The View From 1776

Historical Obfuscation

In the United States, a large part of historical truth has systematically been smothered or ignored by academics.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/07 at 04:37 PM
  1. Surely, the academics have, for the past several hundred years, regularly and flagrantly obfuscated the historical developments that led from ancient Greece to America's founders. But so do most writers on the subject--even Himmelfarb--because they are intellectuals concerned with the theoretical abstractions of "political science." In fact, the early Americans eschewed most philopsophy as well as theories and looked to historical principles--past practices- in designing the Constitution. Jefferson's comment on Locke was simply that his "little book" was OK as far as it went, on the need to limit governmental power, but useless in indicating how that was to be done. Our Constitution was based on the examples of prior Republics, their detailed mechanics, and which provisions worked and which did not.

    Gertrude H. is correct in associating America's founders with the ideas of "The moral sense and common sense schools of philosophy" that the Scots developed in the 17th-18th century. She does not, however, fully explain the extent of this belief inherited fron Thomas Reid who stated: "I despise philosophy and renounce its guidance; let my soul dwell in common sense." It was Benjamin Rush, (who had met Reid when he visited Edinburgh in 1767 to recruit John Witherspoon to emigrate to America to be the president of Princeton), who suggested Reid's "common sense school" as the title for Thomas Paine's famous book-- "Common Sense." These men were a breed apart from the Enlightenment philosophers who wrote huge tomes on theory. Witherspoon belonged to the ordinary people and subscribed to the Evangelical spirit so popular with American Scots. It was that religious revival, The Great Awakening, that formed a stronger backbone for America's love of freedom than any of the European Enlightenment philosophers.

    It is the secular, often anti-religious, mindset of most intellectuals that gives rise to much of this obfuscation. George Wiegel has correctly pointed out that the principles of consent in governance and the limitation of State's power over the people "find their deepest roots, not in Enlightenment political theorizing but in ideas, ideals, and moral committments first nurtured in European Christian culture." ("The Cube and the Cathedral," p.105)

    It was Christianity, aided and abetted by the Protestant Reformation's insistence on individual freedom of thought, that put the end to the so-called Divine Right of Kings. The Puritans in 17th century England were motivated by a passionate religious fervor that demanded individual freedom. An outstanding exemplar was John Cooke, a farmer's son, raised in a Puritan farming community, who embodied their defiant Faith, nourished by the aspirations of ordinary people for freedom and justice. He became a distinguished lawyer and in 1649 brought the King of England before the Court, and set the precedent that the King is not above the law. Cooke won his case and Charles I was beheaded as an example to future tyrants. (See Geoffrey Robertson, "The Tyrannicide Brief.")

    John Locke was a teenager at the time and years later would write about the principles of freedom that Cooke had already firmly established and documented in the courtroom. A student would learn more about government, freedom, and politics by reading Cooke's legal brief than by trying to digest the hundreds of pages of Locke's tortured prose in which he attempted to philosophize on the notion of freedom.

    The Protestant preacher John Knox had arrived in Scotland 100 years earlier and his message that "God Loveth us because we are His own handiwork" won the hearts of the people and served to subordinate any obedience to other authority, whether that of the King, the nobles, or the established Churches. This religious Faith, that man was God's supreme creation, and that every man's primary allegiance was owed to God, that provided the solid sustenance of democracy, humanism, and the demand for legal freedoms. Knox' teachings both preceded and trumped the work of later pundits like Locke.

    In 1581, 22 years after Knox arrived in Scotland preaching his message of liberty, the Calvinist merchants in the Hague showed what was one of the fiercest examples of religious demand for freedom. They signed the Oath of Abjuration, stating that Phillip II, King of Spain, had violated the obligations of a ruler to be fair to his subjects, and claimed for the Dutch subjects the fundamental right "to withdraw their allegiance and to depose an oppressive and tyrannical sovereign, since no other means remained to them of preserving their liberties." (B. Tuchman, "The First Salute," p.36)

    Those Dutch burghers in 1581 thus anticipated by real world actions the very similar words that Jefferson used (almost plagiarized?) when he put pen to parchment almost two hundred years later. They also anticipated Hobbes, Montesquieu, Locke, none yet born. The Dutchmen didn't write 500 page treatises nor did they analyze and debate abstract theory. They simply demanded freedom--it was no more complicated than that. And they were repeating arguments used before, in the cities of Renaissance Italy, and in the Roman Republic, and Greek city-states 2,000 years ealier.

