Posted: July 15, 2014
A review of American Political Writing During the Founding Era, 1760-1805, edited by Charles S. Hyneman and Donald S. Lutz
his collection allows the nonspecialist to test Jefferson's claim that the authority of the Declaration of Independence rests "on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc." Hyneman and Lutz have assembled seventy-six selections that illuminate the common sense of the Founding era.
Most of the writings are private publications-sermons, a number of political pamphlets and newspaper items, and some excerpts from books. There are one or two statements of formal political bodies.
The overall impression left by this collection is that Jefferson was right. Particularly in the pre-1776 period, there was a remarkable unanimity among Americans concerning the principles and ends of government. John Locke's argument that all men are equally free by nature; that all therefore possess a natural right to life and liberty; that the right to property is equally fundamental, being inseparable from life and liberty; that government must be based on consent and that consent must be effectual both in the founding of government and in its operation; that the people retain the right to overthrow their government if it violates the rights that it was instituted to protect-these principles were accepted by all.
The Hyneman-Lutz collection, then, confirms the old-fashioned view of the Founding-that it was based on the Lockean natural rights teaching. This may come as something of a surprise to readers of today's historians. Influential authors like Gordon Wood (The Creation of the American Republic, 1969) have made a name for themselves by arguing that virtue and selfless devotion to the community were vastly more important to the Founders of '76 than any concern for individual rights. Wood cited a large number of obscure pamphlets and sermons, many of which are reprinted in the Hyneman-Lutz collection. Contrary to Professor Wood's claim, the Lockean themes of the Declaration are just as prominent in these lesser-known writings. (A reading of the sources collected here confirms the devastating critique of Wood by Gary Schmitt and Robert Webking published in the 1979 Political Science Reviewer.)
Gordon Wood does have a point, however. The importance of virtue and the common good has been neglected by many interpreters of the Founding. To say that the Founders were Lockean is not to say that they were unleashing amoral capitalism or, worse, "the pursuit of happiness idiosyncratically understood" (Walter Berns's phrase). (This view of the Founding has been recently promoted by a number of prominent Straussians, though it never was by Strauss himself.) This neoconservative notion of the baseness of the Founding receives a healthy corrective from these documents. For example, we learn that preachers generally assumed that individual natural rights were perfectly compatible with Christian duty. Indeed, according to these preachers, the true Christians are those who oppose, with warlike and manly vigor, enslavement to the will of a king. Those who humbly crave peace at any price are dismissed as cowardly hedonists and slaves (see items 17 and 21). The theology of our Founding era had almost nothing in common (thank God!) with the long-suffering, monkish superstition that Machiavelli so justly attacked on the ground that it would lead to the victory of evil in this world.
More generally, we learn from Hyneman-Lutz that the Founders viewed the rights of man as the occasion for noble aspiration, not the elevation of "do your own thing" over human excellence. These men all distinguished between liberty and license. They generally thought of the state of nature as a pre-political condition where men are obliged to limit their passions and desires by the moral law inherent in human nature. (Probably the most satisfactory theoretical account of Locke's state of nature understood in light of the traditional moral law is in Samuel West's 1776 sermon, item 33.)
I am not sure that the editors meant their collection to refute the Gordon Wood thesis or the neoconservative thesis on the Founding. Some of the editorial notes introducing the items seem to reflect the Wood view. And the selections themselves-heavy on sermons, and including some pretty quirky items-seem somewhat tendentious. This collection alone is not an adequate introduction to the Founders' thought. There is just too much missing, especially statements of official political bodies, which are much more reliable as indications of intelligent American sentiment than privately published sermons and pamphlets.
Why not include the 1762 Massachusetts Assembly Instructions to Jasper Mauduit? Samuel Adams' Report of the Committee of Correspondence to the Boston Town Meeting (1772) (a very influential piece, explicitly grounded in Locke)? John Adams' Novanglus letters (1775)? The Suffolk Resolves (1774) (crucial in the break with Britain, but hardly available in print anywhere)? Jefferson's Summary View of the Rights of British America? James Wilson on Parliament (1774) and on law?
Room could have been made for these. There are a number of items which hardly meet the criterion of "best" writings from the period; for example, Perkins on Moral Freedom and the anonymous Rudiments of Law-items 13 and 39-not to mention large sections of volume two, which are of much less intrinsic interest than the pre-1787 selections in volume one. Still, there is much that is valuable, particularly from the period of state constitution-writing after 1776. Of special interest is a number of anti-slavery pieces, some from Southern authors, showing the antislavery consensus in principle (if not in practice) during the period.
An unknown gem is the 1774 appeal by the Continental Congress to the French Catholics in Quebec to join the fight against Britain (item 20). Here is the first statement of America as a melting pot, a nation of men united by common dedication to the universal rights of men, transcending divisions of race and religion. This little item goes far to refute today's canard that America's Founders were an exclusive club of white-Protestant-Englishmen, as later racist admirers (Stephen Douglas, Roger Taney) and liberal critics wrongly maintain. Here we see the Founders' "noble sentiments and manly eloquence" at their best.