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C. Bradley Thompson joins the show to discuss the moral history of the American Revolution.

Aaron Ross Powell
Director and Editor
Trevor Burrus
Research Fellow, Constitutional Studies
Paul Meany
Intellectual History Editor

Paul Meany is the Editor for Intellectual History at Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org, a project of the Cato Institute. Most of his work focuses on examining thinkers who predate classical liberalism but still articulate broadly liberal attitudes and principles. He is the host of Portraits of Liberty, a podcast about uncovering and exploring underrated figures throughout history who have argued for a freer world. His writing covers a broad range of topics, including proto‐​feminist writers, Classical Greece and Rome’s influence on the American Founding, ancient Chinese Philosophy, tyrannicide, and the first argument for basic income.


C. Bradley Thompson’s work was inspired by John Adams and Adams’ reflection on the nature of the American Revolution. Adams answered the question “What was the revolution?” by saying, “The Revolution was not the war for independence. The Revolution was in fact a revolution in the minds of the American people”. Learning this, Thompson discusses the moral revolution that occurred in the minds of the people in the fifteen years before 1776.

How did Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon, two scientists, influence the American Revolution? How do you discover moral laws of nature?

Further Reading:



0:00:07 Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus.

0:00:09 Paul Meany: I’m Paul Meany.

0:00:10 Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is C. Bradley Thompson, BB&T Research Professor in the Department of Political Science at Clemson University, and the Executive Director of the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism. His latest book is America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration That Defined It. Welcome to Free Thoughts, Professor Thompson.

0:00:29 C. Bradley Thompson: Gentlemen, hi, how are you?

0:00:31 Trevor Burrus: On the cover of the book, the words moral history are highlighted in red. What is a moral history, and why do we need one about the Revolutionary period?

0:00:41 C. Bradley Thompson: Yeah, so that’s a great question. As I’m sure you both know, there are all kinds of histories of the American Revolution, it’s probably the single most written about subject in American history. There are social, political, economic, constitutional, diplomatic, religious, even environmental histories of the American Revolution, but there had never really been what I call a moral history of the American Revolution ever written before. And I took as my starting point… I mean, the path that led me to write a moral history as opposed to using any of these other methodologies for studying history was a famous line that John Adams wrote in around, I think, 1817, and he was reflecting on the nature of the American Revolution. And in answer to the question, “What was the revolution?” He said, “The Revolution was not the war for independence. The Revolution was in fact a revolution in the minds of the American people.”

0:01:52 C. Bradley Thompson: And that, he said, took place in the 15 years before a shot was ever fired at Lexington and Concord in 1775. So in other words, he’s dating the beginning of the American Revolution to 1760, and he’s also saying it was a revolution in the minds of the people, and then he goes further on to say that that revolution was a revolution in the moral sentiments of the people, and so that story got me thinking. Presumably, John Adams knew something about the causes, nature and meaning of the American Revolution, and it occurred to me that while a lot of scholars of the Revolution use that Adam’s quotation, no one had ever used it by which… As a means by which to study the Revolution and they frankly had not taken that phrase seriously.

0:02:40 C. Bradley Thompson: So I took that quotation seriously as a possible opening into the American Revolutionary mind, and as I said, there are not only scores, but literally hundreds of books written on the American Revolution, but none of them had ever taken up the idea that the Revolution was potentially a moral revolution. And so to that end, the first thing I did was I developed what I call a new moral history, which is a kind of methodology for studying history, a methodology that puts both the individual back into the heart and soul of history, but also takes the thinking and acting individual as the primary unit of moral and political analysis. So it was a methodology first, and I developed this methodology in contrast to the dominant historical methodology used by historians of the Revolution for the last 50 years, the so‐​called ideological school of interpretation, which was intellectually fathered by two of my former teachers, Bernard Bailyn at Harvard and Gordon S. Wood at Brown University, who really are in my view, the two great post‐​World War II historians of the Revolution.

0:04:06 C. Bradley Thompson: But from the time I entered graduate school and in conversations with both Bailyn and Wood, I never bought into or agreed with this ideological approach, and so finally, many, several decades later, in thinking about the Revolution, I tried to put together a new way to think about the Revolution and its causes. And then, so that’s the methodology, but it’s also literally a moral history, which means to say that it’s an examination of how individuals, not collectives. I’m not looking at the Revolution on the basis of race, class, gender or any other kind of collective category, but I’m looking at how regular human beings, individuals, how they thought about the conflict with Great Britain, how they struggled with ideas, and then most importantly, then how they put those ideas into practice. So what the book does at the beginning and then at the end, it demonstrates how ideas have consequences, how they took certain… How they developed certain ideas and then put those ideas into practice.

