Three years from now, Americans will observe the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. The intense partisanship of our age, marked by battles about the meaning of our national history, will not likely have cooled by then. The Left will continue to condemn America as a white-supremacist conspiracy one minute and appropriate the Founding as a progressive project the next, just as President Biden did in the divisive speech that he delivered at Independence Hall last year. It is not enough for conservatives merely to reject liberals’ bastardization of our history and distortion of American identity. Our national self-understanding faded long ago; we must reclaim it and resurrect the spirit of America’s Founding.
In his Independence Hall speech, Biden declared that “America is an idea”—a mantra repeated by generations of Americans, both liberal and conservative. But the Declaration and Constitution declare what any common-sense American knows: that, far from being merely an idea, America is “one people,” one of “the powers of the earth,” a “civilized nation” possessing “seas,” “coasts,” “towns,” and a “frontier.” It is a “country” where our “brethren” and “friends” live, a “free people” living in “free and independent states.” America is a “Union,” a community located in a particular place and populated by particular people—“ourselves and our posterity,” to whom we are obliged to transmit “the blessings of liberty.” The battle over our national memory is a battle over our identity and future. To understand the character and significance of the American tradition, we must return to our Founding documents with open minds.
Perhaps we can learn something from Biden’s speech. “America is an idea,” he said, “the most powerful idea in the history of the world. And it beats in the hearts of the people of this country. It beats in all of our hearts.” It is strange to say that an idea beats in the heart. This may, at first, seem an infelicity in Biden’s phrasing. Ideas form in the mind, after all, not the heart. Yet when we memorize a poem or a prayer, we say that we know it by heart, not by mind.
We have only to turn to scripture and the classics to learn that the heart indeed has its thoughts, revealing man’s character and impelling him to action. Saint Paul tells us, in his letter to the Romans, that the natural law is written on the hearts of all men by God, and Plutarch tells us that Lycurgus’s laws were not recorded on stone or with ink, but imprinted on the hearts of the Spartans. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates describes the soul as tripartite, with thumos—spiritedness or heart—at its center. In his 1943 classic The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis, describes “the Chest” as “the seat . . . of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments.” The Chest harbors “ordinate affections” and “just sentiments” and cultivates, among other things, that form of love or devotion that we call patriotism.
For Plato and Lewis, thumos—spiritedness or heart—made a man courageous, enabling him to rule his passions and thus become capable of ruling others. Both associate the heart with virtue, manliness, and human excellence. According to Lewis, the “Chest” incubates patriotic devotion and service to the nation, even unto death on the battlefield: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. The well-cultivated heart attaches a citizen to his country, making him confident in its goodness and dutiful to its service.
Perhaps Biden was onto something, then, when he spoke of “an idea” that “beats in all of our hearts.” Many witnesses of the American Founding describe the importance not only of what Jefferson called “the American mind,” but also of what we might call the American heart—the spiritedness of 1776.
In his “Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies,” delivered in March 1775, British statesman Edmund Burke identified a “fierce spirit of liberty” as “the predominating feature which marks and distinguishes the whole” of the “American character.” Burke attributed the colonists’ “love of freedom” to several factors, including their descent from the freedom-loving English; their form of government—“provincial legislative assemblies;” and Protestantism, especially the Yankee sort, which Burke describes as “a refinement on the principle of resistance; . . . the dissidence of dissent, and the Protestantism of the Protestant religion.” He pointed to the colonists’ education, especially in the law, such that all men in government are “lawyers, or smatterers in law,” making them “acute, inquisitive, dexterous, prompt in attack, ready in defense, full of resources.” And finally, Burke mentions the distance—“three thousand miles of ocean”—between the colonists and their rulers in England.
These ethnic, political, religious, economic, educational, and geographic circumstances gave rise to a spirited “love of freedom” that Burke describes as Revolutionary Americans’ defining principle. This is not to dismiss the significance of philosophy to the American Founding, but only to note that a political philosophy’s influence on a people depends largely on their character.
