Friday, October 21, 2016

All American Whigs Thought Alike on these Subjects

This letter from Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825 brings to mind a recent article by historian Alan Taylor in the New York Times entitled Our Feuding Founding Fathers. Below is a larger quotation from Jefferson's letter to Lee:
[W]ith respect to our rights, and the acts of the British government contravening those rights, there was but one opinion on this side of the water. All American whigs thought alike on these subjects.


All its authority rests then 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, &c. …
The bottom line of the New York Times' article is that whereas people today tend to think "the Founders of America" agreed in one voice, the fact is that they disagreed.

The impression that they were so united in opinion, though, is arguably their fault (or desire). We see the above quotation by Jefferson stating, "All American whigs thought alike" and of course George Washington hoped they would when he cautioned against the political factions that were breaking out before his eyes, much to his chagrin.

And in Federalist 2, John Jay wrote eloquently about America's supposed homogeneity.

Renowned historian Bernard Bailyn has written the standard bearer work on the different ideological sources that drove the American Founding (his thesis is technically on America's Revolution, though it can be enlarged to include the entire "Founding").

Below are the 5 principle sources Bailyn identifies:

1. Ancient Greco-Roman; 2. Biblical, with a focus on Protestantism; 3. English Common Law; 4. Enlightenment rationalism; and 5. Whig, with a focus on the British "Commonwealth" thinkers.

I used to argue -- and it's possibly a correct argument -- that 4. Enlightenment rationalism was the lens through which America's Founders viewed the competing sources. But that's not Bailyn's argument. Rather, his is that 5. the Whigs were responsible for "harmonizing" all of the different sources.

And, indeed, speaking as Whigs, with the above quotation by Jefferson as proof, America's Founders presented the different ideologies as harmonized. (Whether the final result of the ideological pot America's Founders stewed perfectly parallels that of the British Commonwealth Whigs is questionable, see below.)

But was it so harmonious? Apparently not.

Of Jefferson's sources (and using the above numbers), Aristotle and Cicero were 1; Locke was 4; and Sidney was 5. Because they were both professed Christians, Locke and Sidney could also qualify as 2 (and there were plenty of patriot preachers and notable divines of that era whose names we could plug in). Source 3, English Common Law, didn't have a figure represented in Jefferson's quotation. But there is one figure who unquestionably stands as the authority for such and that is Blackstone.

So how does Blackstone "fit" with the American Revolution in particular and founding in general? He was a Tory who didn't think anyone -- including the Americans -- could overrule Parliament's last word on what the rights of Englishmen were, the antithesis of what America's Revolution stood for.

Likewise my studies of "republicanism" and Agrarian laws -- basically me reading Eric Nelson's work -- demonstrate a tension, on economic policy, between the 1. Ancient Roman view, which was more individualistic; and 2. British Commonwealth Whig view, which was more egalitarian. And the Enlightenment liberal view, i.e., Madison's, rejected British Whig egalitarianism in favor of a more individualistic view closer to the Ancient Roman position.

As I've noted before, arguably Madison's view prevailed during the American Founding which suggests that modern scholars, like Bailyn (and Gordon Wood) who stress "republicanism" over "liberalism" may have it wrong. Or we can say that the "liberal" and "republican" strains of Founding era thought were both important and competed with one another, and what prevailed is debatable. 

On a related note, I like the work the followers of Leo Strauss (with whom I often disagree) have done putting the record of the American Founding under the microscope. It's not so much their conclusions, but analysis which I most appreciate.
I think the Straussians paid a little more attention to Bailyn than he did to them, but the East Coasters (Allan Bloom, Harvey Mansfield, the Kristol family) came to a similar conclusion in that the different ideological underpinnings of the American Founding were in tension with one another. They particularly focus on how the "modern" Lockean view was not consistent with either traditional orthodox Christian teachings or of the noble pagans (Aristotle, Cicero).

On the other hand the West Coasters -- followers of the late Harry V. Jaffa -- tend to act as good modern Whigs and "harmonize."


Tom Van Dyke said...

Straussian Michael Zuckert gives large credit to "radical" Whigs such as Joseph Priestley and Richard Price

however, I question whether they were as influential as James Otis, Tom Paine and Alexander Hamilton when it come to America's true founding principle, [God-given] natural rights.

"Government is founded not on force, as was the theory of Hobbes; nor on compact, as was the theory of Locke and of the revolution of 1688; nor on property, as was the assertion of Harrington. It springs from the necessities of our nature, and has an everlasting foundation in the unchangeable will of God."--Otis, 1764

The reader would do well to review this exchange from this blog's golden age, esp Mark David Hall's remarks, and of course, mine. :-}

James Wilson:

"Man, says Mr. [Edmund] Burke, cannot enjoy the rights of an uncivil and of a civil state together. By an uncivil contradistinguished from a civil state, he must here mean a state of nature: by the rights of this uncivil state, he must mean the rights of nature: and is it possible that natural and civil rights cannot be enjoyed together? Are they really incompatible? Must our rights be removed from the stable foundation of nature, and placed on the precarious and fluctuating basis of human institution? Such seems to be the sentiment of Mr. Burke: and such too seems to have been the sentiment of a much higher authority than Mr. Burke -- Sir William Blackstone."

Jonathan Rowe said...

I think your quotation by Otis lends support to the thesis of my original piece. We don't need to discuss any theory of Hobbes' esoteric influence on Locke. The Founders, to a man, didn't like Hobbes. So we can for now cross his name off the list.

(Though I do wonder if Otis knew something about Locke that later scholars (the Straussians) would conclude. Did Locke's social contract theory contradict Otis' assertions?)

But both Locke and Harrington were influential. Otis is positing a competing theory that, the way he presents it, is in tension with the other two (or three).

Tom Van Dyke said...

The problem with the Straussian approach is they care about the philosophy itself, not the history. But the historian's concern is only what the Founders, the "gentlemen," understood the philosophers, or as we have discussed, how the Founders may have hijacked them.

It's the hijacking part that we care about. ;-)

Jonathan Rowe said...

Well I think there was definitely a theistic understanding of "nature" (natural law, natural right, natural rights).

This quotation by John Adams best captures it:

"To him who believes in the Existence and Attributes physical and moral of a God, there can be no obscurity or perplexity in defining the Law of Nature to be his wise benign and all powerful Will, discovered by Reason."

– John Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams, March 19, 1794. Adams Papers (microfilm), reel 377, Library of Congress. Seen in James H. Hutson’s, “The Founders on Religion,” p. 132.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"The law of nature and the law of revelation are both Divine: they flow, though in different channels, from the same adorable source. It is indeed preposterous to separate them from each other."

--James Wilson, Of the Law of Nature, 1804