Robert Reilly’s America on Trial is an undeniably timely book—admittedly more so than either he or Ignatius Press could have expected. The spring and summer of 2020 have already witnessed civil and not-so-civil unrest across the country the likes of which few living Americans have seen. The list of defaced and toppled statues honoring and memorializing many of those who famously played a role in our country’s Founding grows daily. (At present, it is still a question whether the Freedman’s Memorial—depicting the freeing of an African-American slave by the president who stirringly appealed to the Founders’ dedication to “the proposition that all men are created equal”—will survive the long, hot summer of 2020). Brimming with punch and studded with memorable quotations from Founding-era writings, America on Trial offers a full-throated defense of the American Founding, a vindication, in Reilly’s telling, both of the Founding’s inherited theoretical principles and the concrete political regime these principles helped bring into existence. Offering a high-minded defense of the intrinsic goodness, nobility, justice, and wisdom of “the provenance of ideas” that informed the Founding, this book is the product of a serious Catholic who is also a grateful American citizen and committed patriot.
Reilly takes aim at what he calls the “poison pill” thesis of the Founding. This thesis shares Reilly’s concern with a moral and spiritual collapse in present-day America. Yet unlike Reilly, it indicts the Founders for this collapse. Advanced by a growing group of Catholic theorists—political scientists, academic professors of philosophy and theology, the thesis is deeply indebted (whether its proponents choose to recognize it or not) to an exoteric reading of Leo Strauss’ account of the “modern project.” Its adherents assert that the Founders were squarely in the camp of philosophic modernity. For the political scientist Patrick Deneen, the poison pill was the materialist anthropology and lowered moral/political sights the Founders knowingly smuggled into our regime (taking care to wrap this pill in noble and pious rhetoric). For the theologian Michael Hanby, the problem was more metaphysical than political: the Founders where prisoners of their times, modernists who were historically fated to be modernists—an admittedly strange analysis for a proponent of a hard metaphysics of Being and the Good to give (but that is a story for another day).
Reilly presents a convincing case that Deneen’s and Hanby’s (and a growing number of Catholic integralists in their own way) thesis simply is not true. He marshals a mountain of textual evidence showing the Founders were not witting or unwitting thoroughgoing modernists. The first part of his book traces the intellectual, moral, and spiritual inheritances of the West back through the Reformation and Middle Ages to Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem. Reilly demonstrates that only by abstracting from their actual words and deeds can one paint the Founders as proponents of Hobbes’ state of nature or the seemingly open-ended morality of Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. (He is noticeably silent about the role that modernity’s new conception of science played in the Founders’ thinking). The Founders, one must honestly admit, were diverse in their thought. They knew well the difference between liberty ordered towards virtue and the common good and license sanctioning the endless pursuit of pleasures—choosing the former over the latter consistently. As Reilly documents, this fundamental choice held true for the self-professed “church going animal” John Adams (“Our Constitution is designed only for a moral and religious people”) and for the half Epicurean Thomas Jefferson (“the order of nature to be the individual happiness shall be inseparable from the practice of virtue”).
Reilly would not cede this point, but I think one can say that Deneen and Hanby mistake part of the truth (Enlightenment thought informed some of the Founders understandings of nature, limits, freedom, and happiness) for the whole truth. His book contains a mini-education on the nature of the poison pill debate and its various twists and turns. This alone makes it worth the price of admission.
However, rereading America on Trial I could not shake the impression that Reilly finally allows his adversaries to set the terms of the debate. The inner logic of his laudable defense of the intellectual and moral legitimacy of the Founding seems to lead him to misrepresent the true relation of theoretical principles to moral and political practice. In some ways, he overstates the degree to which any political action—including the political action that was the American Founding—can be explained (or defended) chiefly by clarifying the “provenance of ideas” that allegedly informed it. At times, this moves Reilly to mirror Deneen and Hanby in one important respect: to different degrees and with different emphases, all three enlist a genealogical narrative of theoretical ideas to explain the particular living, complex, and tension-ridden political community that formally came into existence in 1776. While the intellectual counter-evidence Reilly’s masterfully lays out reveals the glaring inaccuracies of Deneen’s narrative critique and Hanby’s overly metaphysical approach, the hard conclusion his book draws about the theoretical purity of the Founding cannot be squared with the complex reality of human action. Fighting fire with fire, Reilly seems to succumb to the pitfalls of an intellectual genealogy that does not give particulars, prudence, and parameters their due in the all-too-human act of founding a political regime.
