America's Revolutionary Mind
A moral history of the American Revolution and the Declaration that defined it.
Author's note: In his most recent book, America's Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration That Defined It, C. Bradley Thompson gives us perhaps the most compelling moral interpretation of the American Revolution and the foundational principles of the Republic. In reconstructing the logic and principles of the Declaration of Independence, he establishes that which has rarely been given sufficient attention: the fact that America’s revolutionary war was primarily moral rather than economic or political.
The story of America’s victorious fight for independence and its success in achieving its exceptional status as a Republic is the story of a unique phenomenon: the creation of the American Mind.
Thompson does a brilliant job of weaving together the modes of reasoning that led to agreements in the minds of the Founders about the foundational and first principles in which the country would be rooted. In the end, we are left with a picture of the revolutionaries not just as profound political thinkers, but as moral giants—both as persons and as philosophic thinkers. Unanimously they perceived the correct nature of man as a human being who needed fundamental and indisputable resources and rights for a life of flourishing. This established them as epistemological geniuses. Out of that perception came the creation of the political system most consonant with that rational nature.
C. Bradley Thompson is the BB&T Research Professor in the Department of Political Science at Clemson University and the Executive Director of the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism. He received his Ph.D from Brown University, and has also been a visiting scholar at Princeton and Harvard universities and at the University of London.
I interviewed him recently about America's Revolutionary Mind.
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Hill: Much of your book shores up the moral foundations of our Republic’s beginnings. Is it fair to say that America is the first consciously created moral country on earth?
Thompson: Absolutely, yes! In the first essay of The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton famously wrote that the American people were the first in history “to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” By founding their governments on the basis of “reflection and choice,” Hamilton meant to say that the Americans exercised their reason and free will to choose and create new governments based on explicit philosophic principles. Those principles were drawn from the 17th-century English Enlightenment, and, more particularly, from the philosophic ideas of John Locke.
The first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence are a précis of Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. From Locke, they learned that there are certain moral laws and rights of nature that can be discovered by human reason. Jefferson and America’s revolutionary founders believed that “truth” is objective, absolute, universal and permanent. The Declaration’s famous self-evident truths can be summed up in four words: equality, rights, consent, and revolution.
Hill: The Founding Fathers were able to connect man’s real nature to the political milieu best suited for its preservation. How did this common epistemological capability arise in all of them in such a seemingly organic manner?
Thompson: Ideas have consequences, and the ideas of the 17th-century Enlightenment crossed the Atlantic in the early 18th century and quickly infiltrated the American colonies' best colleges. By the middle of the 18th century, American college students were reading texts such as Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum, Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, and John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding and the Second Treatise of Government. From Newton the colonists learned that nature or reality is governed by certain physical laws of nature; from Bacon they learned inductive modes of reasoning that gave them a scientific method—the inductive method—by which to study nature; and from Locke they learned that man’s reason was capable of using Bacon’s method in order to understand Newton’s laws of nature.
The great philosophic task of 18th-century Americans was to use and develop the methods of reasoning developed by Bacon, Newton, and Locke in order to search for and discover the moral laws and rights of nature. Such laws and rights, they discovered, transcended the so-called “rights of Englishmen,” which were the rights of a particular people at a particular time. During their conflict with British imperial officials in the 1760s and 1770s, American Patriots set out to discover and then found their new governments on the basis of certain moral principles that transcended place and time.
Hill: You’ve done something remarkable in this book: you’ve offered a conceptual outline of the American mind. What are its chief attributes?
Thompson: Without question, “America’s Revolutionary mind” was defined by its insistence that reason was man’s guide to discovering objectively true moral principles, such as justice, freedom, equality, rights, and moral virtue. The first sentence of the Declaration grants a “decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind,” which means that American Patriots were appealing to the power of man’s reason to discern the justice of their cause.
Thomas Jefferson once wrote that the American Revolution restored to mankind “the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion.” The light of reason opened men’s eyes to the “rights of man,” Jefferson wrote, and it revealed the “palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”
The American mind is also, I would say, defined not only by certain moral-political principles (equality, rights, individualism, consent, laissez-faire government, constitutionalism, free markets), but by a certain kind of moral logic that can be summed up in the phrase, “spirit of liberty.” The spirit of liberty is a jealous and watchful spirit that requires eternal vigilance in the face of encroaching political power. This moral logic said that free men and women should never permit government to take one inch of their freedoms because if they do, the government will take eventually one foot, and then one yard, and then one mile until they are all slaves.
Hill: What is your overall view of Lincoln’s moral stature? Do you think that America had a second founding that was formally realized in his Gettysburg Address?
Thompson: My overall assessment of Abraham Lincoln is very positive. He was America’s poet-statesman. The Gettysburg Address, for instance, is a work of literary artistry. The Gettysburg Address doesn’t quite refound America as much as it rededicates America to living up to its founding principles.
Lincoln’s greatest virtue was his ability to combine principle with prudence. He was no Abolitionist (the position that I most clearly identify with), but he was nevertheless a man of unyielding principle. Lincoln’s moral line in the sand was the Missouri Compromise. He did not think that slavery should be permitted to extend beyond essentially the Mississippi River. This is why he was opposed to Stephen A. Douglas’s doctrine of “popular sovereignty,” which would have permitted the trans-Mississippi territories to vote “up or down” on the slavery question. Lincoln believed that Douglas’s position smacked of moral relativism. He charged Douglas with “not caring” whether slavery was permitted to extend into the western territories. That said, Lincoln, unlike some Abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, was not willing to destroy the Union in order to abolish slavery. Lincoln believed that the Union was necessary to abolishing chattel slavery.
