Up from the Liberal Founding
Up from the Liberal Founding
Jul 13, 2024 5:40 PM

During the 20th century, scholars of the American founding generally believed that it was liberal. Specifically, they saw the founding as rooted in the political thought of 17th-century English philosopher John Locke. In addition, they saw Locke as a primarily secular thinker, one who sought to isolate the role of religion from political considerations except when necessary to prop up the various assumptions he made for natural rights. These included a divine creator responsible for a rational world for humans to discover. Such a god was hardly the God of the reigning Protestants predominant during the period when Locke or our Founders lived. This view of Locke and the American founding was “bipartisan” in that both conservative and progressive scholars agreed on the central importance of the “liberal tradition” in American politics. While Leo Strauss and Louis Hartz could not agree on much, they could at least agree on a Lockean America. The full expression of this view could be found in Bernard Bailyn’s classic The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, published in 1967, perhaps not coincidentally the last year the American “liberal consensus” remained intact.

Was the American founding a Lockean “liberal” one, which many postliberals see as flawed from the start, or a classical and Christian one? The decades-long debate may finally be settled.

The Classical and Christian Origins of American Politics:

Political Theology, Natural Law, and the American Founding

By Kody W. Cooper and Justin Buckley Dyer

(Cambridge University Press, 2022)

In recent decades, however, scholars have reconsidered this view of the American founding. The ground was first laid by the 1984 landmark content analysis of Donald S. Lutz in his American Political Science Review article “The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth-Century American Political Thought.” Here piled revolutionary and founding literature—while intentionally excluding sermons for obvious reasons—from 1760 until 1805, and searched for references to authorities ancient and modern. He discovered that the so-called Lockean liberal founding was nothing of the sort. Rather, revolutionary literature contained more references to the Bible than to all other bined, and the most popular book was that of Deuteronomy. Locke appears somewhat often in the earliest years Lutz examined but rapidly tapers off in favor of appeals to Montesquieu, Blackstone, Hume, Pufendorf, Coke, and Cicero. Far from a Lockean liberal founding, Lutz concluded that “the debate surrounding the adoption of the U.S. Constitution reflected different patterns of influence than the debates surrounding the writing and adoption of the state constitutions, or the Revolutionary writing surrounding the Declaration of Independence.” In short, Lutz had proved that reducing the founding to liberalism badly oversimplified plicated series of events with a wide array of influences and statesmen at work.

Lutz’s view remained something of a minority one; Michael Zuckert published The Natural Rights Republic in 1997 and Matthew Stewart Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic in 2015. By that year, however, the thesis of a “liberal founding” was already on shaky ground. A new generation of specialists in the field, like Daniel Dreisbach and Mark David Hall, had already labored to illustrate the significance of both Christian ideas and Christian interpretations of modern ideas during the founding era. Eric Nelson, David Bederman, Francis Oakley, Paul DeHart, and others have illustrated the significance of classical thought, medieval natural law theory, and “political Hebraism” as major intellectual contributions on the founding. Historians of Protestant political thought, such as Glenn Moots, have charted its significance as well. Joining political Hebraism and Protestant political thought, as I have shown, was a now mostly forgotten tradition of the “American Nehemiad,” or interpreting pious but tough patriotism in terms of the Jewish governor of Palestine under the Persian Empire, the biblical Nehemiah. None of this is to say that Locke did not play a role in the American founding but rather that he did not play a central role. The Founders simply were not captured by the Lockean imaginary.

The Classical and Christian Origins of American Politics: Political Theology, Natural Law, and the American Foundingby Kody W. Cooper and Justin Buckley Dyer is both a summary statement of this literature and a critical step forward both in prehensiveness and in its innovation of methodology. It is, in my view, the best case one can make for centering the American founding on natural law, classical republicanism, and a broadly Christian tradition. Critical to this effort is to frame the question correctly. Dyer and Cooper are not arguing that America is a Christian nation but that it had a classical and Christian founding. The “Christian nation” hypothesis has largely been a project of older Protestant preachers and activists seeking to identify in the American founding the same faith practiced in their own churches, leading sometimes to the historiographical excesses like those of David Barton and his now discredited book on Thomas Jefferson.

Dyer and Cooper are not arguing that America is a Christian nation but that it had a classical and Christian founding.

