Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

The Founding

Who's Our Daddy? David Brooks' America

Brooks concludes from Yuval Levin's fine work:

We Americans have never figured out whether we are children of the French or the British Enlightenment. Was our founding a radical departure or an act of preservation? This was a bone of contention between Jefferson and Hamilton, and it's a bone of contention today, both between parties and within each one.

Both Jefferson and Hamilton, whatever their great differences, were in heated agreement on the radicalism of the American Revolution.  We're not Descartes' children, nor are we Hume's.  Brooks is right that European standards have infected our political discourse (e.g., "realism" vs. "idealism" in the study of international relations).  But, as critics of the State Department have long asked, is there an American interests section here?

Categories > The Founding

Discussions - 29 Comments

I disagree wholeheartedly with Brooks' assessment. We are children of the British Enlightenment mixed in with Judeo-Christianity, classical ideals, and practical colonial experience. The French Revolution was heavily predicated upon the ideals of the radical French Enlightenment and Rousseau that led to the utopian violence to overthrow the ancien regime of Europe to unleash human nature in the name of enlightened progress. Millions were killed across Europe after this experiment lay in ashes. No, I would argue that some like Jefferson may have been drawn in and enamored of events in France, but that it did not shape the American constitutional regime.

Tony W., the British Enlightenment had that same mix, except it considered America from the outside, not from the inside and sometimes there was nothing practical about it. The ideal is preferable to the reality.

In both the cases of the American and French revolutions most people involved knew nothing of either type of philosophy and most of the violence was natural and not utopian at all. People are messy and the way people think is messy. Even a philosopher's thinking is a stew.

We cannot help incorporating disparate ideas in our political philosophy, taking a little of this and little of that and coming up with something that suits, we hope. There is never a revolution of thought because no one can forget what came before and begin anew, although Americans generally like to believe that is what happened.

Still, this all reminds of the first Tea-Party meeting I attended where some guy had been talking about the Declaration and the Constitution and American Ideals throughout history in a really glorious and mostly true rant (there were some stretchers in it). Some old darling in the crowd stood up at the end and asked, "So how did we get here, with the government we have now?"

The answer? "FDR!" Personally, it did not satisfy.

there was no british enlightenment dumbass

I just heard Hamilton on the radio today doing an advert for the banks so I think I'll vote Jefferson all the way.

If there was a British Enlightenment, it was surely more a product of the Italian Renaissance than of French idealism. I think Tony has the better of the argument, although there were utopians on this side of the Atlantic (Madison's "theoretic politicians") and sensible people on the European continent (Montesquieu). The difference is that the utopians were marginal over here and dominant over there. Also, the circumstances were quite different, as the English colonists had decades of experience with self government and the French had little to none (the Estates General had not met since 1640).

Kate, I'm wondering about how you understand idealism and utopianism. For example, "The ideal is preferable to the reality." For whom and why? And, "most of the violence was natural and not utopian at all." Certainly, violence is "natural" in the sense that there is nothing in our nature that forbids it and much that does, but are utopians not violent? What about Communists? Please explain.

Kate, there is a massive literature on the different Enlightenments and their different influences on America and the Continent. I would start with Gertrude Himmelfarb's Three Roads to Modernity, which explores the differences between the British, French, and American Enlightenments. The link between the radical thinkers of the French Enlightenment and their influence on the utopian violence, French nationalism and statism in their revolutionary constitutions, and their fulfillment in the nationalism of the Terror as they sought to tear down the ancien regime and replace it with the "general will," progress, and reason of Rousseau and company is a pretty well-established fact in European history. Dorrinda Outram's The Enlightenment is a great primer text on the topic of the connection between the French Enlightenment and Revolution. The simple fact is that the French Revolution had a very bloody character and was radically different from the American Revolution, and it is rooted very much in the different philosophies that shaped them.

I meant the ideal of America to men like Locke and Smith and was thinking most especially about Locke's rhapsodizing about America in the Second Treatise. I was thinking about how ideas go around, so the ideal of America, when it was in Locke's "state of nature" made him write about it and what he wrote influenced Americans so that Locke's ideas seemed so natural to them and "life, liberty and property" are still seen as natural rights by most Americans.

