The American Revolution Was Also A Moral Revolution

The American Revolution Was Also A Moral Revolution

In C. Bradley Thompson’s new book, 'America’s Revolutionary Mind,' the Clemson professor makes a provocative and persuasive rebuttal to contemporary historians suggesting that the American founding advanced self-serving motives based on slavery, race, and class.
Craig Bruce Smith
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Looking back on his youth, former President John Adams reminisced, “The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the Minds and Hearts of the People.” Echoing Adams, author C. Bradley Thompson, proclaims that “the real American Revolution” was a “moral revolution that occurred in the minds of the people” before the war ever occurred. Thompson advances that “this transformative event created a kind of society unlike any other that had ever existed,” and one that continues to affect our lives today.

With these introductory claims, Thompson’s America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration That Defined It fires a shot as loud as anything heard at Lexington or Concord at an ever-growing literature that has attempted to deemphasize or debunk the American Revolution and the Founders.

Thompson sees himself following in the tradition of the scholarship of eminent Pulitzer Prize-winning historians Gordon Wood (of Good Will Hunting fame) and Bernard Bailyn and their focus on the importance of ideas in the origins and aftermath of the Revolution. In his back cover blurb, Wood declares America’s Revolutionary Mind “is sure to be provocative.”

Arguing for “a near unified system of thought” and against “historical anachronism and simple-minded presentism,” Thompson is both provocative and on point. In proclaiming that the American Revolution launched “the greatest moral, social, and political transformation not just in American history but also in world history,” America’s Revolutionary Mind is as refreshing and bold as it is controversial, given the current trends in American history.

Works from historians over at least the past half-century, including Howard Zinn (with his own Good Will Hunting reference — Matt Damon and Ben Affleck have some familiarity with historical debates), Woody Holton, Robert Parkinson, and Gary Nash have unceremoniously chipped away at the belief of “a common cause” and the traditional lofty principles of the Revolution to advance self-serving exclusionary motives based on race and class and the harboring of undemocratic tendencies.

Others such as Gerald Horne and the New York Times’ 1619 Project, dismissing the thoroughly radical changes it instituted, have jointly eviscerated and twisted the Revolution into “a conservative movement that the founding fathers fought in order to preserve their right to enslave others” and that this was “conveniently left out of our founding mythology” because “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” Thompson’s America’s Revolutionary Mind stands as a necessary antithesis and a compelling rebuttal of this interpretive turn in academic and popular circles.

Reason, Rights, and Constitutionalism

Anticipated to be the first of two volumes extending the narrative to the U.S. Constitution, Thompson, a professor of political philosophy at Clemson University, views the book as “an extended archeological excavation of America’s revolutionary mind.” America’s Revolutionary Mind explores the moral ideas “to elucidate the logic, principles, and significance” of their chief manifestation: the Declaration of Independence.

This book is very much steeped in Enlightenment thought and articulates that the Declaration embodied “reason, rights, [and] constitutionalism.” It’s a compelling case that presents how political turmoil led to a moral crisis. Sparked by new British taxes, American patriots were “challenged” to reevaluate Parliamentary authority as well as their rights granted to them by the unwritten British constitution. This renewed thinking ultimately led to an “investigation into the nature, source, and meaning of certain basic moral principles” ranging from liberty to virtue to equality to justice and beyond.

“America’s revolutionary mind is virtually synonymous with John Locke’s mind,” writes Thompson, and it’s in his treatment of this famed Enlightenment figure that the author excels. It’s a great line, if a bit over-exaggerated, but this theme overshadows the contributions of other Enlightenment thinkers (who do appear, but are placed far below Locke in importance and mentions). The book goes beyond the basic discussion of “natural rights” and tangibly links the role of civil government with creating laws “that mirror the moral laws of nature.”

Furthermore, Thompson makes an especially great use of Jonathan Mayhew’s A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Nonresistance to the Higher Powers making an early Lockean connection to the “virtue of civil disobedience” in America in 1750 and in the patriot writing in the Boston Gazette under the pseudonym “John Locke,” linking high ideas with tangible interpretations. This manifested as “Revolutionary Americans defined the consent necessary to complete a social contract by two characteristics: first, it must be unanimous, and second, it must be enlightened.”

Here and elsewhere, Thompson is overeager to stress the level of unanimity that existed. A flood of compelling and recent scholarship – such as Maya Jassanoff’s Liberty’s Exiles, Rebecca Bannon and Joseph Moore’s The Consequences of Loyalism, various authors in The American Revolution Reborn, and the work of Christopher Minty – has illustrated there was a mass of loyalists, neutrals, and others with shifting allegiances. There was even diversity of thought within the patriot cause.

Despite this, Thompson is still essentially correct in his assertions of a fairly consistent and uniform patriotic moral ideology on the national level. His conclusion that “the sacrifice of individual interests for the common good was the ultimate standard of moral and political value” is indisputably revealed time and time again in the source materials and the Declaration. In this way, Thompson’s work closely aligns with historian Jill Lepore’s national focus in These Truths. She notes “the United States rests on a dedication to equality, which is chiefly a moral idea.” Hopefully, this indicates a new trend in historical study.

‘Americans’ Deepest Moral and Political Aspirations’

The Declaration of Independence is the unquestioned star of America’s Revolutionary Mind, and it is characterized as the pinnacle of “Americans’ deepest moral and political aspirations.” This is a fair, balanced, and necessary reinterpretation illustrating that, even in its flaws, the Declaration was a serious expression of beliefs and hopes, not merely poetic prose.

