C. Bradley Thompson on America’s Revolutionary Mind

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“We now live in a world wrought by the unidentified, unacknowledged union of proslavery and progressive thought.”

These words come from the epilogue of C. Bradley Thompson’s monumental new book, America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration That Defined It.

To understand this important sentence, we must contrast this unholy union with the philosophical and moral idea both schools of thought sought to uproot. That opposing idea is best summed up by the immortal words of the Declaration of Independence:

“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, 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.”

What did the founders really mean when they penned the Declaration of Independence with words like “rights,” “liberty,” “equality,” and “the pursuit of happiness”?

While we don’t have direct access into the minds of the founders, Thompson’s book takes us as close as we can get. Using extensive quotations from letters, speeches, and essays from the founding period, he makes clear that the historical changes wrought by the American Revolution began in the hearts and minds of a small number of truly revolutionary statesmen.

Thompson, a political science professor and the Executive Director of Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism (CISC), is known for his studies of John Adams — the “colossus of liberty” who stood out even among his exceptional peers as the model revolutionary. What made these revolutionaries unique, Thompson writes, was their emphasis on moral philosophy in deducing sound principles for government.

As products and proponents of enlightenment era thought, the founders grounded their actions in the intellectual revolution brought about by figures like Francis Bacon, John Locke, and Isaac Newton. Armed with a new understanding of the physical and moral universe, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and others were able to conceive of a new ideal of liberty. It was this spiritual victory that made the military victory against the British government possible (perhaps even inevitable).

Thompson goes on to ask, “What ever happened to the spirit of liberty in the United States?” Although the first century after the American founding continued the realization of this ideal — chiefly with the abolition of slavery — Thompson identifies a turning point in the early 20th century. The underlying philosophy of the defeated southern states did not disappear after the Civil War. Instead, it adopted fashionable historicist ideas coming out of Europe to cloak its opposition to the Declaration in so-called “progressive” thought.

The Revolutionary Wary was won more than 200 hundred years ago, but the battle continues to this day in new forms, as progressives seek to redefine liberty and equality, and downplay the unique genius of the framers of the Declaration of Independence.

Hear in the founders’ own words why the Declaration and Constitution furnish texts, “to which those who are watchful may again rally and recall the people.”

Lastly, learn what texts Thompson is using to educate the next generation of statesmen at Clemson — only on the show of ideas, not attitude.

Required reading for America’s future statesmen. Sign up for the CISC newsletter here.

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