Shayne Wissler
Imagine a world where we figured out the right direction to push, and then we pushed in that right direction…

C. Bradley Thompson’s “America’s Revolutionary Mind”: Small goldmine – and naive hagiography

March 13 2023

The firm connection Thompson establishes between America’s Founders and the ideas of Locke and the Enlightenment is alone worth the cost of the book, and cements this book’s place as one of historic importance and worthy of great praise on that count.[1]

However, in the end at best Thompson is an earnest yet naive hagiographer. On some level he has correctly embraced the fact that there is something of eternal importance in America’s Declaration of Independence, and yet he utterly lacks the philosophical discernment to distill what is good from what is not.

A telling oddity was his declaration that Locke had solved the is-ought problem. That’s at least one I hadn’t heard of before. It is, however, quite false, and a premise which can only function as a philosophical soporific, preventing him and those who believe him from pursuing the correct answer even while understanding its general shape quite well:

“The most remarkable element of Locke’s moral theory is his extraordinary claim in the Essay that an objective system of ethics can be discovered and constructed scientifically, and that this moral code is as certain and absolute as mathematics and the Newtonian laws of nature. Locke believed that there are moral laws and rights of nature discernible to unaided human reason that do and should govern human affairs. The idea or possibility of a demonstrative science of ethics was the Holy Grail of Enlightenment thinking.” (p. 20)

Indeed. Such ideal is the key. Yet Thompson would have you believe you needn’t bother pursuing it, because the job’s already done. The irony is appalling: on the one hand lauding the “geometrical” (rational) ethic; on the other, utterly ignoring that the “proof” really doesn’t work out.

This is because ultimately, Thompson puts ancestor worship above the truth. At the end of the day, he’s actually the opposite of what the greatest American Founders were: they were radical classical liberals who dared attack sacred cows; he’s a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, obsequious to the (fading) status quo – such is the irony of his own book’s title. He looks backward, not forward. Of course, he is merely a historian, not a philosopher, and such is an occupational hazard for historians.

But if we could wave a magic wand and return to the past, we would only recapitulate the present. We need to focus even more on what the Founders got wrong than on what they got right. Such task requires a philosopher, and Thompson is of no help here.

  1. A version of this review is posted at Amazon.