The View From 1776

The American Eagle’s Two Wings

Robert Curry presents another essay in his series making us aware of the moral underpinnings, the unwritten constitution, upon which the written Constitution rests.

The Scottish Enlightenment & America’s Founding
?by Robert Curry

The American Eagle’s Two Wings

The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records.  They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of Divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.

Alexander Hamilton

Our Constitution is made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.   

John Adams

In his fascinating and valuable account of the Founding, On Two Wings, Michael Novak argues that we have lost sight of the role of religion in America?s Founding.  His thesis is that the Founders were empowered by both faith and common sense working together.

He is certainly correct that the Founders? faith has been systematically downplayed.  The evidence that the Founders were strengthened in their cause by their religious convictions is simply overwhelming. 

In a series of articles on this site, I have been discussing the impact of the Scottish Enlightenment on America?s Founding.  What is fascinating to me is that to support his argument for the impact of religious faith on the Founding, Novak reaches for the same cast of characters that I have relied on to make the case for the impact of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Novak?s preface begins like this: Most of us grow up these days remarkably ignorant of the [Founders]?Benjamin Rush and James Wilson were reputed to be the most learned men amongst them, but what do most of us know about the fundamental beliefs and convictions of either of them?  He proceeds to make his case for the impact of religious conviction on the Founding very effectively, marshalling quotes of Rush and Wilson, Witherspoon and Madison, arguing effectively for the power of religion in the lives of Hamilton and Jefferson.

What is going on here?  The simple fact is that these same Founders make equally good exemplars of religious faith and of the Scottish Enlightenment. 

This of course makes it clear that the Scottish Enlightenment and the Enlightenment in America were not opposed to religion.  However, Novak overlooks this difference among the Enlightenments.  There is no country in the world, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, in which the boldest political theories of the eighteenth-century philosophers are put so effectively into practice as in America.  Only their anti-religious doctrines have never made any headway in that country.  Novak uses this quote of de Tocqueville to make his case?but de Tocqueville makes a significant error here, and it goes unnoticed by Novak.  As we have seen, the political theories that the Americans put so effectively into practice were those of the Scottish moral philosophers, who did not advance anti-religious doctrines.  Of course, the eighteenth-century philosophers from de Tocqueville?s own country of France were famous for their anti-religious doctrines, but the Founders were not influenced by their political theories.

Overlooking this difference among the Enlightenments, Novak ends up doing to the Scottish Enlightenment what he correctly accuses other scholars of doing to faith?missing the key role it played in the Founding.  Mere common sense cannot explain the depth of wisdom in The Federalist.  For the source of that wisdom, we must look to the Scottish Enlightenment.

At the same time, he is correct; the Founders did rise on two wings.  The two wings were religious faith and the Scottish Enlightenment.