (2000) about the Declaration. That is, there is no attempt to find an Aristotelian or ancient grounding in the American founding. Thus the author often makes extreme claims (that he later qualifies, for example, about how and in what sense America is Lockean or how America’s Founders reflected Enlightenment principles).

In particular, he downplays the role of religion in the founding in a way that makes the book dependent on America as a sign of the advance of the Enlightenment, with its peculiar form of reason and its banishment of religion, rather than the theological-political question that the Declaration promulgates. After Christianity, freedom in the modern world requires that its defenders acknowledge the tension between reason and revelation as the source of civilization.

The book is an elaborate attempt to undo that tension on behalf of Enlightenment reason. Thus, for example, he declares

Locke’s epistemological goal was moral: in a world inundated with religious mysticism, his intention was to show that man’s rational faculties were in fact capable of discovering and knowing objective moral laws for the purpose of guiding human conduct.

In this regard, Thompson’s portrayal parallels the dispute between Jaffa and Martin Diamond, and thus the difference between the West and the East Coast Straussians. And indeed that is reflected in some of the blurbs from George Will, Harvey Mansfield, and Thomas Pangle, not to mention several other eminent scholars, such as a principal teacher of Thompson, the historian Gordon Wood.

But we would err to label Thompson any kind of Straussian either—recall his often astute critique of some students of Leo Strauss, such as Bill Kristol, for their promotion of a reckless foreign policy and their compromises with Progressivism in Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea

Rather than survey his entire argument, we should first jump to his conclusion, from which we can evaluate the book. Key parts of the book are found in this excerpt at American Greatness.

In concluding, Thompson is rhapsodic in his praise of Tocquevillian America:

This new American creed of “rational liberty” did not mean that its practitioners lived alienated and crabbed lives in atomistic isolation from one another . . . . Quite the opposite. These rugged American individualists joined together in bonds of civic friendship as they experienced and lived through seemingly never-ending disasters . . . . The moral and political philosophy by which they lived their lives was no antisocial creed that confined men to their own spiritual cages. Together, as friends and neighbors, the westward-moving Americans built—literally—cabins, houses, barns, roads, canals, libraries, schools, colleges, villages, towns, and cities. Freedom produced unparalleled social cooperation.

Later he hails this as a “natural system of liberty” which “encouraged and generated new associations and bonds of civil cooperation.” But it was not mere self-interest, which Tocqueville explicitly denies can be the source of those aristocratic bodies he saw in American civil associations. More to the point, the bulk of the examples Tocqueville describes are associations that are explicitly or implicitly religious, from churches to charities. Most of these associations are religious in both their origin and purpose.

This is not surprising. Early in Democracy in America, Tocqueville speaks of America’s unique unity of the spirit of freedom and the spirit of religion. The two are “perfectly distinct elements that elsewhere have often made war with each other, but which, in America, they have succeeded in incorporating somehow into one another and succeeded marvelously.” Moreover, as Tocqueville says later, “Americans so completely confuse Christianity and freedom in their minds that it is almost impossible to have them conceive of the one without the other . . . .” But Thompson would expunge Christianity not only from Tocqueville’s account but from America’s self-understanding. He even goes so far as to say,

This, then, was the great paradox of American society: it united radical individualism with tight bonds of civil association. The former was responsible for the latter. It was e pluribus unum.

Thompson knows perfectly well that the “one from many” enshrined by e pluribus unum was the one nation out of many states, not many individuals. To speak of “a natural system of liberty” is as misleading as the “religious mysticism” he derides.

As much as I admire Tocqueville, he is a compromised source for Thompson’s endeavor, because of his suspicion of American patriotism (a separate topic) and of the Declaration of Independence as a philosophic document. For the latter, see Tocqueville’s letter from America to his cousin Chabrol on July 16, 1831. He honors the sentiments that the Declaration engenders but, unlike Thompson, not its teaching. After all, Tocqueville never mentions the Declaration in his 700-page classic.