The “classical and Christian founding” hypothesis is a more sensible subject, as it is one scholars can answer in a book-length project and is also sufficient for those challenging the centrality of liberalism. Simply put, Dyer and Cooper aim to unseat the centrality of liberalism to illustrate that it was merely one influence and that its later predominance was one ascribed to the founding by later historians wishing to use such an ascription to their own ideological ends. The first thought one might have is that Dyer and Cooper are doing the same; but if so, they have good reason. They have, as the kids say, “the receipts.”

Dyer and Cooper argue that the origins of American politics are classical and Christian, not modern. By “modern,” they mean “Hobbist,” a term they borrow from the Founders themselves. The term refers to Thomas Hobbes, a 17th-century political philosopher and author of Leviathan, one of the most important political philosophy texts ever written. While Cooper holds an idiosyncratic view of Hobbes as a natural law theorist, he leaves this interpretation to the side in favor of the predominate view that Hobbes sought to undermine natural law and pare it down to observable, effectual truths. They summarize these as “there is no standard of goodness outside of God’s will. God’s sovereignty is therefore absolute in the sense that it is unbounded by anything other than arbitrary will.” The Hobbist God has its imitation in the “mortal god” of the political sovereign, whose will governs those who consent to it, and this has no moral limits. Contrary to this view is that of the Founders:

What [the Founders] specifically affirmed was that God created the world and imbued various aspects of his creation with discernible laws to direct creation to its proper end. For human beings, the moral laws of human nature, known by reason, point the way to happiness or flourishing in this life. God’s right of prescribing these laws, and our obligation to obey, is rooted in God’s power and goodness, and the natural law therefore is not merely an imposition of an arbitrary will. Similarly, human rulers are bounded by a real moral good when they make decrees to govern the munity. Good is not merely what is dictated by the sovereign.

One should add, as they do elsewhere, that such a God also takes an interest in His creation and ordains for His people a happy e, otherwise known as Providence. None of the above requires the Founders to be devout and dedicated Christians of the same denomination; rather, all that is required is a broadly classical, Christian conception of the world. Some Founders were devout, like John Jay and James Wilson, while others were more heterodox, like Thomas Jefferson and perhaps James Madison. The Founders certainly shared a “natural theology,” by which the authors mean a knowledge of things divine through rational inquiry only, but significant Christian ideas remain part of even heterodox thought, such as God’s interest in history and the problem of human fallenness.

Thomas Hobbes, portrait by John Michael Wright (c. 1669–70)

Dyer and Cooper work through the publications that influenced the events of the Revolution and founding. In the chapter on the pamphlet wars between Patriots and Loyalists, they point to James Otis, John Dickinson, and James Wilson as classical and Christian in their perspectives. Otis, they observe, disapproves of modern political philosophers Samuel von Pufendorf and Hugo Grotius as “impure foundations,” while Otis interprets Locke as a realist rather than a nominalist. Such an interpretation is not true to Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding, but Otis is less interested in getting Locke right than he is in putting him to use for the Patriot cause. Dickinson makes references to Americans as “Christian freemen,” grounds private property rights in Micah 4:4, and sees a benevolent Creator ordaining events by Providence and forming a new grace-based covenant. Wilson, perhaps the most famous natural law thinker of the founding, they quote at length:

By his wisdom, [God] knows our nature, our faculties, and our interests: he cannot be mistaken in the designs, which he proposes, nor in the means, which he employs to plish them. By his goodness, he proposes our happiness: and to that end directs the operations of his power and wisdom. … The rule of his government we shall find to be reduced to this one mand—Let man pursue his own perfection and happiness.

The chapter on Jefferson is so careful that it resists summary here, but it represents, in my view, the best attempt to refute what the authors call the “subversion theology thesis.” In this they are taking on giants of 20th-century political philosophy: Leo Strauss and Thomas Pangle. This thesis is that Jefferson feigned a minimum religious faith for public respectability but wrote in a way that signaled to attentive readers his materialism and naturalism, a practice known as “esoteric writing.” Through a close reading of Jefferson’s letters to Adams, Dyer and Cooper demonstrate that Jefferson affirmed a created universe, an innate reason to apprehend God’s laws, and a theistic interpretation of humans as “divine property” immune to arbitrary power of a paternal king. In these efforts, Jefferson makes surprising references to Aquinas, Suárez, and Bellarmine. Moreover, because these letters were private and between close friends, Jefferson has no need for adopting esoteric writing. He is simply bearing his own thoughts. None of this amounts to Jefferson’s being an orthodox Christian, and Dyer and Cooper stress this at the end of the chapter. It suffices to show, however, that Jefferson’s heterodoxy is not a subversive theology but rather an effort to harmonize classical, Christian, and modern political thought.

