We have arrived at an ominous moment, when the very legitimacy of the American political order has come under systematic assault. America is on trial in ways that few of us could have imagined even several months ago, when Robert Reilly’s fine new book saw the light of day.
In his compelling defence of the intellectual and moral foundations of the American regime, Reilly principally takes aim at a group of Catholic scholars and intellectuals, Michael Hanby and Patrick Deneen chief among them, who reject the American proposition in toto, dismissing it as metaphysically corrupt (Hanby) or as “a poison pill” or “ticking time bomb” bound to unleash all the corrupting “acids of modernity,” to recall Walter Lippman’s memorable phrase from 1929.
But in our present moment of nihilistic discontent, as statues topple and angry mobs set the tone of public and private life, the assault comes almost exclusively from the Left, now best defined as those who reject every aspect of our civic and civilizational patrimony.
No matter: Reilly has provided a learned, serious, and passionate defence 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 sceptical 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.
Still, the Founders bought into what the great southern Catholic novelist Walker Percy called a “mishmash anthropology.” No moral relativists, they nonetheless adopted the idiom of the “state of nature” which was intended by its great proponents to be a substitute account of human origins from the old one, so strikingly provided in the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis. Such an account is remarkably “conventionalist,” in that it takes its bearings from solitary or semi-solitary individuals in the state of nature who are in no way political animals by nature.
And Locke, a most canny writer, presented arguments in his Second Treatise of Government for human beings being both the product of Divine workmanship and beings who own themselves. Human beings have duties in the state of nature (contra Hobbes) but only when these are not at odds with the overwhelming imperative of self-preservation. For Locke, God and nature are not particularly provident, 9/10, nay 999/1000, Locke says, of what human beings have is the product of human industriousness. In numerous and subtle ways, Locke undermines the multiple reasons why human beings ought to be grateful to a loving and Provident God and a beneficent natural order.
Now, I agree with Bob Reilly that the American Founders were not particularly alert to the subversive or truly radical underpinnings of Locke’s thought.
James Wilson, in his famous law lectures at the University of Pennsylvania, saw that Locke had been appropriated by the French encyclopedists and some of the French revolutionaries, too. But he saw this as a wilful and perverse misappropriation of the more traditional affirmations of Locke. But as John Courtney Murray points out in the concluding pages of We Hold These Truths (1960), Locke self-consciously subverts traditional metaphysics, relativizes the moral law, and places self-preservation above moral or civic duty. To be sure, he pays lip service to “the judicious Hooker” (a great and noble Christian Aristotelian—a critic of both Puritan fanaticism and Machiavellian modernity) while not so subtly distancing himself from the premises underlying Hooker’s (and St. Thomas’) thought.
As the example of Father Murray shows, the American proposition is a worthy of defence, even if the Founders were somewhat taken in by Locke’s deceptive mélange of practical sobriety and theoretical radicalism. Murray saw that that radicalism came to its fullest fruition in the French Revolution, and not in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, or the American Revolution of a century later.
If we treat the great political men whose courage and determination gave birth to the American republic as statesmen first, and as theorists only intermittently and secondarily, we can begin to judge their achievement on its own terms.
They despised what we have come to call moral relativism even as many of them rooted moral judgment in that psychological faculty that the 18th century called “moral sense.” The common-sense philosophers Thomas Reid and Francis Hutcheson were their points of reference, more than Thomas Aquinas and Richard Hooker. Most were theists, some deists, but all were opponents of the political atheism that confused human beings with gods.
In honouring the thought that inspired and undergird the Declaration of Independence of 1776, Jefferson and Adams could rightly appeal, and eclectically so, to the Bible, Aristotle, Cicero, Sydney, and Locke, and other great “books of public and natural right.” That was enough for their statesmanlike purposes. We, on the other hand, are obliged to do more, to think through the presuppositions of a free and virtuous republic in a more intellectually, and philosophically, consistent way.
This is where the first and largest part of Reilly’s book can make a signal contribution. As philosophically inclined statesman, the founders presupposed much that they did not feel obliged to theorize or articulate in a considered or systematic way. They were profoundly shaped by ethical monotheism, and by a tradition of liberal education that drew freely, and somewhat haphazardly, on biblical and classical wisdom, the Christian “marriage” of Jerusalem and Athens, and the best and most prudent political wisdom of the enlightenment (especially Montesquieu, to some extent Locke and David Hume).
They also shared their age’s confidence in the promise of scientific and (in a qualified way) political progress, while remaining sober about the limits inherent in human nature. They were, in the illuminating words of Martin Diamond, “sober revolutionaries” who did not commit themselves to “impossible dreams” that necessarily culminate in totalitarian tyranny.
All of Bob Reilly’s works remind us (following his informal teacher Father James V. Schall SJ) that reason, not will, guides human beings, and all spiritual beings, in the created order. Islam’s rejection of that elementary truth has given rise to spiritual and political despotism, and has made it difficult for millions of decent Muslims to oppose the extremists in their midst. Our Creator God is not an oriental potentate in the sky: His reason and goodness take ontological priority over His will.
A few of the American Founders such as the perspicacious James Wilson, arrived at these conclusions, at once theological and political, in his articulation of a jurisprudence fitting a free and decent people. About one vital thing Reilly is right, and crucially so: the American proposition is on the side of “liberty under God and the law” no matter how inadequately these busy statesmen theorized that foundational truth.
That becomes eminently clear in chapter 10 of his book (“The Antipodes: The American Revolution versus the French Revolution”) where Reilly established beyond all doubt that American ordered liberty had nothing to do with Jacobin fanaticism, atheism, and tyranny. The American revolutionaries respected limits and constitutional norms: the French revolutionaries monstrously identified republican virtue with revolutionary terror.
They were Bolsheviks avant la lettre. Even Jefferson came to regret his early uncritical support for the French Revolution, as his correspondence with John Adams makes abundantly clear. For Hamilton, Adams, and Washington, America stood for liberty. The French Revolution in contrast stood for a violent rapaciousness rooted in lawlessness and contempt for “the rights of God.”
Our present-day American Jacobins, who are doing their best to destroy once and for all the rich intellectual, political, spiritual, and cultural patrimony that Bob Reilly so richly displays in this book, are true heirs of the Jacobin terror, and not the gentlemen-revolutionaries of 1776 and 1787. They are moved by a spirit of demonic ingratitude.
One more truth flows abundantly from the pages of America on Trial: there can be no meaningful defence of Western civilization, of “order in history,” without a thoughtful and manly defence of the great achievement that is the American republic. To attack it in the name of a pure Catholic polity that has never existed, is to leave American Catholics without a country, and without hope for our common life.
Let us rather follow John Courtney Murray and Robert Reilly in clarifying the moral and intellectual presuppositions that our noble Founders could sometimes take for granted. And let us not blame them for the moral rot that owes everything to a transvaluation of values, where a triumphant Will repudiates the Sovereignty of Reason and Goodness with all the deleterious consequences that have come to light in recent years. Bob Reilly’s excellent book is the work of a scholar and a man of faith who has every reason to love his country despite its present travails. May he be an example to others.
This review has been republished from Catholic World Report with permission.