July 7, 2020


The American Founding vindicated against its despisers on the Right and LeftThere can be no meaningful defense of Western civilization, of "order in history," without a thoughtful and manly defense of the great achievement that is the American republic. (Daniel J. Mahoney, 7/03/20, Catholic World Report)

[R]eilly has provided a learned, serious, and passionate defense of the tradition bequeathed to us by our Fathers, political, religious, and philosophical. He has provided vital arguments for responding to the assaults on the American proposition from both the secular Left and the traditionalist Right. I welcome and applaud his achievement even if I cannot assent to every step in his argument.

Let us begin closer to home with Reilly's account of the moral foundations of the American republic. Reilly is particularly helpful at showing that the most significant and thoughtful among the Founders (an eclectic lot, to be sure) were not partisans of moral relativism, or atomistic individualism, or a reductive and dehumanizing scientific materialism. For the most part, Thomas Hobbes appalled them, for reasons a young Alexander Hamilton eloquently recounted in his essay from 1775 entitled The Farmer Refuted. Hamilton wrote on that occasion:

Moral obligation, according to [Hobbes], is derived from the introduction of civil society; and there is no virtue but what is purely artificial, the mere contrivance of politicians, for the maintenance of social discourse. But the reason he ran into this absurd and impious doctrine was that he disbelieved the existence of an intelligent superintending principle, who is the governor and will be the judge of the universe.

Firmly rejecting political atheism in all its forms, Hamilton goes on to affirm that natural rights must always find their sturdy foundation in "the law of nature" rooted in the "eternal and immutable law" of God. Rejecting both despotism and moral antinomianism, the Founders uniformly defended liberty under God and the law. Even Jefferson, the most modern and Epicurean of the Founders, a deist of a shaky sort, and not a classical theist, was appalled by Hobbes' conventionalist view that morality had no grounding in the nature of things, except the minimalist  (and amoral) imperative that human beings preserve themselves. There is a thin reed for rights in Hobbes, but no rational foundation for moral and civic obligation.

Reilly is undoubtedly right that the Founders belonged to a different, and infinitely saner and more elevated, spiritual universe than the one inhabited by Thomas Hobbes. Statesmen more than theorists, they still drew on classical wisdom (Aristotle and Cicero) even as they adopted the idiom of modern philosophy and political philosophy. This is a point that needed to be stressed to a greater extent by Reilly as he addresses these matters. In a founder such as John Adams the Bible's ethical monotheism shines forth, even if Adams ultimately leaned toward Arminianism and even a morally robust deism. Hamilton founded the Society for Christian Constitutionalism in 1796, fearful that Jacobin atheism and proto-totalitarianism was making steady progress on American shores. A deeply thoughtful founder such as James Wilson admired John Locke but feared that his thought could be misconstrued and thus give powerful support to skeptical and morally subversive intellectual and political currents. All of this is true, and none of it supports Hanby's and Deenen's portraits of an American Founding as a vehicle of radical individualism, moral relativism, and a budding philosophy of radical autonomy culminating in the unencumbered self.

Posted by at July 7, 2020 12:00 AM