Taking the Founders at Their Word


Published March 20, 2023

First Things

For much of the later twentieth century, a self-satisfied scholarly consensus contended that America was founded on a vaguely Deistic notion of natural rights, procedural politics, and liberal individualism. Whereas earlier generations of conservatives contested this narrative, instead emphasizing the Bible’s influence on the nation’s founding, today’s post-liberal vanguard tends to embrace it. Patrick Deneen, for example, argues against a return to the founding, which he believes was compromised from the first by the self-destructive incoherence of Enlightenment anthropology. Among many conservatives, at least, the conventional scholarly narrative is now largely taken for granted.

According to this narrative, early modern thinkers had substituted a distant and abstract “Nature’s God”—perhaps indistinguishable from Nature itself, as for Spinoza—for the God of Abraham, and left this God almost no role beyond the initial creation of rights-bearing individuals. These individuals, left to duke it out in the amoral chaos of a state of nature, had settled upon the need to construct political institutions for their own self-protection. The resulting sovereignty was purely a product of human will, and thus unlimited in theory; to limit it in practice so that individuals could continue to pursue their private ends, the American founders constructed ingenious counterbalancing forces of will and power, thus converting the Hobbesian Leviathan into an engine of individual freedom.

Kody Cooper and Justin Dyer, in their new book The Classical and Christian Origins of American Politics, wreak havoc on the conventional narrative about the ideas that shaped the American founding. In order for that narrative to be tenable, three propositions must hold true:

1)     These early modern thinkers (i.e., Grotius, Hobbes, Pufendorf, Locke, etc.) were indeed real radicals who rejected a classical natural law theory of objective moral duties for a new modern theory of subjective natural rights.

2)     The founding generation, and nearly all its thought leaders, relied heavily on these early modern thinkers to form their own ideas of human nature and politics.

3)     The founders read these thinkers as we now read them—that is, as radicals—and thus consciously intended to follow them in their radicalism.

If any of these propositions fail, the conventional narrative is kaput. Cooper and Dyer successfully show that all three are immensely suspect.

For one thing, it is nonsense to speak vaguely of “these early modern thinkers” as representing some kind of stable consensus. Some, such as Hobbes and Spinoza, were unquestionably radical and anticipated by centuries the morally anarchic premises of the twentieth century. Others, such as Pufendorf and Locke, were demonstrably more conservative and can be subsumed into Hobbesianism only by an esoteric hermeneutics of suspicion. It is striking that only the more conservative figures (such as Harrington and Locke in England, and Burlamaqui, Vattel, and Montesquieu on the continent) are approvingly cited by the American founders. Moreover, the number of these citations pales in comparison to invocations of the Bible. The time is long past when any educated person should pretend that Locke was the patron saint of the founding.

Perhaps most crucially, Cooper and Dyer demonstrate that whether or not Locke and Co. really were in continuity with the classical Christian natural law tradition, the founders unanimously read them as such. When Locke wrote of a Creator God who bound his rational image-bearers to an objective moral law and a limited secondary sovereignty, the founders took for granted that he meant what he said.

Generations of scholars have managed to obscure the profound ethico-politico conservatism of the founders by highlighting their theological heterodoxy. Almost none of the founders, it is contended, were orthodox Trinitarian Chalcedonian Christians; thus it stands to reason that they were Deistic-pantheistic radicals, right? Even if we grant the former claim (as Mark David Hall has recently shown we should not), however, the latter conclusion does not follow. After all, the classical natural law tradition, although most fully expounded by Christian thinkers, was never held by them to itself contain or require the specially revealed truths of Christianity, such as the Trinity or the Incarnation. In fact, thinkers from Aquinas to Hooker to Hale consistently argued the opposite: a sound natural theology could yield the premises for sustaining objective morality, human dignity, and a stable political order, even in the absence of saving faith in the redemptive narrative of Scripture.

From this perspective it matters little that neither John Adams nor Thomas Jefferson believed in the two natures of Christ. What does matter is that they believed that an infinite yet personal Creator had established a morally-ordered world with humans at its capstone as beings of profound and equal worth, had commissioned them with duties and the freedom to establish political institutions to perform those duties, and who providentially ruled over them so as to hold them accountable to the moral ends for which they were created. This much Cooper and Dyer establish beyond reasonable doubt—even in the case of a transgressive thinker like Jefferson and even more so in the case of crucial though neglected figures like James Wilson. 

Today, Cooper and Dyer’s intervention feels like too little too late. The time is long past when progressives sought to justify their innovations as simply carrying on the unfinished work of Jefferson and Washington. Those figures are now more likely to be vilified as hopelessly backward and bigoted. In their powerful conclusion, however, Cooper and Dyer warn that the very social justice tradition upon which today’s American progressives draw itself depends on classical and Christian foundations. The writings and speeches by Lincoln, King, and other Americans who campaigned for racial equality show that these demands for justice were predicated on the very premises today’s anti-racists are eager to discard.

Cooper and Dyer also offer bracing words for today’s Christian conservatives, rebuking the drift toward integralism in both Catholic and Protestant political theology as unnecessary. The founding consensus, in their view, combined a salutary emphasis on the necessity of public religion and broadly Christian moral foundations with a liberal forbearance from specifying or enforcing confessional particulars. Theirs was a vision of religious liberty that made no room for licentiousness.

We may continue to debate the stability of this synthesis, but we should do so while acknowledging the historical facts. For their lucid and persuasive demonstration of these facts, Cooper and Dyer deserve our gratitude. 

Brad Littlejohn, Ph.D., is a Fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping public leaders understand the intellectual and historical foundations of our current breakdown of public trust, social cohesion, and sound governance. His research investigates shifting understandings of the nature of freedom and authority, and how a more full-orbed conception of freedom, rooted in the Christian tradition, can inform policy that respects both the dignity of the individual and the urgency of the common good. He also serves as President of the Davenant Institute.


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