In full disclosure, I really liked this book because it is the same premise of my Language of Freedom: Founding Principles course and live class. Instead of focusing on the names, dates, and events of the American Revolution which culminated into the Declaration of Independence, this book and my course elucidates the moral, philosophical, and political principles that made the Revolution and Declaration possible.
In an age where “your truth” is more important than “the truth”, where equity is prized over equality, and history itself is offensive, America’s Revolutionary Mind touches on an urgent and lost subject of the American tradition. The Declaration of Independence wasn’t just a secession document against our mother country; it was the culmination of thought, principles, and tradition that became uniquely ours.
The American school system and most books on the American Revolution focus on the events leading up to and during the Declaration of Independence and War for Independence. But what did our Founding generation mean when they wrote, edited, and signed their name to a treasonous document against the strongest country on earth?
In America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration that Defined It, Professor C. Bradley Thompson uncovers the lost meaning and essence of the moral, philosophical, and political principles of the 1760s and 1770s that culminated in the Declaration of Independence.
Thompson’s thesis centers on two letters that were written many years after the Declaration of Independence. The first and more famous letter was written by Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee in 1825 in which he states that the Declaration was “intended to be an expression of the American mind.” The second letter written by John Adams to Jefferson in 1815 states that, “the real Revolution was in the Minds of the People, from 1760-1775 in the course of 15 years” before a shot was fired at Lexington.
The result, as Thompson explains, was the reconstruction of “what amounts to a near unified system of thought - what Jefferson called an American mind, or what I call America’s Revolutionary Mind.” Through an investigate search “into the nature, source, and meaning of certain basic moral principles (eg equality, liberty, rights, virtue, happiness, justice consent)” Thompson discovers and elucidates a habit of thinking and language of expression that culminated in 1776 and represented the “real Revolution” that Adams describes.
America’s Revolutionary Mind begins by connecting the wisdom of our Founding generation and the principles that were brought forth in our Revolution as largely inspired and influenced by the Enlightenment and John Locke. While I think further origins are applicable to our Founders, the Enlightenment is a good place to concentrate.
Thompson discusses each moral, philosophical, and political principle that is included in the Declaration, and moves through each in order or appearance in the Declaration itself. He begins with the eternal and immutable laws of nature of nature’s God that govern man and society by a moral and unwritten code that is known by human reason. These laws, according to James Otis, “was not of man’s making. He can only perform and keep or disobey and break it.” Thompson describes the laws of nature that are written into the first paragraph of the Declaration as the “standard of moral and political right” and that could be discovered by all.
But the premise of the book is the study and understanding of self-evident truths as our Founding understood them. Thompson first articulates the understanding of truth as the Founders learned from John Locke, in which they must be “absolute, certain, universal, permanent, and immutable” and that a “true moral principle does not rest on majority opinion or even universal acceptance” in order to be factual correct and objectively true.
These truths as expressed in the Declaration are that of equality, rights, consent and Revolution. With regards to equality, there are those historians who are against the Gettysburg Address “proposition nation” myth that states America was founded on the “proposition that all men are created equal.” The claim is that it is foolish to think that America was founded on any notion of equality other than equality under the law. But Thompson argues that we are all created equal by God and by our human nature, we are species equal, therefore equal under the law. This proposition of equality is what Lincoln was referring to and what our Founding generation meant, not that we are equal in our outcomes, abilities and character traits that is often described today.
In acknowledging the paradox between equality and slavery, Thompson examines the Founding generations thoughts on slavery, the contradiction between thoughts and deeds, the challenge towards abolition, the early revolution to end slavery, and how the Declaration itself is the greatest anti-slavery document ever written. When studying slavery it is essential to remember that more than one fact can be true at the same time. Yes, our Founding generation (not all of them) had slaves: yes, many abhorred it and wrote extensively on the evil. Yes, many did not free their slaves after they died. Yes, slavery was a global institution that until the Revolution many did not consider the moral implications. Yes, the Declaration inspired the anti-slavery movement. Yes, the Founders did not have the capacity to abolish slavery and declare independence at the same time nor did enough want to. Yes, many of the Revolutionary generation got used to the luxury and lifestyle afforded by having slaves. All of these things are true at the same time and Thompson explains them all in great detail.
Next, Thompson addresses the meaning and transformation of the Founding generations' understanding of natural Rights and their embodiment in life, liberty, happiness, and property. Many American students and citizens can recite these principles, however many do not consider how we should think of Rights and those specifically endowed to us by our Creator. Prior to the Revolution our Rights were found in the traditions and history of the English common law and the “rights of Englishmen.” The Revolution that happened in the minds of the people changed this perception of Rights and moved them to those found in human nature and given to us by God. This understanding of Rights is essential for an America that still believes in Rights and views them as gifts from God, not from Governments.
To understand life is to realize that we have a right to govern and preserve ourselves so that we can support ourselves. To understand liberty is to understand that it is an “existential fact of human nature” and that there is a “moral requirement of human flourishing.” Since we are humans, we are born free, but we are not free to do whatever we want, whenever we want. Instead, most of the Founding generation would agree with this concept of “liberty as a moral and political requirement of human flourishing.” Washington understood that licentiousness is just as dangerous to the rights of man as tyrannical government.
While property isn’t an unalienable Right specifically stated in the Declaration it is unquestionably a right our Founding generation would associate with life, liberty and happiness because it is connected to our self-ownership. As Madison states in his essay on “Property,” that, “in its larger and juster meaning, [property] embraces everything to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and which leaves to everyone else the like advantage.” We don’t just have a right to our property; our Rights are our property.
To understand happiness one must realize that to pursue happiness does not mean to guarantee happiness. Instead, Thompson explains that the “great challenge for men as they pursue their true happiness is in overcoming their passions,” as men will always be tempted to go against their reason for their own immediate pleasure. Happiness therefore, Thompson describes as a moral undertaking by acting in accordance with your long-term interest. To our Founding generation “moral action is inextricably connected with happiness.” In a modern society of get rich, get lean, get fulfilled quick schemes this remembrance of a life well lived as the basis of happiness would be wise to emulate.
The third self-evident truth is that of consent in order to secure these rights. Our schools teach the slogan of no taxation without representation but consent of the governed wasn’t just a battle over taxation but the link between a free and tyrannical government. It is as John Adams said, “the only moral foundation of government is the consent of the people.” For what would the government be without our consent? It would be an institution that fails at its primary purpose which is the securement of our natural rights. Sure, a government can in theory do that without consent, but as Brutus explains in his Essay I in 1787 that, “when the people once part with power, they can seldom or never resume it again but by force.” Thompson reminds us that our Founders were not anarchists and wanted a functioning government, but only one “grounded on the moral rights of nature, individual sovereignty, and the full consent of the governed.”
The last self-evident truth reaffirms that when a government has become tyrannical, as citizens see the long train of abuses and cannot but notice the aim for which the government intends to destroy a free state it becomes a duty to abolish or alter said government. The right to revolution is eternal because man will always be corruptible.
Our Founding generation were not vigilante rebels but men and people on an intellectual and philosophical journey. A journey inspired by a “spirit of liberty” that was in the air that they breathed. But they were also aware of the nature of power that lived in humans. It is an eternal truth that power is of an encroaching nature, always lurking and looking to acquire a foothold in the name of lawful authority. The modern American would benefit from refamiliarizing ourselves with this eternal battle between liberty and power. Liberty isn’t the absence of power, and power doesn’t necessarily mean the corruption of liberty. The Founding generation knew that to properly use power was the means to preserving liberty.
In order to live free and live well American citizens must know the foundational moral principles that embody the American tradition. Liberty, property, the laws of nature are all principles that are just as important today as they were in 1776. Yet we have lost our understanding of them and the meaning they hold for us. America’s Revolutionary Mind is an important book that should be studied as a textbook for students who are learning about the American Revolution and Founding. Not because we were perfect then or capable of perfection now, rather because without this knowledge, the “beliefs” we have of our Rights, liberties, nature, and reason can, and has been, easily mutilated through manipulative language.
The American Revolutionary Mind is the articulation of what our Founders stood for, not just what they were against. That is why President Calvin Coolidge in his 150 year anniversary speech on the Declaration said that our Founding was not a radical movement, instead it was free men and women who “knew their rights and the courage to dare to maintain them.” These moral, philosophical, and political principles located in the Declaration of Independence inspired the men to go to war and fight for the liberty that they believed was naturally theirs.
The conclusion and epilogue focuses our attention on the “new man” of America and how we lost the American mind over the last 100+ years. With the proslavery intellectual arguments and the rise of the Progressive era doctrines that are antithesis to our Founding principles we have been negligent in defending and articulating these principles that were the embodiment of the American Mind at our Founding.
Thompson encourages us as Americans in our time to think anew of these Founding Principles that encapsulated our American mind. Long-term preservation of liberty requires not only the principles written to solidify free government but the moral principles instilled among the people that are necessary to maintain it. This moral vigilance is imperative and mandatory. Because if it is true that once liberty is lost it is lost forever then that means we must know what it is we are defending. America’s Revolutionary Mind is a terrific place to start.