    All the modern intellectual and Enlightenment writers since 1581 have done is no more than "report" and "analyze" what was already a simple, well-known and established set of principles. The Socialist academics and theorists
    carefully suppress the true history of freedom and open economic systems in order to justify their lust for big government where they can rule over the common people. And they usually try to denigrate religion because it stands in stark opposition to their claim to have supreme knowledge of all things.

    It is the arrogant reliance on Reason by Intellectuals of all types that does the harm--They must justify the illusion that their great abstract-thinking brains are necessary to lead the ordinary people of every nation. In fact, progress has always come, not from the intellectuals, not from the great writers, but from the common sense of common people. And even though G. Himmelfarb is a conservative Constitutionalist, she is also an intellectual, so, like her husband, makes it all too complicated and abstract.
    Posted by bill greene  on  01/09  at  09:43 PM
  2. Dear Mr. Greene,
    I very much appreciate your thoughtful and well-informed response. Thanks for taking the time.

    And I agree with you about so much. Surely you are right about the significance of the Protestant Reformation, Knox, the Great Awakening and the very great Thomas Reid.

    I also believe the rigorous training in the thinking of the Scottish Enlightenment prepared Witherspoon, Wilson, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton and many others of the Revolutionary generation to make the brilliant choices that made their gift to us such a great advance for Western civilization and for mankind. (Yes, I also believe that we must look to the active role of Divine Providence to understand how well it worked out for America.)

    Warm regards,
    Robert Curry
    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/12  at  03:14 PM
  3. It is important to note that the Scottish "Enlightenment" was not a monolithic way of thinking. Like most things, it had its good parts and bad parts. Witherspoon, the evangelical common man, accepted Benjamin Rush's invitation to go to America partly because he was sick of listening to Hume denigrate religion and the truth of traditional Christianity. He chose to escape the decadent new liberal philosophers who were beginning to dominate Edinburgh society and go join the simple "believers" in the American hinterland.

    Once ensconced as president of Princeton, he taught classes and introduced Jimmy Madison to the classical workings of Western Civilization. Meanwhile back in Scotland the new elites in academia were moving beyond their humble roots. It had been 200 years since Knox arrived and the succeeding era of prosperity, and the higher levels of comfort and affluence, common among mature societies, brought an unfortunate parallel growth of intellectuals. Numerous social clubs sprang up in Edinburgh, notably the Select Society, founded in 1754, and progressive clergymen such as William Robertson wanted to modernize the church. They called themselves the Moderates, and though not wholly endorsing David Hume's denial of an Almighty, they fought for a more enlightened Presbyterianism. (Note that "enlightened" is too frequently code for an anti-religious bias)

    Before Witherspoon left for The New World, he published a satirical jab entitled "Eclesiastical Characteristics." This widely circulated essay offered the following mock advice on how to write a sermon to the clergymen aspiring to the mantle of enlightenment:

    1- All topics must be confined to social duties--as opposed to religious doctrines.
    2- There must be no reference to the afterlife.
    3- Authorities and references must be drawn from pagan writers, and none, or as few as possible, from Holy Scripture.
    4- He must be very unacceptable to the common people.

    Neverthless, Witherspoon's departure in 1768 marked the triumph of the Moderates--an ascendancy that marked the end of Scotland's golden age. Witherspoon was accompanied during the mid to late 1700's by a flood of Scots who eschewed the fine wines, silks, and enlightened conversations of the Select Society and emigrated to America. A popular ditty expressed the mood of those who rebelled at the growing secularism, the lingering restrictions on their fredom, and the growth of the intellectual elites in Scottish society:

    To the West, to the West,to the land of the free; Where the mighty Missouri rolls down to the sea;
    Where the man is a man even though he must toil, And the poorest may gather the fruit of his toil."

    It is a consistent irony that throughout history we see that when humble start-up societies grow into affluent prosperous nations, a new elite takes over the leadership, displacing the simple hard-working people that created the progress, and almost universally that new elite attempts to undermine traditional religious beliefs, and substitute a secular and atheistic culture that demands the common people bow down to the theories of this allegedly more Rational group of experts who arrogantly assert that they can improve things, "change" things for the better, but who in fact usually will bring on the Decline of Nations.
    Posted by bill greene  on  01/12  at  05:28 PM
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