Family and the Founding

The Political Theory of the American Founding Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom

  • Thomas G. West
  • Cambridge University Press, 2017; 428 pages, £26.99

I begin with praise for Professor West’s treatment of family questions in his book, The Political Theory of the American Founding. As he notes, there is a curious gap in the considerable scholarship on the Founders’ political thinking: almost no attention given to the important topics of sex and marriage. His chapter on these matters is an impressive corrective.  

Second, he also reports that he has “seen little evidence that [John] Locke’s understanding of the family influenced the founders.” With an exception to which I will shortly turn, I think this is correct. While Lockean liberalism certainly animated debates over the emerging shape of the confederated or federal government of the new United States, none of the Founders held that matters of family life, domestic living, and sex should be within the central government’s competence. Their clear, albeit mostly implied, consensus was that such deeply important matters should be left exclusively to state and local polities. Partly for this reason, I suspect, Professor West gives proper and useful attention to state constitutions and state laws on these questions.

Finally, I think he is correct in arguing that the young American republic, from roughly 1800 to the mid-19th century, informally adopted a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy regarding sexual misconduct such as sodomy and fornication. The state laws against such actions were strict, yet rarely enforced if the behavior at issue remained discrete. This contrasted with a more vigorous approach to moral policing during the whole of the Colonial era and again during the nearly 100 years running  from the late 1860s until the early 1960s.

All the same, I also need to register several criticisms or dissents from his arguments. To begin with, I return to John Locke, who always keeps popping back up. Several years ago, Professor West entered into an interesting dispute with both the late Peter Augustine Lawler and Patrick Deneen over the legacy of Locke in America. In brief, the latter two blamed Lockean liberalism for the debased moral conditions found in contemporary America, including—as an example—the legalization of same-sex-“marriage.” Professor West vigorously dissented in an essay for the journal Society, an argument which he continues in this new book. He correctly shows that Locke himself understood marriage to be instituted solely for the procreation and rearing of children. While I suspect that Locke would be mostly baffled by the notion of same-sex-“marriage,” his own words do strongly suggest that he would have personally opposed it.

Still, there is a deeper aspect to Locke’s political theory that has been corrosive to family bonds, setting in admittedly well after Locke’s own death. As Professor West acknowledges (p. 240): “Locke’s Two Treatises had attacked patriarchalism in the name of equality and liberty. Americans applied these principles not only to political despotism, but to the patriarchal family of their colonial forebears.”

Put another way, Locke’s Two Treatises were an attempt to dismantle the patriarchal justifications for absolute monarchy. To accomplish this, Locke felt compelled to undermine the prevailing patriarchal foundations of British—and implicitly British-American—domestic life, as well. Professor West continues: “After 1776, the American family was increasingly based on a new view of wives as equal partners with their husbands.” This was in line with Locke’s original alternative: the creation of a new form of marriage as a union of strictly limited purpose and authority. As a practical matter, Locke did assume that the father would still hold some recognition as “head of the family,” but he provided no compelling reasons why. As Professor West correctly reports, this model began to reshape American law as early as the 1790s.

However, this soft patriarchy proved vulnerable. Most importantly, in my opinion, it rested on a flawed anthropology, a mistaken understanding of human nature. In Locke’s view, males are driven primarily by two urges: “self preservation” and the quest for “copulation.” (Regarding the latter, Locke asks in the First Treatise: “What Father of a Thousand, when he begets a child, thinks farther than the satisfying [of] his present Appetite?” This is, alas, disturbingly close to the late Hugh Hefner’s view of things!) Locke holds that women, in contrast, have a natural urge to be attached to and protective of their children.

The weakness here was evident as early as the 1830s, seen in Alexis de Tocqueville’s somewhat bewildered effort to explain why American women, equal in theory to their husbands within a liberal democracy, nonetheless voluntarily submitted to the yoke of male dominion. Catharine Beecher, eldest daughter within the famed Beecher clan, offered a similar and equally frail explanation for male headship. 

In Locke’s family system, women consent to a mostly fictional male headship as the price they must pay to keep a man in the house. However, the equity feminist branch of liberalism—also implicit to Locke and “natural rights”—eventually saw that as too steep of a price to pay. To gain their promised equality, women must overcome their natural maternal instincts; and men must surrender their residual claims to family leadership. So, as women renounce their innate purpose and as men lose their artificially created one, the liberal family system dissolves. This is what has happened over the last 50 years, as the inner logic of the Lockean family has finally worked itself out. In that sense, I agree with Peter Lawler and Patrick Deneen.

Is there an alternate anthropology consistent with democracy? The Biblical view is that both men and women are born incomplete and different in certain important ways. They become complete only through marriage, where two become one flesh and their union of complementarities becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Male headship is God-ordained, yet requires that the husband hold the protection, interests, and happiness of his wife as his first priority. The language of individual liberty, equality, and rights only muddles these relationships.  

