The debate over the American founding is filled with irony and possible rapprochement

Robert R. Reilly, Patrick J. Deneen, and Michael Hanby share a significant number of ideological commitments, enough to serve as the basis for agreeing on a way past battles over liberalism.

I hope Patrick J. Deneen and Robert R. Reilly can appreciate the irony. Both men—the former a professor of political science at Notre Dame, and the latter the director of Voice of America—are of Irish lineage, a people once vilified and persecuted in Anglo-dominated 19th-century America. Both men are Catholic, a religion so distrusted in early Protestant America that at the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence it was against the law for a Catholic to hold public office or to vote (only one Catholic, Charles Carroll, signed the Declaration; two, Daniel Carroll and Thomas Fitzsimons, signed the Constitution). More than two centuries later, it is two Irish-Catholic Americans who are engaged in a fierce, public debate over the merits of our nation’s founding, as well as the broader liberal philosophy with which it is associated.

Reilly’s recently published America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding is certainly a direct response to Deneen’s scholarship, including his controversial and widely-discussed 2018 Why Liberalism Failed. It also, less centrally, engages Michael Hanby, a professor of religion and the philosophy of science, whose provocative essays in recent years also question America’s founding. Yet the precise nature of their debate can be a bit harder to decipher, especially given that their disagreements over liberalism address not only politics, but economics, philosophy, sociology, and theology, among other academic disciplines. Indeed, Deneen, Reilly, and Hanby share a significant number of ideological commitments, enough, I would argue, to serve as the basis for a rapprochement between them in discerning a way past battles over liberalism.

Obviously, the three are devout Catholics who adhere to various shades of conservatism. They believe in the relevance of natural law theory for organizing a political society, which is not uncontroversial given that many on the Left interpret natural law as a way for conservatives to supposedly sneakily inject “theocratic” ideals into secular societies. All three honor and welcome the application of time-tested political and philosophical principles inherited from Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem. And all three detest much of contemporary liberalism: radical autonomy and individualism that promotes libertinism; the instrumentalization of the human person by consumerist forces; and the inconsistent, anti-religion application of rights-based jurisprudence.

Moreover, I would imagine that they also agree that much of what we think of as emblematic manifestations of liberalism—“limited but effective government, rule of law, an independent judiciary, responsive public officials, and free and fair elections,” to quote Deneen—are objective political goods. Presumably all three laud our nation’s historically unprecedented protection of certain rights—the freedom of speech, religion, public assembly, to bear arms—though they may disagree on how those rights are to be essentially understood, and the extent to which such rights should be circumscribed. And all three even seem to agree that the politics and culture of contemporary America represents a significant divergence from the vision of her founders—“I would readily concede,” writes Hanby, “that, in the founders’ minds, the presupposition of republican self-government is not liberty in the form of license (Locke himself said as much) but the self-governed man who is master of his passions.”

What, then, is the true locus of their debate? Perhaps one could phrase it this way: is the political philosophy of the United States, regardless of her founder’s intentions, coherent and reasonable enough to defend and promote human flourishing, or is it so ontologically infected with erroneous Enlightenment conceptions of humanity, society, and metaphysics as to be unserviceable? Much of this debate rests on questions of how deeply English political philosopher John Locke’s ideas influenced the Founding, how to interpret specific language in the nation’s founding documents, and the exact relationship between rights and virtue.

Consider Deneen and Reilly’s debate over Federalist No. 10, written by James Madison, the “father of the Constitution,” in 1787. Much ink has spilled debating Madison’s words here:

The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.

From this, Deneen argues that “the first object of the government enshrined in our constitutional order is the protection of ‘diversity,’” distinctions that were originally understood economically, but came to be understood far more broadly. One thinks of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s oft-cited description of liberty as “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Such an understanding of freedom seems to lionize the very atomism and progressivism Deneen, Hanby, and Reilly abhor, while vitiating the virtue-based, natural law philosophy promoted by America’s founders.

Reilly takes issue with Deneen’s interpretation of Madison, instead interpreting Federalist No. 10 as addressing a problem to be solved, “not a solution or a goal.” Madison, says Reilly, is making a “prudential argument,” not a “statement of principle about the American regime as dedicated to maximizing human diversity.” Reilly accuses Deneen of “mistaking essence and accident,” men’s faculties being the former, their inevitable diversity the latter.

There’s another irony here. For the first century of American republic, No. 10 was not widely considered an important member of the Federalist Papers. The great critic of American politics Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in the 1830s, specifically refers to 50 essays from the Federalist Papers, but never No. 10. Charles A. Beard in his 1913 An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution is attributed with popularizing appreciation for this treatise, so much so that contemporary historians and political theorists now view the document to be essential for understanding the founding. This is a curious historical fact, given contemporary focus on No. 10 as the interpretive key for both the Constitution and the American political experiment.

