Our Founders' Worldview Vs. Today
The vast changes in our culture since the American Revolution make it hard to understand the worldview of our founding fathers. For most people the differences are insurmountable and consequently modern sensibilities are projected onto the words and deeds of colonial writers. The aspirations to principles of equality of rights—the rights of life, liberty, and property—appear perplexing to contemporary writers on the left that see equality in terms of outcome and liberty in terms of access. But let’s focus on one radical difference in the ethical discourse of our founders applied to the critique of a nation’s culture.
Aside from specifically political and legal principles, colonial writers had a distinctly different manner of talking about the health of a culture. While they were pluralistic, they were anything but multi-cultural. As a consequence it is enlightening to glimpse their manner of viewing the world, its cultures, and its history. To get an idea of the worldview of the colonial patriots, I’ll quote several passages from Bernard Bailyn’s classic, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. (All quotes and page numbers refer to the first edition of Bailyn’s book unless otherwise noted.)
A central concern was the character, disposition, and the constitution of a people, of which they spoken in terms of health, vigor, growth, decay—indeed, terms distinctly biological in nature. We can best start with John Adams who said, “Liberty can no more exist without virtue and independence than the body can live and move without a soul …” And it is can scarcely be expected in England where “luxury, effeminacy, and venality are arrived at such a shocking pitch.” [P135] Such language was not unique to Adams. Colonial writers would describe England and Europe’s culture in a manner similar to the decay of the late Roman Empire with terms and phrases such as “corruption,” “effeminacy,” “languor,” and “decay of virtue.”
This distinctive manner of expressing virtue is apparent in Franklin, when he says of England, “I consider the extreme corruption prevalent among all orders of men in this old rotten state, and the glorious public virtue so predominant in our rising country, I cannot but apprehend more mischief than benefit from a closer union. I fear they will drag us after them in all the plundering wars which their desperate circumstances, injustice, and rapacity may prompt them to undertake.” [P135]
While England was decaying, the rest of the world was far gone. “Throughout the whole continent of Asia people are reduced ‘to such a degree of abusement and degradation that the very idea of liberty is unknown among them. In Africa, scarce any human beings are to be found but barbarians, tyrants, and slaves: all equally remote from the true dignity of human nature and from a well-regulated state of society. Nor is Europe free from the curse. Most of her nations are forced to drink deep of the bitter cup. And in those in which freedom seem to have been established, the vital flame is going out. Two kingdoms, those of Sweden and Poland, have been betrayed and enslaved in the course of one year. The free towns of Germany can remain free no longer than their potent neighbors shall please to let them. Holland has got the forms if she has lost the spirit of a free country. Switzerland alone is in the full and safe possession of her freedom.’ And if now in this deepening gloom, the light of liberty went out in Britain too.” [P138] (This passage is also on the web.)
For colonial writers, the complete epitome of tyranny, the antithesis of virtue, the bottom of the moral/ethical heap, was the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish rulers were “cruel, sensuous, vicious,” and “reigned unchecked by right or law or in any sense the consent of the people.” Turkey had “a government fierce and inhuman, founded in blood, supported by barbarity.” As ultimate despots and supreme example of absolutism, the Turks were the exact opposite of to a virtuous and healthy culture. [P63-4]
Speaking of ethics in terms of growth and decay, health and degeneracy, robust spirit and impaired capacity, all showed an integrated ethical/biological manner of understanding, which was the norm prior to the 19th century but almost completely gone by the 20th century. Forrest McDonald writes “The process of corruption and decay was clearly understood: it took place when a people lost its virtue—virtue, in the original Latin sense, meaning manliness and being closely related to virility. The opposite of virtue was effeminacy, a term that was used interchangeably with vice, corruption, softness and love of luxury.” (Literature of Liberty, Vol. 1, No. 1)
America, by comparison, was in robust health, full of youthful strength, fit to take over from Europe. “‘[A]ll the spirit of patriotism or of liberty now left in England’ was no more than ‘the last snuff of an expiring lamp,’ while ‘the same sacred flame … which once showed forth such wonders in Greece and in Rome … burns brightly and strongly in America.’” [P141] Or as Thomas Paine wrote in Common Sense: “And so let every lover of mankind, every hater of tyranny, ‘stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia and Africa have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.’” [P143]
A major shift in ethnical thinking.
Since the time of our Republic’s founding, we should note several subtle but major shifts in ethical thought—not so much in terms of content or specific ethical principles—but in the very manner in which ethical knowledge was debated and expressed. It is worth briefly mentioning these changes although they each deserve extensive discussion in separate essays.
Contemporary ethical debate, both secular and religious, is act-focused instead of character-focused. From stealing a loaf of bread to the use of torture, committing a single act, in isolation, is the focus of analysis. A character-focused approach looks at life as a whole; it aims at the cultivation of an ethical disposition and establishment of a moral practice to create a character worthy of handling the challenges of life and living in a civilized society. Diligence, self-reliance, and temperance, are not something done in a moment but traits developed and sustained over time. The virtues of fortitude, courage, and justice, aren’t achieved in a single act but cultivated with practice.
Closely associated with an act-focused approach is the consequentialist/deontological dichotomy. Either an act is evaluated by the effectiveness of achieving a narrow concrete result or the act is mandated by a categorical imperative despite the consequences. In the extreme case, the “end justifies the means” or “do the right thing” no matter what may come. Either the results overrule all other considerations or the results don’t matter, i.e. obey the rule! Indulgence vs. duty! When made explicit and clear, most people sense the false alternative; but it is operative in a tacit manner harming are culture in myriad ways.
In a character analysis, developing ethical capacities enhances one’s ability to handle the challenges of life. One becomes more worthy in both senses of the word: as a human being and as a person materially fit for life’s challenges. The ethical virtues worth cultivating bring into being the capacities to act when others falter, to triumph over time when others dissipate, and grow by building on past strengths as others spiral downwards. This is a completely different approach to ethical analysis than the college textbook case study method of analyzing moral dilemmas, often tangentially related to the character traits required to survive and flourish in life.
The focus on the cultivation of a virtuous character, in the sense of a well-functioning self-actualizing process, goes back to Aristotle. Aquinas writes extensively on Aristotle’s approach in Part Two of the Summa and embeds it into Christianity. But monumental changes in worldview move at a glacial pace virtually undetected by those involved. At the time of the Enlightenment, the Aristotelian mindset became common sense, so much so that it seems to have always been part of our way of thinking. The changes wrought by Machiavelli, Hobbes, Bentham, and Kant, were slow to infuse the culture. At the time of the founders, virtue, in the Classical sense still permeated the culture.
The last clue of this monumental change in focus, is given by the phrase “the pursuit of happiness.” Happiness was central to Aristotle’s Ethics; today ethics is inherently “other oriented” to the point that self-interest is seen as the antithesis of the very concept of morality. Neither the founders nor Aristotle could conceive of such a complete antagonism. They would certainly shun hedonism but at the same time neither could conceive of blind submission to the state, the people, or the nation that is required by a fundamentally altruistic ethos that became common place in the writings of the 19th century and embodied in 20th century political practice.
Re-reading the literature of the American Revolution brings new insights each time. The founders seem so close to us in their orientation that we are tempted to believe we understand them. Yet, a comparison with Classical, Renaissance, and the British Enlightenment, shows how they are closer to the past than to the world today. For our culture, the path back to health will also be a major undertaking—and a revival of the spirit that was theirs and can be ours again.