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The Foundation of the Founders

July 4, 2024

By Dylan Pahman

In the United States, we date our nation’s beginning to the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, which has served as a national creed enshrining distinctly liberal principles in our national consciousness. When “it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another,” they return to “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.” The Declaration justified our independence based upon “self-evident” truths: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….” Our Independence Day marks the birth of the first liberal democratic republic in the world, and the Americans’ Revolution “impressed the world with the righteousness of their cause,” to quote Lord Acton. “[They] appealed to general principle, to be applied to all. If they were right, it was high time for other states to set their houses in order.” Historically, American conservatives, unlike their European counterparts, have defended these liberal principles, even when they did not claim the label “liberal” due to its cooptation by the progressive left in the twentieth century.

After the election of Donald Trump in 2016, however, liberalism fell into further disfavor on the American right, not just in name but in substance. Ascendant illiberal conservatives in the United States represent a diverse and wide-ranging group, ranging from post-liberals to national conservatives to Christian nationalists to Catholic Integralists, including figures such as Patrick Deneen, Yoram Hazony, Stephen Wolfe, and Adrian Vermeule. Several of these niche movements and figures have experienced their own fallings out with each other in recent years, and some were never compatible in the first place. But there is at least one thing they all hold in common: they are wrong about liberalism in America.

Deneen admits that the American founding was liberal, but he thinks that’s a bad thing, and, moreover, that it has “failed.” He claims that John Locke defines liberty as “the capacity to satisfy our appetites” and as “liberation from the constraints of the natural world.” Thus, Deneen claims that classical liberalism’s “ideal of liberty can be realized only through a powerful state.” He furthermore sees an inner contradiction in American liberalism between its classical and progressive forms, even arguing that the Antifederalists alone were the true conservatives.

A different attack on liberalism is mounted by Hazony. Hazony argues that the American founding represents “Anglo-American conservatism,” for which he invokes a long lineage from John Fortescue, through Richard Hooker, Edward Coke, John Selden, Edward Hyde, Matthew Hale, William Blackstone, Josiah Tucker, Edmund Burke, George Washington, John Jay, John Adams, Gouveneur Morris, and Alexander Hamilton, and which he opposes to Lockean liberalism. Citing Fortescue, he rejects the liberal justification of legitimate authority by the consent of the governed, fundamental to the Declaration of Independence. He furthermore claims that liberalism does not promote “God, the Bible, the family, the congregation, [or] the independent national state.”

Stephen Wolfe, for his part, makes a theological argument, preferring to cite magisterial Protestant Reformers instead of the Bible, for the establishment of “Anglo-Protestant” Christianity, rejecting as un-Christian the liberal principle of religious liberty, enshrined in the First Amendment to the US Constitution, and railing against racial diversity.

And Adrian Vermeule conflates liberalism and libertarianism, asserting, “Libertarians and liberals find the classical tradition appalling or, worse, irrelevant.” He further claims both liberals and libertarians divorce law from morality and that pointing out the didactic function of the law “outrages” them, while at the same time he reduces liberalism to Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian moral principle of the greatest good for the greatest number, by which Bentham sought to reform law and use it to shape the moral behavior of citizens. (Apparently, they aren’t so “outraged” after all?) Instead, he appeals to what he calls the “classical legal tradition,” which he never defines but which apparently includes Thomas Aquinas.

Despite their differences, these writers all believe that liberalism, in any form, is bad, unconservative, and incompatible with either or both the American founding and Christianity. In this, they are incorrect. Rather than undermining American liberalism from within, the country’s Christian prehistory is a rich tradition within American liberalism that constitutes a core set of principles that American conservatives ought to conserve.

This Independence Day, we would do well to take note that the Founders stood on a foundation paved centuries before them in the Judeo-Christian tradition and Western civilization. This is not to say that, therefore, the Founding was “Christian,” as many of the Founders were deists, not Christians, and some of both were also freemasons. Rather, the point is that the liberal principles uniquely enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, the Northwest Ordinance, the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and other foundational documents—in contradiction to the claims of illiberal critics—have a pedigree that long predates the Enlightenment.


What is Liberalism?

Before we go too far, however, we need to do what illiberals too often fail to do: clearly define what “liberalism” is. I’m partial to the summary given by Robert Filmer in his book Patriarcha, the very work John Locke sought to refute with his Two Treatises:

Mankind is naturally endowed and born with Freedom from all Subjection, and at liberty to chose [sic] what Form of Government it please: And that the Power which any one Man hath over others, was at first bestowed according to the discretion of the Multitude.

Filmer, like today’s illiberals, thinks this is a bad thing, claiming, “It contradicts the Doctrine and History of the Holy Scriptures, the constant Practice of all Ancient Monarchies, and the very Principles of the Law of Nature.”

Locke does a fine job addressing those points, so I will not rehearse his arguments here. However, it is notable that Filmer admits, “This Tenent was first hatched in the Schools [i.e., among the scholastics], and hath been fostered by all succeeding Papists [i.e., Roman Catholics] for good Divinity. The Divines also of the Reformed Churches have entertained it, and the Common People every where tenderly embrace it….” While I agree with Locke that Filmer is wrong about the Bible and natural law, Filmer is right about the scholastic Christian roots of liberalism, and in Locke’s many citations of Richard Hooker, he would seem to agree. (For a more detailed exploration of the scholastic natural law antecedents to American liberalism, Kody W. Cooper and Justin Buckley Dyer have made a substantial contribution in their book The Classical and Christian Origins of American Politics, though they do not focus on liberalism itself, just the (liberal) principles of the American founding.)

