The American Founding Isn’t the Fruit of European Liberalism

By Michael Novak Published on February 17, 2017

This essay is part of a series examining how American religious, economic, and political freedom are compatible with Christian views of a good society. It was provoked by the publication of the Tradinista Manifesto, which called for “Christian socialism” and an established national Church.

It pains me very much when thinkers I admire hold a doctrine as toxic as it is admonitory. Patrick Deneen, for instance, holds that the United States of America is badly founded, because it springs from the philosophy of liberalism (as Europeans understand liberalism).

Deneen has spelled out what he means by the philosophy of liberalism:

  1. an extremist vision of the individual that neglects every communal dependency of each of us;
  2. a centering of the individual, not on reflection and choice (that is, intellect) but rather on will and preference;
  3. the idea that humans have no fixed nature but instead are what we choose to be, as in matters of gender.

I heartily agree with Deneen and his like-minded colleagues that these three commitments are destructive of persons and cultures. They are toxic. Their objective is clearly to obliterate any trace of God, natural law, and even the role of reason in human nature.

And yet while I agree with Deneen and others about the maleficence of liberal philosophy, I find little evidence that the American founding was based upon such a philosophy. I would very much like to see the evidence that the American idea is that liberal idea.

Freedom is a Different Thing Than “Nothing Left to Lose”

Lord Acton, the great historian of liberty, insisted that “liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.” Other animals are governed by instinct, and cannot rise to the level of recognizing an ought. Horses, dogs, and cats can be trained to do what we want them to do, but it is not enough to train human beings. Rather, we must teach our children how to distinguish among directives for action that lead to their flourishing, and those that lead to their self-mutilation or destruction.

Thus Acton distinguished between a liberal philosophy and what he called (under a new definition) a Whig philosophy. He thought of St. Thomas Aquinas as the first Whig because Aquinas was the first to see as the focal point of human identity the human person, his reason and capacity to choose, and his liberty. On this ground, Acton distinguished the Whig view from the liberal view.Christianity and Freedom Series - 250

Similarly, the prodigious American thinker Orestes Brownson in his penetrating study The American Republic (1865) rooted the American republic not in Hobbes or Locke or any such liberal philosophy, but as Jefferson did, in the doctrines of Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, and other philosophers of natural right. Further, Brownson grasped the originality of the American founding, and traced how it advanced beyond the political philosophies of Athens, Rome, London, and all others. Brownson’s view of the American founders resembled that of James Madison, who in Federalist 14 wrote: “They reared the fabrics of governments which have no model on the face of the globe.”

Nonetheless, the American founders were not primarily or even secondarily philosophers, but rather practical men with a practical task to get done. They were not trying to build a complete philosophical system or train of logic. They were trying to create a republic.

What Part of “We the People” Didn’t You Understand?

Even in grammar school we were taught to recite: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands. …” Our founders were building “one nation, under God, indivisible. …” This nation was the work of a “whole people.” “We the people of the United States. …”

Further, our founders invented a new representative institution through which a people could design, choose, and together enact their new and original republic. They held constitutional conventions in each state, and then a constitutional convention of all the states. They acted as one “we the people.”

The American republic was not built as a social compact among four million assenting individuals. The building of the American republic project was a communal project through and through. Only four generations later did the full cost of this communal commitment come due. To preserve this Union, on the principle of union, it was necessary to fight the bloodiest war in human history until that point.

This Union was the creation of a whole people. It was indissoluble by any band or compact of mere individuals.

Those who have allowed their minds to be trained exclusively by European liberal philosophers too often fail to note the communal nature of the American experiment, its persistent building of villages, towns, states, counties, and only much later, a whole nation. They overlook its cooperative spirit in putting up one another’s barns, joint building of village bridges and churches and schools; in short, its communitarian habits. Despite the Marlboro ads, we are not a nation of lonely cowboys. We are team players, association builders, incessantly finding new ways to meet our needs for ourselves through teamwork. Sometimes humble neighborhood tasks, sometimes ambitious worldwide ones.

Americans are, I would venture, among the most communitarian of all peoples on earth, not in the sense exactly either of Gemeinschaft or even Gesellschaft but rather in the sense that Tocqueville gave to that most American of words, association. Everywhere in America, he wrote, Americans build associations together to do tasks of every imaginable size and scope. By contrast, he wrote, in France at the time of the Revolution there were not ten men capable of building associations.

In fact, Tocqueville fingered the habit of association and “joining” as a weakness as well as a great strength of Americans. It was a weakness because it led them to be so conscious of the opinions and efforts of others that they often voluntarily cut back their own liberties in order to fit in with others without creating a fuss. In this respect, Tocqueville thought, the French aristocracy was freer, more independent, bolder, and more heedless of common opinion. Noblesse oblige.

Our Founders Saw the World Through Biblical Lenses

In the words of John Adams: our Constitution was designed for a biblical people and cannot function with any other. If a scholar took as his universe of discourse the 86 signers of the Declaration of Independence and/or the Constitution, and threw in the top fifteen or so other Americans to round out that universe to 100 (including Tom Paine, Abigail Adams, George Mason, and others), he would be hard-pressed to find even a half-dozen who did not hold themselves to be part of a biblical people.

In the words of John Adams: our Constitution was designed for a biblical people and cannot function with any other.

I venture that those who take time to inspect the written record, both public and private, of those 100 founders would be astonished, as I was, to discover how many testimonies there are to the workings of Providence and its “signal interventions” in the concrete events of their own history.

Finally, there is a profound difference between liberal ideas (or liberalism as a philosophy) and liberal institutions. American institutions tend to be practical means to defeat the worst abuses and incessant sins of individuals. For example, through the balancing of power with power, interest with interest; trial by jury; the invention of the Electoral College; and a long array of other practical inventions.

There is no use trying to build a republic of saints. There are not enough saints to fill a republic. A republic must be built for sinners, if it is to be practicable at all. Liberal societies are designed to put no restraints on individuals (except to harm no other). Biblical republics invent multiple layers of restraints, moral, institutional, and informal. As Tocqueville put it, there are many things in America that the law does not forbid but that the American people, because of their religion, will not do.

A great deal of work is still to be done to plumb the practical wisdom built into the American republic. There also a huge body of work to be done to correct flagrant weaknesses discovered each new decade by hard experiences under the stresses of persistent human sins and failures.

The American republic was not built as a utopia. It was designed to work by way of a set of balances and correctives to human sinful tendencies as often as they might be discovered. It was designed to be an imperfect land but hospitable to a higher degree of human flourishing, both personal and communal, than anywhere else on earth.

As I see things, by conceiving of the American republic as a concrete manifestation of liberal philosophy, Professor Deneen, good and admirable man that he is, has conceded that the ACLU is correct in its reading of the American idea. By contrast, many of us judge that the ACLU reading of America as a project of liberal philosophy is a historically unfounded mistake.

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