At National Review, Timothy Sandefur reviews C. Bradley Thompson new book which seems destined to be a classic. A taste:
Thompson’s presentation is valuable because it helps correct modern mischaracterizations of the revolutionaries’ natural-law theories and shows just how rigorous and thorough their thinking was. His exploration of such questions as the relationship between natural rights and natural law, and between Lockean thought and the republican theories that the Founders drew from the ancient Romans, does justice to the ingenuity and depth of Revolutionary-era thinking.
In fact, America’s Revolutionary Mind stands as a refutation of two noxious trends in recent American historiography. The first, which Thompson mentions only briefly in a few endnotes, is the effort to downplay the impact of Locke’s ideas on the Founding Fathers. Scholars of the “classical republican” persuasion have argued that, important as Locke may have been, American revolutionaries were more influenced by Greek, Roman, and Puritan writers who placed less emphasis on the rights of the individual than on the stability of society, the importance of tradition, and the need to sacrifice for the common good. Thompson, by contrast, argues that “America’s revolutionary mind is virtually synonymous with John Locke’s mind” and backs that argument up with an arsenal of examples.
While the Founders certainly consulted the writings of such classical thinkers as Aristotle and Cicero, Thompson argues that they modified the ancients’ republicanism in light of their Lockean commitment to liberty: “For traditional republicans going back to ancient Greece and Rome, the sacrifice of individual interests for the common good was the ultimate standard of moral and political value,” he writes. But thanks to the influence of now-forgotten intellectuals such as Massachusetts minister Jonathan Mayhew, who wove Lockean theory together with Christian doctrine, the Founders adopted “a new and improved understanding of republicanism” that focused on what the Declaration calls “happiness and safety,” the twin pillars of the bourgeois commercial republic.