3 Essential Things You Probably Don’t Know About the American Founding

Encounter Books
Jan 21, 2016 · 9 min read

by Ben Weingarten for Encounter

Robert Curry’s new book Common Sense Nation provides a layman’s guide for approaching the philosophical underpinning of the American founding, Declaration of Independence and Constitution. In so doing, Curry challenges the conventional wisdom of colonial era scholars with a fresh take on some overlooked influences on the birth of our nation.

Below are three compelling areas where Curry breaks from the status quo:

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Alexis de Tocqueville by Théodore Chassériau (Wikipedia)

1) Alexis de Tocqueville got some critical arguments on America very wrong:

Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville is often cited as the authority on early America based on his vibrant account of the fledgling nation in Democracy in America.

Interestingly, Robert Curry however challenges two of Tocqueville’s more popular assertions.

The first concerns a passage famously quoted from Tocqueville on Americans’ supposed lack of interest in theoretical pursuits:

I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States.

Curry contends that this argument does not hold water, arguing:

Despite what Tocqueville and others have written, there was a distinctively American philosophy at the Founding and during the life of the young American republic. Because that philosophy had deep roots in the Scottish Enlightenment the Scottish philosophical tradition was paramount in America’s colleges. The distinguished American historian, Allen Guelzo, made that point in this way in his truly great lecture series, “The American Mind”:

“Before the Civil War, every major [American] collegiate intellectual was a disciple of Scottish common sense realism.”

Later, Curry adds:

At the time of the Founding and still at the time of Tocqueville’s visit in 1831, America could in fairness be said to be the preeminently philosophical nation. America was dedicated to a philosophical truth, the proposition that all men are created equal. That truth, the design of the Constitution, and the Founders’ vision for how American society and the American economy are to operate were grounded in the common sense realism of the American Enlightenment. America, the common sense nation, was the one nation in the world fully prepared and capable of applying philosophical theories boldly and effectively.

A related passage from Tocqueville that Curry challenges concerns America’s political and religious philosophy:

There is no country in the world 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.

Curry believes that this argument is fundamentally flawed, writing:

…Tocqueville makes a significant error in th[is] passage…For our purposes, the important point is that this error nearly always escapes notice today. For Tocqueville, quite naturally, “the eighteenth century philosophers” are the Enlightenment philosophers of his native France. That is also the reason his error nearly always goes unnoticed today. Today the French Enlightenment has eclipsed all other developments during the Age of Enlightenment. Consequently, writers today who use the Tocqueville quote share with him the assumption that the French Enlightenment essentially was the Enlightenment.

But there was a simple reason Tocqueville found that the anti-religious doctrines of the French Enlightenment had never made any headway in America. The Founders had not relied on the philosophes of the French Enlightenment. The Founders relied on an entirely different set of eighteenth century philosophers. Those Enlightenment philosophers and the Founders shared neither the anti-religious views nor the political theories of the French.

Curry continues:

[T]o understand the political theories of the American Founders we need to look to the Founders themselves. The bold political theories they so effectively put into practice were their own.

America’s Founders, not the French philosophes, were the boldest political thinkers of the eighteenth century.

Of course, the Americans had profited immensely from their study of the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, but the Americans’ opportunities and challenges, and their combined political genius, took them far beyond their Scottish teachers in the realm of political thought. Hutcheson, Smith, Reid, and their colleagues provided the American Founders with many of the ideas and arguments that inspired them, but you won’t find the Founders’ political theories within the Scottish Enlightenment.

…The Founders’ work is a unique integration and a new creation. They made brilliant use of the whole range of ideas and philosophical discoveries provided by their Scottish teachers, adapting those ideas to their urgent need, their enormous opportunity, and their noble purpose of establishing a system of liberty. Along the way, in the astonishing burst of brilliance that is The Federalist Papers, they also accomplished what had eluded even the towering genius of Adam Smith.

The Founders thought and built anew. The world-changing contributions to political thought found in the Declaration and The Federalist Papers, and embodied in the Constitution, are the work of the Founders and the gifts of the American Enlightenment.

What then of the Tocqueville’s quote? Curry corrects him:

Since neither sentence stands up to scrutiny, here is a corrected version:

The American Founders were the boldest political thinkers of the eighteenth-century, and they also succeeded in putting their political theories effectively into practice in America. And because the Founders were also strong champions of religion and of religious liberty, by the time of Tocqueville’s visit anti-religious doctrines had never made any headway in America.

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Statue of David Hume by Alexander Stoddart on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh (Wikipedia)

2) The British Enlightenment wasn’t the most influential of European awakenings:

A critical part of the thesis of Common Sense Nation is that historians who look towards the so-called British Enlightenment as the root of the American Enlightenment are mistaken.

Curry believes that in fact while our founding rests on the shoulders of men like John Locke, it is far more directly attributable to the Scottish Enlightenment figures who built upon Locke themselves.

As Curry succinctly explains it:

[T]he Founders were convinced by [Francis] Hutcheson, [Adam] Smith, [Thomas] Reid, and their Scottish colleagues. The Founders, in the words of Gordon Wood in his book The American Revolution, “identified with Scottish moral or commonsense thinking … thereby avoiding “the worst and most frightening implications of Lockean sensationalism.”

