Book Review: America’s Revolutionary Mind

In Book Reviews by Josh Bowman

C. Bradley Thompson’s America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration That Defined It. New York: Encounter books. 447 pp. + xiv.

The Declaration of Independence remains one of the seminal documents of American history, which scholars continue to regard, like Jefferson envisioned, as “an expression of the American mind.”  Thompson, a political philosophy professor at Clemson University, treats the Declaration as a moral document, the truths and consequences of which he takes seriously.  Like Gordon Wood’s path-breaking treatment of the revolutionary era (The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, 1969), Thompson constantly quotes from a wide variety of published and unpublished original documents, including contemporary sermons, which focus, in Thompson’s telling, more on Locke’s Second Treatise than on Scriptures.

Although scholars who are quoted on the back cover of the book stress the novelty of Thompson’s arguments, his primary contribution is his reiteration of the influence of John Locke on early American political thought.  This emphasis largely confirms Carl Becker’s analysis in The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas, first published in 1922.  Garry Wills questioned this influence in his Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (1978), in which he advocated greater attention to the Scottish Common Sense School of philosophy.

Without emphasizing Scottish philosophy, my own A to Z study of the Declaration (The Declaration of Independence: America’s First Founding Document in U.S. History and Culture, 2019) attempts to keep Jefferson’s hopes to express “the common sense of the subject” in constant view.  Those who know the philosophical background of natural rights philosophy, the state of nature, and Locke’s view of the right of revolution can certainly profit from this knowledge, but the idea that individuals have God-given rights including the right to resist oppression was not unique to Locke. It was also reflected in biblical texts, in covenant theology, in small “r” republican ideology, and in other intellectual streams that not only influenced Jefferson but the collective body that revised and adopted the Declaration.

Jefferson’s God was considerably more philosophical and “abstract” than the God in which Roger Sherman, Benjamin Rush, John Witherspoon, and other more orthodox Founders put their faith, but their insistence on adding references to God in the document suggests that they had more regard for divine revelation than either Jefferson or Locke.  Thompson’s conclusion “that American revolutionaries were unadulterated Lockeans” (p. 34) is thus overstated.  There are times when Thompson describes the “epistemological self-confidence” of the American Framers (p. 45) in terms that, although accurately describing such individuals as Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen, seem more applicable to later French revolutionaries than to their American counterparts.

Thompson explains that the Framers thought that “self-evident truths” could be both perceptual and more advanced as corollaries were added to fundamental axioms (p. 91).  He further describes the central contentions of the Declaration as “truths” as opposed to mere opinions.  Like Locke, Isaac Newton, and Francis Bacon, the Founders likened moral laws to physical laws.

Thompson’s discussion of the Declaration’s treatment of equality rightly distinguishes between the equality of birth into a species that has dominion over other species from an equality of physical attributes, mental capacities, or claims to equal amounts of property.  Moreover, he believes that, whatever hypocrisy Jefferson and other slave-holding Founders, who felt trapped by “the post-emancipation problem” (p. 144) displayed, the idea of human equality eventually germinated into emancipation.

Thompson, who believes that the Declaration was based on a minimalist state designed to provide for defense and protect fundamental rights, distinguishes between Jefferson’s understanding that individuals have the right to pursue happiness from the idea that government is bound to guarantee it.  He presents convincing arguments that American founders, relying upon Locke, connected such a pursuit to the ability to acquire and possess private property,  and Thompson further contrasts colonial views of actual parliamentary representation with British defenses of virtual representation.

Believing with Lincoln that the U.S. Constitution is the “frame of silver” designed to highlight the Declaration’s “apple of gold,” Thompson plans to supplement this volume on America’s Revolutionary Mind with a second on America’s Constitutional Mind (p. xi).  In a chapter on “Consent and the Just Powers of Government,” he describes the Framers’ regard for limiting governmental powers through such mechanisms as separation of powers and checks and balances.

Clearly identifying American revolutionaries with the ideas of republican government, one weakness of Thompson’s book is that, unlike Garry Wills, he does not–absent some useful commentary on the principle of “no taxation without representation” and the threat of juryless trials—provide more than a cursory summary of the specific grievances that Jefferson listed against the king and parliament, which constitute the bulk of the Declaration and provide concrete examples of the kind of government they envisioned.  Because he primarily focused on the ideas of the Declaration, Thompson also provides little information about the other delegates to the Second Continental Congress, the timeline of its actions with regard to the Declaration, or details about the printing and signing of the Document.  He also gives almost no attention to the role that the Declaration was supposed to play in securing foreign allies.

Thompson’s chapter on revolution usefully emphasizes how colonial vigilance against even the smallest infractions of rights, combined with what the colonists considered to be a long line of British abuses, necessarily led to the Revolution.  One of Thompson’s most engaging chapters asks “Has America Lost Its American Mind?”  Linking the first significant American questioning of natural rights to southern antebellum slave apologists, some of whom openly adopted Hegelian thinking, Thompson further relates skepticism about natural rights to Woodrow Wilson and other Progressive Era spokesmen, whom he also links to the abandonment of the “’night-watchman’ state strictly limited to the protection of fundamental rights, and, ultimately, to socialism.

Christian political scientists will particularly welcome Thompson’s plea to consider anew the truth of these propositions, although many may question whether pure reason is a completely adequate foundation for them.

John R. Vile

Middle Tennessee State University