Reconsidering the Sources of American Liberty

In 1966, Bernard Bailyn initiated a fifty-year historiographical debate when he published The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Bailyn’s pathbreaking book took the ideas of the American Revolution seriously, breaking with Progressive historians who saw the founders as self-interested elites manipulating the people.

Ideological Origins discerned several different strains of thought that influenced the American revolutionaries: ancient Greece and Rome, the English tradition and colonial experience of liberty, and the modern ideas of the European Enlightenment. He may have discounted the profound influence of the dissenting tradition of Protestantism, but Bailyn successfully reshaped the dominant understandings of the American Revolution and founding.

Historians and political scientists have since examined the competing ideas influencing the American Revolution and joined different camps, each with a particular explanatory narrative. For instance, scholars debate the relative influence of classical republicanism versus modern liberalism, or some confluence of the two; the relative impact of different Enlightenments; and whether or not America’s was a secular or religious founding.

David Womersley edited a collection of learned essays by some of the best scholars on these questions for Liberty Fund about a decade ago. Liberty and American Experience in the Eighteenth Century weighs in on the scholarly debate over the sources of American Revolution and how those ideas fashioned American understandings of liberty.

The strongest aspect of the volume is its contribution to the growing body of scholarship that takes seriously the influence of Protestant Christianity on the American Revolution. The “Black Regiment” of dissenting clergy was at the core of articulating ideas about liberty and consensual government in sermons from the pulpit. Indeed, political sermons were one of the primary means by which much of the population was inculcated with the ideas of John Locke.

For example, Princeton president Rev. John Witherspoon delivered a political sermon, “The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men” (1776). Witherspoon reflected on human nature, believing individuals to be sinful but capable of virtue if they practiced self-mastery. They were capable of consensual self-government and formed government to protect their civil and religious liberty. He justifies resistance against unjust governments that violated those sacred rights authored by God. Witherspoon’s ideas could have been plucked from the pages of the Declaration of Independence he signed or the Federalist. He stated: “The cause in which America is now in arms, is the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature.”

Barry Shain’s remarkable essay takes seriously the claims that Protestantism helped inspire the American Revolution and describes that tradition’s religious contributions to civil, political, and religious liberty. Shain’s exploration of the Protestant foundations of American liberty offers some of the most persuasive arguments in the volume. He provides copious amounts of evidence to demonstrate how Protestantism was deeply woven into the fabric of the public square during the American Revolution and founding.

Shain examines the contributions to the creation of the republic by Protestants generally but focuses on the dissenting evangelicalism that arose during the Great Awakening. This strain was central to arguments for civil and religious liberty. It provided the lens for asserting individual natural rights (especially liberty of conscience), creating a sense of ordered liberty and civic virtue, understanding human nature and the purposes of government, and establishing an energetic but limited government.

In Shain’s estimation, this view of the American regime was not limited to the constitutional deliberations of the 18th century. Instead, “In almost every public debate in American history that occurred before the end of the nineteenth century, each side could and did legitimately claim that it was invoking the truest and purest form of Protestantism.” Indeed, he argues that the Protestant foundations of American politics and culture are still alive and evident today as he reminds us that Americans are still the “most religious of any modern industrial people.”

Four essays in the collection address the influence of ancient and modern philosophers on the revolution. First, David Wootton asserts that the principle of checks and balances in Publius’s new “science of politics” was predicated upon the mechanistic language of the scientific revolution and the political philosophers of the Enlightenment who adopted the new paradigm. It would have been highly instructive for Wootton to explain how Woodrow Wilson and the Progressives introduced the idea of a Darwinian Living Constitution that evolved with the times—and how this shift undermined the Newtonian character of fixed and timeless principles in the Constitution of the Founders.

Two essays are dedicated to analyzing the prominent role played by the Scottish Enlightenment in the thinking of many founders. However, it has been controversial, at least since Garry Wills argued that the Scottish Enlightenment was more influential than Locke in the Declaration of Independence in his book, Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.

The two essays on this theme follow different paths: R.G. Frey argues that moral sense theory was inconsistent with the natural right appeal of the founders and therefore did not figure strongly in foundational documents such as the Declaration. John Danford argues that the founders followed David Hume’s break with the ancients in the belief that a commercial republic could survive but fails to connect Hume’s philosophy with Alexander Hamilton’s financial plans. The essays are excellent explorations of their topics, but both miss an opportunity to show the direct causal link between the Scottish Enlightenment and the founding. The Scots clearly shaped the thinking of the founders, but from the essays, it is not always clear how.

Two other essays offer rich contributions that live up to the title’s promise of exploring liberty in the American experience. Lance Banning describes the Jeffersonian-Hamiltonian party divide over domestic and foreign policy and Constitutional interpretation in the 1790s. Banning explains that political branches rather than the courts resolved the disputes and breathed life into the meaning of the Constitution.

Banning’s invaluable essay reminds modern readers that a proper debate in legislative halls, jurisprudence, or the public square must be rooted in the Constitution and first principles. He wants to restore the centrality of republican self-rule by citizens and representatives rather than appealing too often to the courts. When constitutional differences are settled mostly in courts, the American people unwittingly submit to judicial supremacy. Modern political debates rarely mirror the constitutional character of debates in the political branches during the early republic.

Gordon Wood wades into the scholarly debate over James Madison and argues that his views did not substantially change as he matured from Publius in the 1780s to opposition leader in the 1790s. Wood shows that Madison’s nationalist views were consistent, yet of a different character than Hamilton’s. For instance, Madison wanted to empower the national government to achieve its objects and guard liberty by preventing majority tyranny in the states, but he opposed Hamilton and the Federalists’ ambition to build the powerful fiscal-military state.

A typical problem in analyzing the relative influence of a philosopher or group of philosophers on the founders is straight-jacketing the founders into one strain of thought. They were multifaceted statesmen, not political philosophers in an ivory tower. As such, they were less concerned than modern academics about complete consistency in applying one or more philosophers to their thoughts about government and civil society. They drew up a variety of intellectual, historical, and religious traditions in creating the American regime of liberty.

Moreover, closely following philosophical consistency would often have been imprudent. For example, the protest of British taxes passed without the consent of the colonists called for a different response than executing the constitutional rule of law and suppressing tax rebellion in the early republic. The alliance with the French monarchy against the common British enemy in the 1770s called for a different response than was necessary later with the expansionary wars of the French revolutionaries and Napoleon in the 1790s and 1800s.

Like most edited volumes, this one cannot quite offer more than the sum of its parts. Each offers an intriguing if partial look at the influences on the American founders. A single-authored book on the subject might attempt a more systematic look at the whole. Perhaps a scholar will present a new study mirroring Bailyn’s Ideological Origins to understand how the different strains of history, political philosophy, and religion shaped the American experiment in liberty.

Liberty and the American Experience offers some excellent contributions adding to the abiding scholarly debate over founding principles. Since the ideas of the founding such as liberty, equality, and the power of government are still contested today, the relevance of the debate and the volume will endure.