As the increasingly surreal election season wore on, a growing number of thinkers on both right and left began to express a full-throated rejection of the liberal tradition at the heart of the American system. There is a variety of these “post-liberalisms,” as Ross Douthat recently pointed out in the New York Times, which can be found expressed in their diverse forms in the pages of Jacobin on the left or a venue like First Things on the right. What these sorts of critics have in common is a belief that this election season, and our current moral problems, are evidence that the liberal political philosophy of our founders is bankrupt.

From more conservative figures, this charge has taken the form of a claim that the founding fathers were entirely children of the Enlightenment, driven to implement a secular philosophy for which the summum bonum was the liberty of the sovereign individual from all limitations of community, virtue, religion, or an objective conception of the good life. This philosophy, they think, has led by inexorable pathways to the moral decadence of our day and to the absurd spectacle of our present political climate.

In saddling the liberal philosophy of the American founders with responsibility for our present woes, the critics are equivocating on the term ‘liberalism’. They impute to the founders a political philosophy that was not the founders’ own, though it goes by the same name. In reality, the philosophy of the founders, insofar as they had a cohesive philosophy, was very far from the spirit of the liberalism for which they are blamed. If we have a more accurate understanding of the philosophical convictions that underlay the creation of our government, we’ll be better equipped to understand, and find solutions to, the troubles that beset us in our own day, too.

American Liberalism Versus the Caricature

Start your day with Public Discourse

Sign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.

The basis of the criticism of the founders’ liberalism is usually predicated on certain controversial readings of Locke, and the assumption that these readings were widely accepted by the founding generation and implemented in the practice of our government. But, as has often been noted, Locke’s work admits of many interpretations. It features so many ambiguities and even contradictions that it is unclear what being a good Lockean would precisely mean. As Fr. F.C. Copleston, the late, great historian of philosophy, said, Locke was decidedly a moderate, practical thinker, and the wilder readings or developments of his work would not have been his intention. Indeed, though Locke is surely but one influence on the founders’ philosophy among a constellation of diverging contemporary thinkers and an entire historical tradition of political thought, what the founders did actually praise in Locke was a set of principles that long predated him in the western liberal tradition. It is also worth noting, perhaps, that the founder who sympathized most with Locke, Thomas Jefferson, did not participate in the Constitutional Convention, while Madison, who was certainly a more Witherspoonian man, was at its head.

The founding thinkers of our republic were not mere ideologues of the Enlightenment. They were men seeking to solve a practical, very concrete problem of governance. In doing so, they drew upon longstanding traditions in western thought, from the old English constitutional traditions of right and common law to Roman jurisprudence and classical republican thought. This is why it might be useful to distinguish, as the philosopher Aurel Kolnai did, between “Liberalism” as the critics think of it and the much older tradition of the “Liberal West.” It is this latter tradition in which the founders worked.

The liberalism attacked by the critics is committed to a secular individualism, as outlined above. The tradition of the liberal west, by contrast, is committed to liberty as ordered toward human flourishing, free from arbitrary domination. In the classical republican conception, liberty is not freedom from the constraints of virtue or community, since these things were considered to free us to be more human. Political liberty, rather, is the freedom not to be a slave; it is to be in command of those liberties of speech, of movement, of thought, that are proper to the development of virtue and the pursuit of a flourishing human life.

To best see the error of imputing to the founding the liberal ideas of our own time, one needs to get a handle on the intellectual heritage of the founders. This heritage is a complicated one, but its result places them broadly within the liberal western tradition. John Adams, who had read and admired thinkers of his own age, such as Milton, Locke, and Sidney, wrote that “the principles of the revolution are the principles of Aristotle and Plato, of Livy and Cicero . . . of nature and eternal reason.” For Adams, and for many of his fellows, contemporary English thinkers were valuable inasmuch as they transmitted the tradition of those ancient statesmen and thinkers. This is why Benjamin Rush, in his writings on education in the fledgling United States, declared: “above all, let our youth be instructed in the history of the ancient republics,” in order to learn from their mistakes and successes. He took such education to be second only to religious instruction.

Christianity and the Founding

In addition to classical republicanism and English political practice, the founding contained an important element of Christian anthropology. This was channeled in an especially significant way through John Witherspoon, a minister, president of Princeton, founding father, and signer of the Declaration of Independence. He had little regard for Hobbes or Locke, but he was enthusiastic about another Christian philosopher of the day, Thomas Reid. Witherspoon’s was an outsized influence, as he counted many members of the Continental Congress and early government among his students and admirers, including James Wilson and James Madison, perhaps the two chief figures of the Constitutional Convention.

It was Witherspoon’s view that human beings were created with a certain goodness and dignity by God, but that we have been deeply wounded by original sin. Man is corrupt but redeemable. This view of the human person is an animating principle behind The Federalist, expressed by Madison in, among other places, Federalist 55. This classical Christian conception inspired the American idea of government designed to prevent the corrupting influence of too concentrated power, and to check tyranny arising not only from ambition but also from well-intentioned ideologues or intolerant majorities. It was on account of this Christian humility with regard to “the darkness of our intellects and twisting of our wills,” usually called “original sin,” that Adams thought the most important idea to be found in Locke and his peers was a government “of laws and not of men.” Men who go after power, Adams wrote, tend to be susceptible to selfishness and corruption. Without “the great political virtues of humility, patience, and moderation,” Adams wrote, “every man in power becomes a ravenous beast of prey.”