0:05:24 Trevor Burrus: So you mentioned this, this period of the growth of the American Revolutionary mind, we talk about that conflict with Britain kind of kicking off in 18… Or 1764, 1765. But I don’t assume that that’s some sort of starting point where suddenly people started thinking new thoughts. Another way of asking this, was there something different about Americans’ thinking even before the conflict with the British started?

0:05:50 C. Bradley Thompson: Yes, I think there was. Although I think the first thing to say is that throughout the 18th century, American colonials were loyal subjects of the British crown, they thought the mother country, as they called it, was the heart of Western civilization, and they were probably the greatest defenders of the British constitution. So these Americans, so in other words, they were monarchists, you could say, throughout much of the 18th century. But at the same time, certain new ideas were percolating down and through the culture in the colonies, beginning approximately, let’s say, in the 1720s, beginning first at Yale and at Harvard, and those ideas were the ideas of the Enlightenment, so they were reading less Calvin, and they were reading more Bacon, Newton, and Locke by the 1720s and 1730s at Harvard, Yale and the other Ivy league colleges.

0:07:07 C. Bradley Thompson: And so those ideas over the course of several decades trickle down and through the culture, but I would also say it’s important to understand that what Edmund Burke once referred to as the spirit of American liberty was also developing absent these ideas of the Enlightenment, particularly the ideas of John Locke. I mean, just think about what was happening. American colonists were living literally on the frontier of Western civilization, and they were largely living, many of them, certainly those who were living on the western frontier of the colonies, were living in many ways, you could say, without government or with absolutely minimal government. And they developed certain habits, manners and mores, which over the course of several decades led to a kind of radically independent moral spirit, which was not beholden to traditional culture, to traditional manners and mores, and certainly it was not beholden to traditional political ideas.

0:08:30 C. Bradley Thompson: So it is absolutely the case that, yes, a spirit of American liberty was developing throughout the 18th century, and in many ways, of course, you could extend this right back to the Puritans in beginning of 1620. And if we’re going to go there, why not go back to the founding of Jamestown? So one, I think, could legitimately say, as Tocqueville says in Democracy in America, that ideas of independence and liberty were born at the grass roots level in America with… Because the idea of the frontier, there was always a frontier, and wherever there was a frontier in American life and culture, there was always a kind of radical independence and liberty certainly unknown to the old world.

0:09:23 Paul Meany: So I wanted to ask a quick question. You named three people, Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and John Locke, we always hear about John Locke and the American Revolution, his name that always comes up, the second treatise on government, the right to revolution, government by consent. But how did Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon, two scientists, influence the Americans? You wouldn’t always hear that too often that scientists would be influencing political philosophy.

0:09:46 C. Bradley Thompson: Sure. So the clearest case that I know of was the case of John Adams at Harvard. So John Adams entered Harvard, I forget the exact years, around 1754, ’55, I believe, and he talks in his diary, which he was keeping as an 18‐​year‐​old, about the ideas that he was learning under his primary tutor, James Winthrop at Harvard, and it’s page after page after page of diary entries about Bacon and Newton. And what does… This is obviously a very complex subject, but in a nutshell, what did he learn from Bacon and Newton? From Bacon he learned a new kind of scientific methodology, the inductive method, where you look out into the world, you don’t begin a priori, you begin a posteriori, you look out into the world, you examine experience., cause and effect relationships, and in fact, you begin with the effects, that’s what you observe in the world are the effects of human human actions, and then you induce through repeated observations, try to establish the cause.

0:11:12 C. Bradley Thompson: And oftentimes, with regard to human nature, at least, the cause was to be found in the human passions. And Adams became a student of the human passions and there are wonderful passages in his diary talking about a marital spat that he observed between his parents, and for him, this was a study in human nature. With regard to Newton, it was the idea that there are scientific or laws of nature which explain how inanimate matter is governed in the universe by these certain laws, and this led a generation of I think both 18th century Englishmen and American colonials to consider the possibility that if there are scientific laws of nature that explain, for instance, planetary motion, that there could be laws of nature that apply to human beings, and then the question became… The question would be, are there moral laws of nature? And how do you discover those moral laws of nature?

0:12:29 C. Bradley Thompson: And that’s where Bacon’s inductive methodology, I think, experimental methodology is introduced. So Adams, in his diary, explicitly talks about how he’s taking these ideas of Bacon and Newton and applying them to human things, to human nature, to the human condition and to the complexities of human life.

