What the Founders Didn’t Teach Us

Over at The Family in America: A Journal of Public Policy, Berry College political philosopher Peter Lawler reviews Matthew Spalding’s We Still Hold These Truth: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future.  It is a long review.  It is a great review.  While Spalding notes that the American founding was influenced by a combination of Lockean liberalism, classical republicanism, and Christianity, Lawler argues that “Lockeanism, more than anything else, provided the principled foundation of our free institutions.”

Once Lawler establishes the predominance of Lockeanism, he is then able to point out how Locke’s ideas are too individualistic to sustain social institutions such as the family.  Lawler

…a shortcoming of Lockean liberalism, the kind of liberty to which the Founders were primarily devoted, is its tendency to undermine the stability of the family over time. As the nation’s elites become more devoted to such principled individualism, the family weakens. Well before the Progressives, Tocqueville noted the many factors that would exact a toll on the kind of devotion that produces lots of well-raised children: self-obsessive, petty materialism; the restless anxiety that accompanies democratic affluence; the theoretical denial that we’re anything more than ephemeral, biological beings; and doubt that human beings share moral or social goods in common—doubt that we really are, deep down, social and relational beings. The modern democrat has more and more trouble, as he becomes both more principled and more narcissistic, thinking beyond his own, personal being toward generating biological replacements or finding loving personal compensation for his own natural finitude in his family, children, and personal accomplishments generally. From its beginning in 1776, one dimension of the nation’s heritage is the thought of the Lockean individual in the state of nature that being starts and ends with me. If I don’t endure, nothing endures.

That’s not to deny that modern, democratic liberty has in some ways improved family life. As Tocqueville says, the disappearance of cold aristocratic formalities has been good for love in America, maybe especially for the friendship of the father with both son and daughter. Because everyone is free to marry the one he or she loves, there is less excuse than ever for the dangerous liaisons that inevitably accompany being stuck with marrying for money or property or social standing. Who can also deny that thinking of women more consistently as free, consenting individuals has done wonders in the eradication of unjust “double standards,” making us much more attentive to the various dimensions of spousal abuse, undermining arbitrary and otherwise excessive reliance on “gender roles” in excluding women from the worlds of work and politics, and even in leading fathers to share the ordinary duties of parenthood? In general, we should follow Tocqueville in resisting the temptation to romanticize what was better about even the recent past by making our nostalgia so selective that we forget the human misery and injustice people endured then and which we should be grateful not to have to endure now. Lockean progress, we have to admit, has in many ways been real progress. But that progress has not proven beneficial in every way, and it has not delivered personal benefits without imposing personal costs.
Read the rest of the review here. 

3 thoughts on “What the Founders Didn’t Teach Us

  1. And I guess nobody's reading this except perhaps you, John, but I meant to add that the Locke passage in “Reasonableness” includes “if this be liberty, it is not license,” which precludes Randy Barnett's ever-expanding definition of “liberty.”

    You can't get there [Barnett] from here [Locke in “Reasonableness”].

    Strauss may be snorted at in philosophy departments, but he's made great inroads in history and political science. Mark Noll uses the Straussian Michael Zuckert to make a similar case about Locke. It's very interesting to this observer, who's spent a lot of time on Strauss and Straussians.


  2. Killer essay by Lawler.

    However, he clearly accepts the Straussian version of Locke-as-hedonist [even citing the obscure fact that Locke parts from Christian marriage as lifelong, a point made in Strauss' “Natural Right and History].

    Locke does not necessarily lead to today's “radical individualism.” There is natural law, and also Locke's argument in “Reasonableness of Christianity” that man is God's workmanship, and therefore can't do anything he wants with his life and body.


  3. That is the most atrocious misuse of Locke and how he was read I have ever seen- and there are pretty bad ones out there already- but this really takes the cake.


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