That it is the founding principles themselves to which we can turn to recover from the great evils of slavery, of the loss of virtue and moral standard, and of grotesque dehumanization should be a measure of the gratitude we owe to our Founding Fathers for their magnificent achievement.
Robert R. Reilly is the author of the recently published book America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding. He examines the intellectual underpinnings of the ideas which inspired the creation of a new nation in the New World. It’s a crackling read which is very relevant to today’s debates about racial justice.
Below is an exclusive MercatorNet interview in which Reilly explains how America has drifted from its moorings in natural law.
MercatorNet: The ideals of America’s founding in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers are noble and inspiring. So if the founding was good, what went wrong?
Robert R. Reilly: What went wrong was that the principles of the founding, which were considered by the founders to be immutable because they were grounded in the transcendent, were no longer thought to be true.
The progressivist Woodrow Wilson, the American president during World War I, was an exemplar of this view. He said, “We’re not bound to adhere to the doctrines held by the signers of the Declaration of Independence.” Why not? Because, Wilson said, the government is subject to evolution and “is accountable to Darwin” only. Darwin, of course, did not believe that “all men are created equal.”
Fast forward to President Barack Obama. He wrote, “Implicit in [the Constitution’s] structure, in the very idea of ordered liberty, was a rejection of absolute truth, the infallibility of any idea or ideology or theology or ‘ism’, and any tyrannical consistency that might block future generations into a single, unalterable course.” In other words, the truth does not set you free; the truth enslaves you. Therefore, freedom requires the rejection of objective truth, which gets us to where we are today.
In any case, the founding was so solid that, even in America’s morally degraded condition today, it is still in better shape than the countries from which many our forebears came. They are in worse shape because they had fewer antibodies to fight the viruses of the modern ideologies that came close to collapsing Western civilisation. Both Nazism and Communism denied that all people are created equal—the one because of its race theory of history, and the other because of its class theory of history.
America was not based on a theory of history, but on “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” and was the indispensable bulwark against these ideologies of hatred, just as it has been more recently against Islamist totalitarianism.
Today, however, we are witnessing the re-tribalisation of society in our so-called “identity politics,” which is simply a mélange of the race and class theories of history jumbled together. It’s just another way of denying a common humanity, which the barbarians in the streets are demonstrating through their violent behavior.
MN: The villain of your story of the American republic is German historicism. Can you explain how that influenced American intellectual history?
RR: German historicism was imported by the large numbers of American students who went to Germany for higher education in the latter half of the 19th century and by German professors who came here to teach.
Historicism teaches that as historical circumstances change, so do the meanings of words, as well as of right and wrong. Everything goes with the flow. We are now in different times at a different place with different “truths.” There are no unchanging trans-historical truths rooted in the transcendent. Historicism erases the moral authority of Nature—taken as a reflection of God’s reason—of which the Declaration of Independence was an explicit expression, and replaces it with relativism.
Once you get rid of Nature, as in “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” there really are no standards against which to judge moral behavior or anything else. This way we can all become “authentic,” just being ourselves, according to ourselves, with no measure other than ourselves. We become trapped in narcissism and sink deeper into unreality. This is how societies commit suicide.
MN: One of your sentences jumps off the page—“We won the American Revolution but lost the sexual revolution.” What do you mean by that?
RR: Just look around you. The misuse of sex has devastated our society. Once you consciously subvert the procreative power of sex by separating sex from diapers, there is a very slippery slope—more like a cliff, actually—down to the moral pigpen where sex is simply a form of degraded entertainment.
You try to grab the pleasure from the act, while denying the thing toward which the act is essentially ordered by Nature. Thus, the flood of pornography, abortion, hooking up, the dissolution of the family, single parenthood, etc. The logic of the situation makes it very easy to see where this is going next—polygamy and polyandry. Anything goes in the sexual dystopia.
The American Revolution was fought for freedom; the sexual revolution was fought to enslave people to their passions.
MN: Benjamin Franklin said that the colonials had created a republic “if you can keep it.” Didn’t the Founding Fathers have in mind a republic of virtue? What happens when the notion of virtue is lost?
RR: Then we’re toast. John Adams could have spoken for all the Founders when he wrote: “All sober inquirers after truth, ancient and modern, pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity, consists in virtue” (emphasis added). George Washington proclaimed that “there is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness.” Gouverneur Morris, signer of the Constitution said “that Morals are the only possible Support of free governments.”
The Founders themselves predicted our decline if we could not sustain our moral character. Here are just a few of their warnings.
In 1776, Samuel Adams counseled that, “The diminution of publick Virtue is usually attended with that of publick Happiness, and the publick Liberty will not long survive the total Extinction of Morals.” He advised that, “If we are universally vicious and debauched in our manners, though the form of our Constitution carries the face of the most exalted freedom, we shall in reality be the most abject of slaves.”
His cousin John Adams agreed:
We have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net.
Charles Carroll, the lone Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, cautioned:
Without morals a republic cannot subsist any length of time; they therefore who are decrying the Christian religion, whose morality is so sublime and pure… are undermining the solid foundation of morals, the best security for the duration of free governments.