Jefferson’s heterodoxy is not a subversive theology but rather an effort to harmonize classical, Christian, and modern political thought.

Later chapters work in much the same way: Dyer and Cooper provide a historical context for the debate of a certain period and review the arguments presented by the key actors and thinkers of the moment. Space does not permit me to cover all of them. Instead, I want to discuss the most innovative yet also the weakest chapter of the book—on counterespionage, “Providence and Natural Law in the War for Independence”—which features a most creative argument. As in the Jefferson chapter, Dyer and Cooper are concerned about the “subversive theology thesis.” One important condition for the subversive theology thesis is that the statements are public, since esoteric writing is only necessary when one must hide one’s thoughts. To hide one’s thoughts from the less attentive reader requires an “exoteric message” that satisfies or even distracts them from the esoteric one. Not all writing is public; indeed, as with the letters between Jefferson and Adams, some are private. In this chapter, however, they are more than private. They are secret.

Secret messages do not require any exoteric writing, as they are intended for a very specific audience. These particular secret letters are those conducted by counterespionage agents among the Patriots and their allies in France. What the authors uncover are repeated examples in which agents appeal to Providence as guiding the war toward a favorable end and a trust in that Providence despite present hardships. The correspondences they e from John Jay, George Washington, John Honeyman, Nathaniel Sackett, Benjamin Tallmadge, Charles Hector (Comte d’Estaing), Abraham Woodhull (a.k.a. “Samuel Culper”), Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur (Comte de Rochambeau), Silas Deane, Roger Sherman, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, Chevalier d’Éon, Charles Gravier (Comte de Vergennes), Jonathan Trumbull, and Benjamin Franklin.

The trouble with highlighting the providential language shared among these figures is that it might not be part of a classical and Christian tradition but an esoteric one—namely Freemasonry. Freemasonry was mon practice in England, France, and the colonies, and many of the figures in this chapter were practitioners, including Washington, Tallmadge, Deane, d’Éon, Franklin, and most likely Sherman. References to Providence among these correspondences are muddied by the Masonic conception of Providence that is more rationalistic and less directly Christian, meaning that those sharing these ideas with each other were using the term in one of two ways—the classical, Christian way or the Masonic way. For some, like perhaps Washington, there might be no difference between the two, but for others there might be, especially Franklin. This possibility does not seem to occur to Dyer and Cooper, who never mention it in their discussion of Franklin’s conception of Providence, which was certainly influenced by his participation in Masonic rites. Even when non-Masons are writing to Masons, they may adjust their terminology to reflect mon belief in a Providence to demonstrate a continued trust in a high-stakes spy world where trust is hard e by. By no means is this issue fatal to the argument of the chapter, especially its innovation; it only means that there might be a few “false positives” when they search for examples of a classical and Christian use of Providence in counterespionage.

An 1870 print portraying George Washington as Master of the Masonic Lodge at Alexandria, Virginia, in 1793

Quibbles aside, The Classical and Christian Origins of American Politics is a triumph of original research, close reading, and innovation both in method and textual interpretation. The book rewards careful and repeated reading. Indeed, I read the book twice for this review and learned more the second time than the first. To date, Dyer and Cooper have written the strongest refutation of the “Lockean founding” hypothesis and best “maximalist” reading of the American founding as classical and Christian. By “maximalist” I mean they all but deny that modern political thought played a role in the founding at all, except perhaps on the margins through figures like Jefferson. No doubt many readers will question this conclusion, but Dyer and Cooper have marshalled so much evidence that any doubts will require an equal amount of argumentation.

We e a long way from Lutz’s 1984 breakthrough study, and now, as far as I am concerned, Dyer and Cooper have proved that the correct interpretation of the American founding is as a classical and Christian one. A major implication of this book’s conclusion is that the ongoing postliberal critique of America is simply wrong in its assessment of the founding as Lockean or liberal, as in the case of Patrick Deneen, something Dyer and Cooper address briefly in the conclusion of their book. Moreover, the classical and Christian origins they uncover are not like those Adrian Vermeule has attempted to expose in his own work. For that reason, not only is The Classical and Christian Origins of American Politics an outstanding book; it is a timely one.

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