Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

There are several interesting posts up at the blog The American Catholic on the Declaration of Indepenence and the American Revolution .

Buried within the comments are some expressions of displeasure with the supposedly liberal, post-Enlightenment origins of the American Revolution. This is a fairly common and not altogether incorrect view of this era in American history. No one could possibly deny the influence of Enlightenment thinking on the men who spearheaded the revolution and then wrote the Constitution. But it is not really accurate, and for two reasons.

First of all, to say that the Framers were influenced by the Enlightenment is meaningless without indicating which Enlightenment you’re talking about. Yes, I am a student of the Himmelfarb/O’Brien school that sees quite a divergence between different forms of Enlightenment thinking, particularly the French and British Enlightenments. While Thomas Jefferson may have been at home with the philosophes , the bulk of the Framers were more at home with the much more moderate Brits. There were common threads within all sects of the Enlightenment, especially as regards the role of reason, but the French school was vastly more sweeping and utopian-leaning in scope.

More importantly, it’s a mistake to over-emphasize the role of ideology on the Framers. Yes, they were learned men who studied  a great many different philosophers, but the Revolution was in many ways a gut reaction to the perceived slights perpetrated by the British Parliament. Did the revolutionaries need to read up on John Trenchard in order to come to the conclusion that the home government had usurped its rightful authority? Were they simply trying to live out the principles of Hutcheson or Home or Hume, or were they basing their clarion call for independence on their real world experiences?

As someone whose academic specialty is essentially American political theory, it’s a bit difficult for me to downplay the significance of these various philosophies on the Framers. And I would never totally discount the role of, ahem, secularist liberal forces on the men who voted for independence. But I think we need to recognize that for most of the people who decided to pick up arms it was less about upholding the ideals of philosophers living north of the mother country than it was simply about defending their rights as Englishmen. Naturally many of the ideas of these philosophers seeped into their consciousness on some level and inspired the drive for revolution, and it would be foolish to completely discount the role of ideology in the revolution. But I think we would do well to remember that the impetus for revolution was not found in the abstract philosophical musings that so many of the Framers cited.

It is worth keeping this in mind because America remains, as Tocqueville noted so many years ago, a country that is not entirely fond of abstract ideas. Again, it may seem odd that a person with my kind of academic pedigree writing on this particular blog is deriding to some extent the role of philosophy in American life. But it’s useful for those of us up here in the clouds to recognize the non-ideological (for lack of a better word) tendencies of this country—tendencies which date back to our very birth as a Nation.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles