The American Revolution and the Theological-Political Problem
Part 1 of a series by C. Bradley Thompson
The American Mind is happy to play host to the important debates raised in the below essay. We do not necessarily endorse one side or another, and will, of course, invite responses — Eds.
My critics on the neo-reactionary Right claim that my interpretation of the causes, nature, and meaning of the American Revolution is too Lockean, too classically liberal, too much about freedom and the founders’ principles of natural rights, rule of law, constitutionalism, and laissez-faire government. They claim that I have reduced the principles of the Revolution to some form of a secularized libertarianism, and that I have stripped the American founding of its Christian roots (i.e., of revelation, faith, miracles, self-sacrifice, and submission) and replaced it with the Enlightenment view of nature, reason, and ethical individualism. The reactionary Right wants the American founding to be a Christian founding so as to provide a standard or point of return for twenty-first century Americans drowning in a miasma of moral relativism and nihilism.
These are serious charges and they relate to what some political philosophers refer to as the “theological-political problem,” which is concerned with the origin and nature of political authority and whether that authority was or should be derived from reason (philosophy), revelation (religion), or some combination of both. This is a profoundly important topic. The challenge raised by my critics can be reduced to two basic questions. First, was the American Revolution a Christian revolution or was it guided by the principles of Enlightenment liberalism? Second, what difference does it make?
The goal of the reactionary Right is to downgrade what they see as the classical-liberal ideas of the Revolution and to elevate the influence of Christian communalism on the American mind. Presumably they want a twenty-first-century America that is based on intense religious belief and Christian sacrifice and love and they want a government then and now that promotes a Christian view of the “common good,” and so when they are not condemning the principles of the American Revolution they are rewriting early American history in order to create a mythos about the Revolution. They want more religion and more government from their American founding, and they want it hard.
In the reactionaries’ collective mind, the principal sin of America’s Revolutionary Mind is to have demonstrated that Enlightenment liberalism (i.e., the British enlightenment of Bacon, Newton, and Locke) was the primary (though not the sole) philosophic influence on the Revolutionary generation and then to have proven this fact with 435 pages of primary-source evidence and hundreds of footnotes. There is nothing new or controversial about this claim. In fact, it has been the dominant interpretation of the Revolution’s intellectual sources since the time of the Revolution itself.
The TradCons’ Sunday-school version of American history claims that America’s true founding moment was not in 1776 but in 1620 when separatist English Puritans known as the Pilgrims settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The Pilgrims were “separatists” in that they were breaking permanently from the Church of England and had no plan to return to England. The Pilgrims were followed nine years later by a much larger group of non-separatist Puritans, who founded the much larger Massachusetts Bay Colony. The latter groups ultimate goal was to reform the Church of England by the shining example of their “City Upon a Hill” and then to return to a purified mother country. But they did not return. The Puritans stayed in the colonies, and the TradCons’ history of early America draws an unbroken line of Christian hegemony from 1620 to 1776 and beyond, from the ideas of John Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity to Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.
In their fantasy world, my TradCon critics would no doubt prefer a Declaration of Independence that reads:
We hold these truths to be divinely inspired, that all men are created unequal; that they are endowed by their Creator with original sin, which means they are forever sinners and incapable of being free, just, and good; that to secure man’s duties to God and the common good, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the Supreme Being and his saving elect; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the duty of the people to obey.
To support this exercise in wish fulfillment, the TradCons’ big claim in support of a Christian founding is that a lot of ordinary 18th-century Americans were pious Christians who regularly attended church. That fact—and it is a fact—has at best only secondary relevance for understanding the Revolution’s causes, nature, and meaning.