Such remonstrations from the Founders are too numerous to count. As they predicted, we are in trouble because the virtue needed to sustain the Republic is fast disappearing, close to the point of irretrievability.
MN: Your book was written before the Black Lives Matter protests erupted. Since then a lot of bilious commentary about the ideals of the Founding Fathers has been bandied about. That was to be expected, but your angle surprised me: defending the Founding Fathers against conservatives who believe that they are ultimately responsible for the excesses of BLM and moral relativism. Isn’t that preposterous?
RR: Yes, and I believe my book demonstrates it to be so. Also, anyone reading America on Trial will learn that the BLM’s and the 1619 Project’s perspectives on the founding are without foundation. The single most impressive thing about these views is how much one would have to not know in order to hold them.
MN: The smear of “hypocrisy” is enough to shut off all arguments nowadays. Isn’t the foundation of the Republic blighted by a double standard—a declaration of independence for white Americans and an affirmation of slavery for blacks?
RR: Let’s be clear.
For all of recorded history there was slavery. Slavery was the norm, not the exception. The 1619 Project claims that slavery was in our DNA. Remarkably, it does not mention the slavery that the Native Americans were practicing for centuries, well before the English arrived and for long afterwards.
It is richly ironic that the Supreme Court recently decided to give the eastern part of Oklahoma back to the Native American tribes there. One objection to their doing so is the fact that those tribes sided with the Confederacy in the Civil War because they had slaves back in 1860 in their tribal territories, and they wanted to keep them. And, therefore, the argument against giving that part of Oklahoma back is that they gave up their sovereign rights by siding with Confederacy, which lost the war.
So, the Native Americans had no problem with slavery. I don’t think they would’ve agreed with Abraham Lincoln when he said, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”
Nothing I say here is meant to gainsay the horror of slavery as it was practiced by whites in the slave states.
In any case, the existence of slavery was not the puzzle. The real question should be: how and why was it eliminated? Rather than abetting slavery, the Declaration of Independence provided the moral principle of human equality for the ultimate extirpation of slavery in the United States. “All men are created equal” does not seem to bear out the DNA theory of racism at America’s origin.
Of course, it was only as this moral principle suffused society and the political order that the elimination of the great evil of slavery became possible.
In regard to slavery, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that His justice cannot sleep forever.” Even though he was a slaveholder, Jefferson, like all the major Founding figures, considered slavery immoral.
In 1861, Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens said as much:
The prevailing ideas entertained by him [Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away.
Anyone who does not know this to have been so is simply ignorant of history.
But, as you ask, didn’t the Declaration mean equality only for white people? Not according to its principal author. Jefferson placed in the Declaration “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” If it were otherwise, why in the decade between the Declaration and the Constitution did every state north of the Mason-Dixon line, and north of the Ohio River, abolish slavery or pass measures leading to its abolition by 1800?
And why did the Northwest Ordinance, passed by Congress in 1787, forbid slavery in the huge territory that would later comprise five Midwestern states? Why did the Constitution contain a provision for allowing the passage of a law in 1808 to forbid the foreign slave trade, which Congress did pass at that time?
President Jefferson applauded the approaching measure “to withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights which have been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa, and which the morality, the reputation, and the best interests of our country have long been eager to proscribe.”
Why, in 1820, did Congress then make it a capital crime? And why was a Civil War fought in which, according to the latest scholarship, some 400,000 Union soldiers lost their lives to preserve the union and to end slavery?
MN: Not long before the Civil War, Chief Justice Roger Taney reaffirmed slavery as foundational to the republic in the Dred Scott case. Doesn’t that undermine your argument?
RR: Taney could not have “reaffirmed” something that had never been affirmed in the first place. This was made clear enough by Alexander H. Stephens in the same speech from which I’ve already quoted. He said that the “cornerstone” of the Confederate constitution was the “great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition,” which would correct the disastrous error contained in the Declaration.
Slavery is never mentioned in the Constitution because it was considered a term too odious to include, though it did contain a compromise regarding its existence in order to reach ratification.
The question is whether it would have been better for the United States not to have existed (which seems to be the view of many protesters), or for it to have been created—even with this “original sin” besmirching it—based on a universal moral principle that ultimately led to and necessitated slavery’s elimination.
As for the Taney decision, it outrageously asserted that African Americans had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.” They were considered “articles of merchandise.” This was the Supreme Court’s worst decision up until that time, and had about as much constitutional basis as did the later Roe v. Wade decision, which fabricated out of whole cloth a right to abortion based on the assertion that “that the word ‘person’ does not include the unborn”—thus removing from them the inalienable “right to life.”
Grotesque dehumanisation is the hallmark of both these dreadful decisions, which cost so many their freedom and/or their lives.
That it is the founding principles themselves to which we can turn to recover from these great evils should be a measure of the gratitude we owe to our Founding Fathers for their magnificent achievement.
Republished with gracious permission from MercatorNet (September 2020).
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
The featured image is “Washington Greeting Lafayette at Mount Vernon” by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1850-1936), oil painting, early 20th-century. It is in the public domain and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.