Hill: Against the age of Cancel Culture, with calls to morally condemn many of the Founding Fathers for their ownership in chattel slavery, as well as attributed racist views against blacks, my question is this: has the criterion for moral appraisal of these men been applied without a proper methodology that pertains to how standards of appraisal and judgments in morality ought to be made in general?
Thompson: Yes. I’m struck by the blatantly ahistorical approach of twentieth- and twenty-first century Americans to the question of American slavery. When I ask my students to imagine what their view of slavery might have been had they been born in the antebellum South, I’m amused to learn that all of them, every single one, would have been a committed Abolitionist dedicating their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to abolishing slavery. As much as I admire their 21st-century anti-slavery principles, I can’t help but be amused. This position is now more difficult to defend in the light of the 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory, which suggests that all whites are, and have forever been, racist. The problem with both positions, of course, is that slavery and racism are not and were not simply a problem of white southerners, then or now. The institution of slavery is a human problem. It was practiced by Africans on Africans long before it was exported to the New World—and it still is.
A proper historical method for understanding the history of slavery is to view the institution, as much as possible, not through the lens of the present, but through the eyes and minds of those who engaged or lived with the institution. Slavery is and always has been immoral, but such blanket condemnations cannot help us to understand why Thomas Jefferson and other slave-holding signers of the Declaration of Independence didn’t free their slaves after July 4, 1776. We can and should judge past actors for their ideas and actions, but our first task as scholars is to ask and attempt to answer the “why” question. Why didn’t Revolutionary slaveholders free their slaves? Once we ask that question, the issue becomes much more complicated.
Hill: And you do that in your book. Who is your favorite Founder and why?
Thompson: That’s easy: John Adams. Adams is not only my favorite founding father, but it is demonstrably provable that he was America’s greatest founding father. Adams did more than any other Revolutionary, including George Washington, to successfully prosecute the Revolution. If Washington was the sword and Jefferson the pen of the Revolution, Adams was the engine of the Revolution.
He was the Revolution’s leading man of ideas and he was its leading man of action. Adams embodied in thought and action the principles of the Revolution in a way unmatched by any other American of that great generation. As one delegate to the Continental Congress put it: “The man to whom the country is most indebted for the great measure of independence is Mr. John Adams. . . . I call him the Atlas of American independence.”
It would take many thousands of words to provide the evidence for this claim. Maybe we can save that for another time.
Hill: Say something more about the two specific decades in which the American mind was formulated.
Thompson: During his retirement years, John Adams wrote that the true American Revolution began not on July 4, 1776 but rather during the 15 years before the Battles at Lexington and Concord (April 19, 1775), which means that he dates the beginning of the American Revolution—a revolution that he said was in the “minds of the people”—to 1760. Why 1760? That was the year that Great Britain granted British customs officials in the American colonies “general writs of assistance” (i.e., virtually unlimited search warrants), which were followed in relatively quick succession by the Sugar, Stamp, Townshend, Tea, Coercive, and Prohibitory Acts. The Americans were thus forced to rethink the nature of the British constitution, their rights as Englishmen, and their role in the British empire. And thus began their search for a new conception of a constitution (i.e., the idea of a written constitution as fundamental law), rights grounded in nature and not history, and the freedom of an independent nation.
Hill: I think it fair to say we live in an age of moral crisis for a plethora of obvious reasons for the attentive citizens. Do you think America has lost its American Mind?
Thompson: Beginning in the 1940s and 1950s, serious thinkers such as Albert Camus, Leo Strauss, and Ayn Rand began to argue that the mid-twentieth century was engulfed in a profound philosophic and moral crisis. That crisis was manifested most clearly in the fact that the West in general, and the United States of America in particular, had lost faith in its core moral-political principles, and, more importantly, of reason’s ability to ground and defend those principles. That crisis has only deepened over the course of the last 60 years. In fact, we might say that it’s in its final death throes. Whereas past generations of American intellectuals might have questioned America’s founding principles, today’s “intellectuals” openly condemn those principles. The result, of course, is that we are now approaching the moment when it can be said that a significant minority of Americans hate the idea of America. But to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech, a nation that hates itself cannot stand.
Permit me to be slightly playful with your question. My answer depends on how you define “lost.” On the one hand, I don’t think the American mind is lost. It’s truer to say that the original American mind is under assault and is being destroyed by an ideological cancer. But if by “lost” we mean it in psychological terms, then yes, the American mind is suffering from a kind of profound mental illness—a kind of ideological schizophrenia. I wrote America’s Revolutionary Mind to help cure and restore to its original health and to foster, as Lincoln put it, “a new birth of freedom."
Hill: Thank you for writing America's Revolutionary Mind. It will serve as an agent of good in our world today.
Jason D. Hill is professor of philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago specializing in ethics, social and political philosophy, American foreign policy and American politics and moral psychology. He is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center. Dr. Hill is the author of five books, including the forthcoming book, What Do White Americans Owe Black People: Racial Justice in the Age of Post-Oppression. Follow him on Twitter @JasonDhill6.