0:13:01 Trevor Burrus: Well, as you said, you have this growth of a kind of independence and a special kind of American sensibility, which I think some of that, in addition to living on the frontier, I would think that some of that might come from self‐​selection to some degree, people who’ve decided to move to America might not have been your normal European or whatever country they came from, or Englishman. But starting in 1765, with the conflict with the British, we often hear that Americans were extremely low‐​taxed people compared to people in other parts of the British Empire. And there had been a big war that they had fought with the French, the Seven Years War, the French and Indian War that cost a lot of money, and they weren’t getting any money from the colonies, so they put it in a small tax, in a stamp tax, and Americans, we lost our minds about this, which has always struck me as really interesting. We get taxed so heavily now, we take it all, but we absolutely lost our minds, so why did we go so crazy when they started taxing us in 1765?

0:14:04 C. Bradley Thompson: That’s a great question. And that really goes to the heart of what I call the moral history of the American Revolution, and really goes back to the quotation that I mentioned from Burke. Burke analyzed this in one of his speeches on the colonies, I think just beautifully, and he summed it up perfectly, and it has to deal… Or it’s related to what he called the spirit of American liberty. The Americans, over the course of several, many, many decades, had developed this utterly fierce sense of independence and self‐​governance, and they really did think that the individual was the primary unit of moral and political value, and they took the idea of self‐​governance literally, they took it such that they thought it was possible and certainly desirable for individuals to be self‐​governing in the fullest sense of the term, and that’s in effect how they had been living their lives for many, many decades.

0:15:19 C. Bradley Thompson: And so all of a sudden what happens, of course, it’s really beginning in 1764, with the passage of the Sugar Act and then the following… And it’s ironically, by the way, the Sugar Act lowered the duty on sugar by 50%, so they were actually going to pay less, but the problem with the Sugar Act is that the British were actually now going to enforce it, because the Sugar Act had been on the books for several decades, but the difference now was that they were going to enforce it and that they were going to enforce it with a bevy of new tax collectors and various other government officials and the army, they brought over several regiments to enforce the Sugar Act, and so the Sugar Act raised the alarm for the Americans.

0:16:14 C. Bradley Thompson: And one might describe it as the moment when American patriots started to see the rise of what we might call a British deep state, because they had been free for decades, and now all of a sudden, particularly in port cities like Boston and New York and Charleston, you get scores, hundreds of tax collectors now swarming into your cities, enforcing these laws that had gone unenforced for decades through the policy of salutary neglect, and all of a sudden, Britain, it’s as though they remembered they had these colonies, and so the sleeping giant awakens, and all of a sudden, it’s superimposing the tentacles of the British state into the colonies. And then the following year with the passage of the Stamp Act, Trevor, you’re absolutely right to suggest that the Stamp Act was a relatively small tax, and I’ll say something even more radical. If you think about what the stamp tax really was, if ever there were a tax that was legitimate, it would be the stamp tax, because it required Americans to buy stamped paper for purposes of legal transactions, which I think could legitimately be argued as a proper function of government and a way to fund that government.

0:17:58 C. Bradley Thompson: But that’s beside the point. The larger point, of course, is that the stamp tax represented the first tax that had been imposed on the colonies without their consent, hence the famous slogan that begins in 1765, no taxation without representation. So the Americans were not anarchists. They thought, however, that this principle of no taxation without representation was a long‐​standing British tradition, and so what’s really ironic is that at the beginning of the imperial crisis, the Americans were the conservatives, and they viewed British imperial officials and Parliament as the radicals who were trying to upset the pre‐​1688 Cokeian constitution, which was premised of course, on Magna Carta and at the heart of that in a British tradition since, was the principle of no taxation without representation.

0:19:09 C. Bradley Thompson: So they view themselves as defending the true English constitution. And notice the distinction I’m making between an English constitution and a British constitution. They are defending the pre‐​1688, pre‐​Glorious Revolution of Edward Coke, not the post‐​1688 Blackstonian constitution that really develops throughout the 18th century and at the heart of the British constitution is the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, which over time, by 1774, The Americans are now completely rejecting the British constitution and more particularly the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty.

0:19:58 Trevor Burrus: It’s interesting, because I’ve read… I myself am a constitutional scholar, it’s part of my work at Cato, and there’s this idea that the Americans were, as you mentioned, the pre‐​1688 English constitution, that they were kind of reading these legal theorists such as Coke and Matthew Hale, who were actually considered wacky across the pond, so to speak, that you had Coke thinking that you didn’t have… You could overturn an act of parliament, for example, under the British constitution, so they were actually kind of… These very, very small thinkers became very, very important to Americans, but how do you get to the point that… So that’s the way I’ve conceptualized it, at the beginning, you have very pro‐​British people saying We live in the freest, best country in the world, and we are asserting our rights as Englishmen to we need to separate from England, from Britain. How do you get from that point where it’s just give us representation and we want to live in the freest country in the world, with all of the rights that come with being in the freest country in the world to, we’re out of here?