The Founders used the Scots’ account of the moral sense and common sense to conduct what [Gertrude] Himmelfarb refers to as their “systematic analysis of the political and social institutions that would promote and protect liberty.” The Scots had done the brilliant theoretical work that opened the way for the success of the Founders’ systematic analysis and, therefore, for the success of the Founding.

The English Enlightenment of Locke and Newton gave rise to the Scottish Enlightenment which in turn profoundly shaped the American Enlightenment. Meanwhile, the Enlightenments in the English-speaking world were making rapid progress — and in the year 1776 gave us both Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations in Scotland and the Declaration of Independence in America.

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3) Adam Smith was an underappreciated player in the American founding:

John Locke gets most of the acclaim when it comes to his influence on the American founding.

But while Adam Smith is no slouch in the annals of Western civilization, few acknowledge to the degree that Curry does Smith’s influence on America’s founding beyond economics.

Curry tells us the interesting story of Smith’s unwritten third masterpiece that may have culminated in one of the most integral documents in American history:

Smith planned to produce, and often referred to, a third major work, a book on political theory. The third book was long delayed and finally never published. At Smith’s insistence, his manuscript notes for the book were burned when he died.

The non-existence of the book on political theory has been minutely examined by Smith scholars. We know that Smith’s position as tutor to the young Duke of Buccleuch had provided him with more time for philosophical work than his teaching load and administrative responsibilities at Glasgow had allowed, enabling him to finish The Wealth of Nations in 1776. The scholarly consensus is that Smith’s decision to turn down a subsequent offer to be tutor to the young Duke of Hamilton was a tragic error. Smith instead accepted an appointment to the Scottish Commissionership of Customs in 1778. The demands of the office together with Smith’s characteristic conscientiousness left him little time for philosophy. The final act, the burning of his notes, has served to heighten the sense of loss associated with the missing third book.

However, we can, with Charles Murray, safely assume that the book would have extended the arguments of Sentiments and Wealth, applying the same principles noted above to the theory of political liberty.

Although we do not have Smith’s book, we do have a masterpiece from exactly that time which very precisely fits the pattern suggested by Murray. I am of course referring to The Federalist Papers, the brainchild of Alexander Hamilton, with much help from James Madison and, to a lesser extent, John Jay. The timing is certainly right. Sentiments was published in 1759, Wealth, in 1776, and The Federalist Papers, in 1788, just in time to fit into Smith’s life and work; Smith died in 1790.

To suggest, as I am, that we have in The Federalist Papers a worthy fulfillment of Smith’s promised third book by three Americans working in Smith’s tradition may not actually be that far-fetched. Of course, we know that the Founders were steeped in the Scottish Enlightenment tradition, and that the American Enlightenment was deeply rooted in the Scottish one. However, this was in some respects a two-way relationship, especially for Adam Smith. Smith’s biographer, Nicholas Phillipson, points out that America’s example was of critical significance for Smith in the development of his thinking in his best known work:

“In The Wealth of Nations America was to provide him with the most striking and decisive illustration of the possibilities of the civilizing process in a part of the civilized world that had never been encumbered by feudal laws and institutions, and whose distance from Europe had ensured that the principles of natural liberty had already guided some aspects of its economic development.”

The index to The Wealth of Nations contains more than a hundred entries under “America.”

…The economic system and the principles of natural liberty in the process of being realized in America, that civilization of ours which has done so much to create the modern world, were already clear enough during the era of the Founding to be discerned by the genius of Adam Smith.

During the last years of Smith’s life, while he was chafing under the demands of his post as Commissioner of Customs and lamenting its demands on his time, the Americans were conducting experiments in political liberty, and, while learning from what worked and what did not work, simultaneously engaged among themselves in a kind of ongoing seminar in the theory of political liberty, all the while working under the pressure of needing to come up with a system of government to replace the Colonial one.

If Smith had been free to focus his time and energy on the third book, we can safely assume he would have followed closely the fast-paced learning process of the Founders, and that what he learned from the Founders would have greatly influenced that book. It is likely that the Americans’ influence would have even been greater than it was on The Wealth of Nations itself.

Provided with a society unencumbered by a feudal past with which to experiment, placed by a unique historical circumstance in positions of political leadership that made it possible for them to conduct their experiments, and fully equipped with the innovations of the Scottish Enlightenment, the authors of The Federalist Papers were uniquely positioned to carry Adam Smith’s great project to a successful conclusion, and as Jefferson wrote, create the best commentary on the principles of government ever written.

Click here for more on Common Sense Nation.

Ben Weingarten is a writer, podcaster, and Founder & CEO of ChangeUp Media LLC, a media consulting and publication services firm. You can find his work at benweingarten.com, and follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Previously, Ben was publishing manager and editor of TheBlaze Books, host and producer of TheBlaze Books podcast, and a frequent Blaze contributor focusing on defense, economics, politics, and history. Prior to joining TheBlaze, he worked as a financial advisor specializing in bankruptcies and restructurings. Ben is a graduate of Columbia University, where he majored in economics-political science and contributed to outlets including the Breitbart sites and the Ludwig von Mises Institute. In 2015 he was selected as a Publius Fellow to the Claremont Institute.

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