The Absolute Truth of America’s Founding Principles
A response to Christopher Flannery.
After eight responses at The American Mind to my essay on “The Rise and Fall of the Pajama-Boy Nietzscheans,” someone from the greater Claremont world has finally risen to the challenge I presented to them at the end of my essay. The wait was worth it.
Christopher Flannery has written a serious response to my essay. I particularly appreciate his contribution because it draws me into a conversation with him about serious matters in the same way that he drew me into a similar conversation many years ago at the home of a mutual friend. Today, like then, Flannery gently probes with penetrating questions.
Mr. Flannery’s response is also noteworthy because he is more concerned about understanding my book, America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration that Defined It, than he is with my “Pajama-Boy Nietzscheans” essay, and for that I am grateful. Flannery has interpreted my book in the light of Harry Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided (1959) and A New Birth of Freedom (2000) and all three books in the light of Leo Strauss’s Natural Right and History (1953). I am honored to have my book considered side-by-side with two thinkers who helped to shape my intellectual development.
Flannery concludes his essay with a caveat: “Maybe a student superior in mind and heart has read and understood” Strauss’s Natural Right and History and Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided and A New Birth of Freedom “as their authors understood them.” He continues: “Maybe Brad Thompson is such a student, but it seems to me that the Jaffa of New Birth has more than merely ‘a few minor disagreements about some tertiary issues’ with the Thompson of America’s Revolutionary Mind.”
The core of Mr. Flannery’s counter-challenge goes something like this: Thompson’s book may bear some kinship with Jaffa’s A New Birth of Freedom, but the differences between them are greater than he thinks. Flannery goes on to suggest that my interpretation of Locke and the founders is much closer to that of Leo Strauss’s Natural Right and History and to the early Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided than it is to the later Jaffa’s A New Birth of Freedom. If this is the worst thing that Chris Flannery can say of me, I’ll take it. Unfortunately, and I don’t mean to be ungracious, but I cannot accept his compliment.
It is true, as Flannery suggests, that I argue for and demonstrate Locke’s decisive influence on the thinking and actions of American revolutionaries. The evidence provided in the book speaks for itself. But apparently the pressing question is: which Locke? Did Strauss’s Hobbesianized Locke or the later Jaffa’s Aristotelian Locke influence American revolutionaries? More to the point, which Locke influenced my interpretation of the American revolution?
Based on a few quotations from my book and one footnote, Mr. Flannery suggests that I follow Strauss and the early Jaffa, and so therefore my kinship with the later Jaffa is brought into doubt. But Flannery is mistaken to interpret my Locke as Strauss’s or the early Jaffa’s Locke.
Strauss’s Hobbesianized Locke is, in many ways, a philosophic villain. Strauss’s Locke leads to liberalism, liberalism leads to rights, rights lead to individualism, individualism leads to hedonism, hedonism leads to selfishness, and selfishness leads finally to the liberated ego with all of its base desires and passions.
(Strauss’s Locke is, by the way, the same Locke that Patrick Deneen, without attribution to Strauss, credits with virtually all that is evil in the modern world. Thus, Strauss’s Locke leads to twerking drag queens jacked up on crystal meth reading stories of LGBTQ+ heroism to classes of six-year-olds.)
Flannery’s unspoken assumption is that I, unlike Strauss and the early Jaffa, actually defend a Hobbesianized founding as morally good and salutary, which means of course that I am, in some way, promoting (even if unwittingly) the very moral hedonism that leads to the moral relativism and nihilism of the modern world.
When I compared America’s Revolutionary Mind to Jaffa’s A New Birth of Freedom rather than to Crisis of the House Divided, I did so with full knowledge of the “Jaffian turn” between his two great books. Jaffa’s goal by the time he came to write A New Birth of Freedom was to purge the American founding of all trace elements of Strauss’s Hobbesianized Locke, a goal that I support. My Locke and therefore my understanding of the American Revolution is much closer to that of A New Birth of Freedom than it is to Crisis.
My reading of Hobbes and Locke is actually rather different from that of either Strauss or the early Jaffa on several counts. I do not understand Locke’s philosophy in the light of Hobbes’s moral and political hedonism. Unlike Strauss, I do not think that Hobbes was the father of liberalism. Hobbes no doubt represents a philosophic break with the past, but he also might be more properly thought of as the founder of the anti-liberalism that leads to Rousseau and Hegel.
My Founding Fathers are also anti-Hobbesians. Though I don’t discuss this topic in my book, there is plenty of evidence to demonstrate that America’s revolutionary generation explicitly rejected Hobbes’s anti-liberalism. They denounced Hobbes’s hedonism, which they saw as the necessary precondition for his authoritarian, if not absolutist form of political rule. My founding, though Lockean, does not suffer from the radical defects of Hobbesian thought. The moral-political thought of the American founding, while not perfect, was and is far superior to the Hobbesian alternative.