Captain Levi Preston, a minuteman who fought at the Battle of Concord, demonstrated the power of sentiment to spur one to action. Many decades after the battle, historian Mellen Chamberlain asked him, “Why did you go to the Concord fight?” Why did this Massachusetts farmer decide to leave his plow, pick up his musket, and join the fight against the British? Chamberlain suggested possible motivations, each of which Preston denies. Was it “intolerable oppressions”?
“Oppressions?” asked Preston. “I didn’t feel them.”
The Stamp Act? “I never saw one of those stamps.”
The tea tax? “I never drank a drop of the stuff; the boys threw it all overboard.” Chamberlain then mentioned the great seventeenth-century philosophers. “I suppose you had been reading Harrington or Sidney and Locke about the eternal principles of liberty.”
Preston’s reply: “Never heard of ‘em. We read only the Bible, the Catechism, Watts’s Psalms and Hymns, and the Almanack.”
Perplexed, Chamberlain then asks, “what was the matter? And what did you mean in going to the fight?”
Preston’s answer: “Young man, what we meant in going for those red-coats was this: we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.”
Preston’s instinctual attachment to self-government drove him to fight to defend it. Chamberlain considers Preston’s statement “the ultimate philosophy of the American Revolution,” writing that, “the attitude of the colonists was not that of slaves seeking liberty, but of freemen—free men for five generations—resisting political servitude.” Preston had no knowledge of the American Revolution’s legal and philosophical underpinnings and had not suffered from the “long train of abuses and usurpations” that Jefferson describes in the Declaration. He chose to fight out of loyalty to his community’s self-government and was willing to die to preserve it.
This common man’s devotion to republican self-government was both presupposed and refined by the Revolution’s legal and philosophical premises. The Founding documents themselves reflect this relationship. The first, and unjustly neglected, sentence of the Declaration of Independence speaks not of individuals, but of a “people,” a nation, to which individuals belong. Men are members of a community, and communities have the right to govern themselves. The connection between this sentence and its better-known successor is crucial. The primary cause of the Americans’ separation from Britain was neither a particular grievance nor an abstract notion of rights and revolution. Rather, the Declaration’s second sentence reads: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” Merely believing in these declarations would not have been sufficient to impel the colonists to revolt, unless those self-evident truths perceived by the American mind corresponded to something held in the American heart. It was not the ideas themselves, but the fact that they were “beating in [the colonists’] hearts” that moved them to act. As the Declaration recounts, the colonists had a long history of self-government—and of “opposing with manly firmness,” with well-cultivated thumos, the king’s “invasions on the rights of the people” to constitute their own legislatures.
Perhaps the greatest champion of the spiritedness of 1776 was James Madison. In Federalist 14, Madison celebrates the “manly spirit” required to attempt “the experiment of an extended republic,” and “numerous innovations . . . in favor of private rights and public happiness.” The manliness Madison describes may be best understood as confidence in ourselves, “our own good sense, the knowledge of [our] situation, and the lessons of [our] experience,” sufficient to undertake our nation’s founding and our own self-government.
Then, in Federalist 57, Madison writes that every constitution ought “first to obtain for rulers men who possess the most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue the common good of society”—not only the wisdom of a sound mind but also the virtue of a sound heart—“and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold the public trust.” Madison advises that republican rulers must possess “duty, gratitude, [and] . . . ambition itself” to be diligent in service. As for republican citizens, he points “above all to the vigilant and manly spirit which actuates the people of America, a spirit which nourishes freedom, and is in turn nourished by it.”
This “vigilant and manly spirit” is a people’s first and final guard of good government. It “nourishes freedom” by making them alert to, and firm in their opposition to, the oligarchic distortion of law: to “restrain the House of Representatives from making legal discriminations in favor of themselves and a particular class of society.” It is spiritedness in both the officeholders and the citizens that orders government toward “the common good of society” rather than the benefit of the ruling class.