The debate over the role of virtue in the founders’ vision is also complicated and confusing. No one questions the historical fact that our nation’s first generation of political leadership viewed virtue, and even religiosity, as central to American success. Indeed, one can find quotations from many of our leading statesmen—Adams, Jefferson, Madison Washington—making this precise point. The debate of Reilly v. Deneen/Hanby is whether such language can anywhere be found in the nation’s founding documents, and if it cannot, if this omission represents a fatal flaw. If there’s no positive case made in our founding documents for the role of religion or virtue in public life, it seems the Framers’ intent could easily be undermined by future generations.

Reilly makes frequent reference to the Declaration’s endorsement of the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” as proof that the founders embraced a classical conception of natural law theory that included a robust conception of the essential role of civic virtue. Hanby, alternatively, accuses the founders of providing “the ontological foundation for the separation of freedom and truth,” and removing formal and final causality from their understanding of metaphysics in favor of only material and efficient causality. In other words, according to Hanby, the philosophy of the founding documents eschews metaphysics in favor of materialism, and lacks the necessary teleology that orients itself towards an objective common good and/or God.

Did the founders possess a coherent consensus on the definition of natural law, or even what virtue would be necessary to preserve their nascent republic? Was their political philosophy inherently Lockean, or, as Reilly argues, was it just as much if not more indebted to pre-Enlightenment sources from the medieval and classical era? Trying to answer these questions can risk over-simplifying the founding, presuming it to be monolithically one thing or another. We know there was a diversity of opinions and convictions among that generation.

I can perceive value in the arguments of both sides. Reilly accuses Deneen and Hanby of embracing a deterministic understanding of the founding, as if it didn’t really matter that the founders believed in the essential value of virtue and religion, even if they didn’t explicitly articulate this in law. Says Reilly: “The Constitution does not declare principles; it provides for their implementation. It considers the principles on which America is founded so self-evident that it does not even name, much less defend them.” Liberalism’s failings, then, reflect an apostasy from this “unwritten” constitution. Alternatively, I appreciate Deneen and Hanby’s concern that the failure to articulate such principles, and the characterization of rights in a largely atomistic, materialist sense allowed for the founders’ political posterity to exploit the individualist language of the Constitution. Moreover, some of Reilly’s rhetorical parries—like the claim that “separation of powers” presumes the doctrine of original sin—seem a bit forced.

Reilly is alarmist regarding Deneen and Hanby’s skepticism of America’s founding, accusing the two of corrupting America’s youth in their skepticism of liberalism. He relates an anecdote of a professor who persuaded his students that the founding was morally compromised. “Okay, you’ve convinced us, but what are we supposed to do now?” one retorts. Reilly’s accusation that Deneen and Hanby are long on critiques of liberalism and short on solutions has some purchase. Yet, in Why Liberalism Failed Deneen does write in his conclusion that “the achievements of liberalism must be acknowledged,” and that it would be foolhardy to “return” to a “preliberal age.” Perhaps that acknowledgment should be the grounds for pugnacious Irish-Americans Reilly and Deneen to consider together where Americans can go from here.

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About Casey Chalk 38 Articles
Casey Chalk is a contributor for Crisis Magazine, The American Conservative, and New Oxford Review. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia and a master's in theology from Christendom College.


  1. Three Irishmen attempting to analyze the intentions of America’s founding fathers. Very interesting indeed. The obvious confiscation of American politics using “strict” Liberalism vs “strict” conservatism. Many conservatives consider liberalism as bad and their higher “moral” place makes them good. That dichotomy seems to be embedded in the culture, even today.
    I am no philosopher, but my gut tells me that we are currently peeling back the American onion in a futile attempt to defame the brilliance and commitment to free themselves from Europe’s dominant tyrants especially England King George. We all agree that the fathers had flaws of racism, slave ownership, confinement and cruelty… others too many to state. However, their illicit deeds were overcome by their consortium Declaration of Independence and the development of the US Constitution.
    Fast forward to 2020. We are seriously facing the most maddening coronavirus with a scattered and bumbling lack of government leadership coordination and consistency of purpose. Few will disagree that resident is playing fast and loose with the deadly virus. With more than 130,000 innocent Americans have lost their lives to the COVID 19 pandemic. The administration is not on the same page as there own medical scientists. The unnecessary police murders of Black citizens has sparked a countrywide revolt with the motto “Black lives Matter”. Mainly by Trump’s intransigence and refusal to address the mounting national issues using his power to unite the country. instead he has decided to divide the nation with his “strict conservative” genera.

    Trump used Ronald Reagan’s “Make America great again”. during his campaign for office in 2016. I say except for a few bumps in the road, America has always been great.

    • Morgan,
      If you study the life of George III he was a very decent family man and a Christian. I don’t think “tyrant” really applies. I wonder sometimes if it was really worth the loss of that many lives to not end up like Canada? Not to mention ending slavery earlier and avoiding at least 2 more wars?
      I agree with you about America though. It’s been a bumpy road but I’m glad we’re all still traveling on it together. Happy 4th of July!

  2. I fail to see why Deneen & Hanby being “long on critiques of liberalism and short on solutions” should be such an indictment. As I recall, there was a certain Athenian philosopher who had lots of questions but few answers.

    Before there can be anything approaching a solution, somebody has to get the ball rolling; somebody has to force a critical mass of people to recognize that there is indeed a problem.

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