Defending the Founders and the (American) Enlightenment

In his article "Modernity and the Secularization of Reason," Tim Jones claims that fascism and communism are "rooted in the reason midwifed out of philosophers such as Hegel, Kant, Rousseau, Locke, Hobbes, Bacon, Hume, and Marx."  He then makes this astonishing assertion: "[This] makes American democratic republicanism a first cousin of those tyrannical ideologies [fascism and communism] since it, too, grew out of the same philosophical soil."

The claim Jones makes – that American democratic republicanism is a first cousin to fascism and communism – is simply not true.

Trying to sort out everything in the article would be a huge challenge.  Let's keep it simple by beginning with Rousseau.  The line from Rousseau to Kant is direct.  Kant had only one picture in his austere household: a picture of Rousseau on the wall above where he wrote.  From Kant to Hegel and on to Marx is also a direct line, and the line from Hegel and Marx to fascism and communism is, obviously, direct as well.  But this line misses the American Founding entirely, and misses it by a country mile. 

This line from Rousseau begins with his "general will" and his rejection of individual rights.  In Rousseau's political vision, everyone surrenders all rights and submits to the general will, which then maintains absolute equality.  What is required, Rousseau wrote, is "the total alienation of each associate, with all his rights, to the whole community."  Submission to the general will entailed the surrender of all property rights.

Rousseau's vision was finally realized in the 20th century in Nazi Germany and in the USSR.  Nazi ideology – national socialism – and Soviet ideology – international socialism – aligned with Rousseau quite precisely.  Here is Richard Overy in his book on Hitler and Stalin, The Dictators: "The two dictatorships ... preached the absolute value of the collective and the absolute obligation to abandon concern for self in the name of the whole."  Hitler and Stalin showed us what it means for everyone and everything to be subject to the general will.   

Note the word "alienation," which Rousseau uses.  In the language of Rousseau's time, to alienate is to transfer the title to a property or other right to another person.  The American Founders used the negation of that term to advance a different vision of rights.  They claimed that we have "unalienable rights," rights that cannot be alienated, which cannot be surrenderedAccording to the Founders, our unalienable right to our lives and our unalienable right to our liberty cannot rightfully be transferred or taken from us, because those rights are inherent to us as human beings, part of what it means to be a rational being and a moral agent. 

The American idea did not grow out of the same philosophical soil as fascism and communism.

Let's briefly turn to another claim made in the article, a claim about the Enlightenment era: "The Enlightenment secularized reason with no moral strings attached making it morally neutral."  This claim is perhaps a fair assessment of the French Enlightenment, but not of the very different American Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment era is generally dated from 1687 (Newton's Principia), 1688 (England's Glorious Revolution), and 1689 (Locke's first Letters on Toleration).  The era is generally considered to have ended around 1800.  The American Revolution (1776) and the French Revolution (1789) both occurred during the Enlightenment period, but these revolutions had very different philosophies.  Here is the philosophy of the Founders:

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.

These self-evident truths are moral truths; they define what is right and what is wrong.  The Founders also claim that we are created and endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights.

On its face, the Founders' moral reasoning is something wholly other than secularized and morally neutral reason.

Robert Curry serves on the Board of Directors of the Claremont Institute and on the Board of Distinguished Advisers of the Ronald Reagan Center for Freedom and Understanding.  He is the author of Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea from Encounter Books.  You can preview the book here.

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