I will only add to this the following qualifications, which should be uncontroversial: On the same basis that liberalism defends legislation by the consent of the governed (i.e., on the equality, liberty, and rationality of all people), in most forms it also affirms some degree of religious tolerance. Furthermore, by American liberalism I mean a specifically American tradition, additionally grounded in the English common law, natural law, and Christian history and theology, claiming a theological basis, albeit denominationally vague, for its anthropology and its skepticism toward unchecked political power. Its theological and common law antecedents distinguish it from, for example, the liberalism of the French Revolution and its rallying cry, Ni Dieu, ni maître!



In Deneen’s defense, his arguments are hard to respond to, but not because they are good arguments. One must first disentangle his ahistorical claims and underdefined terms. At the least, we can easily refute his reading of Locke by quoting Locke himself: “though [a state of nature] be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of licence…. The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” Locke goes on to note that the command to “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16) holds even in the state of nature (i.e., before any social contract). Locke does not define liberty as “liberation from nature” but rather conditions true liberty, as opposed to license, upon the constraints of natural law. While it is a mistake to reduce the thought of the American founders to Locke, they were certainly influenced by him, to greater or lesser degrees.



John Locke, in turn, also seems to have been influenced by some of Hazony’s “Anglo-American conservatives.” As noted already, he cites Hooker liberally (no pun intended). Furthermore, regarding Hazony’s invocation of John Fortescue to reject the consent of the governed, Fortescue himself can set us right. In his On the Government of England, Fortescue begins by saying that the “king may not rule his people by other laws than such as they assent to” (I’ve modernized his English). As for his claim that liberalism and the Bible are incompatible, Fortescue and Locke would seem to disagree, judging by their copious biblical quotations. But we can go farther than that.



The Bible affirms that “rulers” are “God’s minister to you for good” (Romans 13:3-5), thus affirming at least the potential good of nation states. However, it is at least notable that St. Paul wrote this to the Church in Rome, where dwelt an international emperor among the “rulers.” Moreover, ethnic diversity is repeatedly affirmed to be a positive good in the Bible, which prophesies of a time when “all nations shall flow to” the house of the Lord (Isaiah 2:2) and there shall be “a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9).

As for religious liberty, while Christian history is full of failures, that is not the whole story. These days, everyone expects the Spanish Inquisition, but too few notice how the earliest Christians consistently championed universal religious liberty. For example, the second-century Epistle to Diognetus states that God “willed to save man by persuasion, not by compulsion, for compulsion is not God’s way of working.” In the third century, Tertullian anticipates even some of Thomas Jefferson’s reasoning in his 1779 Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, writing in his Apology, “see that you do not give a further ground for the charge of irreligion, by taking away religious liberty, and forbidding free choice of deity, so that I may no longer worship according to my inclination, but am compelled to worship against it.” In his letter To Scapula, he further claims, “it is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions: one man’s religion neither harms nor helps another man. It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion—to which free-will and not force should lead us….” When the emperor Constantine became Christian, he realized the hopes of generations of Christians in declaring universal religious liberty: “We resolved … to grant both to the Christians and to all men freedom to follow the religion which they choose….” Though this religious liberty deteriorated in Christian Rome, especially after Christianity was made the state religion by the emperor Theodosius, nevertheless defenders of religious minorities can be found throughout Christian history.

None of that may matter to Wolfe, though, since he seems exclusively concerned with Protestant Reformers. But even then, we can find men like Sebastion Castellio, who, appealing the Golden Rule, wrote in the face of religious violence in France in his time, “Answer in the name of Jesus Christ, answer me whether you would like your consciences to be forced. I am quite persuaded that your consciences answer no.” So, too, while Western Europeans went to war over religion in the sixteenth century, Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox Christians lived in peace in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which also notably included rule by the consent of the governed.



As for Vermeule’s Thomistic posturing, we can note again Cooper and Dyer’s recent book, in which they argue that “classical natural law is compatible with affirming fundamental political equality in conditions void of political authority. The rudiments of this position are already present in Aquinas and developed in Suárez and Bellarmine.” But long before them Kenneth Minogue, himself a more nuanced critic of what he termed the “liberal mind,” even admitted that in medieval political writings, “we find the principle vox populi vox dei; and it was from Aquinas, through many intermediaries, that Locke derived many of the principles which in his formulation became dogmas of liberalism.” So, too, in making his case for the consent of the governed, Fortescue appeals to both the Old Testament and Thomas’s De Regno.


Conserving Our Liberal Foundation

Considering the foregoing, it seems to me American conservatives today must face again Frank Meyer’s question for Russell Kirk: “Conservatism, after all, is a relative term. The question is: What do you want to conserve?” Historically, American conservatives like Meyer (but also Kirk, in his own way) defended our liberal foundation as precisely what ought to be conserved in their own times, even if they may not always have favored the label “liberal” due to its association, since the twentieth century, with progressivism and the political left.

As Samuel Gregg cautioned readers of his On Ordered Liberty, “it makes little sense to ask whether a set of proposed practices and principles are ‘liberal’ or, for that matter, ‘conservative.’ Reasoned inquiry should ask whether an idea is reasonable and therefore true, or unreasonable and thus untrue.” And, I would add, if the truth happens to be something that can be called “liberal,” conservatives nevertheless have a duty to defend it.

To the extent illiberal conservative critics invoke Christianity or the Western tradition in support of their positions, they do so in contradiction to liberalism’s genuine antecedents in Christian history and the Western civilization, neither of which are homogeneous. True, those traditions are not wholly liberal either, but conservative supporters of American liberalism have room to stand on that ground as well. And notably, it is not the illiberals’ but the liberals’ foundation that grounded the American Founders. Thus, those who categorically reject liberalism reject genuine American conservatism as well.

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality.


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