When a devotee of some obscure ideology turns to a subject like American history, the results are often fun, and sometimes even edifying. Murray Rothbard’s Conceived in Liberty is one such enjoyable read, and as much as one can object to it being taught as gospel in public schools, reading a bit of Howard Zinn never hurt anybody either. A healthy supply of cranks, obsessives, and marginal ideologues is part of the greatness of America.
But when these people claim to have made great strides in inaugurating a “new x history” and start throwing around calumnies about “anti-Americanism” or calling other historians “unqualified” to review them, a response is called for, as is a closer look at the ideological project they’re carrying out.
The author of a new book called “America’s Revolutionary Mind” is C. Bradley Thompson, a BB&T-sponsored professor at Clemson who directs something called the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism. Thompson was a doctoral student of Gordon Wood, the dean of revolutionary historians. Wood’s blurb of the book, “it is sure to be provocative,” is the sort of damning-with-faint-praise that only an objectivist could fail to notice.
In a similar way as Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins attempted to recenter the ideal of liberty in the revolutionary story in response to Charles Beard, Thompson, in the face of both growing right-wing skepticism of liberal thought and new historiography focusing on the role of popular protest and British constitutionalism in the revolution, wishes to restate that, “America’s revolutionary mind is virtually synonymous with John Locke’s mind.” It’s as if Thompson is trying to get today’s younger right-wingers to reject the inheritance of the Founding Fathers and the American project, though this is apparently not his intention.
Thompson calls his method a “new moral history” of the Revolution, and writers at two of the post-Trump right’s more important publications, American Greatness and the Claremont Review of Books, do not seem enamored with it. Ken Masugi called it “a sort of Jefferson Bible version of America,” and Brian Smith faulted him for ignoring the role of religion in revolutionary thought.
The latter prompted a response from Thompson, also published in the CRB. He accused Smith of believing in a “Sunday-school version of history,” and said he was “clearly out of his depth in reviewing a book that leading scholars of the American Revolution have publicly described as the best book on the American Revolution of the last 50 years.”
As best as I can tell there is only one leading scholar who has said that, and it’s Brad Birzer, who said so in these pages, so Thompson seems to be embellishing praise for his own book and the depth of consensus in support of it. The high rate of colonial churchgoing has “little to no relevance to the Revolution’s causes or meaning,” Thompson says, then, mocking Smith, adds, “Presumably he wants an America that is based on intense religious belief and Christian sacrifice and love.”
An America based on intense religious belief and Christian sacrifice and love. How awful!
That Bradley does not find churches suitable for moral instruction is irrelevant; it is risible to claim to be writing a “new moral history” of the American revolution but exclude the main institution by which British colonials received moral guidance. One might add, perhaps with some trepidation, that many of these churches espoused dissenting, nonconformist Christianity. Thompson may see this as just so much superstition, but more sensitive historians would say it’s a belief system with distinct political implications.
Thompson makes a small concession to recent “royalist” histories of the Revolution in one of his early chapters, noting that just before war broke out, the colonies appealed to the king rather than parliament. He writes: “Most colonies, they argued, were founded in the seventeenth century, before Parliament became the sovereign political authority in the British state. Instead, they argued, their only political connection with Great Britain was through their legally chartered allegiance to the person of the king.”
As other historians have written, this sentiment also resembles an understanding of the British constitution that predates the so-called Glorious Revolution, when John Locke hopped aboard a ship with the usurper Queen Mary II. Thompson moves on after a single paragraph, but it would seem this constitutes a substantial challenge to his central argument—here are revolutionaries making their case in terms that are decidedly non-Lockean.
After his letter to the editor, Thompson followed up with a piece in the American Mind going after illiberals on the right, managing to lump together Patrick Deneen, Mencius Moldbug, and the Bronze Age Pervert into one “anti-American” stew. Now, having been an opinion editor for some years, one learns to recognize an example of giving someone enough rope to hang themself, and it seems this might be such a case. It’s also the third time in the last few years he has cribbed William Safire’s annoying line about “nattering nabobs” for a column. Anyone this enamored with a piece of rhetoric written for Spiro Agnew must have certain other deficiencies of thought.
As someone who would probably be considered part of the illiberal right—I have certainly been open to publishing these people—this article of his demands a response. I also have a more favorable view toward America than the illiberals occasionally take in their writings; certainly not because I think it’s “the most moral nation known to man,” as Thompson writes, but for the basically irrational reason that it’s my country. Thompson’s point of view is especially frustrating because a lot depends on having a political right that does not reject the American project, and I certainly hope the illiberals can make their peace with it somehow. Insisting classical liberalism is the only inheritance of any importance does not help.
This is another example of the strange way Thompson has of always missing where the argument is actually joined. In the past he has argued that Adams rather than Jefferson is the true homo Americanus, but because Adams was the more truly radical one, who staked more personally on the revolutionary cause. Virtually everyone else agrees Adams was the more conservative founding father, and only differ about whether that was good or bad. Thompson argued that the neocons were crypto-fascist collectivists, an odd claim to make about people whose wars, however misguided, were waged in the name of human rights and democracy and whose domestic policy involved trimming the welfare state. And today, as the main debate on the right between liberal conservatives and nationalists has prompted a second look at the Revolution, Thompson arrives with a book that reads as if he was trying to get today’s young conservatives to reject the Founding entirely.
But what is his real goal? If his critics who argue for the importance of religion are incipient theocrats, then let’s apply the same interpretive lens to his own project. Thompson has had a longtime affiliation with the Ayn Rand Institute, the “high church” of objectivists. For all their barbs about the dark ages of scholastic philosophy, Ayn Rand Institute’s own philosophy is best described as a kind of scholasticism for psychopaths; at once pedantic and nutty. For example, his exegesis about his new historiographical breakthrough:
The new moral history begins with certain assumptions about human nature; first, that individuals are the primary unit of moral value; second, that human nature is knowable and sometimes predictable; third, that man’s faculty of reason can know cause-and-effect relationships in nature and human nature; fourth, that individuals are confronted every day with choices, and that they have the free will to choose between alternatives; fifth, that freely thinking (rationally and irrationally) and freely acting (morally and immorally) individuals are capable of making decisions and acting upon them; sixth, at purposive human agents cause events to happen; and finally, that human thought and action can have intended and unintended consequences. This view of human nature suggests that individuals are morally responsible for their decisions and actions and the consequences that follow therefrom. Thus the new moral history puts the thinking back into ideas, the judgment back into intentions, and the volition back into actions.
Professor Birzer may find this compelling, but it makes my eyes glaze over.
To his credit, Thompson has also been critical of neoconservatives in the past, but on the Randian grounds that they are insufficiently dogmatic in their support for capitalism. He’s looking for that third cheer; like Stalin he dislikes that Irving Kristol stopped clapping too soon. In the realm of foreign policy the biggest divergence between neoconservatism and ARI’s beliefs is that the latter would prefer for the United States to ditch all the folderol about leadership, democracy and human rights, forget about nation-building and just napalm the Vietnamese or otherwise do away with the “primitive savages- — Rand’s words—in Palestine. The leading theorist of the Randian way of war is a co-author of Thompson’s, Yaron Brook, a former Israeli military intelligence officer who once told Bill O’Reilly that the way to win in Iraq was to “start bringing this war to the civilians.” To win, he said, we have to “turn Fallujah into dust and tell the Iraqis, ‘if you are going to continue to support the insurgents, you will not have homes. You will not have schools. You will not have mosques.” It will not surprise the reader to learn that these people reject the concept of a common good. Lest I be accused of dredging up old material, Thompson recently promoted his book on Brook’s podcast.
What any of this has to do with the philosophy of the Founding Fathers is beyond me, and I’d certainly prefer the views of a Daniel Bell or Irving Kristol to any of it. Thompson may “feel confident in asserting that Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Samuel and John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Wilson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton would not appreciate being told how to order their moral lives by Pope Francis and the Vatican’s lavender mafia,” but they also might condone a little “rough music” for the St. Peter of objectivism, Leonard Peikoff, if they listened to his stupid Dear Abby podcasts about sex.
Thompson has painted a picture that indeed would make Americanism worthy of rejection, if it were accurate. Fortunately for everyone, it is not.
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