I have been writing a series of articles about contemporary thinkers who are considered to be conservatives and yet are at odds with the American founders.
Broadly speaking, they write either as iconoclasts or as Tories.
Brad Littlejohn provides an excellent example of the iconoclast. An iconoclast (the word means “destroyer of sacred images”) attacks and seeks to overthrow traditional ideas or institutions. Writing at The American Conservative, Littlejohn enthusiastically reviewed and endorsed a book that argued natural rights do not exist. This really is astonishing. Our natural, unalienable, and inherent rights are the bedrock of the American founding. To attack the founders’ teaching on rights is to hack away at a pillar of the American idea.
The Tories reject the founders in a more genteel fashion. Robert Stacy McCain provides an excellent example. Writing at The American Spectator, he warns us that it is “a dangerous error” to take the founders’ “lofty rhetoric” too seriously. We should instead, he advises us, take our inspiration from “the liberties, privileges, franchises, and immunities” of . . . the British! The Tories today, like the Tories at the time of the American Revolution, are loyal to the thinking of the people the founders fought in the American Revolution.
The founders were neither iconoclasts nor Tories. The people who founded America, the common sense nation, were common sense realists.
That claim is true in two different ways. First, the founders were firmly grounded in reality. Their practical wisdom made the success of the American Revolution possible. By contrast, France’s revolutionaries were radical iconoclasts. France’s revolution quickly descended into the blood-drenched Terror, the despotism of Emperor Napoleon, and the Napoleonic Wars.
The founders were also common sense realists in another way: their thinking was deeply informed by a philosophical school called common sense realism. The founders learned the distinction between alienable rights and unalienable rights from the founder of that school, Francis Hutcheson. Moreover, the founders did not simply assert that we have unalienable rights; they claimed that it is self-evident that we do. The founders learned their understanding of what is known to be true from evidence and what is self-evidently true from Thomas Reid. Reid was one of Hutcheson’s most important followers; Adam Smith was another. Smith’s world-changing book The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, just in time to have a decisive influence on America.
Madison, Jefferson, and Hamilton were all schooled in common sense realism, as were virtually all of the other leaders of the American Revolution. In the words of the eminent American scholar Douglass Adair, at “Princeton, at William and Mary, at Pennsylvania, at Yale, at King’s [today’s Columbia], and at Harvard, the young men who rode off to war in 1776 had been trained” in the texts of common sense realism.
Common sense realism was, in the words of Arthur Herman, “virtually the official creed of the American Republic.” That remained the case for more than a century after the founding. When the great historian Lord Acton visited Harvard in the 1850s he found that Harvard students were still being trained in common sense realism. He would have found the same at Yale or Princeton or at any other college he visited in America.
That all changed around the beginning of the 20th century. The common-sense realists were pushed aside by modernists, and the role of common-sense realism in the founding was soon almost totally forgotten. Later in the 20th century, the modernists were themselves pushed aside by the post-modernists, doubly burying the memory of common sense realism. As you know, postmodernism now rules in American higher education.
Postmodernists, such as France’s Michel Foucault, have taken iconoclasm very far indeed. Foucault: “It is meaningless to speak in the name of—or against—Reason, Truth or Knowledge.” For Foucault and for postmodernists generally, Littlejohn’s advocacy of the claim that natural rights do not exist and the founders’ claim that natural rights do exist are equally meaningless.
But Littlejohn’s iconoclasm does reflect the spirit of the age. Overthrowing all that has gone before is the supreme intellectual virtue in our postmodern age, and in his own way, Littlejohn is evidently a man of this time. In contrast, the Tories are uncomfortable with smashing icons, and find comfort in British tradition.
Today in America, leftists are united in their rejection of America, while the Right is fragmented. Making matters worse, by opposing the thinking of the founders, the iconoclasts and the Tories on the Right are actually aiding the Left.
Leftists are pushing their agenda hard right now because they taste victory. They believe they are about to succeed in their project of overthrowing the Constitution, the principles of the Declaration, and even common sense. America’s chances of surviving the Left’s onslaught would be improved if people on the Right would unite. It seems self-evident that it would be prudent and even wise for the iconoclasts and the Tories to put aside their intellectual particularities for now and, with the American people, rally ‘round the America the founders gave us.