The Moral Foundations of a Free Society

Part 5 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.

As should be clear now, I do not think that the government of a free society should play an active role in shaping the moral ideas and actions of its citizenry. More to the point, I do not think that government should use its coercive force to make men and women “good.” That means that government must be impartial in adjudicating rival conceptions of the good life. The intellectual doyen of the reactionary Right do not like my position because they believe it opens the way to moral and cultural relativism and the degradation of culture over time. They want government to control men’s moral and cultural lives just like the socialists think that government should control the economic lives of individuals.

I have partially addressed this issue in my discussion of common-good politics, but I would like to take up directly the TradCons deepest concerns, about my position which are threefold: one, that I must think the founding fathers were indifferent to questions of morality, piety, and virtue; two, that I must think that a free society can exist without a moral foundation; and, three, that I must therefore be a moral relativist who sanctions America’s descent into the cultural sewer of nihilism. The most unbuttoned of my critics put it this way:

For a putative moral historian of the [Revolutionary] era, Thompson offers a startlingly amoral account. Just when many on the Left and, increasingly, the Christian Right are raising moral questions about the founding, Thompson is here to say, in effect: Yes, the founding is exactly as morally deracinated, soulless, anti-tradition, and unconcerned with the good as you say it is—and that’s how I like it!

These charges are false and ludicrous. No sane person who has actually read America’s Revolutionary Mind could write this in good conscience. To do so would be a violation of the Old Testament’s ninth commandment against bearing false witness.

Readers of my book know that I have written the first-ever moral history of the American Revolution. This means two things: first, I developed a methodology for doing history that I call the “new moral history,” which rejects the Marxian, Freudian, and Weberian methodologies that have dominated and ruined the history profession for the last century and a half; and, second, I explicated and defended the founders’ moral ideas as true and their actions as noble and good.

How, then, have I restored and reinvigorated the founders’ moral vision?

The first and most important task when considering the principles of the American Revolution and their relevance for today is to ask the following two questions: first, what are the Revolution’s primary moral and political principles; and, second, are they true—true absolutely, permanently, and universally? America’s Revolutionary Mind defends the moral-political principles enunciated in the Declaration of Independence (e.g., the moral laws and rights of nature) as true. It is the first book ever written to demonstrate systematically how America’s founding generation attempted to ground their moral and political principles on nature and the facts of reality.        

I show in the book how and why American revolutionaries launched a 15-year search for moral principles that could undergird their free society—moral principles grounded in the laws and rights of nature, which are absolute, certain, permanent, and universal. Virtually all American Patriots—Christian, deist, theist, and non-believing—claimed that such principles could be induced from the study of nature and man’s nature. Though most American revolutionaries (though not all) believed that God was the ultimate source of man’s nature and therefore of the moral laws and rights of nature, they did not feel the need to prove God’s existence in order to validate these principles. Instead, the colonists’ leading thinkers validated these moral laws and rights by grounding them in the conditions and requirements of human flourishing.

America’s Revolutionary Mind focuses on the Declaration’s four self-evident truths, each of which can be summed up in a word—i.e., equality, rights, consent, and revolution—but the book also examines the metaphysical and epistemological underpinnings of key moral principles such as freedom, virtue, happiness, self-governance, and sovereignty. Finally, the book provides the first-ever examination of how the revolutionary generation understood the concept “truth”—truth as absolute, certain, permanent, and universal. The single greatest difference between my view and that of the neo-reactionaries is that I consider the founders’ moral and political principles to be true and worth defending. They do not consider the founders’ principles to be either true or worth defending. Instead, they have sworn allegiance to the theological principles of what John Adams once referred to as a foreign potentate.

The false claim of some of my critics that my account of the founders’ moral philosophy is “amoral” is easily disposed with by actually reading the chapter in my book that takes up the third of the Declaration’s trinity of unalienable rights, namely, the right to the pursuit of happiness.  Had my critics actually read the book they would know that I do not present the founders’ view of happiness as some subjectivist, hedonistic, pleasure-seeking pursuit disconnected from moral virtue or the highest human goods. Had they actually read the book, they would know that I demonstrate how the founders’ (e.g., Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson) insisted that happiness be tied directly to moral virtue, which is the “pursuit” in the pursuit of happiness. Had they actually read the book, they would know that I offer the fullest account ever written of the founders’ conception of “happiness” and its roots in classical Greek (i.e., Aristotelian) and Roman (i.e., Ciceronian) thought. But the fact is they didn’t read the book.

Because most of my TradCons critics did not read America’s Revolutionary Mind, they do not know that my founding fathers all agreed in principle with George Washington’s famous statement in his first inaugural address as president, where the first president said “there is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness.” General Washington was, whether he knew it or not, paraphrasing John Locke’s repeated claims in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding on the necessary relationship between virtue and happiness. My book provides an in-depth analysis of how America’s leading revolutionary Patriots understood and demanded that happiness be connected to virtue and that virtue be connected to freedom.

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Lastly, America’s Revolutionary Mind also examines another important but hitherto unexplored component of the founders’ moral world by exploring how American revolutionaries converted theory into practice or ideas into actions. In other words, I examine how they lived out their moral principles in their lives day-to-day. To that end, I examine the Declaration’s opening sentence, which states, “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

What could it possibly mean to say, I ask, that independence—which meant war, destruction, and death—was necessary? But the word necessary implies that it must be, that the American Patriots had no other choice except go to war, but that’s simply not true. So why did they feel morally compelled to commit their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to the cause of independence? 

To answer these questions, America’s Revolutionary Mind focuses on a phrase often used by Patriots during the 1760s and 1770s: the “spirit of liberty.” I demonstrate how the word “spirit” as used in the phrase signifies both a moral idea and a moral action. The phrase “spirit of liberty” implied an action in defense of a principle; it was characterized by certain virtues in the defense of liberty. The book examines how American Patriots defined the “spirit of liberty” as a sentiment that loves freedom and hates slavery, as a mindset that is watchful and suspicious of power, as a disposition that is restless and vigilant, and as a virtue that is defined by integrity, fortitude, courage, and patriotism.

America’s Revolutionary Mind demonstrates how the “spirit of liberty” served the colonists as a kind of moral and psychological tripwire that was first triggered by the passage of the Stamp Act and kept active with the passage of every piece of British legislation aimed at the Americans in the decade before 1776. The book shows how the colonists would permit no infringement of their rights. It reveals how the revolutionaries’ moral code demanded of them that they act in a certain way (i.e., with vigilance, integrity, and courage) given their chosen principles (e.g., justice and freedom). My founding fathers are not only moral absolutists in theory, but they are actual moral heroes in practice.

My point is this: American Revolutionaries permitted themselves no breach between their principles and their practice.  They practiced what they preached. The words written by John Adams to a friend during some of the darkest days of the Revolution serve as a kind of motto to describe who Adams and his fellow Revolutionaries were as men and as patriots:  “Fiat Justitia ruat Coelum [i.e., Let justice be done though the heavens should fall].” A truly enlightening history of the Revolution must uncover how and why American Patriots were “impelled, as the Declaration says, to dissolve the political bands that had connected them to Great Britain. My book explicates how and why the Declaration of Independence motivated the colonists to take action, the kind of moral action that leads in the short term to hardship, penury, and possibly even death, but in the long term to the blessings of a free society. Apparently that’s the kind of moral history that some of my critics want to denounce as “amoral” and as “morally deracinated” and “soulless.”

Thankfully, one reviewer approaches the truth about my book when he suggests that the deeper purpose of America’s Revolutionary Mind is nothing less than to “refound a dying American morality and with it the American regime.” This reading of my work comes close to revealing the book’s ultimate goal, which is to rediscover and defend the founders’ key moral truths as true, and to exalt those truths as worth defending and fighting for in a world turned upside down. If that’s what this reviewer means by refounding “a dying American morality and with it the American regime,” then he got it exactly right.

Finally, allow me to address in a few words the charge that, because I am a proponent of a free society and therefore do not think that government should use its coercive force to make men and women good, I must therefore be indifferent to moral concerns, or a proponent of moral relativism who supports Drag Queen Story Hour. The suggestion is infantile and dishonest. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am not an impartialist, a tolerationist, or a subjectivist when it comes to conceptions of moral virtue and the good life. Indeed, quite the opposite is true.

I am a moral absolutist, and I try to live my life by the highest moral standards. In fact, I believe that there is, broadly speaking, one true moral code, one highest view of the good superior to all others, and I spend my days trying to live according to that truth and to serve as a model of moral integrity for my family, friends, colleagues, students, and neighbors. I have also been lecturing and writing publicly against the baneful effects of nihilism and the corrupted state of our culture for considerably longer than some of my critics. There are many things in contemporary American society that I do not like, that I abhor, that I consider morally repugnant, and that I have invested time in fighting. I will not, therefore, under any circumstances, permit individuals whose own moral lives are organized around an institution defined by systemic pedophilia to lecture me on the need for personal or public morality. Such people have no moral authority from which to lecture anyone on the higher or common good.

In contrast to the TradCons, I am both a moralist and a proponent of a free society. Every society, and free societies most of all, must be grounded on a permanent moral foundation. You cannot have a free society made up of moral reprobates. I am for cultivating moral virtue as the precondition for a free people capable of limited self-government. Like Plato, I believe there is an intimate relationship between how we educate our children and the moral state of our culture and polity. Unlike Plato, I do not think that the government should play an active role in forming the souls of its children or citizens. I do not, for instance, support using government institutions and political power to provide for the moral education and reformation of children or anyone for that matter. I do not want the government regulating America’s Sunday Schools for the same reason that I don’t want the government dictating what ideas should be put into the minds of children Monday through Friday. My published views on the immorality of government schooling are well known, as are my views on the moral superiority of homeschooling and private schooling.

Dr. C. Bradley Thompson is the BB&T Research Professor at Clemson University and the Executive Director of the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism.