The main idea of this book is that American revolution first and foremost occurred in minds of people and in order to understand it one had to look at what was on their mind at the time. So, author reviews key ideas that occupied American minds as consequence of Enlightenment: Laws of Nature, Self-Evident Truths, Equality, Rights for Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness, and finally the Consent of Governed. Despite all these ideas being very familiar to everybody, their real meaning is often poorly understood. Consequently, author believes that it is necessary to clarify these ideas so they would become accessible to contemporary American Mind.
Here author clarify the purpose of writing this book and author’s characterization of its nature:” This book, however, is not simply a work of political theory or an old-fashioned intellectual history of the Revolution. It also attempts to reconcile theory and practice by examining how and why American revolutionaries guided their actions via moral principles. It is therefore concerned with motives as the mediating force between ideas and actions.”
Chapter 1 The Enlightenment and the Declaration of Independence.
In this chapter author discusses direct connection of American revolution to the Age of Enlightenment and to this end he refers to the letter in which:” Thomas Jefferson identified the “three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception” as Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and John Locke. These three intellectual giants were, in Jefferson’s mind, the embodiment of the Enlightenment. Bacon was best known for his Novum Organum (1620), Newton for his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), and Locke for two philosophic treatises, the Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) and the Second Treatise of Government (1689). Jefferson credited this philosophic holy trinity with “having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the Physical and Moral sciences.””. Author then refer to other founding fathers who provided similar evaluation: John Adams and James Wilson. Author discusses key philosophical points of Enlightenment:
- Metaphysics: Nature
- Epistemology: Reason
- Ethics: Rights
Author then discusses works of Locke in relation to three questions:
QUESTION ONE: How is certain and absolute moral knowledge capable of discovery and demonstration?
QUESTION TWO: What are the moral laws and rights of nature?
QUESTION THREE: What are the rewards and punishments associated with the moral laws of nature? At the end of chapter author discusses impact of Locke on the American Mind.
Chapter 2 Declaring the Laws of Nature
Author begins this chapter with reference to initial part of the Declaration of Independence:
Then he proceeds discussing how the Declaration supported accusation of King George III in despotism by reviewing British actions either by Parliament or by King. After analyzing presentation of reasons for separation, author moves to discussion of Nature and Nature laws, presenting at the statement published at the time under pseudonym Benevolus:
Chapter 3 Self-Evident Truths
Here author presents what was considered self-evident truth at the time of American Revolution:
He then discusses the meaning of Self-evident as defined by Locke:” self-evident truth as a proposition whose subject and predicate necessarily relate to one another without contradiction”. Author also discusses meaning of truth, notion of self-evidence in America, and how it all was integrated into Declaration of Independence.
Chapter 4 Equality
In this chapter author takes on another issue that for some reason confuses people – Equality. He discusses development of this idea in Locke’s work as theoretical point, but also as practical issue during Imperial crisis. Far from being some naïve and unrealistic, this idea had very real meaning and to support this author provides comparison table:
Chapter 5 Equality and Slavery
This chapter seems to be designed to respond to contemporary sensitivities. Author quite convincingly demonstrates that slavery was just usual and really unexceptional institution all over the world and if there was something about it special in America, it was detesting of this institution by founding fathers, including those who were slaveowners. In order to support this approach author looks in details at “the views of five American revolutionaries—James Otis, Benjamin Rush, Richard Wells, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson—on the question of slavery, which offer a representative range of American opinions.” Author also goes beyond period of foundation to demonstrate that, even if it was delayed by nearly a century, it was ideas of American mind that put end to this institution.
Chapter 6 The Nature of Rights
Here author explores how Americans understood nature and source of rights. He looks at both the theory and practice from development of Natural rights idea during enlightenment to specific American understanding of these rights in pre-revolutionary period that turned out to be incompatible with staying under British rule. The difference was that Americans believed in rights being law of Nature to be discovered, pretty much as laws of Physics, while British approach was that rights are granted by King and/or parliament. Author even provides excerpt from George Washington’s letter to the States to demonstrate this approach:
Chapter 7 Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness
Here author elaborates what specific rights Americans at the time believed are discovered as the laws of Nature: The Rights to Life, Liberty, Property, and Pursuit of Happiness. Author notes that notion of “Property” had quite expansive character and refers to Madison’s essay to demonstrate this:
Similarly to Property the notion of “Pursuit of Happiness” was rather complex as Locke put it:
Chapter 8 The Consent of the Governed
As a lot of other things in American Mind of revolutionary generation it comes from Locke. Author discusses theoretical approach as derived from idea of natural rights only in this case some powers transferred to the government. These are:
Author then discusses actual application of these theory to American situation at the time of crisis. Basically it comes down to refusal of colonials to cede power to Parliament, which they did not consider ligitimate body for this power. It is interesting that it was not just the question of representation as part of British polity, which could be easily resolved by adding representatives from colonies to parliament but rather recognition of separate character and interests of colonies. Author also reviews literature – most important being “Common Sense” that was dfferent by declaring that government of colonies should not be derived from mother country, but rather created from the state of nature because colonials actually lived frontier lives in this state.
Chapter 9 Consent and the Just Powers of Government
In this chapter author continues discussion about state of nature and consent as applied to American colonies. He concludes the chapter this way: ” The framers of the United States Constitution created a government that limited, separated, and divided power. American constitutional republicanism meant limited government, which resulted in the creation of social and economic spheres of activity where individuals and their voluntary associations would be left free to think, act, produce, and trade. America’s revolutionary statesmen were, in other words, proponents of a free society.
Chapter 10 Revolution
After deciding that remote British power does not have consent of Americans and even does not qualified to obtain such consent, American Mind had to come with practical “to do” recommendation and it was revolution with objective to achieve independence by all means necessary. It is interesting that revolution was framed as defensive action directed to protect existing freedoms, rather than overthrow existing government to establish new freedoms. Author specifically discusses position of Thomas Paine, who rejected any possibility of compromise, as the closest to representing conditions of American Mind at the moment.
Chapter 11 Rebels with a Cause
In this last chapter author discusses necessity of Declaration of Independence as product of condition of American Mind, rather as consequence of some external forces such as British tyranny. Author reviews actual action of Parliament such as Stamp Act and concludes that there were no real oppression and economic impact of taxes would be negligible. The conflict was more philosophical and was caused by: “as Adams noted, a “radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people.” It was a revolution that advanced new moral values and virtues, new manners and mores, and a new way to think about moral character and moral action.”. Founders understood dangerous character of their actions, but they refused to give up the newly acquired Lockean principals and values. Here how Adams expressed the state of their minds:
In conclusion author discusses the key elements of American Mind in theory and practice. He provides two references: one is quite from Thomas Jefferson on relationship between individual self-government and political government:
Epilogue Has America Lost Its American Mind?
Here author presents a kind of lamentation on contemporary state of American Mind, which become very different from original. He demonstrates that a great many Americans now reject ideas of Declaration of Independence and look for something different: instead of eternal truths of freedom and self-government they believe in continuing progress to higher levels of rationality, which necessarily require submission of individual’s freedom to higher level of societal “freedom”. Author traces this to influence of ideas of Hegel imported from Europe and enthusiastically embraced by Southern slaveholders as justification of slavery as organization of society in most efficient way that benefit not only slaveowner, but also a slave, who is taken care off better than slave could do it for self. After Civil war it was picked up by progressives and author provides quite revealing quote:
This attitude was taught in American colleges for more than a century, but until now had limited influence. However now it is becoming very powerful in its latest incarnation as “democratic socialism”
MY TAKE ON IT:
I found this book highly educational because it explained quite a few ideas of Declaration of Independence that seems to be absolutely ridiculous on their face, such as “All men are created equal” or “Unalienable Rights”. It seems to be obvious in XXI century that all men are different and unequal, while any idiot with knife or gun can alienate people from their life and liberty. It is highly valuable, at least for me, to understand that representation of these words in American Minds of XVIII century was very much meaningful and was founded on very consistent set of philosophical ideas. Not that I agree with these ideas, but I highly appreciate final result, which made lives of billions of people, including mine, much better than it would be if practical implementation of these ideas in America had never happened. I think I understand author’s frustration with current situation when millions of people, especially young, reject ideas that produced such a wonderful result and run after proved con job of “democratic socialism”. However, I believe that it is temporary phenomenon and solution of this problem is not in going back to Enlightenment ideas, but rather go forward to generate new ideas that would explain both successes and failures of practical implementation of the ideas of American Revolutionary Mind. I personally think that the big part of this could come from look at real, rather than invented state of nature about which thanks to work of archeologists and anthropologists we now know a lot more than Locke could possible be capable imagining. I think that updated foundation should be build on evolutionary approach of multilevel selection, recognize role of availability of various resources to individuals and groups, and take into account increasing role of machines, computers, and soon AI in production, which will cause huge changes in working of human society. In short, when wonderful and beautiful Temple of American democracy start shaking because its old fundament start giving in, the action to be taken is not lament and dream about rejuvenating this fundament, but rather use the newest technology and substitute this of fundament with the new one made with the best materials available now, which did not exist way back. By the way it would not hurt to beautify the Temple a bit in the process, making it even more wonderful and beautiful, than ever.