0:21:05 C. Bradley Thompson: Right. So this really goes… I mean, in 1765, between 1765 and say 1770, the principal debate between the Americans and the British parliament was over the nature of the British constitution, and the question was this: Was the Stamp Act constitutional or unconstitutional? British imperial officials argued that the Stamp Act was constitutional because it was legal, that is to say it had been passed through standard operating procedures in the British Parliament, and therefore it was constitutional. The Americans, by contrast, argued that the Stamp Act was unjust and therefore unconstitutional, and the British had… They didn’t really understand, although Burke understood, British Tories certainly didn’t understand that this American idea that an act of parliament could be fundamentally unjust.

0:22:23 C. Bradley Thompson: Now, the real constitutional issue, I think, ultimately came down to this. If you’re going to say that, if you’re going to say that the Stamp Act is either constitutional or unconstitutional in the context of the British Constitution, how do you resolve that debate? Well, for Americans, you would resolve today, for instance, a constitutional debate by pulling out of your breast pocket a copy of the Cato constitution, turning to page 32 and saying, ah, there it is, it here’s what the written Constitution says about the Stamp Act or any act of legislation, but of course, in the context of 1765, they couldn’t do that. Why? Because there was no written British constitution, the British constitution, as Bolingbroke once said, was simply an amalgamation of statutory and common law and the extant form of government at any one given time. And in 1765, the extant form of British government rested on the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, so the parliamentarians thought that they were exercising their constitutional right in passing and enforcing the Stamp Act, which then in 1766, they reinforced through the Declaratory Act, which said that Parliament had the authority to pass legislation “in all cases whatsoever.”

0:24:02 C. Bradley Thompson: The Americans just said that, the Americans said, that’s not the constitution that we glory. The constitution that we glory says that at a more fundamental level, there are core principles and ideas, like the principle of no taxation without representation, that trump the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty. And so that was the heart and soul of the conflict, and there was no resolution to that conflict at all. And I’ll just say one last thing as a kind of a teaser, and if you want to follow up with it, I’m happy to talk about it, and it’s this: By 1768, a few American patriots, like Samuel Adams, for instance, came to see, that the British constitution was the source of the problem. Now, you have to remember this, this is remarkable, because just four years earlier, someone like Sam Adams wrote, and he did write that the British constitution was the greatest constitution in the history of the world.

0:25:12 C. Bradley Thompson: And now in 1768, he’s saying that the British constitution is deeply flawed and it does not recognize colonization, there’s no provision. It’s casus omissus, colonization is casus omissus in the British constitution, there’s no room for it. And so the Americans, beginning, I would argue, in 1768, in a document written by Samuel Adams, started to… That’s the moment when they’re breaking from their allegiance to the British constitution, and they are now for the first time glimpsing the idea of what they will eventually develop after 1776, but really not until 1787, and that idea is the idea of a written constitution as fundamental law.

0:26:16 Trevor Burrus: And at the deepest level, that is really what the American Revolution was all about, and that actually is the subject of part of volume 2 of what I think is going to be a trilogy on the American founding. Volume 2 will be titled America’s Constitutional Mind: On the Origin and History of a Written Constitution as Fundamental Law.

0:26:45 Paul Meany: Okay, so you mentioned earlier The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn, which is probably one of the most influential books ever written on the American Revolution. Bailyn argued that the Founders took inspiration from people like Cicero and Tacitus from the ancient period, Englishmen like Edward Coke and Algernon Sidney and John Locke and authors of Cato’s Letters, and other Enlightenment figures like Cesare Beccaria, Montesquieu and Michel de Montaigne. But in your book, you write that America’s revolutionary mind is virtually synonymous with John Locke’s So why was that the case? Why was John Locke one of the most important people in the American Revolution and how did he aid in this massive moral change in sentiment, obligations and ideas?

0:27:22 C. Bradley Thompson: Thank you for asking that question. It’s been asked of me a lot recently by some of my traditional conservative critics. Yes, of course, American Revolutionaries during the 1760s and 1770s were reading the classical liberal tradition, Aristotle and Cicero. Yes, of course, they were reading reformed Calvinist theology, yes, they were reading actually even Rousseau. I mean, yes, American Revolutionaries were reading lots of different things, they were genuinely enlightened individuals, but my critics completely missed the point. The point is, what were the ideas that influenced American Revolutionaries during the imperial crisis? Also, my question to my critics would be, show me the line and verse anywhere in the revolutionary writings where Cicero or Aristotle or Calvin or Thomas Aquinas is making the central key argument against the Stamp Act.