In focusing on the Declaration’s understudied initial paragraph, rather than heading straight for its most famous phrase “All men are created equal,” Thompson does something novel. His examination of the word “necessary” in the line, “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another,” and “ought to be” in the last paragraph from “all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States” is a phenomenal close reading of the original text.

He places the connection to the Enlightenment beyond doubt, as he ties the ideas to moral and political action. Delightfully, he focuses on what the Declaration actually says and did, rather than argue about what it doesn’t say or what it failed to do.

Still, Thompson doesn’t shy from of the criticism of the Declaration and the Revolution. But his interpretations will likely result in immediate dismissal from the growing number of activist historians and The New York Times. Thompson’s understanding of Lockean equality as exhibited in the line “all men are created equal” is fundamentally different than it has been traditionally interpreted. Social hierarchy still existed, and “when Locke says that all men are by nature equal, he does not mean to imply that all men are equal in all respects.”

Rather, equality equated to self-government. Thompson also acknowledges there was a degree of self-interest, but says it needed to be restrained and “enlightened.” The goal was to overthrow “arbitrary power,” as recently discussed by Michael Hattem in the Washington Post. But here the book could be clearer in regards to the shift from resistance to Parliament versus the king. Was it always about “arbitrary power”? When did it evolve into anti-monarchy?

As pointed out by Parkinson, the 1619 Project, and others, the stain slavery cast against the Declaration’s espousal that “All men are created equal” remains. Chapter Five of America’s Revolutionary Mind is dedicated exclusively to this contradiction. Thompson insists, “The great story of the American Revolution is not that the founding generation failed to end slavery, but rather that it set in motion forces that would lead to the eventual abolition of America’s ‘peculiar institution.’”

To support his point he offers tangible proof in the form of the anti-slavery legislation created with the United States beginning with Vermont in 1777 and moving into the early nineteenth century whereby every northern state abolished slavery in some form. In this respect, he is very much in line with historians Sean Wilentz and James Oakes’ similarly controversial takes, which argue that the Constitution was an anti-slavery document in opposition to their peers’ alternate consensus. Thompson focuses on the Declaration’s “promise” rather than its limitations and in a rebuttal to Horne, declares it was “The Revolution to End Slavery,” for without it there would be no emancipation (or at least as it transpired).

Given the current cultural and political climate, this section will be the most incendiary and highly scrutinized. So it’s unfortunate that Thompson makes it indicative of an “Anglo-American” movement (perhaps he means pre-independence Americans) without discussing the Somerset case that freed any slave in Britain, or offering a British comparison.

In addition, the book only has limited engagement with abolitionist thinkers, such as Anthony Benezet, and doesn’t directly deal with some elements of hypocrisy, as slaves were denied their freedom despite appealing to Revolutionary ideals. Unfortunately, Thompson also joins Lin-Manuel Miranda’s omission in casting Alexander Hamilton as an abolitionist while failing to note his involvement in the slave trade.

A Monument to Human Virtue

Although an important and genre-shifting book, Thompson’s book it is not without flaws. Thompson hoped to author “not simply a work of political theory,” and although the book is accessibly written it is still heavy on political theory. This is not necessarily a weakness, but readers expecting a detailed history of the Revolution’s causes or a narrative of the creation of the Declaration and foundational beliefs may be let down.

By focusing on the Founders’ minds, Thompson’s book also lacks human characters, a feature that may isolate some readers. This also factors into the author’s desire to connect “the relationship between principles and practice in the day-to-day actions and interactions of men and women in a social context.” The book excels in discussions of ideas, morals, and their connections to legislation, but there is less focus on more tangible things.

The Declaration famously concludes, “We Mutually Pledge To Each Other Our Lives, Our Fortunes And Our Sacred Honor.” Thompson discusses life and property in depth, but not honor. Why? In perhaps its most egregious flaw, the book lacks any significant discussion of the concept of honor — an essential early American ethical ideal. He makes several mentions of the term, including “sacred honor,” but without any explanation.

There have been many notable historians to address this topic, including Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Caroline Cox, Joanne Freeman, Nicole Eustace, and Judith Van Buskirk, among others, and its absence from American’s Revolutionary Mind is conspicuous. Understanding honor, which became a unifying secular ethical or moral belief system tied to the greater good of the nation, is essential to properly understanding the American Revolution.

Finally, in the preface, Thompson laments, “there has not been a major reinterpretation of the Revolution’s causes and consequences since the publication of Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967) and Gordon S. Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic, (1969).” What exactly Thompson means by “major reinterpretation” is up for debate, but what it suggests just isn’t accurate. There have been numerous books since the 1960s to focus on the Revolution’s ideology, causes, and consequences. Maybe the numbers of such books have been shrinking recently, but these books do exist.

These issues aside, Thompson’s America’s Revolutionary Mind is a pivotal book that unquestionably illustrates the importance of morals and genuine, widely held ideological beliefs to the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence. Nonetheless, critics will no doubt decry the aggrandizement of the American Revolution and shout that there was no united American mind, and if there was, it was certainly exclusionary and elitist.

To this Thompson would undoubtedly answer that the American Revolution “is surely one of history’s greatest monuments to human virtue. It is ours to remember and celebrate.” Given the current state of political divisiveness, perhaps this book can help Americans stop dwelling on America’s faults and focus instead on what the United States aspired to be.

Craig Bruce Smith is the author of "American Honor: The Creation of the Nation's Ideals during the Revolutionary Era." Follow him on Twitter: @craigbrucesmith. All views are that of the author and do not represent those of the federal government, the U.S. Army, or Department of Defense.

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