America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration That Defined It. C. Bradley Thompson. New York: Encounter Books, 2019.
C. Bradley Thompson’s America’s Revolutionary Mind is intended as the first half of a study on the American founding: this volume focuses on the Declaration of Independence and the causes of the American Revolution, while the planned second volume will feature the United States Constitution. Thompson feels that the bi-partite division of these works, as well as their complementarity, reflects a fundamental reality about the United States: as he puts it, “The relationship between the current and the proposed volume is virtually identical to the connection that Abraham Lincoln saw between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution” (xi).
The first thing to note about this book is that it is not primarily a historical work, although it contains much historical research: instead, it is most essentially a promotional tract for a certain understanding of moral and political life. Thompson is a competent historian who certainly knows the source material of the revolutionary period extremely well. His description of the views of the revolutionaries seems accurate, and if what he had done was merely to lay out a history of those views in their development, this would be an excellent contribution to the historical literature. But running throughout the work is a constant subtext of advocacy: the views of the revolutionaries are not merely described, but it is continually implied that their understanding of human nature and politics was both entirely laudable and timelessly correct. That this is primarily a polemical, rather than an historical, work is evidenced even in its arrangement, which is not chronological, but topological. Thus, in this review, I will only occasionally question Thompson’s historical research; instead, I will focus more on the philosophical case he wishes his historical facts to support.
In particular, Thompson repeatedly presents John Locke’s ideas on government, rights, property, and revolution, as if they are a coherent, and a paradigm changing contribution to political philosophy. For instance, Thompson claims “Locke is the first philosopher in history to make the individual the primary unit of moral and political value” (24), and obviously believes this to be a good thing. But Eric Voegelin penetrated the essence of what this attempt to remove the Christian substance from European civilization:
Locke and those who follow him in his course go on to live and to participate in a civilizational environment that has been formed into the remotest wrinkles of its intellectual language by the very tradition they try to remove. Hence, the attempt to return to the earlier phase will result not in a genuine removal of tradition (which would imply the rebuilding of a civilization on a new basis) but in a far-reaching devastation of the intellectual form of contemporary civilization. (https://voegelinview.com/lockes-reasonable-method/)
Alongside such high praise from Thompson for Locke comes a good bit of praise for his own work. In the preface Thompson tells us, “I have attempted to write a book that is original, comprehensive, and transformative” (xiii). Now, in my understanding of what an historical work should be aiming at, it would be to determine what actually happened in the past, and how what happened at some particular time followed from what happened at earlier times. Such a work may, in fact, wind up being “transformative,” but to set out with that goal in mind is, I suggest, a deformation of the character of historical research.
Let us consider Thompson’s distress that the works of Bernard Bailyn and Gordon S. Wood from the late sixties remain the most important books for understanding the Revolution: “Surely, though, it should not remain the case that the most influential books on the American Revolution were written in the 1960s” (xii). Well, why not? Mathematicians never exhibit anxiety over the fact that the most influential understanding of the relationship of the sides of a right triangle was arrived at several thousand years ago. No, the Pythagorean Theorem is correct, and mathematicians accept that this is right (for Euclidean spaces) and build on that result. Perhaps it just happens to be the case that Bailyn and Wood “got things right” in the 1960s. And if they did not get things right, then certainly how long ago they made their mistakes is irrelevant. In fact, Thompson’s concern about how “old” these works are seems to fly in the face of his repeated assertions that the American founders were espousing “timeless” truths. If their truths from the 1700s are not to be dismissed because they are “old,” then why should the works of Bailyn and Woods suffer that fate?
Thompson goes on to contend that he has developed “a new approach to history writing that I shall call new moral history” (6). This approach, he says, “emphasizes thinking, judging, choosing, and acting individuals over large-scale social processes moved by unforeseen forces” (6). But to anyone who has studied the historiographical work of, say, Dilthey, Collingwood, Oakeshott, or Mises, this approach will hardly seem new.
Thompson is also full of praise for the Enlightenment. For example, he writes, “Newton’s discoveries brought light where there had been only darkness” (15). Newton himself would have regarded Thompson’s remark as nonsense: he famously acknowledged that he had made his discoveries only because he had stood on the “shoulders of giants.” In a letter to David Gregory, he called the recent algebraic work of Descartes and others “the analysis of the bunglers in mathematics” and said that he himself looked back to the work of the ancient Greek mathematicians for inspiration. Furthermore, it has been demonstrated, by Duhem, Grant (Grant 1996), and others, that the foundations for the scientific advances of the seventeenth century were laid in the Middle Ages.