0:28:41 C. Bradley Thompson: And of course, the answer is, it doesn’t exist. If you read the pamphlets, all of the pamphlets of the American Revolutionary era, as I have tried to do, and that’s reading several layers worth of pamphlets, beginning with, of course, the deepest and furthest‐​seeing revolutionaries like James Otis, some of whom are now largely forgotten, James Otis, Richard Bland, Daniel Delaney, John Dickinson. And then, of course, the more famous ones, John Adams, James Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, and then you go down to, say, the next level of those who are influencing public opinion, like many of the pastors, a gentleman named Dan Foster, a pastor in Connecticut.

0:29:35 C. Bradley Thompson: And then you go right down to the local level, reading newspapers. And what was extraordinary to me as I was doing my research is just the extraordinarily high degree of arguments made by Americans that were drawn from Locke, and they were quoting, we might say Locke, lock, stock and barrel, and they were writing under the pseudonym of John Locke and every major pamphlet of the Revolutionary era is a either quoting Locke directly or using Locke’s arguments against British imperial officials in the context of the imperial debate. And so were they influenced by Christian reform theology during this period? Yes, of course they were, just not in the context of the imperial crisis. They might have been reading their Calvin or Calvin students when it came to questions of marriage or child‐​rearing and lots of other social cultural issues, they may have been reading Cicero with regard to moral education, but with regard to the imperial crisis and the Revolution, without question, the massively dominant intellectual influence on them, as I describe in 435 pages with hundreds of citations and quotations, was John Locke.

0:31:14 Trevor Burrus: You argue, and I agree with you, that the Declaration is a quintessentially Lockean document, which I think that’s evident on its face. You also discuss the probably the most famous words in the document, “We hold these truths to be self‐​evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the creator with certain inalienable rights.” But do we have to take a pause on the question of self‐​evidence for at least that first truth, that all men are created equal, when those words were written by a man who owned other people?

0:31:49 C. Bradley Thompson: Yes. Alright, so it’s interesting, Trevor, I believe this interview is I think the 55th interview, I’ve done podcasts, radio, TV about the book. And without question, I think the most interesting chapter in the entire book, and certainly the most difficult to write for me, was the chapter on self‐​evident truths. So I devote an entire chapter to the phrase that begins the second sentence of the Declaration, “We hold these truths to be self‐​evident.” And so one thing that my book does that really almost no other book has ever done is to take seriously and examine the nature and meaning of that concept, self‐​evident truth.

0:32:50 C. Bradley Thompson: Now, whereas other previous scholars from several generations ago, like Morton White, in his book on the philosophy of the revolution, they have all focused on the meaning of what self‐​evident is, because it was not in Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration. It was changed. We’re not certain who changed it to self‐​evident, it was probably, we think, Benjamin Franklin. And the whole notion of self‐​evidency is a very complex philosophic subject. So what does it mean to say that something is a self‐​evident truth? Well, self‐​evidency, as defined in, say, Locke’s essay concerning human understanding, and then in the 18th century Scottish Common Sense philosophy, a self‐​evident truth is a proposition whose subject and predicate necessarily relate to one another without contradiction.

0:33:48 C. Bradley Thompson: A self‐​evident truth is something which is perceptually… It’s perceptually true. I mean, you look at it, you see immediately it’s true, up is not down, black is not white, in is not out, those would be self‐​evident truths. But then you look at the four truths that follow, which each of which can be summed up in one word, equality, rights, consent and revolution. Well, it’s self‐​evidently true that the fourth self‐​evident truth, namely the Revolution truth, which is a complex idea, as laid out in the Declaration, is not self‐​evident. Revolution, the idea of revolution is not self‐​evident. The idea of consent is not self‐​evident, the idea of rights is not self‐​evident.

0:34:35 C. Bradley Thompson: I think it’s true to say that to the extent based on this traditional understanding of what a self‐​evident truth is, that equality comes the closest to the Lockean definition of what a self‐​evident truth is, but even that can be surely contested. But I think here’s the way in which they meant it, what they mean to say is that all men are equal in the sense that they are not dogs or cows, they have certain attributes, the most fundamental of which are reason and free will. All human beings have reason and free will and in that sense, they are equal in that they have it. So it’s what we might call qualitative equality. But they also recognize that there is quantitative inequality, that is to say we all recognize that there are differences, even though we all have reason and free will, there are differences, there are levels, there are levels of intelligence, we all know that some people are faster, some are slower, some are stronger, some are weaker, some are more intelligent, some are duller. Those are inequalities.