Where does the manliness, “nourished by freedom,” that Madison describes originate?
John Adams, in a 1783 letter to the French philosopher Abbé de Mably, describes towns, churches, schools, and the militia as “the four Principal Sources of that Wisdom in Council, and that skill and Bravery in War, which have produced the American Revolution and which I hope will be Sacredly preserved as the foundations of a free, happy and prosperous People.” These institutions formed the hearts and minds of men like Preston and Adams himself. All four institutions are vital, but reviving schools and, to a lesser extent, towns seems most immediately within our grasp today.
In Adams’s time, schools served the needs of the local community, not an abstract “community of scholars” or global economic order. Public schools instructed students in “Reading, Writing Arithmetick and the Rudiments of Latin and Greek,” Adams wrote. The first three were useful to every citizen in a republic. Latin and Greek equipped some students to advance to college and become “Masters for the schools, Ministers for the Churches, Practitioners in Law and Physick, and Magistrates and officers for the Government of the Country”—servants of the material and spiritual needs of the community. In other letters, Adams suggests that education should view the student as a unity of body and soul. In a 1775 letter to his wife Abigail, he writes, “their bodies must be hardened, as well as their souls exalted. Without strength and activity and vigor of body, the brightest mental excellencies will be eclipsed and obscured.” A reform of our education system cannot stop at greater school choice and a suppression of woke ideology and administrative bloat, as necessary as those steps are. Adams’s letters set the standard for a genuinely republican and fully humane education; we would do well to reform our education system accordingly.
Local self-government, meantime, leaves to the people the many mundane tasks involved in maintaining the public good. Adams writes that, “the Consequence of this Institution has been, that all the Inhabitants have acquired from their Infancy, an Habit of debating, deliberating and judging of public Affairs.” Adams’s discussion of towns anticipates Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, in which Tocqueville describes the township as a “natural” unit for local governance but emphasizes the rarity and fragility of self-governing municipalities. The difficulty in establishing “the independence of townships, instead of diminishing as nations become enlightened, increases with their enlightenment,” he wrote. Township freedom “develops almost secretly in the bosom of a half-barbaric society.” There is a tension between the rough-and-ready, get-it-done spirit of township freedom and the professional uniformity of centralized administration—and the stakes are high. “The institutions of a township are to freedom what primary schools are to science; they put it within the reach of the people; they make them taste its peaceful employ and habituate them to making use of it. Without the institution of a township a nation can give itself a free government, but it does not have the spirit of freedom.” Very rarely will a highly civilized people choose the burdens of local liberty when the immediate conveniences of the administrative state are on offer.
This is how we should understand the ongoing conflict between populism and expert administration. Ordered liberty, in the soul and in society, arises through the tension between spiritedness and intelligence. Aristotle believed that political liberty can exist neither in barbaric societies dominated by spiritedness nor in advanced civilizations dominated by intelligence.
The American Right shows tendencies toward each extreme. Some advocate a dispirited acceptance of the administrative state, reordered, perhaps, toward the good and the true. But this vision neglects the beauty of free citizenship. Others encourage the revival of raw masculine vitality, with a few going so far as to reject political order altogether in favor of piratical self-sufficiency. But, divorced from the goods of human society, this blind devotion to the nobility of strength is equally misguided.
Does a “vigilant and manly spirit” still prevail among American citizens? We see some evidence of it in school board meetings and primary elections, as well as in the noble “duty, gratitude, and [ . . . ] ambition” of a few rising leaders who inject fresh and daring ideas into our political discourse. To restore republican self-government, we must turn out our despotic bureaucracy while preserving the institutions that provide the foundation for political liberty. Whatever comes, we must cultivate the “manly spirit” of Federalist 14, which will give us courage to attempt something new without being enthralled to “a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names.”
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