Yes, there are certainly violent utopians and that is only natural. Wahabist Islam is no less idealistic than Bolshevik communism and God save us from all such. Really, I got to all that blab because I have been arguing with myself after reading this review from the WSJ about two new books on how the common man saw the American revolution. I haven't even seen the books, but only read the review and therefore don't really know what I think about them, but even the review provoked thought and part of that response to the post, above.

They did not share the Enlightenment sensibilities of, say, Thomas Jefferson. The Sons of Liberty, the Committees of Observation and other ad hoc assemblies eagerly snooped on their neighbors; forced the signing of loyalty oaths; seized property; and tarred, feathered and otherwise terrorized suspected British sympathizers.

Which we know is true and makes nonsense of ideals we like to think of as American such as freedom of conscience or those Lockean rights.

These are the things that occupy the mind while doing the dishes. While in that natural state, I was wondering how many colonial Americans would have read the French philosophers, since they were published in French.

Tony Williams, I was writing my comment when yours went up. I read The Roads to Modernity and I liked it and let it become part of my mental "stew". As I recall, (I did not read it last week) my response up there was partly influenced by what she said about the way Americans absorbed and mingled different ideas.

I don't know as much about the French, though I recall someone, Schama, maybe, who credited the rise of their middle class and subsequent literacy with the spread of the philosophe's ideas. Is that true?


Idealism was not admired by Americans thinkers as they saw it as too theoretical and referred to utopianism ("enthusiasms") just as negatively. Washington feared, when American fortunes were at a low ebb during the confederation period, that republican government might be regarded by Europeans as merely ideal rather than in harmony with human nature. Hamilton in the Sixth Federalist spoke of some of his critics as "far gone in utopian speculations." Madison was critical of "theoretic politicians," who believed that equality of political rights imiplied equality in every other respect. The term "visionary" was never a compliment. The founders did not regard the laws of nature and of nature's God as "ideals" but as truths grounded in the nature of things. If Americans sometimes behaved abominably, it was certainly necessarliy because they were not idealistic. But idealism has generated more violence than any other cause, as the mass murders of nazis and communists in the 20th century demonstrate.

it was certainly NOT necessarliy because they were not ideali


it was certainly NOT necessarily because they were not idealistic.

Kate, just to respond to the point about the mob violence. I do not think that the mob violence negated in any way the ideals that the revolutionaries espoused and the population often heard them from the pulpit every Sunday rather than sitting around in a tavern reading Locke ~ the point is they were familiar with the arguments, made them themselves, and also fought and died for them. The popular violence tore down houses, threatened people by burning effigies, tarred and feathered people occasionally (which is very, very painful), and buried Stamp Act collectors alive sometimes (though they always let them
out). There were very few outright murders.

Contrast that with the popular and very bloody violence
of the French mobs acting out their ideals, the killing
of 2,000 priests and nuns in the September massacres,
the state-sponsored terror of the guillotine, a brutal
civil war of the state against the traditionalists in the
Vendee, and you get tens of thousands if not hundreds
of thousands of deaths.

In short, there is no moral equivalency between the
two and they had very different characters which were
intimately tied to their ideals. One produced a
Washington and one produced a Napoleon. One
produced a regime of self-government and liberty
that was an example for the world; the other can
certainly be said to produce the Napoleonic Wars,
Marx & the Soviet Union, and other destructive -isms
of modern Europe. A historian who is very, very
good on all of this is Michael Burleigh, whose two-
volume series on Europe since the Enlightenment
& French Revolution are extremely illuminating.

Richard Reeb -- That's why they were laws of nature and of Nature's God and we were endowed by our Creator with them. I agree and also suggest that we would have been able to live under the Articles of Confederation if people had the kind of republican virtue discussed in the Federalist.

I have been working for some time on the idea of improvement in America. Franklin's remark about our having "a republic if you can keep it" along with the points you mention and others make us know that our Founders knew they were creating a great experiment and trusting to what they believed as truth. The Constitution and its avoidance of direct democracy is a hadging of their bets on Americans being able to keep the republic. Have we kept it? I think that question is argued every day in America.

Another thing that has been provoking me lately, from Louis Hartz on Liberalism: “government in accordance with the opinion or consent of the governed does not require that the governed be right. Sooner or later the experiment in popular government had to face the question of just how wrong the opinion of the governed might be, and still continue to constitute the foundation for the just powers of government”

If natural rights are just part of the natrual order of things, then people have the democratic right to be wrong. I beleve it, but too often find that living with the consequences leaves me feeling like a cat with its fur rubbed the wrong way.

Tony Williams, tarring and feathering can kill you. The tarring part, anyway, could be deadly or permanently disfiguring.

Yes, that people got their philosophy of the philosophers from the pulpit or pamphelteers is certainlt true, and that filter Christianized or Americanized it for them. Yes, the French Revolution was unquestionably hideously violent. I just don't know that there was anything especially modern about it, if you consider what the French did to Hugenots even into the 1700s. In a sense, they just modernized or converted the idea of heretic to a new definition.

Thank you for directing me to Burleigh.

Sorry for the many errors. I clicked before rereading.

OK, tarring and feathering can hurt or possibly kill you. I'm just arguing that a dozen or two dozen deaths is a helluva lot different from 50,000 murders. And, I maintain that the mob violence of the American Revolution fighting in the streets for their liberties was very, very different from what occurred in the French Revolution.

The French under Louis XIV expelled the Huguenots in 1685, and there were massacres on both sides during the wars of religion that raged across Europe since the German wars started in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. I just don't see the relevance in a discussion of the various regimes created by the different Enlightenments.

What was modern about the French Revolution was that it was a revolution rooted upon the modernist ideals of the philosophes and Rousseau which claimed to sweep aside the civil tyranny of monarchy and the religious despotism of both Catholicism and Protestantism, jointly lumped together as superstition. The philosophes believed in the good nature of man, reason, and progress and were at the very vanguard of modernity in Enlightened Europe and the most radical. They believed or fashioned themselves as very progressive in destroying all the remnants of the old/ancien regime to usher in literally a new age of light. If you study the French Revolution, its expansionary wars to destroy the old regime everywhere, the Declaration of the Rights of Man & Citizen, the Terror, etc., you will see this entire philosophy played out in France and Europe, resulting in the deaths of millions from 1789-1815. An excellent author on the French Revolution that helps to illuminate its relationship to modernity is Francois Furet.

I'll bet it was more than a dozen or two dozen deaths. Yet, no, it was not a Reign of Terror. Thank God we did not have a Robespierre.

Maybe we are arguing about human nature and if American exceptionalism includes an exceptional type of human nature. In a sense, we also, from the beginning, believed in the good nature of man, as if we did not, we would not have handed ourselves over to a government of by and for the people. Except, of course, as Mr. Reeb pointed out, the Founders were not blind to what man is in an idealistic sense. Of course, our people all came from somewhere else. The British heritage had its own bloody periods. The Glorious Revolution comes to mind.

There was certainly no dictum from on high that people should go after "enemies of the people". Maybe we can claim that as difference. I wonder if that happened in any of the states or counties.

What I was trying to suggest in my last post was that Frenchmen had been doing horrible things in the name of religion for centuries. The Edict of Nantes was 1598 and a response to decades of religious war, but it did not end the fighting. I suppose I should have said that the French Revolution merely instituted a new kind faith, (not a religious one) that was just as bloody as the old. That is what I was getting at.

I don't want to intrude into the discussion here or even, especially, to comment upon the debate. But I would like to add that I was especially struck by the comments regarding tarring and feathering, in part, because my daughter has been home sick from school this week and, because she hasn't been quite up to reading or doing her homework, she opted instead to lay around watching my DVD set of the HBO miniseries, John Adams (which I've been promising to her as a special reward for when she was "big enough"--this is how you trick your kids into doing things that are good for them and thinking that it was their own idea, fyi).

Anyway, I forgot about the tarring and feathering scene--which was quite graphic and, of course, when it came on, she called me into the room to pepper me with questions. It was graphic and awful and, from everything I understand about it, painfully true to the reality of it. I am reminded again about why this miniseries (and McCullough's book) were such genius and I'm glad I let her watch it.