0:35:56 C. Bradley Thompson: So the question is, how did America’s Founding Fathers then understand the nature of equality, which is the second part of your question. And they understood equality as it was first laid out in Locke’s Second Treatise, it’s what I call and sort of Locke gives support to this, it’s what I call species equality, it’s the idea that all human beings are of the same species, and that species is different from other species, in that we share these common attributes that define us as human beings, but not as horses or dogs. But again, as I said, above and beyond that, there is massive and radical inequality. Now onto the issue of slavery, and the obvious and apparent contradiction between the Revolutionaries’ deeply held moral belief and the practice or the institution of slavery, and this issue can be seen most concretely and symbolically in the person of Thomas Jefferson.

0:37:07 C. Bradley Thompson: Thomas Jefferson, the person, the man who wrote, “We hold these truths to be self‐​evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights among which are the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” was a slave‐​holder. So how do you square that circle? And the fact of the matter is, there’s no easy or, in the end, there’s no way to square the circle, it’s a massive… It is… Well, to use the term self‐​evident, it’s a self‐​evident contradiction. What this requires of us, what it requires of serious scholars, is to try and understand how… Without simply condemning the Founding Fathers, like the authors of the 1619 project, the challenge is to understand from the inside how American Revolutionaries try to reconcile their ideals with their practice.

0:38:09 C. Bradley Thompson: Now, Thomas Jefferson said repeatedly that slavery as an institution is immoral. He also described it as a necessary evil, but the moral implication, the moral judgment for Jefferson is that slavery is evil, but it’s also, he said, necessary. So what does that mean? Well, it means that he and several generations of primarily Southerners had been raised with the institution of slavery. They recognized that it was evil, but they did not see or understand how they could abolish it without creating a race war. And Jefferson said in 1819, 1820, in light of the Missouri crisis, that with regard to slavery, he said, we have the wolf by the ears, meaning slavery, and we don’t know whether to hold on or to let go. If we hold on, we’re acting unjustly, immorally, if we let go, we risk the very real, if not likely possibility of a race war.

0:39:39 C. Bradley Thompson: And so this goes to the heart of what I refer to as the post‐​Emancipation problem. The challenge for American Revolutionaries, and of course, the whole issue is much more complex because there was a whole range of actions with regard to slavery by America’s Founding Fathers. Some Founding Fathers never owned slaves and were absolutely morally opposed to it. Some had owned one or two house slaves, I’m thinking Benjamin Franklin and John Jay. But then they freed their slaves and became… They founded various anti‐​slavery societies, then you get people like George Washington who were slave‐​holders, but then freed their slaves after they died. But then you get the really challenging cases like Jefferson and Patrick Henry who own slaves and didn’t free them. But if you read Jefferson and Patrick Henry, they were psychologically, they were tortured by this fact, and they just couldn’t get, wrap their heads around how to deal with the post‐​Emancipation problem.

0:41:03 C. Bradley Thompson: And that was… And I’ll say one last thing. As a moral historian, I believe that, and certainly in my book, relative to America’s Revolutionary Founders, I think it is true that I do hold America’s Revolutionary Founders as great heroes in the movement for freedom, and I judge them as such. But it is also true to say, as someone who attempts to practice the new moral history, that it’s also necessary to judge and condemn immoral actions by people who we otherwise praise, and the obvious case here is Thomas Jefferson. So I do judge and condemn Thomas Jefferson in the book. And so in other words, this goes to… Ultimately in the end, the bottom line relative to, say, Jefferson or Patrick Henry is that they had deep and profound moral failings and should be judged and condemned as such.

0:42:17 C. Bradley Thompson: I mean, you can sum up the problem in these terms. Like a lot of classical liberals and libertarians certainly of older generations, held up Thomas Jefferson as the great doyen of the classical liberal tradition, and with some good cause. But consider this hypothetical. Imagine one of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves escaping from Monticello and bush whacking through woods and forests for two days, followed on a horse by Thomas Jefferson to catch him and return him, and then these two men, the escaped slave and Thomas Jefferson meet together, just the two of them, man to man, face‐​to‐​face, in a forest by themselves. The question is this: Does the slave have a right to kill Thomas Jefferson? And the answer I believe is yes, but I think in the end, that just goes to the deep and profound complexity of the human condition and of history itself.

