Thursday, August 6, 2015

Libraries of the Founders

Everyone loves the American Revolution. Radicals on both the left and the right see themselves as the true inheritors of the Declaration of Independence.  The Articles of Confederation are more popular on the right, but everyone thinks that they are proper interpreters of the Constitution – even those who claim not to “interpret” it at all.  For everyone who cites a Founder to show that America was created as a Christian nation, another person quotes a different Founder to demonstrate that it was not. What is the truth?
Jefferson's Collection
at the Library of Congress

Of the many generalizations customarily made about the Founding Fathers, one of the most common but least defensible is that they all thought pretty much of the same things about the nature of man, society, and government. On one level of consciousness, we know better. Had there been such unanimity of opinion the American public would scarcely have taken so long to work out an acceptable governmental system.
[…]
"On the other hand, despite their differences the Revolutionary generation did achieve independence, they did write a number of strikingly similar state constitutions, and they did draft and put into operation the federal Constitution. What underlay and made possible these monumental accomplishments, however, was not a universally accepted set of philosophical principles. Rather, I suggest, most Americans shared a common matrix of ideas and assumptions about government and society, about liberty and property, about politics and law." -- Forrest McDonald, Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought , vol. 1, no. 1 January/March 1978 published by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982).

What was that “matrix of ideas and assumptions”?

Donald S. Lutz also compiled an inventory of the works most often cited by the Founders.  His “Top 40” (actually 37) can be found here at the Online Library of Liberty, sponsored by The Liberty Fund, Inc. The same site also carries Forrest McDonald’s essay here. 
Prof. Lutz’s Top 10 are:
  • St. Paul
  • Montesquieu
  • Sir William Blackstone
  • John Locke
  • David Hume
  • Plutarch
  • Cesare Beccaria
  • John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon
  • Delolme
  • Samuel Pufendorf

Among the works by Montesquieu was Reflections on the Causes of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire (1734). Edward Gibbons’ Decline and Fall was only being produced 1776-1788.  Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans (also called Parallel Lives) provided details about the ancient world. Seeking to sever the political bands that tied them to a medieval government, the Founders had few other models, and the ancient histories provided many lessons.
From the Library of Congress Homepage
Moreover, it is important to bear in mind that their opinions necessarily changed with experience. So, the conflicts were not just between or among them, but also within them. That ambiguity leaves us with more quotable quotes with which to support our arguments.
  • “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” -- John Adams
  • “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” – John Adams

Of course, context is important.  The first quote came from “Message from John Adams to the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massacusetts” (October 11, 1798) available on Belief.net here.

The second came from Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary.  
Art. 11. As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen [Muslims]; and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Muslim] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries. (Wikipedia here. The article also provides an image of the original treaty.)
The context is clear, and a subsequent treaty (1803) did not contain that key phrase.

The Founders also expressed an ambivalent or conflicted set of beliefs about property and commerce. Many of them were merchants, of course. But for those merchants, the hallmark of regal over-reach was the creation of crown charter corporations, beginning with the Bank of England.  In the words of Forrest McDonald: “… the Americans developed a deep-seated reverence toward the sanctity of private property and simultaneously developed a strong anticapitalistic bias.”

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