Of course, she was confused. "Aren't the people doing that supposed to be the good guys?" she asked. "And isn't that Sam Adams, John's cousin and isn't he a good guy and doesn't John like him?" John, of course, was horrified by this violence. But, then, John was a real and firm and unflinching believer in the idea that all men are created equal. All men are created equal and this, of course, means that no man may rule another man without that man's consent because no man is born so unequal to another man that he is born booted and spurred and ready to ride other men by the grace of God. George the III was a tyrant for thinking he could rule Americans in that way when the Americans, as men, were every bit as equal to the task of governing themselves as he was . . . of course, in saying that, I also acknowledge that George the III was a tyrant. So to say that the Americans were equal to him is both to say that they were capable of self government AND to say that they are capable of tyranny. All men are if they do not govern themselves. We are not gods and we are not beasts but we struggle somewhere in the middle approximating one or the other. Our equality is a double edge sword. So recognizing equality is not always and obviously a cause for rejoicing.

That's what I love so much about John Adams. There was probably no more outspoken opponent to tyranny and defender of the rights and capacities of ordinary Americans to govern themselves. But neither was he some hazy-eyed romantic so in love with the concept of "the people," their "equality" and their "capacities" that he lost his head and forgot the other side of that coin. He knew that recognizing such equality also meant a recognition of the eternally precarious condition of reason and justice and peace.

So, yes . . . the violence we saw in America--though just as deplorable as the violence seen in France and stemming from that same rotten impulse in human nature to beastly tyranny--was much less pronounced than it was in France. Was it because there was something fundamentally different in our ideas or was it because there was something fundamentally different in the character of the men who, here, championed them? That I cannot answer--at least not here or in a blog post! But I think the common-sensical view of the subject is that it was probably some measure of difference in both things that brought about the significantly different outcomes between the revolutions. John Adams, of course, had no expectation that a revolution in France would yield good results. He was often suspected of harboring monarchist sentiments for things like this (and for some of his lapses in judgment in arguing for titles during the convention) but I have always considered that these had less to do with his any supposed admiration for royalty than it had to do with a realistic and prudential assessment of mankind's capacity for reason and self-government. We are all created equal . . . yes. But equally human means equally flawed.

Richard says,

"I think Tony has the better of the argument, although there were utopians on this side of the Atlantic (Madison's "theoretic politicians") and sensible people on the European continent (Montesquieu). The difference is that the utopians were marginal over here and dominant over there."

Madison was marginal?

Nevermind -- I just had forgotten the context of your quote. I misunderstood.

Kate, actually, I think that the popular violence in America resulted in LESS than a dozen or two dozen deaths. I was being liberal in my assessment.

Yes, in many public papers, some were called "enemies of the people," as with Patrick Henry's Stamp Act Resolutions but that is different than "enemies of the state," unless you are in the French Revolution and in a Roussean way, the "general will" of the people is the (one-house legislative) state. But, they were never hunted down and guillotined. Again, different philosophically and different in results.

I think any reading of the Federalist Papers or most of the founders' letters show that they had a realistic view of human nature. As Madison said in #51, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary . . . " Some, like TJ, had a more benevolent view of human nature, but he was no framer, and the framers put in a number of institutional safeguards against human nature. They generally took a Christian and classical view of the corrupt view of human nature, yet still believed that self-government was most suitable with the longings and possibilities in human nature, if they literally governed their sinful or passionate natures.

The Glorious Revolution was really a pretty peaceful revolution. Are you thinking of the English Civil War?

As for the ancien regime being as bloody as the old, again that is a whole subject that historians have taken
up. What we find is that the absolute governments
of Europe were generally not all that absolute, and
while there was autocracy, there was rarely organized
state violence of the kind you see in the French Revolution, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, etc. The problem with Louis XVI, the Czars of the late 19th century, etc., was that they were generally engaging in liberal reforms and were not absolute enough. The horrific nature of the ancien regime was largely propaganda of the revolutionaries themselves. The guillotine was infinitely more oppressive than the Bastille.