0:43:39 Paul Meany: So historians like Howard Zinn and the 1619 Project, as you already mentioned, they kind of talk about the American Revolutionary mind as not really what they actually believed, it was just kind of this smoke screen or a cloak to hide their ambitions to solidify their own power and make their own new oligarchy or aristocracy, whatever you want to call it. How do you respond to these people and say, no, they actually genuinely believed these things? ‘Cause people like Jefferson, yes, they owned slave and they felt very bad about it, but a lot of the times they could have just emancipated their slaves, they didn’t have to make a change across the world, they could have just made a change in themselves, as many, Benjamin Franklin already did, or they could’ve never held slaves, like John Adams. But how do you tell people, no, they actually believed this? Because on one end, they were willing to go off and risk their life and their prosperity for American independence, but on the other end when the conflict had all died down, a lot of them wouldn’t give up prosperity by manumitting their slaves.

0:44:29 C. Bradley Thompson: Well, I guess what I would say, Paul, in response is that… And I don’t mean this, obviously, relative to you and your question, but it’s a kind of an easy and cheap question, if you’re living in 21st century America, to look back from our high moral plateau and simply dismiss without really understanding the moral dilemmas, and it’s also to suggest a kind of psychological and moral imperialism that is being imposed by the present on the past without trying to genuinely understand. And this is what I think good historians do, they try to understand the past on its own terms, that’s your first responsibility, and in that chapter in my book on equality and slavery, that’s what I labored to try and do, to not be cheap and easy, to really confront and struggle with and present the best arguments that people like Jefferson and Patrick Henry presented, but then ultimately in the end, to judge and, in the case of Jefferson and Patrick Henry, to condemn.

0:45:58 C. Bradley Thompson: But the problem with this kind of question asked from the imperial heights of the 21st century is that it doesn’t… It doesn’t do the necessary leg work to try and understand the historical context in which they were operating, and that’s what… That’s what true historians do, you have to reconstruct a larger cultural context, and then the relationship between thinking and acting individuals within that context. And it turns out that not only is history complicated and messy, but so is human life for us today in the 21st century. And for those who want to judge and condemn America’s Founding Fathers, those who want to cast the first stone, what I would say is look inward first and identify those times in your own life when you have not been perfectly morally consistent.

0:47:18 C. Bradley Thompson: And then you have to ask yourself the question, well, why is that? Why am I, in 21st century America, why do I compromise by moral principles with some regularity? And I think what you’ll find is that indeed most individuals do unfortunately compromise their moral principles. And so life is a little more complex than cheap and easy judgments from 225 years into the future. So that would be the beginning of an answer to someone who asked me that kind of question.

0:47:58 Trevor Burrus: As you point out in the book, ever since those words were written, America has struggled with how to, what they mean and whether or not they are being put into action and there have been people such as John C. Calhoun or George Fitzhugh, a bunch of antebellum Southerners who actively disagreed with the proposition that all men are created equal, and it’s always been part of our conversation, but I’d like to kind of ask the question that you ask in the epilogue of the book, which is given that we had this incredible founding that had never really seen its like in the history of the world, have we forgotten this to some extent, or as you ask, have we lost our American mind to some extent?

0:48:40 C. Bradley Thompson: So I’d first like to give a shout‐​out to the actual person who came up with the title for the epilogue, which was Has America Lost its American Mind, which I think is an absolutely brilliant title. And the person who came up with that title was my wife, so first kudos to my wife.

0:49:02 Trevor Burrus: Important shout‐​out, yep.

0:49:05 C. Bradley Thompson: And what I do in that epilogue is to identify the first critics of the Declaration of Independence in American history. And it’s really antebellum pro‐​slavery Southerners beginning in the late 1830s who come to regard the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the truths of the Declaration, as self‐​evident lies, as they called them. And what’s fascinating to me in the history of pro‐​slavery Southern thought, particularly, these thinkers rejected the four self‐​evident truths of the Declaration down the line, they rejected the idea, not surprisingly, of equality, rights, consent and revolution, but more fundamentally, more philosophically, they also rejected the idea, the very concept of truth, truth as absolute, certain, permanent and universal.

0:50:14 C. Bradley Thompson: And these pro‐​slavery intellectuals came under a kind of Svengali‐​like sway of 19th century German philosophers, principally Kant, Hegel, Hegel most of all, and Marx. And so not only did they come to reject the Declaration, but they also came to reject the institutions that grow out of the Declaration’s moral foundation, namely the idea of limited constitutional government and, more importantly, laissez‐​faire capitalism. And one of the really, I think, important and interesting things I discovered in my research and then develop in the book is that these pro‐​slavery Southerners were in effect pre‐​Marxian Marxists in their critique of capitalism.

0:51:10 C. Bradley Thompson: If you read James Hammond’s, who was the governor of South Carolina, if you, in the 1830s, if you read his Critique of Northern Capitalism, you would… And you didn’t know who the author was, you would almost certainly think you were reading Karl Marx. And then on top of it, the deepest Southern thinker was a gentleman named George Fitzhugh. And not only did Fitzhugh reject the Declaration and laissez‐​faire capitalism, he actually, by the late 1850s, became a proponent of socialism and communism, in fact, he described the plantation as the “beau ideal of communism,” which is quite stunning when you think about it.