Human actions are in truth incredibly difficult to explain. As Augustine reminds us, we often cannot be certain of the true motives of our actions—that knowledge, he notes, belongs to God. Aquinas adds to this insight in his magisterial attempt to think through the relation of interior and exterior principles of human action in his Summa Theologaie. Concrete political actions, which necessarily involve a variety of people with different motives and understandings of ideas, cannot be explained fundamentally as the practical application of theoretical principles to political life and action. No practical political act can be understood essentially by mere recourse to theoretical principles, just as no practical political act can fully be explained by theorizing it.
Let me put some meat on this bone by briefly looking back to the spiritual heirs of Plymouth (not just the men of Philadelphia) and cite two illustrative examples from political sermons from the Founding Era. In a 1775 sermon, Moses Mather observed that “free agency, or a rational existence, with its powers and faculties, and freedom of enjoying and exercising them, is the gift of God to man.” In the same sermon, however, he asserted, “by nature, every man (under God) is his own legislator, judge, and avenger and absolute lord of his property.” The resonances with Locke’s writings are unmistakable. However we want to interpret these statements—does “under God” mean Mather speaks the language of premodern natural law or modern natural rights?—a palpable tension stems from jumbling together claims about man’s gift of rational existence and his being his own legislator, judge, and avenger. That tension does not need an esoteric meaning to be problematic; more simply, it can easily fuel opposing movements in men’s minds and hearts.
Similarly, Reilly locates the contemporary undoing of the Founders’ claims about the reality of a sempiternal created order in the spread of “German Historicism” and the Progressive movement. But notions of progress, though not philosophically formulated, were alive and well in Protestant congregations soon after the Founding. Samuel Wales, in 1785, was already warning his newly minted American coreligionists against the growing belief “to anticipate and magnify future scenes of happiness and grandeur, which perhaps they will never enjoy. It has lately become very fashionable to prophesy about the future greatness of this country; its astonishing progress in science, in wealth, in population and grandeur.”
My point is not to prove or disprove that Locke was a Lockean or that Madison was or was not an uncritical celebrant of the diversity of interests. It is merely to highlight that the actual citizens and statesmen who carried out the Founding acted like citizens and statesmen everywhere always have—mixing together different ideas, principles, motives, and claims and then acting upon them individually and collectively. Some of these ideas, principles, and claims, cohered; others did not. Looking at sermons from the Founding era, and heeding Reilly’s spot-on observation about the role Puritanism played in the Founding, only underscores this fact. More often than not, debates about the Founding—whether carried out by its defenders or integralist critics, begin with the presupposition that the Founding was fundamentally a theoretical event. Looked at this way, the essential question is what precisely was the theory of the Founding: did it proceed from a unified set of ideas or diverse Enlightenment and non-Enlightenment currents of thought? The reality is that the true structure of human action dictates that theory and practice, statescraft and ideas, mutually influenced and informed each other in the Founding.
In We Hold These Truths, Murray pinpointed a tension at the heart of the Founding that sprang from jumbling together “a voluntarist idea of law as will” and a “tradition of natural law as inheritance…an intellectualist idea.” What did that jumble mean? For Murray, it was clear: the problem of radical autonomy plaguing America today was a “possibility…inherent from the beginning.” That possibility—rooted in the complexities of conjugating thought and action in the lived political life of an American people with diverse customs, ideas, mores, and beliefs—shows the limits of Reilly’s trial defense of America’s Founding. Acknowledging this complexity, affirming natural law traditions and classical and medieval theological and philosophical traditions and notions of modern natural science and ideas of modern republicanism, which flowed through the thought and action of the actors at the Founding, does not diminish their accomplishment. It is, I believe, the precondition for seeing their praiseworthy accomplishment clearly, seeing the honorable republic they founded as it really is (not what we wish it was or was not).
None of this detracts from the learned accomplishment of Reilly’s book. Nor does it weaken the case for the legitimate goodness, nobility, and promise of the American regime as founded, of which Reilly reminds us. This truly is a timely book, in large measure because it reminds us of timeless truths about the nature of liberty, equality, moral law, political action, and the human good. Discussing the virtue of religion, Aquinas matter-of-factly states that the human person is a debtor by nature—to God, his parents, and his political community. Robert Reilly never loses sight of that basic truth. His book does Americans the great service of reminding us of this fact at a time when we seem determined to forget it and thus run the risk of being ungrateful for the actual regime and way of life the Founders bequeathed to us.
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