A magisterial book on the perennial struggle between realism and voluntarism

This is not just defense of the nation’s founding, but also a much deeper and broader philosophical presentation of the natural law principles that lie beneath that founding—and must be the basis for any legitimate social order.

America is on trial at the moment, though the weird and violent mix of real and imagined and outright manufactured wrongs makes the proceedings look more like something concocted by Kafka rather than a true reckoning. All of which makes Robert Reilly’s magisterial book America on Trial more urgent than even he may have thought while writing it.

It’s a defense of the nation’s founding, to be sure, but it’s also a much deeper and broader philosophical presentation of the natural law principles that lie beneath that founding – and must be the basis for any legitimate social order.

Reilly was moved to this task in reaction to attacks from figures that one would normally expect to find in the broadly pro-American camp. The political scientist Patrick Deneen and philosopher Michael Hanby—both solid American Catholics—have, in different ways, criticized the Founding as flawed and, therefore, the most fundamental reason for the vast social disorders and perverse notions of the human person so prevalent in our time.

Reilly agrees with the criticism of our current situation, but in a real tour de horizon argues that the fault lies not in the Founding, but in the incremental and accelerating departures from sound views of the human person and social philosophy over the last century and more.

As in his previous books on Islam and on the public acceptance of homosexuality, Reilly bases his argument on the perennial struggle between philosophical realism and “voluntarism”—the view that will determines good and evil, truth and falsehood. In Islam, for example, Allah himself can change his mind capriciously, which makes any effort to understand the truth of things, i.e, “what is,” as Plato first put it, impossible to determine.

Fully two-thirds of the text is taken up with showing how these two main views have contended from the earliest stirrings of rational thought down to the present. Anyone unfamiliar with the main lines of this intellectual tradition, or needing a refresher, will benefit from the sharp distinctions Reilly draws, along with the ease with which he moves through its historical expressions in Greece, Rome, and Israel; the Middle Ages; the Reformation and Counter-Reformation; and modern figures such as Hooker, Hobbes, Locke, and many more.

The surprising element in it all—at least for this writer—is how much the American founding Fathers were steeped in the classic natural law tradition. There’s long been a debate about how much that tradition and how much other elements, notably Enlightenment thought, entered into the new American nation. John Courtney Murray’s brilliant We Hold These Truths has long been the standard reckoning, both an affirmation of what’s good and a caution that in modern times it’s hard to “hold.” Reilly has solid evidence that whatever else may have been in the minds of our 18th-century Founders, the basic natural law perspective was, with few exceptions, embraced. And consciously so.

He approaches this material comprehensively, first preparing the ground by showing how the Locke that the Founders and most Americans absorbed at the time—whatever subsequent ages may have tried to make of him—was not “Hobbes with a smiley face,” but a thinker who pushed back against royal usurpations and affirmed traditional notions of liberty and limitations on secular authorities. As has often been argued, the American Revolution, unlike the French, did not seek some radical departure from the sound principles of earlier times, but a vindication of what was sometimes called the “rights of Englishmen” against modern encroachments, notably the “divine right of kings.”

Locke is famous for rebutting Robert Filmer’s apology for divine right in his Patriarcha: The Naturall Power of Kinges Defended against the Unnatural Liberty of the People, by Arguments, Theological, Rational, Historical and Legall, as did Algernon Sidney. What’s less known, however, is that in several respects Filmer was himself seeking to refute two prior advocates of the ancient and medieval teachings about the limits of the monarch: St. Robert Bellarmine and Francisco Suarez, S.J. It was Bellarmine, says Reilly, not Locke in the 17th century or Jefferson in the 18th, who first said, “All men are born naturally free and equal.”

Indeed, Filmer early on in his book cites Bellarmine, and argues:

This tenet was first hatched in the schools, and hath been fostered by all succeeding Papists for good divinity. The divines also of the reformed churches have entertained it, and the common people everywhere tenderly embrace it as being most plausible to flesh and blood, for that it prodigally distributes a portion of liberty to the meanest of the multitude, who magnify liberty as if the height of human felicity were only to be found in it—never remembering that the desire of liberty was the cause of the fall of Adam.

In a way it was only to be expected that Catholic theorists would lean toward limitation on the secular power, because the Church, properly functioning, was precisely such an institutional limit in ages prior to the Renaissance teaching about the divine right of kings. Reilly points out that “Suárez declared Divine Right to be ‘new and singular, invented to exaggerate the temporal and to minimize the spiritual power.’ Bellarmine’s position, he said, was ‘the ancient, commonly accepted, and true teaching.’”

The American Founders, of course, were not directly heirs to this tradition, which mostly came to them through figures like Locke, Algernon Sydney, and the Anglican natural law thinker Richard Hooker. Sydney, for example, though reluctant to credit Catholics with this line of reasoning, argued against Filmer:

I do not find any great matters in the passages taken out of Bellarmine, which our author [Filmer] says, comprehend the strength of all that ever he had heard, read, or seen produced for the natural liberty of the subject; however there is certainly nothing new in them: We see the same, as to the substance, in those who wrote many ages before him, as well as in many that have lived since his time, who neither minded him, nor what he had written…. He seems to have laid the foundation of his discourses in such common notions as were assented to by all mankind.