But perhaps Thompson, agreeing with Tocqueville on the fading of the force of religion and hence of the mores required for freedom, wishes to supply the decay of religion with his version of reason and thus refound a dying American morality and with it the American regime.

What Thompson evidently wants to do is substitute his Enlightenment natural right epistemology for that of Tocqueville, and withal his own Enlightenment rationality for the theological-political unity Tocqueville struggled with. This is not just a point about misinterpreting Tocqueville but, even more important, it is ignoring what is central  in the Declaration: the theological-political dynamic.

I don’t believe I’m being unreasonable to suggest he winds up doing something more like what is described in Mary Shelley’s novel about a Modern Prometheus, sewing together the corpses of Tocqueville and the Founders into another, superior (as he sees it) America. This is a kind of Jefferson Bible version of America. In describing it thus, I honor this amazing and ambitious book.

Like all other attempts to undo what Leo Strauss built up, and Harry Jaffa following him tried to continue, this one falters. Much of this goes back to the way Thompson reads Locke. Compare Edward Erler’s understanding of Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and its relation to the Declaration. “Locke treated the ‘pursuit of happiness’ not as a natural right but as a moral duty. The American founders, however, translated Locke’s understanding of the ‘pursuit of happiness’ into both a natural right and a moral duty,” Erler argues in Property and the Pursuit of Happiness. He quotes Thomas West, for Locke “the pursuit of happiness is the fundamental natural inclination—not self preservation . . . .”

West’s elaborate 2017 study, The Political Theory of the American Founding, covers much of the same ground as Revolutionary Mind but is both far more sober in its project and more revolutionary at the same time.

With its focus on state practices, West’s book can be more explicit in its treatment of both morality (including marriage and sexual morality) and property, the subjects of the second and third parts of his book, about 250 pages.. West affirms some of Thompson’s views of the Declaration’s morality but also takes the argument to other places. For example, writes West, “Pangle and Mansfield are far from being the only scholars who accept the ‘Nietzschean’ view that the higher and rarer virtues are missing in the founding.” He then goes on to quote Martin Diamond and Gordon Wood to the same effect.

West then proceeds to show how the American Founders and the ordinary citizens manifested moral virtues such as courage and explains how Nietzsche’s “herd morality” embraces some noble traits, “‘Under different names,’ to use Nietzsche’s phrase, force and fraud might be called courage and prudence, the very virtues praised by the founders . . . .” All this to show how work on the Founding opens up discussion even further on important, central themes. We know the founders even less than we think we do. And we distort their teaching by seeing more agreement on some issues than we might think there is.

And to use Lincoln most effectively Thompson, besides appealing to the scientific electric cord metaphor for human equality, also should have looked at the biblical one of “blood of the blood and flesh of the flesh”—both scientific revelation and support for the Declaration that Lincoln laid out in his famous speech of July 10, 1858. And, even more striking, Thompson omits Lincoln’s succinct definition of slavery there: “you work and I eat.”

We know today whom Lincoln was describing as the new slaveholders—those who live off of transfer payments and globalist economics, which throttle a dynamic society of those who would rise through hard work.

Thus, Thompson’s dismissal of the theological-political issue makes him miss some major points. And the book fails to acknowledge adequately other work, such as Jaffa’s New Birth of Freedom, which points the way to an even more revolutionary understanding.

In the preface to America’s Revolutionary Mind we see the young boy Brad reading a book about the American Revolution and then knowing “that I was an American born in the wrong country.” That phrase recalls a monograph by a late colleague of his at the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University, fellow immigrant (from Hungary) the late Peter Schramm, author of “Born American But in the Wrong Place.” Both of these imposing additions to America got to the right place and knew that patriotism was not enough, but came to understand her in different ways.

About Ken Masugi

Ken Masugi, Ph.D., is a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute. He has been a speechwriter for two cabinet members, and a special assistant for Clarence Thomas when he was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Masugi is co-author, editor, or co-editor of 10 books on American politics. He has taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he was Olin Distinguished Visiting Professor; James Madison College of Michigan State University; the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University; and Princeton University.

Photo: Tony Baggett/Getty Images

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