I began looking at the American Founding in studying the theory of "rights," which has a grounding in St. Thomas Aquinas and classical natural law theory. However, it soon became apparent that little of the Founding rhetoric made clear sense without an understanding of its Protestant [anti-Catholic] milieu, particularly Reformed theology, commonly called "Calvinism." Even the quasi-Catholic Anglican church was influenced by Reformed theology, not to mention the sects explicitly so, such as Pilgrims, Puritans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists.
Thus I became a big fan of Peter Lawler's "They Built Better Than They Knew" thesis about the American Founding, that they ended up with an "accidental Thomism" anyway, i.e., classical Aristotle/Aquinas natural law.
As I’ve said many times before, we can see that our Declaration was a statesmanlike legislative compromise between Lockeans and Calvinists, and the result was a kind of accidental Thomism. Something similar can be said about the actual language of the religion clauses of the First Amendment, which point in the direction, contrary to Madison’s theoretical anti-ecclesiasticism, of freedom of the church.
From John B. Kienker in First Things: "In a superb chapter on John Courtney Murray, Lawler defends the American founders' "implicitly Thomistic" liberalism (from which we've strayed), which, despite its debt to Locke, retained a conception of rights firmly grounded in natural law. Following Murray, he credits a Calvinist influence with tempering the founders' own liberal impulses, allowing them to build "better than they knew." He hopes that perhaps our politics may again experience a similarly fruitful tension between today's evangelicals and secularists."
More from Lawler here and here. Requiescat in pace.
[Originally posted at newreformclub.com]
Thank you Tom. I was one of his co-bloggers at Postmodern Conservative.
You'll find excellent Founding Era content in the Lawler books Aliens in America (TJ as Epicurean, and the key Murray essay), Stuck with Virtue (Keeping Locke in the Locke Box), and in Modern and American Dignity (more on Murray). My own work that built most upon his was the essay "The Five Conceptions of American Liberty." https://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/the-five-conceptions-of-american-liberty
Also, I am grateful to have found your excellent site. One suggestion: your resources side-bar ought to have links to the Oxford Quill Project's 1787 Convention Debates platform (full disclosure--I work at Utah Valley University's Center for Constitutional Studies, where some of our student workers helped set up this amazing tool) and to the Ashland documents library site, which is a very good clearing-house site for reader-friendly American Founding documents. Here's the initial link to the Quill platform: https://www.quillproject.net/quill Sincerely, Carl Eric Scott
Gratifying, Carl. What are you up to lately? newreformclub.com might be right up your alley.
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