It’s precisely here that the plot gets most interesting. And if there’s a criticism to be made of this book, it’s that Reilly did not spend less time on the historical highway and byways of natural law opposition to voluntarism, which is already and abundantly available elsewhere, and more time detailing the “common notions as were assented to by all mankind” of virtually all the Founders, which is little noticed by historians unfamiliar with the tradition and, therefore, under-emphasized even when noticed.

Scholars have debated and will continue to debate exactly what proportion of this or that earlier figure or part of the intellectual tradition influenced individual Founders or the American Founding as a whole. But there’s little doubt—and Reilly cites chapter and verse—that the general atmosphere at the time led the main actors to believe that what they were doing was consonant with the common patrimony of human wisdom on these matters.

To take just a few—striking—examples (Reilly reproduces many more), Jefferson is usually thought of as the most adventurous thinker among the Founders, but he had this to say in a letter to Henry Lee:

This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before…neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.

Similar sentiments stud the writings of Hamilton, Madison, and others. Reilly is particularly convincing in his presentation of James Wilson as probably the deepest natural law thinker and influential voice among the Founders.

And what they were speaking of was not the notion of radically autonomous liberty and the imperial self that we have, to our sorrow, today, which has come to us not by descent from the founding principles but precisely by the abandonment of the divine and natural laws that kept America from following radical and radically self-destructive notions of freedom, as did the French Revolution. Reacting to that revolution, John Adams, another Founder who considered himself part of the common tradition, remarked, “There is no such thing [as the equality of mankind and a purely human morality] without a supposition of a God. There is no right or wrong in the universe without the supposition of a moral government and an intellectual and moral governor.”

As we’ve learned in recent days, even recalling well-known truths about the American past has little effect on those who wish to abandon our common heritage for personal aims, and sometimes out of a pure spirit of destruction. Even the justices of our Supreme Court seem incapable of reading the plain words of the Constitution or of statutory laws. But as dismal as the situation may now look, Robert Reilly has done us all a great service in distinguishing the real Founding from the one many people today would like to forget.

His critics are right that what today passes for America’s foundations and our “rights” is decadent and threatening. They are wrong in claiming that the Founding, properly understood, is the reason for our predicament.

Return to the Symposium’s Main Page

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Robert Royal 3 Articles
Robert Royal is the president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, DC, and editor of the online column series The Catholic Thing. He is the author, editor, and translator of more than a dozen books, including A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century (Ignatius Press). He writes and speaks frequently on questions of culture, religion, and public life, and his work has appeared in a wide variety of publications in the United States and abroad.


  1. As usual, Robert Royal is right. Very few modern Catholics are right as often as he is. Very few have the intellectual depth he does.

  2. It is, as always, a great learning experience to read and listen to Robert Royale.

    How interesting and edifying to learn that it was Robert Bellarmine who penned that “all men are born naturally free and equal.”

    Royale also admits the truth that we have sinister people trying to exploit our civic problems “for personal aims, and sometimes a pure spirit of destruction.”

    We have to stand against these people, and call them what they are: outlaws. This includes all of the participants in the fraudulent, Marxist-Sexually-Obsessed-Violent-Anarchists of Black Lives Matter, and the repulsive frauds of Bank of America and “Big Tech” and “Big.edu,” who give big money and political platforms to nihilistic parasites like Shaun King, who now sits in his new digs at Harvard as “writer-in-residence,” well-heeled as he always makes sure he is, while he and his fellow parasites eat America alive by monetizing the political violence outside their gated communities.

  3. RR glosses over many issues in the Founding of our country, and Deneen’s thesis as well. As many have shown, there is a truncated, procedural core of our Founding that posits no or few metaphysical objective goods, that favors agnostic indifferentism in regards to God, and that flies in the face of the Church’s long-standing teachings on the obligations of the state to the true religion of God, the Catholic Faith. Though we live in a perhaps incurably pluralist society, that doesn’t free us to believe we have the very best form of government, or that the values implicit in our Founding have, once Christian mores have largely died off, brought us to this state of civic mayhem where 900,000 babies are legally killed, and marriage is mocked via a “constitutional right”.

    From an essay by Deneen on Public Discourse:

    “Locke does make occasional statements urging the discipline to master passing passions, but he does so mainly with a view to advancing an individual notion of happiness—what he understands to be “power” to act or not to act—which he equates with accumulation of pleasures, however defined. As any undergraduate at a top university knows, one has to exercise self-control in order to access a wealth of pleasures. This observation does not make Locke into Aquinas, nor our students into good Aristotelians.”


    “It was Madison who stated that “neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on” to curtail the origins of faction, since—agreeing with Locke—there is no objective truth that can be called upon to adjudicate between contesting ideas of the good. Thus, to “re-found” the Constitution along lines compatible with the natural law would effectively attempt to achieve what was effected by Progressives in their philosophical (and ultimately judicial) reinterpretation of the Constitution.”

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. “American on Trial”: A Catholic World Report Symposium – Catholic World Report
  2. “America on Trial”: A Catholic World Report Symposium - Catholic Daily

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.