My second critique: Professor West’s central thesis in this book is that “the founders’ consensus documents point to natural rights and the laws of nature as the lens through which politics is understood.” In his telling, such natural rights adhere to persons, to individuals—not to collective entities such as the family. Is there a plausible alternative explanation for the political thought driving the American founding, one that places the family at the center of concern? There may be. I refer to Barry Alan Shain’s 1994 volume from Princeton University Press: The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought.  Professor West does reference this volume in his “Introduction,” yet dismisses it for relying “largely on a tendentious selection of sermons and other private sources, while excluding or distorting the statements of principle found again and again in public and private documents.” I think it is fair to conclude that Professor West is not fond of this book. Still, at least in some ways, it serves as a foil for his own arguments.

What does Professor Shain assert? He rejects the claim that most late 18th-century Americans can be understood as individualistic, or even classically republican, in their political sympathies. Nor did they have any significant attachment to the concept of “natural rights” or “natural liberties.” Instead, in Shain’s own words, “the vast majority of Americans lived voluntarily in morally demanding agricultural communities shaped by reformed-Protestant social and moral norms,” and resting on strong, pre-modern family bonds. Put briefly, Professor Shain holds that the Founders were “a communal, rural, and Protestant people” and that they used these orientations as the lenses through which they viewed politics.

Professor Shain holds that it is a mistake to focus too much on “consensus” public documents such as The Declaration of Independence. He agrees with historian Perry Miller that these formal statements used Enlightenment language of “social compact [and] inalienable rights” to appeal to European audiences. Even Thomas Jefferson, who on most other occasions was a pretty good Jeffersonian Agrarian, succumbed to this temptation in drafting the Declaration. A keener and more accurate sense of political thinking among Americans is to be found in places such as “the election sermons” of prominent pastors and in national and state “fast day proclamations.” These were addressed, not to enlightened Europeans, but rather to “the ranks of the militia and citizens” who were actually fighting for independence and building a new nation.

Exemplary here was the Continental Congress’s “Proclamation of a Day of Thanksgiving,” set for December 18, 1777. It requested both the soldiers at Valley Forge and all citizens to go to their churches in “penitent confession of their manifold sins” and ask “in humble and earnest supplication that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out.” They must do this in order to spread “the means of religion for the promotion and enlargement of that Kingdom which consisteth ‘in righteousness, [and] peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.’” There is nothing here about “natural rights”; this is a very different language.

Such arguments are closely tied to family questions, particularly in relation to liberty. Professor Shain describes various notions of liberty to be found in the Anglo-American world of the second half of the 18th century: the freedom to do whatever one chooses, then equated with licentiousness; the freedom to do “everything that is right,” or Christian liberty; the medieval conception of liberties as adhering to corporate groups such as villages and religious communities; a freedom from enslavement; and a freedom of conscience, or religious liberty.

Shain argues that distinctive to America, though, was a strong emphasis on familial liberty, resting on household economic autonomy. Here we find the “primal” Jefferson, not the “public relations” one. As he wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia: “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, whose breasts He has made His peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.” The farmer “keeps alive the sacred fire” of human liberty. He and his family depend, in turn, on the ownership of sufficient real property—land, buildings, and tools—to insure family autonomy, or self-sufficiency. As the Founder James Wilson wrote in 1774, men whose poverty left them subject to the economic influence of others “have no will of their own; and it is judged improper that they should vote in the representation of a free state.” As Shain summarizes, “Real [productive] property was viewed as an instrumental good, that made possible familial independence.” And it was this family-centered liberty which in turn “made political and religious [liberty] feasible.”

This notion of familial liberty also involved close attention to kin, what we now call “extended family.” Among the Founders, intergenerational bonds remained remarkably strong. As historian James Henretta writes, 18th-century parents still raised their children to “succeed them,” not merely to “succeed.” He adds: “The lineal family—not the conjugal unit [of Lockean theory] and certainly not the unattached individual—thus stood at the center of economic and social existence.” America, circa 1776, was a land of autonomous families, not of jealous, “rights-bearing” individuals. This lineal family also served as the lens to be used for their political understanding.

Finally, Professor West argues that the Founders “held marriage to be not ‘arguably’ but indispensably necessary for the securing of natural rights.” I will grant that this understanding had taken hold by the late 1820s. Indeed, he produces a fine quote from a Vermont Supreme Court decision: “To marry is one of the natural rights of human nature.” However, this comes from 1829—after the Founding era. Most of his pre-1820 references on the family, however, are absent the language of “rights.” True, there are references to the “law of nature” or even to “natural law” and solid comments on the importance of marriage to the social order; but these are just as—or even more—likely to be grounded in Christianity, rather than in secular theory.

Put another way, “natural law” language and “natural rights” do not always and necessarily go together, and perhaps did not until the very tail end of the Founding period. Until about 1790, and perhaps for a decade or two later, the dominant political theory among those actively engaged in the Founding remained communitarian, agrarian, and Protestant—or, summarized in one phrase, remained family-centric, in the pre-modern sense.

Dr. Allan C. Carlson is Editor of The Natural Family. This review is adapted from an address given at Hillsdale College on November 4, 2017.