Was the American Founding all wrong?


I’m not sure exactly what my question is, but I have long heard from more traditionalist-minded Catholics that our Constitution and the liberal presuppositions on which it rests cannot be reconciled with the faith vis-a-vis the Church’s understanding of a proper political order. For the sake of clarity, perhaps we should start there. Do you think there is merit to that argument?



I think you’re asking about the Founders’ thought, not the political institutions they gave us. Separation of powers, limited government, checks and balances – these are all good, though whether the versions built into the Constitution were well thought out and whether they work well is another question. We can talk about that another time.

Although the critics you have in mind get some things right about the Founders’ thought, I think they are mistaken in at least four ways.

First, the American Founding wasn’t monolithic. The Founders disagreed about many important matters – for example, though a few admired Thomas Hobbes, most detested him. Lumping together thinkers like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison is also extremely misleading.  They admired each other – some of them – but were quite different.

Second, most of the Founders considered themselves Christians, and most of those were of the Calvinist persuasion. A politically influential minority were Deists, but outright atheism was extremely rare among them. As to “establishments” of religion – official government churches – although the majority opposed them, they did so not because they were in doubt about Christian faith, but because they accepted it, believing that God Himself disapproved of official government churches.

Third, the contrast between the classical and the modern thinkers, which we consider stark and obvious today, was contrary to their harmonizing temperament. Rather than siding with thinkers like John Locke against thinkers like Aristotle and Cicero, they saw all these thinkers as more or less on the same page. They didn’t read Thomas Aquinas, but they did read Richard Hooker, who was influenced by St Thomas and who in turn influenced Locke.

Fourth, they didn’t believe in harmonising everything. But rather than setting the ancients against the moderns, they cut across that distinction, setting writers of any age whom they viewed as sympathetic to republican self-government against writers of any age whom they believed hostile to it.

You see illustrations of several of these tendencies in the following two passages. The first is from a letter from Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee on May 8, 1825:

This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. 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, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c. The historical documents which you mention in your possession, ought all to be found, and I am persuaded you will find, to be corroborative of the facts and principles advanced in that Declaration.

The second is from John Adams, Novanglus, No. 1:

These are what are called revolution principles. They are the principles of Aristotle and Plato, of Livy and Cicero, and Sidney, Harrington, and Locke; the principles of nature and eternal reason; the principles on which the whole government over us now stands. It is therefore astonishing, if any thing can be so, that writers, who call themselves friends of government, should in this age and country be so inconsistent with themselves, so indiscreet, so immodest, as to insinuate a doubt concerning them.


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One of the greatest reasons why thinkers of our own day misunderstand the thinking of the Founders is that too often we read into their works sceptical assumptions which they didn’t hold. Chief among these sceptical assumptions is that reason and revelation, natural law and divine law, are at best on uneasy terms with each other. Americans like James Wilson just didn’t see it that way. They held the classical Christian view that reason and revelation cooperate rather than warring with each other, and that natural and divine law are two different reflections of the selfsame Divine Mind – one discoverable by reason alone, the other discoverable in the content of Scripture, which is not provable, but reasonable to accept.

To be sure, the Founders paid a price for their attempt to harmonise ancient natural law theories with modern ones. In order to blend the classical with the modern thinkers, they tended to read the moderns in the light of the classical thinkers, blurring the differences. Perhaps some of them were engaged in propaganda for the moderns, playing down the radical implications of modern theories. I think that on the whole, though, this wasn’t the case. It was simply that not being so radical themselves, they simply didn’t think that the implications of these theories were so radical in the first place. Christian republicans and moderate admirers of the Enlightenment made common cause. For a while, it seemed to work.

But there was no real synthesis, only a colloidal suspension. You can shake classical and modern natural law theories in jar, but eventually they settle out, like oil and water. I mentioned Calvinism, and Calvinism itself, I think, is itself in colloidal suspension. It is pretty hard to maintain Calvin’s belief in natural law and natural reason alongside some of his other ideas, and many of his followers gave up, adopting a much more radical version of the doctrine of total depravity than he ever did.

Although American proponents of natural rights were the heirs of a rich and ancient tradition, they were ungrateful heirs, adopting “made simple” versions of natural law theory that ultimately came to seem unbelievable.  Consider too that from its first centuries, the Church united faith and reason, and the Founders tried to do so too. But a lot of people, then and now, think faith and reason are natural enemies.

Fundamentalists are suspicious of reason; the most radical heirs of the Enlightenment are suspicious of faith. Now faith and reason aren’t oil and water – but people who believe in a partnership of faith and reason and people who reject the possibility of that partnership really are like oil and water. If you make a colloidal suspension of those two beliefs, those layers will eventually separate too.

In fact, coming down to the present, those who formerly styled themselves defenders of reason against faith can no longer bring themselves to believe in reason either. Abandoning God, they have even lost man. For this reason, I think the European crisis of culture is our crisis too. “American exceptionalism” means simply that here it has taken longer to come to a head than in, say, France, whose revolutionaries had no interest in harmonising.

Could there have been a real synthesis of the ancient and modern influences rather than merely a colloidal suspension? Yes – and there still could be. Faith and reason really are allies; not everything in the modern thinkers is irreconcilable with our classical inheritance; and our past mistakes are not an irresistible fate. Here too, I think that I and the critics you mention are far apart.

But can such a synthesis be achieved in the way we have previously gone about it? I think that road is closed.

This may not be what your question had in mind, but perhaps it will be a little help.



What is the way forward, then?



I would say that we shouldn’t cast about for a new ideology for making over the world, but rather follow our vocations, submit all ideologies to Christian critique, try to practice virtue and political prudence, protect our children, and make the best of what good we have inherited, including sound intellectual traditions.

The world is so far into lunacy today that this answer may seem feeble, but I see no other place to start.


J. Budziszewski is a Professor in the Departments of Government and Philosophy, University of Texas at Austin. This article has been republished with permission from his blog, The Underground Thomist.

Image credit: Pexels


Showing 4 reactions

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  • Samuel Kissane
    commented 2023-09-02 16:09:55 +1000
    Both sides, Revolutionary and Loyalist, were neither demonic nor saintly. I do think, however, traditional American accounts of this topic exaggerate the sins of the Loyalist side, while simultaneously minimising both the Loyalists’ virtues, and the sins of the Revolutionaries.
  • James Murray
    commented 2023-08-25 23:52:53 +1000
    If I may recommend Robert Reilly’s “America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding” which traces the founding solidly back to Catholic thought regarding Church and state.
  • mrscracker
    I think a better question is: Should the colonies have seceded in the first place?
    We can’t go back and fix history and we can only speculate how things may have turned out but had we avoided our first civil war in 1776 we might have avoided the 2nd one .Not to mention several other wars. Who knows?
  • J. Budziszewski
    published this page in The Latest 2023-08-24 11:31:00 +1000