A similar message is to be found in Federalist 1 and 37, where Madison and Hamilton, another of Witherspoon’s admirers, warn that the defects in judgment and character to be found in men should steer us away from excessive confidence in our ability to engineer perfect systems, or to leave too much to the power in the hands of a given individual or group. This American modesty about the complexity of human affairs led the philosopher Jacques Maritain to observe that in intellectual matters, contrary to prejudices against America, “a distrust of self-reliance was a general feature of the American mind.” This same modesty inspired the framers of the Constitution to limit the power granted to the individuals in government at a given moment. This is what they had in mind when they praised liberty from tyranny.

Put another way, it’s not that liberals like Wilson, Madison, and Adams wanted license at the cost of virtue or to put self-interest at the center of their system. They sought a liberty that limited the corruptions of power and left the people free to help one another and to pursue virtue on the subsidiary levels of family, church, and community. The claim that the Founding Fathers sought license—liberty divorced from limitations of virtue—is one that can be made only by those unfamiliar with history. As John Adams wrote in his Thoughts on Government, “the happiness of man, as well as his dignity, consists in virtue” and that ours is a political system “whose principle and foundation is virtue.” It is in a similar spirit that Benjamin Rush wrote that “without virtue there can be no liberty.” It would be hard to grow further from the spirit of our founders than to say that virtue and liberty are separable.

Furthermore, it was their common conviction that religion was virtue’s surest—and perhaps its only—safeguard. This is why Adams wrote that our Constitution was only adequate to the government of “a moral and religious people”; it is why the Supreme Court declared that “we are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.” Similar sentiments can be found in the writings of Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, John Witherspoon, James Madison, George Mason, and others.

Witherspoon, Madison, Wilson, and liberals like them did not see human beings as “atomistic individuals,” but as beings necessarily and naturally in relationship with successive levels of community: family, neighborhood, city, and so forth. For them, the human being is not an independent creature “pulled up by his bootstraps”; he is deeply dependent on a society of other persons. As Wilson wrote, all “society supposes mutual dependence.” In this belief, Madison and Wilson also showed the influence of the Scottish philosophers whom they studied, Thomas Reid and Adam Smith, who argued that human beings were naturally social and interdependent. In moral life, Smith wrote, man depends on the love, friendship, and respect of others. In trade, he depends on others for his material necessities. This is not a system that exalts only the private interest of the individual, but rather recognizes that it necessarily exists and seeks to make it work toward the common good. As the philosopher Samuel Fleischacker has written, Smith’s is not a philosophy whose aim is the promotion of self-interest, but the promotion of fellow-feeling in individuals and the instilling of modesty in policymakers.

The liberal tradition of these founders is one that sought to free its people not from limitations of morality, community life, or religion, but from unjust and tyrannical rule. Theirs was a conception of liberty not as the reign of the sovereign self but as ordered toward the flourishing of human life in virtue. To one who has spent any decent amount of timing breathing the air of the thought of the American founders, this will not come as a surprise.

The Problem is Abandonment of, not Faithfulness to, the Founders’ Philosophy

If we take the time to read the founders’ writings and study their intellectual heritage beyond generalizations about Locke, we find that this group of thinkers tended to care deeply about the things they supposedly reject—like moral obligation in community. They were not modernist ideologues, but a collection of men oriented toward solving a particular problem of governance. In their solution, we see influences drawn from a complex net of sources, some of which we’ve mentioned above.

The French Revolution, by contrast, truly did attempt an enlightened government, detached from the bonds of community, religion, and tradition—and we know the result. There is a reason the statesman Edmund Burke denounced so roundly their revolution but was sympathetic to ours. Namely, he saw that ours was drawn out of the tradition of English governance and that it was oriented toward liberty ordered in virtue. This is why John Courtney Murray called the American Revolution the “American Conservation.” It conserved the tradition of the liberal west against the enlightened liberalism of the continent. Its fear was precisely the totalitarianism to which that continental philosophy would lead.

If today we see ill effects of individualism, it does not mean that we should blame them on the founders. Indeed, other nations see the same ill effects in their cultures as ours does, without having had our civic system or our founding. This suggests that our problem is a cultural one, rather than some deep, all-encompassing flaw in our political system as such. As the philosopher John Haldane has suggested, intellectuals will often try to draw neat intellectual histories. In reality, our present state of affairs is more explicable in terms of a complex set of influences, only some of which are political or intellectual.

In mistaking a cultural problem for one of government and proposing governmental solutions to cultural decay, the illiberal critics of our founding err by collapsing society into state—a dangerous presumption that often leads to harmful absolutism in government. It would be better if we turned our attention away from spurious accusations against the origins of our political system and toward the formation of the populace in education and virtue. We must work to create the sort of citizenry virtuous enough to bear the responsibilities that come along with true liberty. It is a tall task, and it probably can only be carried out with any success in our own small localities, but this makes it no less important a responsibility.