On June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln gave his famous “House Divided” speech as he accepted the Republican nomination for Senator to the Illinois State Senate. Drawing from Scripture, Lincoln used the house divided metaphor found in the book of Matthew. Lincoln used the metaphor to illustrate the division within the U.S. being caused by the slavery issue of that time in history. The issue was causing a strain upon the young, seventy nine year old Union, pitting the Democrat States of the South against the Republican States of the North. In his speech Lincoln stated: “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.” He went on to say that he did not believe the Union would perish, but that it would have to become, “..all one thing, or all the other” (emphasis Lincoln’s).
This was a Constitutional crisis of gigantic proportions, which threatened the very life of the Nation. As we know from history, Lincoln was correct. In the end the Nation did become all one thing: all slavery free! However, it took a brutal and bloody civil war to get there.
Once again we find the U.S. to be a house divided against itself and once again facing a Constitutional crisis. However, this time the very Constitution itself is at the center of the divide. The current conflict is between what I term, Conservative, Constitutional Restorationists (CCR’s) on the one hand, and Progressive, Liberal, Constitutional Revisionists (PLCR’s) on the other. At the heart of the conflict is: What are Rights and where do they come from?; Can and should the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, adopted in 1776 and 1787 respectively, continue to guide America according to the Founder’s thoughts and ideas today and into the foreseeable future?
In order to truly understand the positions of each side it is important to know the basis of each side’s ideology. It is important to know how one’s ideas may have been formed, and something about the intellectual history behind them. A brief history of the philosophical and political thinking behind each group is presented below to shine a light on the essential elements that differentiate each of them. It would help to answer questions one may have asked, from time to time, as to why persons of one group or other appear to believe in certain positions, or take certain stands about various issues. But, let me say from the outset, which will be repeated below, that very few people entirely subscribe to all the positions and issues of one side as opposed to the other. A CCR may not entirely agree with everything within the Conservative agenda and vice-versa. Additionally, it is possible for someone to support a political movement without truly understanding the ideology behind it. It would be akin to one whose doctor appears to be competent and compassionate during the front office visit, but is defrauding one’s insurance company and/or Medicare/Medicaid, on your account, in the back office. Therefore, the following is an attempt to shed light in front and in back of both sides dividing the Nation.
The American Enlightenment of the Founders
The Enlightenment began in Europe somewhere between the mid 17th to the end of the 18th century. Its country of origin has been debated as whether it originated in France or England. The Enlightenment sought to reform society by the use of reason rather than by tradition, and to encourage the use of science to increase knowledge of the world. It opposed superstition, intolerance and the abuses of church and state: it promoted science and intellectual discourse instead. The Founding Fathers appear to be more influenced by the English and Scottish Enlightenment thinkers. In England, John Locke was the principal adherent of Enlightenment thought. His philosophical thinking was influential to the thought of other thinkers such as Rousseau and Voltaire, among others. He is well known for his statement, “life, liberty and property.” Locke’s thoughts on “social contract”, “classical republicanism” and “classical liberal theory” are important aspects of his political philosophy, which were embraced by the Founders.
In Scotland, Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith and David Hume, were instrumental to the modernization of Scotland. Francis Hutcheson is often considered to be the father of the Scottish Enlightenment. Hutcheson championed political liberty and the right of popular rebellion against tyranny. Adam Smith’s contribution was his monumental works, “Wealth of Nations” (1776) and “Theory of Moral Sentiments” (1759, 1790). Smith advocated for liberty in commerce and the global economy. The philosophical concepts of David Hume influenced James Madison directly and thus the U.S. Constitution indirectly, for which he was the principal author.
The Founding Fathers were also well schooled in “Classical Philosophy”: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, etc., as well as that of Natural Law and the Scholastics: Anselm, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas (natural law), et al. Many of the Founders also had schooling in the Common Law and Judeo/Christian theology. The Founders were closely aligned with English jurisprudence and “Common Law”. Sir Edward Coke was the preeminent jurist of this time. Sir Edward Coke’s custom and right reason principles were closely adhered to by the Founders. Coke defined law as: “perfect reason, which commands those things that are proper and necessary and which prohibits contrary things.” For Coke, human nature determined the purpose of law, and law was superior to any one man’s reason or will.
Theologically, one can not discount the effect that the Christian Church had upon the thinking of the Founding Fathers. Many such as George Washington and John Adams and others were church going Christians. There were several main denominations. The Anglican Church was by far the most widespread, followed by Puritans, Quakers, Methodists, Calvinists, Dutch and German Reformed, and Catholics. There also were congregations of Jews and apparently some Muslims. Therefore, religion played a very important role in the daily lives of the Colonists.