Thompson further claims, “One thing was certain during the Enlightenment: faith, revelation, mystic insight, innate ideas, and a priori speculation were rejected” (16). But Newton himself spent more of his life studying scripture and alchemy than he did physics or mathematics, mathematics is built upon “a priori speculation,” and that Descartes believed that “divine revelation is more certain than any knowledge” (Descartes 1954).
Thompson is also enamored of Locke’s idea of self-ownership, paying no heed to the fact that it is nonsensical even within the context of Locke’s own philosophy. Locke suggests that one justly acquires ownership of something by mingling one’s own labor with it. And he even makes a logical step of admitting that this renders God the owner of everyone. Furthermore, for anyone who wishes to deny the existence of God, this would leave a person’s parents as a person’s rightful owner, since it was their “labor” they brought about that person. So Locke’s leap to then declare that people somehow “own themselves” makes no sense at all. Voegelin’s analysis of this incoherent jumble is worth quoting at some length:
“[For Locke] God has made men; they are his property and they are under a duty to keep themselves alive and not to damage each other because any action of this kind would mean damage to God’s property. God is a serious person. He does not make men for fun; if he makes them he wants them to last as long as possible… If we inquire into the source of the rule that nobody must damage God’s property we are referred to God, Nature, Reason, and Common Equity; none of these sources is defined or explained in any way whatsoever…
“The rule of doing no damage has nothing to do with reason, nature, or other hieroglyphs, but has for its source the ethical conventions of Locke and of the society of which he is the respected representative. Man is a proprietor who watches over his own property and recognizes his duty not to damage anybody else’s, and God is formed in his image… For… Locke, he is a manufacturer who does not want his property to be damaged…
“Whether God is a proprietor or not, what really matters is that man is a proprietor of himself. No pretext of derivation is made for the second step; man simply has ‘a property in his own person'” (Voegelin 1999, 146-147).
The point here is not to argue that “timeless truths” do not exist. Instead, it is that Locke’s philosophy is nott the right place to look for them, since his philosophy is not even internally consistent.
Thompson devotes an entire chapter to slavery. Faced with reconciling the Founders’ belief that all men are created equal with the fact that many of them owned slaves, Thompson writes that we must “examine the ideas, decisions, and actions of America’s revolutionary generation on the founders’ own terms” (128). But this looks like the “historicism” that Thompson roundly condemns in other parts of this very book! It seems historicism is good when it reaches conclusions Thompson likes, but bad when it does not.
On this topic, Thompson is simply wrong in his historical facts when he writes: “With the possible exception of the Quakers, few Americans (or anyone anywhere else for that matter) before the 1760s seriously questioned the moral status of slavery” (125).
This is nonsense: there had been Catholic abolition movements since the 5th century, and a Papal bull condemning slavery had been issued just two decades before the 1760s. However, since these facts do not fit with Thompson’s narrative that before the Enlightenment all was medieval darkness, they are conveniently ignored.
A few pages later, Thompson writes: “Day-to-day life for ordinary people in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Anglo-American society could be described as, to quote Thomas Hobbes, ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short'” (128).
It is hard to imagine what the point of quoting Hobbes here is, since his famous phrase is a description of what he thought life would be like outside of society. Hobbes wished to contrast this state with life in English society, at least when it was not in a state of civil war: within society, life was no longer “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”!
Thompson goes on to consider the idea of “rights.” He asserts that “Eighteenth-century Americans took for granted that all men everywhere have natural rights… The rights of nature are indefeasible, inherent, universal, eternal, and absolute” (164) Now, it may be true that they had “taken this for granted” as an abstraction, but as soon as it came time to deal with concrete matters, the country was riven by acrimonious disputes: federalists versus anti-federalists, the Whiskey Rebellion, Jefferson versus Hamilton, the Alien and Sedition Acts and the opposition to them, the Federalists versus the Democratic-Republicans, New England versus Jefferson’s tariffs, and so on. There was agreement on fine-sounding, vague ideas, and little agreement on what these meant in practice.
Soon thereafter, Thompson says that, for the revolutionaries, “to have property in one’s rights is to say that each and every individual has sovereignty over his choices and conduct within the limits agreed to by all individuals in a particular society” (167).