Julie, as usual, your post hits on some good points. But I think you need to clarify the concept that equality is a "double-edged sword." It strikes me as a good thought, but consider the words of founder James Wilson from his Lectures on Law (1791):

"When we say, that all men are equal; we mean not to apply this equality to their virtues, their talents, their dispositions, or their acquirements. In all these respects, there is, and it is fit for the great purposes of society that there should be, great inequality among men...Many are the degrees, many are the varieties of human genius, human dispositions, and human characters. One man has a turn for mechaniks; another, for architecture; one paints; a second makes poems; this excels in the arts of a military; the other, in those of civil life."

There is much one could say about this paragraph, but I do not quite take away from it an ancient view that men are half-man, half beast. Elsewhere in the writing, Wilson seems to argue from Locke's starting point, that men are equal, in some sense, in their endowment of reason. Wisdom was a title to rule for Aristotle and Plato, but Locke believed the difference between the wisest and most ignorant man to be inconsequential to political life, and so rejected wisdom as a title to rule.

However, the point we could take away from Wilson is that we have men unequal in some respects fighting for their equality in another respect. This means that some of them will conceive of the meaning of revolution in sometimes fundamentally different ways. And, of course, we see this difference manifested in the way each conducted himself when that revolution came.

Isn't Wilson making a simpler point? We are equal in our natural rights, but we are unequal in our abilities and have differing capabilities for excellence in different areas. You might be smarter than me, better looking, more virtuous, better at science, a better basketball player, etc.

Tony Williams, you are right, I did mean the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution was more of a coup d'etat, although people did die and many horrifically as examples. I don't think death is ever "nice", but public executions of all sorts, official and unofficial to strike terror in people, were especially horrific. Wasn't the guillotine invented to make a "nicer" death? It was mechanical, and therefore more scientific. I often wonder how awful must have been what came before for that to seem more civilized.

As to how many people died in popular violence in our revolution, I ordered those books reviewed in the WSJ as they might tell me as it seems to be the point of them, what the populace did. I had been thinking I didn't want to know, but know I am most curious.

However, we agree that government declaring that people must die and individuals running amok are very different things. Patrick Henry did not speak about enemies of the people when he was governor of VA, but wasn't that much earlier and in a different context than the revolution?

Yes, it is a different philosophy, but I think the reported horrors of the French monarchy could not have been too far off as Jefferson has no use for that regime when he writes to Madison from France.

Julie, yes, John Adams was a thoroughly decent man and yet he had a very poor view of his fellow man. Maybe that is the good thing about being depressed about oneself, all men being equal does not seem such a stretch as when one think oneself as something noble and fine. Wasn't most of the stuff about his monarchical tendencies because he was sensitive to the forms of dignity he had seen overseas? He worried about America and Americans being taken seriously, as he worried about being taken seriously, himself. he seems always to have been worried about his own self-government, too.

Does anyone really think that all people are the same in all respects? People being created equal because of inherent rights and people all being the same are two different ideas. I am really glad Jefferson did not think he had to qualify "all men are created equal" with something like, "But what ho! It takes all sorts to make a world, doesn't it, chum?" yet he certainly thought the latter was true and something of the sort in his Notes on the State of Virginia.

Owl, I didn't mean to imply that Madison was marginal, only that the men he was talking about in The Federalist No. 10 (which I should have mentioned) were the "theoretic politicians." That's because they endorsed pure democracy and equality of condition as a concomittant of equality of rights. Madison was rightly referred to as the Father of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Madison was well versed in political theory but eminently practical.

Kate, Well, Americans did live under the Articles of Confederation, but they were persuaded to abandon them not because they were unworthy but because the Articles left sovereign states (small republics) with insufficient checks on their external and internal actions. Read The Federalist No. 10 for Madison's elaborate explanation of how the large republic is the cure for the diseases of popular government. I don't think the framers were hedging their bets by not endorsing pure democracy, which no one in America actually supported anyway. The charge to keep a republic was a sufficient enough challenge, particularly since republics had a bad reputation from the excesses of the ancient Greek and early modern Italian models. The framers did not suppose that human beings were all good or all bad, but possessed sufficient virtue for self government with the right kind of constitution. See the conclusion to The Federalist No. 55.

