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Rights, Duties, and the American Republic: A Conversation with Thomas West

with Thomas G. West

Thomas West, author of the new book, The Political Theory of the American Founding, joins us to talk natural rights and how they shaped our Constitution.

Reader Discussion

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on July 05, 2017 at 22:37:02 pm

I would like to share the following reflections on page 34 of Thomas West's "The Political Theory of the American Founding":

West writes that the Declaration of Independence "takes 'safety and happiness' to be the sum of government's purpose." This thought on the purpose of government appears in Cicero's "De legibus," and this Ciceronian phrase "safety and happiness" appears in Hutcheson, Burlamaqui, and Vattel (but not Locke), and reappears repeatedly in Revolutionary-era American political discourse.

West associates the Declaration's phrase "secure these rights" with Locke. However, it was not Locke but Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui—the leading authority on natural law in the Revolutionary era—who wrote of the purpose of government being to secure natural rights, with natural right being understood in terms of reason applied to the pursuit of happiness. Locke, to the best of my knowledge, never associated natural right with happiness.

West notes that the bills of rights of six states mention the right of "obtaining happiness," and concludes that this must be a reference to property. However, "obtaining" happiness is a thought from both Burlamaqui and Francis Hutcheson, neither of whom had property in mind. Hutcheson, in the very first paragraph of his "Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy," cites and paraphrases Cicero, stating that all philosophers agree that “‘Happiness either consists in virtue and virtuous offices, or is to be OBTAINED and secured by them.’” Burlamaqui writes in his Principles of Natural and Politic Law: “The perfection of man consists really in the possession of natural or acquired faculties, which enable us to OBTAIN, and actually put us in possession of solid felicity; and this in conformity to the intention of our Creator, engraved in our nature, and clearly manifested by the state wherein he has placed us.” The first paragraph of Burlamaqui’s work refers to the “noble pursuit” of “true and solid happiness” -- the whole point of Burlamaqui's effort.

Furthermore, the Continental Congress in May 1776 actually defined "happiness" and the related term "safety." Once again, the congressional definition of happiness follows Burlamaqui (and Cumberland and Cicero), but not Locke. I discuss this in my recent article, "The May Resolution and the Declaration of Independence," online at http://startingpointsjournal.com/may-resolution-declaration-of-independence/

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John Schmeeckle
on July 09, 2017 at 12:23:07 pm

I am the author of the podcast book. John Schmeeckle speaks of the relative importance of Locke and other European thinkers. That is not the subject of my book, which touches on this topic only glancingly. My aim was to explain the founders' political theory on its own terms and in their own words.

I agree with Schmeeckle that the founders thought happiness is connected to both natural rights and to public and private virtue. That is the subject of Part II of my book ("The Moral Conditions of Freedom"), to which I devote 142 pages.

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Thomas G. West
on July 09, 2019 at 06:03:04 am

[…] elders for more comprehensive discussions of how we once got it right (Thomas West’s 2017 The Political Theory of the American Founding) and how we have since gone so wrong (John Marini’s 2019 Unmasking the Administrative […]

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Anton and the Claremonsters

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