This is striking firstly because, just a few pages before, rights were “absolute,” but now they only extend to the “limits” agreed to by “all individuals” in some society. And in that last phrase is the second surprising contention: no society has ever existed anywhere in which “all individuals” agreed to what those limits should be. Thompson quotes the Reverend Dan Foster as claiming “if anything in nature is capable of proof [the basic rights of nature] are capable to be proved, and of being set in a most convincing and clear point of light before all reasonable and impartial minds” (170). But a multitude of people have gone about trying to “prove” what such rights imply about a political system, and, unlike geometricians, they keep reaching different conclusions. The only way to defend Foster’s conclusion is to declare that one can detect a “reasonable and impartial mind” based on whether a person arrives at the same theory of rights as oneself. As MacIntyre noted in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, “the history of attempts to construct a morality for tradition-free individuals, whether by an appeal to one out of several conceptions of universalizability or to one out of equally multifarious conceptions of utility or to shared intuitions or to some combination of these, has its outcome… been a history of continuously unresolved disputes” (MacIntyre 1988, 334).
When it comes to the ownership of private property, Thompson enthusiastically embraces Locke’s proposal that one comes to own property by “mixing” one’s labor with it. That the idea of “mixing” labor with objects is a very strange way of thinking has been noted before — see Nozick (1974) or Waldron (1983). The latter notes that the very idea of mixing labor with objects appears to be a category error: I can mix eggs and flour, since both are objects. But how can I mix labor, which is an action, with, say, wood, which is an object? Using my labor, I might mix wood with some plastics to form a wood composite, but how does it make sense to say my labor is contained in the mix? If I created this mixture by taking advantage of the fact that it was a hot day that allowed me to mix the plastic more thoroughly with the wood, is the heat of the day also now part of this mixture?
And Nozick asks us to consider that, even if we grant that it makes sense to say one can “mix” labor with an object, it is not clear why this should give the mixer ownership of the object. If I take some jewelry I own, and I “mix” it with the ocean by tossing it in the waves, almost everyone would think I had thrown away my jewelry, not that I had suddenly gained ownership of the ocean. Why should things be different with my labor?
A simple way of trying to make sense of Locke is to posit that he really meant, “If you made it, you own it.” But then why not say that? Well, what perhaps Locke really seeks to justify is the ownership of land, the most important thing owned by most people when he wrote. And in particular, why do various Englishmen own vast tracts of land in North America, when there were people there before them who seemingly ought to be the just owners? Of course, on occasion, the settlers had “purchased” the land from an Indian tribe, but given that the North American Indians did not share European ideas of land ownership (Bailyn 2013), then even such purchases are of questionable provenance. And in many other cases, land was simply “granted” to some European without any concern about the Indians who lived on it: consider the grant to William Penn of the entire state of Pennsylvania.
Thompson next considers the idea that a government is only legitimate if it has the unanimous consent of the governed. He cites Thomas Paine, whom he praises for finally having gone all the way and recommending severing the colonies’ ties with Britain. He describes how Paine makes a sharp distinction between “society” and “government.” Society is good and government is just a necessary evil. The “natural society” or Locke’s state of nature, is supposed to describe the “actual conditions on the ground” (251) in the American colonies. But, in fact, the colonists on their arrival had encountered societies with much less formal government than even the colonists themselves established. And such societies hardly conform to Thompson’s libertarian ideals. As noted above, the American Indians did not even have a concept of land ownership. And rather than a pure private property regime, we find that such pre-state societies typically have serious communal restraints on private appropriation, for instance, there is a customary way in which the spoils of a hunt should be divided, rather than going entirely to the hunter who “mixed his labor” with a deer or bison.
Thompson next takes up the topic of when revolution is justified. Given his endorsement of the idea that, for a government to be legitimate, consent to it must be “unanimous,” it is worth examining a few actual incidents that he describes.
The residents of rural western Massachusetts in 1775 announced that they preferred to be without any government rather than to submit to the king or the non-constitutional government then effectively ruling Massachusetts. The eastern, establishment revolutionaries enlisted a resident of the west to inform his fellow westerners that “the inhabitants of Berkshire County were still obliged ‘to obey the rules, and orders prescribed by the major part of the society'” (261). In western New Hampshire, rebellious river towns declared that they did not want to be part of the new revolutionary state of New Hampshire. A member of the state council pointed out to them that some portion of their population wish to remain connected to the state of New Hampshire. “How and why, he asked, will these minorities be compelled to obey the majorities of their tiny town republics?” (262).
Well, we know how the many American loyalists were compelled to obey the revolutionaries: they were sometimes tarred and feathered, or had their houses burned, and many fled to Canada or the Caribbean. Thompson takes no note of the fact that this makes nonsense of the idea that the leading revolutionaries thought that the only legitimate government was one that had the consent of the governed. They did not want to be governed without their consent, but they were perfectly happy to force the government they wanted upon some yokels in western Massachusetts, or upon American loyalists.
In fact, once we take account of the 20% or so of colonists who were still loyal to the crown, the 25% of the population that were black slaves, the 50% of the population who were women with no vote, the many propertyless white males who had no vote, and the American Indians still resident within the colonies, it is quite clear that this was the revolt of an elite, who wanted a government that they liked, and did not particularly care whether all of the above groups consented to it, or not. Thompson states that the revolutionaries believe that consent “must be unanimous” (268): but once we total up the members of all of the above groups, it is clear that the new, revolutionary government, was, in fact, consented to by only a small minority of the adult population of the thirteen colonies.
In the last part of this book, Thompson takes on what he calls “historicism,” an error to which both the defenders of slavery and 20th-century progressives fell prey. Firstly, I will note that, while I am neither a defender of slavery nor a progressive: this is an ugly attempt at smear by association. It is akin to noting that, “Well, Hitler was a vegetarian, and my opponent Joe Smith is a vegetarian, so therefore….”
On this topic, Thompson creates a false dichotomy: either someone ignores historical circumstances and accepts “timeless” values, or they are an unprincipled “relativist,” thinking that there are no standards of right and wrong, only whatever some particular society happens to regard as right or wrong. That this dichotomy is false can be illustrated with a simple analogy: let’s say I want to travel from Hawaii to Easter Island by the fastest means possible?
Well, if I lived in Hawaii in 1200 A.D., the fastest means would have been by catamaran. But today, a jet plane can surely get me there faster. Does that mean that “the truth” about the fastest means is relative? Of course not: catamaran really was the fastest means in 1200, and jet plane really is the fastest means today. In 1200, someone who suggested “walking” as the fastest means from Hawaii to Easter Island would have been objectively wrong, just as today someone recommending “catamaran” would be objectively wrong. And in the future, when we have constructed hyper-space tunnels, the answer “jet plane” will be objectively wrong.
In fact, it is only by considering historical circumstances that we can really, objectively determine what would have been the best action available to an actor in the circumstances in which they found themselves. If we want to criticize the Polynesians for traveling for Easter Island by catamaran, the only coherent way to do so is by pointing out that, in their actual, historical circumstances, they in fact had a better alternative. It is ridiculous to argue, “These Polynesian explorers were fools: why didn’t they just take a jet plane?” when there were no jet planes available to them. As Claes Ryn puts it:
“Contemporary critics of ‘historicism,’ as exemplified by Leo Strauss, do not delve very deeply into German philosophy… What is criticized as ‘historicism’… and emphasis on history that tends to undermine universality… is only one possible offshoot of German historicist philosophy… to those arbitrarily assuming that historicism must destroy universality, talk of the historical nature of thought, or a human life more generally, seems a threat to the idea of truth (and the idea of moral right). But you insist that we are forever trying to clarify our insights into reality and that we must do so within the more or less favorable intellectual and other circumstances which are our own life is most certainly not the same as to dissolve philosophy into a sea of historical relativity” (Ryn 1997, 126).
Thompson has written a curious book: a work of political persuasion disguised as a history book. He makes a convincing case that many of the Founders were the Lockean rationalists he says they were. But his implicit case that Lockean rationalism is true fails; and the reason for that is that it is false: in fact, timelessly false.
Bernard Bailyn, Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America : The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675, Vintage Books, New York, 2013.
René Descartes, Rules for the Direction of the Mind, trans. Elizabeth Anscombe and Peter Thomas Geach, 1954. (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Rules_for_the_Direction_of_the_Mind)
Edward Grant, The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional, and Intellectuel Context, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996.
Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 1988.
Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Basic Books, 1974.
Claes G. Ryn, Will, Imagination and Reason: Babbitt, Croce, and the Problem of Reality, New Brunswick, N.J: Transaction Publishers, 1997.
Eric Voegelin, History of Political Ideas, Volume VII: The New Order and the Last Orientation. The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Volume 25, The University of Missouri Press, Columbia and London, 1999.
Jeremy Waldron, “Two Worries About Mixing One’s Labour,” The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 33 No. 130, Jan. 1983.