The TradCons are upset that there is not enough Christianity in my interpretation of the Revolution’s deepest causes and meaning. The fact of the matter, however, is that I simply followed the evidence—400+ pages worth of evidence! It is true that I argue in the book that the greatest intellectual influence on the American mind during the revolutionary period was Lockean liberalism (including Cato’s Letters by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon and James Burgh’s Political Disquisitions), but I never once denied that there were not other intellectual traditions that the Revolutionaries’ drew upon during their conflict with Great Britain and when they drafted their state constitutions. I am the first to admit—and say so in the book—that the revolutionary generation was also influenced by the ideas of classical republicanism, Protestant theology, English common law, and other Enlightenment strains, including French thinkers such as Montesquieu.
But my critics are missing the point. The most important question is: what was the most fundamental intellectual influence on American Revolutionaries during the years between 1761 and 1776 as they battled British imperial officials?
Yes—I confess—virtually every American revolutionary was a devout and practicing Christian and, yes, occasionally their revolutionary writings were sometimes supported with Scriptural references. That does not mean, however, that America had a Christian revolution or founding. (By contrast, the Iranian Revolution was a Muslim revolution.) The simple truth of the matter is that Reformed Protestant theology was not the most important intellectual source or inspiration for American Patriots as they argued against the Sugar, Stamp, Declaratory, Townshend, Tea, Coercive, and Prohibitory Acts. That’s a fact that no serious scholar questions. My book demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt that Locke’s influence was by far the most important as American Revolutionaries confronted the actions taken by Parliament and George III during the years of the imperial crisis.
That said, it would be absurd to claim that colonial and post-revolutionary Americans did not hold religious convictions on a wide range of subjects beyond those advanced by Locke. Of course they did! They held views on a wide range of topics that were more influenced by Scripture and their pastors than by Locke or other Enlightenment thinkers (e.g., ecclesiastical matters, crime and punishment, witches, courtship, marriage, child rearing, friendship, death, the immortality of the soul, etc.). This is why the title of my book is “America’s Revolutionary Mind” and not “The American Mind.” The book is not concerned with the totality of what eighteenth-century Americans thought, said, or did. It is not concerned with the religious views of colonial and revolutionary Americans and the myriad ways in which religion affected their private and public lives. Instead, America’s Revolutionary Mind addresses how and why American Patriots responded to the laws and arguments of British imperial officials and how this led to a revolution in the moral thinking of the American people during the decade-and-a-half before 1776. To deny this moral revolution is to deny what American revolutionaries thought, said, and did.
Part of the challenge faced by real scholars of the American Revolution is to distinguish between the extant culture on the ground during this period and the forces of intellectual and political change that were sweeping through and disrupting the existing order. Take America during the quarter century between 1764 and 1789. There were, in effect, two America’s during that period. Two different and sometimes even contradictory cultures co-existed at the same time and in the same place: Christianity mostly at the cultural level and Enlightenment liberalism mostly at the intellectual and political level. These two very different intellectual traditions were sometimes in conflict with one another, but for the most part they existed with each other in a state of creative tension. One of the great achievements of the American founding was to have defanged the traditional theological-political conflict.
There is no question that much of American culture at the local level in 1776 was mostly religious and conservative, certainly compared to America in 2020, but that is not the proper comparison. The historically appropriate comparison would be to analyze American Christianity in 1776 compared to 1620 when the Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower. American Christianity subsequently evolved over the course of 150 years or so. Eighteenth-century colonial Americans passed laws at the local and provincial level that faintly echoed the cultural vision of their forebears, but it is also important to note that there had been radical religious and cultural changes in the colonies between 1620 and 1776. New England Puritans of the 1630s would no doubt have been morally and theologically appalled by what they would see could they be transported to Boston in 1776. In fact, first generation Puritans who established a “City Upon a Hill” in the 1630s were morally and theologically appalled by what they saw developing in New England as early as the 1650s. By the end of the first generation, many Puritan settlers viewed their efforts to establish a “Bible Commonwealth” as a dismal failure. Still, over 95% of all Americans during the eighteenth century and beyond were practicing Christians of one sort or another, and I do not discount that fact.
Likewise, there is no question that American revolutionaries launched a novus ordo seclorum in the post-1776 period precisely because in the five decades before independence an intellectual revolution had been slowly brewing in the colonies—an intellectual revolution that would challenge and transform many of the core tenets of Christianity. Eighteenth-century American college students were, for example, beginning to read the great works of the Enlightenment. Young John Adams was reading Bacon’s Novum Organum, Newton’s Principia Mathematica, and Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding at Harvard during the early1750s and the teenage Thomas Jefferson was likewise reading them a few years later at the College of William & Mary. And it was Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, more than any other book, that filled their pamphlets and newspaper articles during the 1760s and ‘70s as they battled British imperial officials, and it was Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws that guided them when they drafted their state and national constitutions.
With this background in mind, my critics must now answer several questions. First, what role did the ideas of Thomas Aquinas or John Calvin play in helping American Patriots to formulate their responses to the acts of British tyranny? Specifically, were Thomas’s or Calvin’s ideas formative in the revolutionary pamphlets of James Otis, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Richard Bland, Daniel Dulany, John Dickinson, James Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton? Second, what role did the ideas of Scholasticism or Reformed Protestant theology play in helping American revolutionaries to draft their new constitutions? Specifically, were Thomas’s or Calvin’s ideas discussed and debated in the Philadelphia Convention in the summer of 1787? In sum: which ideas were most fundamental in determining the course of the Revolution, those of Calvin or Locke, and, which ideas were most fundamental in determining the forms and formalities of America’s revolutionary constitutions, those of Aquinas or Montesquieu?
And with these questions, real scholars of the American Revolution know that the TradCon grift is done for. If the American founding were a “Christian founding,” we would expect to see Thomas’s or Calvin’s influence writ large on American thinkers and statesmen of the revolutionary era, but they are not! The pseudo-scholars of the reactionary Right have not and cannot produce 435+ pages of evidence to make their case as I have done to make mine.
The Real American Revolution
The true history of the American Revolution tells a different story. It begins in the middle decades of eighteenth century, when certain new philosophic seeds were planted in Britain’s American colonies—seeds that would first bear fruit beginning in the 1760s when the British Parliament passed the Sugar and Stamp Acts. What took place in the decade leading up to 1776 and then in the decades immediately thereafter was nothing short of a moral and political revolution and a refounding that eventually did away with the “common-good” politics of the Puritans, the Church, and the classical republics.
In his attempt to understand the causes and meaning of the American Revolution, John Adams claimed the true American revolution “was in the Minds of the People” and that revolution, he said, was represented by a “radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections” of the American people. The former president was suggesting that the root cause of the American Revolution was to be found in a radical change in the colonists’ moral reasoning and political principles. That change was, in part, the colonists’ rejection of the politics of “common-good” communalism. A subtle account of that transformation can be found in John Adams’s 1765 Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law.
Likewise, Thomas Paine also understood that a revolutionary transformation had taken place in the American consciousness in the years leading up to 1776. As Paine put it so strikingly in Common Sense, “a new æra for politics is struck; a new method of thinking hath arisen.” He described this “new method of thinking” in an extraordinary letter to the French philosophe, the Abbé Raynal. Paine told the French cleric that the American “style and manner of thinking ha[d] undergone a revolution more extraordinary than the political revolution of the country.” The Americans now see, he explained, “with other eyes; [they] hear with other ears; and think with other thoughts, than those [they] formerly used.” This revolution of the mind transformed the colonists into “another people.” Paine identified the precise meaning of that revolution when he wrote in Rights of Man: “the Independence of America” was “accompanied by a revolution in the principles and practice of governments.” The Americans had done something, he continued, that no other people in history had ever achieved: they founded their new governments “on a moral theory . . . on the indefeasible, hereditary rights of man.” The discovery, development, and adoption of that “moral theory” by the American people in the years before 1776 is the embodiment of the “real” revolution described by Adams.
And let us not forget that America’s revolutionary founders created something new in world history—and they knew it. As Alexander Hamilton famously wrote in Federalist No. 1: “It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” Hamilton’s sentiment was expressed repeatedly throughout the founding period. Creating governments on the basis of “reflection and choice” (as opposed to revelation and faith) was a revolutionary act unlike any other in history.
Let me be clear: I am not saying and have never said that the American founding was a secular founding. Amongst the many great achievements of America’s revolutionary founders was to have reconciled reason and revelation or philosophy and faith. One of the fundamental principles of America’s Enlightenment or classical-liberal founding was the principle, “separation of church and State,” which created a safe-space for religious thought and practice unmolested by government officials. That safe-space also protected those who were less religiously inclined. America’s enlightenment founding based on reason, free will, individualism, natural rights, rule of law, constitutionalism, and limited government created a political no-fly zone over America’s independent churches. The result was, ironically, both the taming and flourishing of religious thought and practice in the United States. This was the founders’ solution to the theological-political problem.
Several of my critics simply do not understand what the Revolution was about, and what its long-term consequences were. They do not understand that the American Revolution was in a fact a revolution, a moral revolution in the minds of the American people that was followed by a constitutional and then a political, social, economic and even a religious revolution. They do not understand how American Christianity was tamed and even inspired by Enlightenment liberalism. They do not understand that what took place in 1776 was a rejection of not only George III and the British Parliament, but it was also a rejection of the Puritan’s religious and “common good” polity. They do not understand that the United States of America was founded in the years between 1776 and 1788 as something different from that which preceded it, while at the same time inheriting much of their evolved cultural past. This fact was known and understood by the entire founding generation. They said so repeatedly.
My critics have clearly not read Gordon S. Wood’s Pulitzer-Prize winning The Radicalism of the American Revolution, which demonstrates how the Declaration’s revolutionary principles percolated down and though the culture in the decades after 1776 forever changing America and the rest of the world. Although there were visible trace elements of the original colonies’ ancien régime up through the revolution and beyond, that world was slowly dying.
America’s Revolutionary Mind explains the revolution—the “real” revolution as John Adams described it—that took place in the minds of the American people in years between 1761 and 1776. The American Revolution, though led and fought by devout Christians, was not a Christian revolution.
In the end, the absurdity of the TradCon position can be reduced to two related conclusions: either there was no American Revolution (at least as John Adams and I explained it) or it was a Christian revolution. If the former, then colonial American history from 1629 to 1776 was one continuous whole and there was no revolution in any meaningful sense, which means that the ideas and institutions promoted by John Winthrop and Cotton Mather will be found in the language and meaning of the Declaration of Independence. If the latter, then America’s Christian Revolution was actually a religious civil war (which it wasn’t), because the British were no less Christian than the Americans. In the end, both interpretations are ludicrous and are held by no legitimate scholars of the American Revolution.
Consider one final absurdity. My neo-reactionary critics are stuck on the horns of a dilemma: on the one hand, they claim that the founders’ principles necessarily lead to moral nihilism and all that is rotten in 21st-century America, which means we should abandon those principles; on the other hand, they insist that America was founded as a Christian nation, which means that we should return to the principles of America’s Christian founding. But they can’t have it both ways: either America was founded on the principles of classical liberalism as I have argued in America’s Revolutionary Mind, or America was founded on Christian principles, which means those Christian principles are therefore responsible for Drag Queen Story Hour.
I appreciate this essay because it clarifies the issue well. However, I think you are missing an obvious resolution to the disagreement. This is not an either/or matter of Christian or Lockean principles animating the revolutionary mind; rather, it was that Christian principles were the oxygen that Lockean principles breathed - not just some secondary or tertiary factor. This may not satisfy all of your opponents - but it will satisfy the informed and reasonable ones.
Great article, thanks for writing it.
Your critics are missing the point because they don't know how to think in essentials and/or are dishonest as they try to reverse engineer their cargo-cult beliefs in place of America's actual history.