The View From 1776
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
The Age of Enlightenment in France produced violent radicalism. In England and colonial America nothing of the sort ensued. Understanding the difference illuminates why today’s college students have such warped understandings of our history.
Responding to the book review titled Nietzsche Was Wrong, Robert Curry emailed the following commentary:
“You write of the Founders “realistic view of human nature, as contrasted to the Enlightenment doctrine…”? Your comments?capture perfectly the French Enlightenment, the Enlightenment of??Rousseau?and the philosophes—but the Enlightenment took very different forms in the British Isles and here in the America of the Founding Fathers.
“Two of the greatest classics of the Enlightenment in the English-speaking world are Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” and The Federalist—and I offer to you that this is?actually your own tradition.?
“Gertrude Himmelfarb’s “The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments” is probably the best treatment of this issue.? The?sections on the French and the American Elightenments are brief and really excellent.? The section on the British Enlightenment is?about 3?times as long as the other 2 because she is, as she says, “engaged in a doubly revisionist exercise, making the Enlightenment?more British and the British Enlightenment more inclusive” (p. 6, Knopf).?
“Distinguishing among these different?Enlightenments?actually offers powerful support to your very important argument.? Neither the American nor the British Enlightenments?were hostile to religion, and both were rooted, as you so correctly say, in a realistic view of human nature.? Adam Smith saw how the free market could channel self-interest?for the benefit of all; the Founders saw how the Constitutional separation of powers?and the competition among “factions” could channel the struggle for power for the benefit of all.”
By the 1960s, after nearly a century of infusion of French and German intellectuals’ atheistic materialism, American colleges and universities had simply re-written history to obliterate the English and American colonial traditions that actually had shaped our nation.
A representative sample of this fictionalized version of the Enlightenment in America is Professor Staughton Lynd’s “Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism.” Professor Lynd has impeccable left-wing liberal credentials: he was educated at Harvard and Columbia universities; taught at Yale University; visited North Vietnam in 1965 and 1966 and was one of the vocal academics condemning our participation in the Vietnam war.
He wrote, in 1968: “Any critic of the American present must have profoundly mixed feelings about our country’s past….. he will feel shame and distrust toward Founding Fathers who tolerated slavery, exterminated Indians, and blandly assumed that a good society must be based on private property…. the purpose of society is not the protection of property but the fulfillment of the needs of living human beings, that good citizens have the right and duty, not only to overthrow incurably oppressive governments, but before that point is reached to break particular oppressive laws; and that we owe our ultimate allegiance, not to this or that nation, but to the whole family of man.
“I can only plead that the Declaration itself emerged in part from the polemics of Price and Priestly, Sharp, Cartwright, and Paine…. This Anglo-American tradition was linked, in turn, both to Rousseau, who influenced America by way of England, and to Marx, whose concepts of alienation and fetishism can be paralleled in the pages of [Henry David Thoreau’s] “Walden.”
Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, would not agree with Professor Lynd.
Writing to Richard Henry Lee in 1825, Jefferson said of his authorship of the Declaration, the essential thing was, ?Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject?it was intended to be an expression of the American mind?All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversations, in letters, printed essays, or the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.?
With regard to private property rights, Samuel Adams, who was responsible for assembling the first Continental Congress, wrote in 1771, as friction between the colonies and England increased:
?Mr. [John] Locke has often been quoted in the present dispute?and very much to our purpose. His reasoning is so forcible, that no one has ever attempted to confute it. He holds that ?the preservation of property is the end of government, and that for which men enter into society. ?? says he, it is a mistake to think that the supreme power of any commonwealth can dispose of the estates of the subject arbitrarily, or take any part of them at pleasure. The prince or the senate can never have a power to take to themselves the whole or any part of the subject?s property without their own consent: for this would be in effect to have no property at all.? ? This is the reasoning of that great and good man. And is not our own case exactly described by him??
It has been said, not altogether facetiously, that the French (and apparently American Liberals) love theories and care nothing about whether those theories work in practice; that the English, in contrast, wouldn’t give a farthing for an abstract theory, preferring carefully and cautiously to make incremental changes over decades and centuries, aiming always to conserve traditions, which are the structural framework of society.
The French, after the 1789 Revolution, threw out everything; the baby along with the bath water. The monarchy and the aristocracy were scrapped, the Roman Catholic Church was essentially disenfranchised and it properties seized, and, when discontents arose, more than 70,000 French citizens were slaughtered in the Reign of Terror.
Ironically, most of the real philosophical and scientific progress had come, not from France, but from England and Scotland in the 17th and 18th centuries. Isaac Newton conceptualized and developed the mathematics of planetary motion and the science of optics (the Wikipedia says, “Isaac Newton’s discoveries were so numerous and varied that many consider him to be the father of modern science); John Locke had erected a framework for modern psychology, education, religious tolerance, and for constitutional government under which even the sovereign is subject to the higher powers of Divine moral law. Only in England and British North America were citizens free to speak their minds publicly and newspapers free to print their views on politics and religion.
The first comprehensive theory of economics appeared in Adam Smith’s 1776 “Wealth of Nations.” As Mr. Curry notes, it was a typically English document that placed the source of a nation’s wealth, not in monarchial plunder, but in the imagination and industriousness of individuals, subject to the least possible government interference.