My reading of Locke’s moral philosophy also differs somewhat from the Jaffa of A New Birth of Freedom. Many of the words and concepts I use to characterize Locke’s philosophy (e.g., rights, individualism, self-interest) might sound like Strauss’s Locke, but I mean something different by these terms than either Strauss of Jaffa (early or late). Yes, I do think that rights precede duties and that moral obligations are properly derived from self-interest (rightly understood), but I define and morally evaluate these concepts differently than Strauss.
Whereas Strauss and the early Jaffa attribute to Locke the amoral view that to harm others is “foolish” but not “objectively wrong,” I take the opposite position—that it is objectively and morally wrong to initiate force or fraud against others. (In my view, it is objectively and demonstrably right to live a morally virtuous life.) Whereas the later Jaffa views the philosophy of Strauss’s Locke to be grossly defective, I view Locke’s moral philosophy to be more than just “low but solid.” I see it as both solid and high in its moral aspirations.
My Locke is a moral absolutist who sought to discover a science of ethics as certain, absolute, and efficacious as mathematics. That Locke ultimately failed in his quest does not diminish his goal. It only means that he was unable to validate objectively his science of ethics, but he was successful in at least indicating its broad contours. Locke’s moral philosophy upholds high moral standards that can be reconciled with Aristotle and Cicero, particularly the latter’s De Officiis.
More importantly, my founding fathers are not only moral absolutists in theory, but they are actual moral heroes in practice. America’s Revolutionary Mind demonstrates how our revolutionary founders put their moral philosophy into practice and lived by it.
Not only are my founding fathers morally superior to the moral pygmies that inhabit the ranks of America’s twenty-first-century professoriate, they are also morally superior to the theoretical constructs of the ancient philosophers and to the actual political and military heroes of the Greco-Roman worlds. Unlike many Straussians I have known personally over the years, I think it vitally important that we not simply “philosophize” about virtue, honor, or the good life but that we actually live it and model it for our families and fellow citizens.
Evidence and Argument
Another difference between Professor Jaffa’s scholarship and my own concerns our somewhat different methodological approaches to historical actors and their thought. As much as I admire Mr. Jaffa’s overwhelming knowledge and brilliance as well as his unparalleled abilities as writer (he was, in my view, the greatest writer among all Straussians), I am underwhelmed by his efforts to actually support his claims with primary-source historical evidence from the revolutionary period. Whereas I offer 400+ pages of evidence from the revolutionary period to support my claims, Professor Jaffa marshals 400+ pages of arguments drawn largely from the history of political philosophy.
Mr. Jaffa’s hermeneutical and rhetorical skills were mesmerizing. He’s the only scholar I know who could turn a minnow and into Moby Dick. Jaffa was, we might say, a literary alchemist. He had the extraordinary ability to take a single sentence, phrase, or even a word and turn it into a book-length reinterpretation of a thinker’s thought.
If a Founding Father were, for instance, to mention Aristotle or justice, honor, virtue, and the good just once and in passing, Mr. Jaffa was then off to races with dozens or even scores of pages on how even the very mention of a name or moral concept connected the Founding Fathers to ancient Greek and Roman moralists. In other words, he made of the founders what he wanted them to be.
Let me give readers two concrete examples of what I mean. Consider a sentence from the Declaration quoted by Mr. Jaffa via Chris Flannery, which says: “We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States” (emphasis mine).
Notice the use of the phrase “the good People of these Colonies” and more particularly the use of the word “good.” Jaffa and Flannery interpret this one word to suggest that the founders’ “compact theory presupposes a people that is good in the sense that it is united by the morality inherent in the “laws of nature and of nature’s God.” Despite the fact the twin concept of the “laws of nature and of nature’s God” is a uniquely Enlightenment formulation, Mr. Jaffa connects all of this to Aristotle. The “good” here is connected by Jaffa to the ancients’ conception of “the good” and the “laws of nature and of nature’s God” are likewise connected to Aristotle’s conception of natural justice or natural right. Though fascinating, this is an argument entirely unsupported by evidence.
Or consider a quotation that Professor Jaffa seemingly used in every essay he ever wrote after 1987, namely, George Washington’s famous statement in his first inaugural address as president: “there is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness.”
One might have thought Washington was paraphrasing John Locke’s repeated claims in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding on the necessary relationship between virtue and happiness. But no, not for Mr. Jaffa. The very linking of virtue and happiness by Washington indicates to Jaffa that America’s first president must have been reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in the days leading up his address.
Jaffa transforms the pursuit of happiness (a phrase first used in Locke’s Essay) into the pursuit of virtue, and the pursuit of virtue he then connects to Aristotle via Hooker and Aquinas. He provides very little historical evidence to support this claim, and his method is a form of philosophic charades, where words or phrases that look or sound like something Aristotle said must therefore be self-evidently Aristotelian.
