Tuesday, October 10, 2017
The flowering of the West in the American Founding
And in America too the British Enlightenment took root, further vitalized by the frontier revivalism of Whitfield and the early Methodists. Benjamin Franklin -- great friend of philosophers and evangelists alike -- is the exemplar of this American Enlightenment, but others of the Founding Generation were part and parcel of this movement, perhaps none moreso than John Adams. America's British culture, as Russell Kirk called it, drank deep of the well-springs of Athens, Jerusalem, Rome and England, and it is in the Founding Period in America that the ideals of the West blaze forth fully in clarity and power, in many instances beyond the realization of the Founders themselves. As the late Peter Lawler put it so insightfully, "they built better than they knew."
The Founders were well-grounded in the law and theory of the British system of government, and many of them were quite well-read in the principles not only of the British Enlightenment but of the Continental Enlightenment as well. And to a degree difficult for many modern Americans to understand, the Founding generation was shaped by classical literature from Greece and Rome. Nearly every literate person had a least a passing acquaintance not only with the ancient Hebrew and Christian patrimony of the Bible, but with the stories, myths and literature of the ancient Mediterranean as well. A significant number of Americans could approach that classical heritage in one or both of its original languages -- Latin or classical Greek. Yet, classical education in colonial and early republican America wasn't primarily about learning Latin or Greek to read the classics -- it was about training people in virtue and civic responsibility. As a result, for America at the Founding, the great strands of the West all came together in a unique synthesis that resulted in the finest flowering of Western ideas in forms of the culture of the young American Republic.
To know the West, look to Aristotle and Cicero, to the Gospels and to Augustine, to Aquinas and Dante, and also to the American experiment of ordered liberty manifested in its public record: the Declaration of Independence; the Constitution of the United States; the constitutions of the individual States in Union; and the dialogues, speeches and letters of the American Founders.