0:52:01 Trevor Burrus: I think he also came up with the phrase wage slave, if I remember correctly, as he described the real slaves are the factory workers in the North.

0:52:09 C. Bradley Thompson: Yeah, exactly, correct, that’s exactly right. And then what I do in the second half of the epilogue is to examine late 19th, early 20th century progressive thinkers, principally John Dewey, Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Croly, and what I found was stunning, which is that their critique of classical liberalism was virtually identical to the critique of classical liberalism by the antebellum pro‐​Southern, pro‐​slavery Southerners. They rejected the idea of truth on the same historicist grounds that the Southerners did, and they rejected the core truths of the Declaration, and of course, most importantly, they rejected the principle of laissez‐​faire capitalism. And so when you do a cost‐​benefit analysis or side‐​by‐​side analysis, what you find are remarkable similarities between these two seemingly different schools of thought. And of course, the epilogue to the book, as you might imagine, has made a lot of heads explode, because it pairs, it demonstrates the very strong, if not profound connection between pro‐​slavery Southern thought and postbellum progressive thought.

0:53:55 Trevor Burrus: Maybe the takeaway is that as early as the people did start attacking these ideas that. Even though we can recite. Many school children can still recite the famous words of the Declaration, that you have to constantly fight for what it actually means, because there will always be people who are trying to go the other way, I guess.

0:54:18 C. Bradley Thompson: No, that’s exactly right. And of course, the left in this country has been critiquing… Well, pro‐​slavery Southerners, they were destroyed with the Civil War, but ironically, tragically, though they were the losers of the Civil War, one might say their ideas were victorious in that they were reborn, although obviously in different shapes and forms in the progressives, those ideas were reborn and the progressive left in this country for, now, upwards of 140 years, have been the principal critics of the principles of the American Revolution, the American founding, the Declaration of Independence, the limited constitutional government, etcetera, etcetera, and you see that literally from Dewey, Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Croly up to today. In fact, I would argue that John Dewey, that 20th century, 21st century American liberals really haven’t had many new ideas since those of John Dewey.

0:55:41 C. Bradley Thompson: So they have been vehement critics of those principles. What’s more interesting, however, is the development in just the last decade of a new intellectual movement on what we might call the reactionary right, which is unfortunately influencing many young Americans, particularly young Americans who come out of a libertarian or conservative intellectual tradition, and the rise of the dissident right in the United States, which comes in two forms, in the form of Catholic, what are called trad cons or traditionalist Catholics, like Patrick Deneen and Adrian Vermeule and Sohrab Ahmari, and then the strangest and the most toxic element of this broader dissident right are the strangely, perversely named Bronze Age Pervert, who’s written a book titled Bronze Age Mindset, and in that book is the presentation of a philosophy that is directly anathema to the principles of the American founding.

0:57:08 Trevor Burrus: So there we go, we have people on our right and people on our left who are both fighting against these principles that are self‐​evident, as you said, so I guess that just means we have to hold fast.

0:57:20 C. Bradley Thompson: Well, I think, Trevor, we need to do more than just hold fast. My own view is that… And I’m sorry to say this, some of your listeners may be upset by it, but I do believe that what we might call Conservatism Inc and Libertarianism Inc for the last 20 years or so, have failed to make the proper moral defense of the principles of a free society and have let these two new movements, particularly on the right, they have let them grow unchallenged. And so what I would suggest, what I would argue for, particularly to the young people who might be listening to this podcast, you ought to defend the principles of classical liberalism, you ought to defend the principles of the American founding for one primary reason: Because they are true. That is the principal grounds on which these principles must be defended, and what we need today is a new generation of young men and women who have the same spirit of liberty as American Revolutionaries did in 1765, to take on the enemies of the true liberal tradition in the United States.

0:58:52 C. Bradley Thompson: And so I wrote my book in all honesty to be a kind of philosophic treatise or manifesto in defending those principles, and I hope young people will read the book, I hope they’ll be motivated by it, and I hope that they will join me. And by the way, I need to make this absolutely clear to your audience. I’m an immigrant to this country. I came here when I was 19 years old, because I believe this is the greatest country in the history of the world, and I’m going to defend those principles to the end. I became an American citizen just this past July, and I am not going to let those principles, those ideas be trashed by either the left or by this new dissident right.

1:00:10 S?: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, make sure to rate and review us in Apple Podcasts or in your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Landry Ayres. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.