In the end, Mr. Jaffa’s method can be summed up in a simple syllogism:
Major premise: Founding father x, y, or z mentions virtue or honor or goodness,
Minor premise: Aristotle says x, y, or z about virtue, honor, and goodness,
Conclusion: Founding father x, y, or z must have been an Aristotelian.
In sum, then, I would suggest that the Straussian and early Jaffian interpretation of Locke is incorrect, and I also claim that Jaffa’s later attempt to substitute Aristotle for Hobbes is insufficiently grounded in meaningful evidence. The “looks like, sounds like” method is an argument, but it is not evidence that establishes the fact. Quoting Aquinas and Shakespeare does not constitute evidence.
Truths for All Time
More fundamentally, though, my greatest reservation about Mr. Jaffa’s attempt to re-found the founding is that he thinks the founders’ principles are defective without his props. This is why my understanding of the founding generation’s moral and political philosophy represents a corrective to Mr. Jaffa’s judgment and interpretation.
I believe that the moral-political philosophy of America’s Founding Fathers (i.e., rights, individualism, self-interest rightly understood) is, while not perfectly developed, validated, or without flaws, still worthy of praise and emulation. And my interpretation of the thought of America’s founders has the added benefit of actually being truer to their expressed views and intentions.
Still, despite these differences, I hold firmly to the conviction that there is great complementarity between A New Birth of Freedom and America’s Revolutionary Mind. Indeed, the latter can be seen as the successor to the former. At any rate, they can and should be read together.
At the deepest level, Strauss and Jaffa directed their greatest intellectual abilities to addressing the crisis of the West. Strauss’s Natural Right and History and Jaffa’s A New Birth of Freedom were intended to be an antidote to moral relativism and nihilism that has engulfed America and the Occident. In the Introduction to Natural Right and History, Strauss asks this question: Does the nation once dedicated to certain self-evident truths still believe they are true, and does it still have the confidence and courage to defend those truths in the face of those who denounce them?
The sad reality is that the Declaration’s self-evident moral and political truths have been under constant assault for approximately 180 years. Those truths first came under attack by proslavery southerners in the 25 years before the start of the Civil War and then again a quarter-century after the war’s end by left-wing Progressives. More recently, the Declaration’s moral and political truths have come under assault from a new totalitarian impulse that is a toxic mixture of Marx, Nietzsche, Lenin, Freud, Mao, Foucault, Rawls, et al.
As the crisis of the West deepens, I thought it important to write a book that would inspire serious thinkers and citizens to rally around certain commonly shared moral and political principles, principles that I attempted to validate philosophically and historically as true. After all, the truth is where the action is.
In that sense, my differences with Mr. Jaffa pale in comparison to the larger principles and purposes we share. My goal in appealing to Mr. Jaffa’s students (students such as Chris Flannery and Ken Masugi) was to build bridges at a time when we desperately need to unite around common core truths in order to defend the republic as it is attacked by teachers, preachers, professors, and the mainstream media. The differences over how to read Locke are, in my view, secondary compared to the most important questions.
Chris Flannery began his essay by identifying what he thinks I have in common with Harry Jaffa. He is right to suggest (as was David Azerrad) that my book joins A New Birth of Freedom in its attempt to defend the founders’ principles as true. At the deepest level, that’s what my book is about. But no one thus far has engaged me (or Jaffa) on that issue. All this back-and-forth about the Revolution’s genealogy of morals is, in my view, both tedious and tendentious. It goes neither to the heart of my project, nor to professor Jaffa’s. Mr. Jaffa and I can lead our readers to water, but we can’t make them drink.
America’s Revolutionary Mind attempts to go further than any other book ever written on the American Revolution in explicating how American Revolutionaries discovered, validated, and defended the moral laws and rights of nature and then put their moral code into practice by fighting a brutal war and creating a new nation de novo. In other words, my book has as its deepest purpose a defense of America’s greatest ideas and institutions from the assaults of postmodern nihilism and socialism. If America’s Revolutionary Mind is not defensible, then neither is America.
At a time in our national history when it seems that the country we love is coming apart at the seams, I think it critically important that we unite around common moral and political principles—principles that I believe are good and right, not simply because they are ours, but because they are true—absolutely, objectively, permanently, and universally true. Those who, broadly speaking, defend the philosophy of Americanism can no doubt find a few minor and tertiary issues over which to disagree, but this is not the time to fight over whether the founding was Hobbesian, Lockean, Aristotelian, or something else.
America’s Revolutionary Mind claims that the moral and political principles of the Declaration of Independence are true. That is the fundamental issue around which we must rally.
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Conservatives must reassert the mores and moral virtues of self-government.