Feature 03.09.2020 7 minutes

The Founding Wasn’t Merely Modern


Ancient thought deeply influenced our country’s origins.

In his response to Glenn Ellmers, Gregory McBrayer caricatures the founding as a product of early modern social contract thinking. The founders may not have consistently quoted passages by Aristotle, but his works clearly influenced them to a greater extent than McBrayer suggests. He writes:

While the framers surely placed more stock in the thought of early modern and Enlightenment thinkers than in the ancients, it is no doubt true that they nevertheless occasionally looked to the ancients for guidance.

This downplays the influence of the ancients on the American Founders. McBrayer cites Thomas Jefferson’s famous 1825 Letter to Henry Lee to underscore this point. Jefferson describes the Declaration of Independence as “an expression of the American mind,” then refers to a list of thinkers that informed this American mind: “All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c. …”

On the basis of this, McBrayer claims that Aristotle was merely one of many influences that the founders “occasionally looked to for guidance” and only to influence the political side of the American mind. This interpretation is misguided. Instead of sticking to the ancient-modern divide as infallible dogma, it is wiser to presume that Jefferson was appealing to ideas from various thinkers that he believed were true, regardless of the time period from which they originated.

Ends and the Good

Furthermore, the political theory of the founding is more expansive and higher than the typical notion of the “modern” founding being modern—and therefore low in its assessment of human capabilities—will admit. “Again,” writes McBrayer, “the Declaration speaks of ends, plural. Man has rights—not an end, singular. Among these rights are those to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Ellmers’s initial piece begins with an epigraphical quotation from Harry V. Jaffa: “In the Declaration, rights are replaced by ends; Locke is replaced by Aristotle.” Jaffa was one of the preeminent political philosophers of the 20th century and an world expert on Lincoln. He knew the ancient and early moderns very well, and he placed America within the tradition of political philosophy both ancient and modern. Jaffa explained that it is inaccurate to presume the rights language of the founders makes the founding purely Lockean. He demonstrated that the founders had a broader view of politics that was akin to that of Aristotle.

The Declaration includes, but is not limited to, the protection of rights made famous in Locke’s Second Treatise. In “Aristotle and Locke in the American Founding,” Jaffa described the Declaration as Aristotelian due to its explicit use of “ends” when addressing the right to revolution. Just governments are founded upon the consent of the governed and must attain certain ends.

The Declaration states, “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it (my emphasis).” The rights language of the Declaration is well-known, but the ends for which government is established show an Aristotelian influence. The Declaration notes that safety and happiness are the ends government must protect, with safety as the basic prerequisite for man to attain happiness—or as Jaffa writes, “the alpha and omega of political life in Aristotle’s Politics.”

It is true, as McBrayer writes, that “while Aristotle conditionally posits that humans have a telos, many early moderns deny this.” The source for the republican government they devised was not simply Locke, or another early modern, transposed into a regime. Aristotle described a natural human impulse toward the formation of a community. Subsequently, the polis represents a telos for man in Book 1 of the Politics. In essence, this is what the founders envisioned as well.

McBrayer rebuffs Jaffa’s claim that the Declaration sought fixed ends. The implicit suggestion is that the founders did not believe there was an end for man nor a highest good to which he ought to aspire. Yet, the Declaration itself disproves this notion in elucidating the ends of government as safety and happiness. As said before, the latter is contingent on the former. The Declaration enumerates an inexhaustive list of natural rights in pursuit of fixed ends.

High and Solid Ground

McBrayer misunderstands the Declaration’s equality principle. “Apart from denying man’s natural sociability, he claims, “the Declaration declares all men to be equal, while Aristotle, by contrast, declares inequality to be a natural and permanent feature of politics.” The founders did not believe all men are equal in absolute terms. Rather, they were equal in their rights as human beings. McBrayer correctly points out that this differs from Aristotle, but the equality McBrayer attributes to the founders is that of the contemporary progressives. The right to property in Locke and the founders counters this notion of equality because its exercise is inherently unequal. James Madison’s essay on the subject reflects the founders’ conception of property as including one’s own body, mind, and conscience.

The nature of each individual differs, and so does the content of their property. As Edward J. Erler said in a recent speech, both body and soul are encompassed therein. In other words, property did not mean the same thing to Locke and the founders as it does today, so it is unfair to consider the founders’ use of it “low” or anti-teleological.

Aristotle’s view of man as a political animal in the Politics was a clear influence on the founders. McBrayer states that the polis Aristotle held to be best for man was a much smaller community than a large republic. Lincoln noted this in a fragment of writing “on the Constitution and the Union” (1861): to properly assess the founding, the ends described in the Declaration and the form of government established under the Constitution must be viewed as parts of a whole.

Accordingly, Federalist #10 is a useful starting point to show what the framers intended in the formation of a republic. Publius argued that America’s extended sphere would permit it to resist the problem of faction at the federal level while also promoting self-government at the state and local levels. This meant that nobler ideas would reign, rather than the passions of the people.

This is an especially necessary feature for a regime in which the people are sovereign. Simply put, the founders established a partly national, party federal regime in the pursuit of similar ends as Aristotle’s polis. Yet, they applied lessons learned from historical examples in order to devise a regime in which rational self-government would be both possible and enduring.

Timeless Questions and Timeless Answers

Perhaps most curiously, McBrayer asks Ellmers: “is the problem with the moderns that, while they offer us advice on how to live well collectively, they don’t have much to say by way of how one ought to live as an individual?”

But this is simply not so. In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle provides an account of human happiness derived from living well—a life of moral virtue. The founders sought to develop a regime that protected rights and was conducive to the attainment of happiness, because both are inextricably linked.

In the Ethics Aristotle demonstrates how government is to promote a good life. He explains that “by habituating citizens, lawgivers make them good, and this is the wish for every lawgiver; all who do not do this well are in error, and it is in this respect that a good regime differs from a base regime.” As Federalist #51 has it, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Critics claim this means human nature is depraved. Yet, the ability to overcome the foibles of man’s nature shows a shared purpose with Aristotle’s legislation: to habituate men to become good.

Publius believed that the republic would be primarily controlled by the popular will. But there are also “auxiliary precautions” that prevent passions from reigning, as in the petty republics of Greece and Rome. Federalist #63 shows that representation is a key feature lacking in those old regimes: “In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career and to suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind?” The founders supplemented the popular will with a representative structure that was meant to curtail the effects of vice and ensure hasty passions did not produce unjust laws.

The founders dealt with the eternal problems of governing human beings. Who rules? For what ends? What is just rule? The success of their project ought not be determined by whether they were ancient or modern. These questions do not follow such a dichotomy. The founders thought they were accounting for human nature and the particular conditions of America in the Declaration and Constitution.

It is my contention that the founders devised the best possible regime for rational self-government precisely because they sought to address the eternal problems that have plagued popular government throughout history, problems addressed by Aristotle and Locke alike. To return to Federalist #51: “Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been, and ever will be, pursued, until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.”

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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