Of course, considerably more "improvement" was necessary, as slavery was powerful and aristocracy had not yet been brought to heel. State churches persisted for awhile too.

I think Locke was not idealizing Americans but suggesting better possibilities in the English colonies for the establishment of natural rights principles than in England. There were fewer obstacles in America(monarchy, single official church, powerful aristocracy) to the establishment of government by consent, an observation that Alexis de Tocqueville was to make years after the fact, so to speak.

Julie, John Adams was in England serving as ambassador during the Federal Convention. He proposed titles as vice president to the first Congress.

Tony: I am in complete agreement. I only meant to point out that while the content of Julie's earlier post (namely, that 'equality' means specifically equality in political capability for both better and worse) is at once true and problematic. However, it is a difficult principle to draw upon when revolution is at hand, for it is then that passion (even if thumotic righteous indignation) most overwhelms. Adams was hounded for just this reason, as others have pointed out: he saw the capacity for revolution to devolve into catastrophe.

I don't think we see the founders trumpeting equality in this respect because we can see the obvious difficulty such a sentiment suggests in a time of revolution. It seems to me that a prudent leader would emphasize at that time the capability of men to govern themselves rather than their capability for tyranny. But I do think that the American revolution definitely had this kind of spirit behind it, which is altogether evident in another writing, this time by Jefferson, in his letter to Henry Lee of May 8, 1825 (And note that Jefferson is saying this long after the fact):

"Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, not yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, AND TO GIVE TO THAT EXPRESSION THE PROPER TONE AND SPIRIT called for by the occasion."

I think Wilson's point is two-fold: equality is about a specific thing - something everybody could understand. Those who misunderstand this kind of equality object on all kinds of grounds, and I think we derive from it the kind of equality that is the cornerstone of progressivism (i.e., let us make men equal in as many respects as possible). When this is your idea of equality, the revolution is never complete. That is emphatically NOT Mr. Wilson's point, and so deserves notice.

My mind is still kind of all over the place with this, so forgive my lack of clarity!

Richard Reeb,
Yes, to use a severe verbal shortcut, government under the Articles left the states acting as States. That was what I meant and I put it badly. My "hedging bets" was shortcut language, too.

As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be, that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.

That is exactly what I meant. Republican government presupposes good qualities in men, otherwise we would not put ourselves in each others' hands. It is not wishful thinking, but it is hopeful thinking.

I did not mean that Locke was idealizing Americans. There were darn few of them in 1690. I meant that he was idealizing America and their independence because of distance from England.

"Improvement" in the early republic meant much more than what you are talking about. It was connected self-government and to ideas of progress and a hopeful vision of man as being able to overcome the worst of Nature and of a man's own nature by his will. I have to get back to writing about that now.

RR: Yes. Of course you are right about Adams suggesting titles at the first congress and not at the Constitutional Convention (which he did not attend for being in France). I misspoke or remembered wrong/wrote in haste or something.

As to the Owl's point regarding Wilson, he brings up as a fine quote but one, I think, that does not speak against anything I was observing earlier. Of course we are all different and unequal in many respects. But there can be no presumption that anyone is born so unequal as to be anything other than a man (or the being between beasts and God). The dignity of man requires that all respect his right to govern himself or consent to his government and the inclination to depravity in man (when he is not well governed) requires that we acknowledge the possibility of tyranny and injustice that requires good men to stand up to him.

Acknowledging the self-evident truth that "all men are created equal" is nothing so much as it is a statement about human nature and its possibilities (both good and bad). Prudence requires different emphasis at different times . . . but wisdom requires that we don't forget the one while emphasizing the other. Adams' error, if he had one, may be that he got mixed up about which to emphasize when or, perhaps he was so insistent about reminding people of his wisdom (and good memory) that he too often repulsed when he might have inspired them. He demonstrates or illustrates the problem of knowing what is right v. feeling and doing what is right. His political wisdom remains unsurpassed. But perhaps such wise men don't have quite the right spirit or instinct for the job?

Leave a Comment

* denotes a required field

No TrackBacks
TrackBack URL: