All Commentary
Sunday, January 1, 1984

Book Review: American Political Writing During the Founding Era: 1760 – 1805 Edited by Charles S. Hyneman and Donald S. Lutz

(Liberty Press, 7440 North Shadeland, Indianapolis, Indiana 46250), 1983
2 volumes: volume I, 704 + viii pages; volume II, 713 + xii pages
$28.50 set cloth; $13.50 paperback

Men of the founding era of the United States had apparently never heard that it is futile to reason with people, that minds are not changed by reason. Or, if they had, they must have rejected the notion out of hand as being ridiculous. In any case, those of that era who have left written records leave little doubt of their belief in the effectiveness of reason. For reason they did: on government, on the state, on society, on religion, on liberty, and about the affairs of men. Of course, the 18th century is sometimes referred to as the Age of Reason, a title some would apply with equal aptness to the 17th. The truth is that the men of the founding era were at the peak of a long trend toward increasing confidence in reason. But however all that may be, one of the considerable benefits of reading their thought is to make junction with men who believed in reason as our primary, if not only, means of arriving at some truth.

Although the two volumes in hand run to more than 1400 rather large pages, they are only a sampling of the extant political writing from the period. By design, the editors excluded all private materials, such as letters, diaries, and journals. In general, too, they excluded public docu ments, such as the resolutions of the Stamp Act Congress, the Declaration of Independence, all constitutions, and the like. In addition, some of the better known political writers and commentators of the period are missing, such as John Dickinson, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Richard Henry Lee, George Mason, and John Marshall. There is a brief selection from Benjamin Franklin, a little longer one from John Adams, and a memorial in which James Madison had a hand. None of The Federalist Papers are included. In general, these omissions were intentional. The editors had in mind to make available in book form the best of the political writings that were published in that day but are not now generally accessible. Thus, though the present reviewer has read and studied extensively in the literature of the period, there are selections from many writers of whom he has never heard, for example, Thomas Bradbury, Zabdiel Adams, Gad Hitchcock, and Levi Hart. Only a very few people would be rewarded who bought these books in the expectation of finding selections from their favorite authors.

Yet there is good fare here, especially for those who like meat and potatoes rather than salads, rich desserts, and frothy beverages in their reading diet. Some of the selections are deep; none of them are shallow. Most are not so abstruse as the piece by John Perkins called “Well-Wisher to Mankind,” which deals closely with the doctrines of predestination and foreordination to arrive at the view that we do act freely by taking thought. Simeon Howard, in “A Sermon Preached to the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company in Boston” in 1773, gives a very lucid definition of liberty. He says, “I mean by it here, only that liberty which is opposed to external force and constraint, and to such force and constraint only, as we may suffer from men.” In a state of society under government, he continues, they have “all that natural liberty . . . . excepting what they have expressly given up for the good of the whole society . . . .” He provides a justification for war in a Christian context, also, which many would do well to consider today. He points out that “it is only defensive war that can be justified in the sight of God. When no injury is offered us, we have no right to molest others.” However, “When others have sufficiently manifested an injurious or hostile intention . . . . we may, in order to avoid the blow they are meditating against us, begin the assault.”

Indeed, there are a goodly number of valuable selections. John Leland’s essay, titled “Jack Nips,” reminds us of the role of the Baptists in pressing for religious freedom. His careful distinction between sin and crime would repay the reading of it by a general audience. Noah Webster’s “An Oration on the Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence” is especially important for his careful analysis of the political language of the day. His observations on equality are particularly instructive. “That one man in a state,” he notes, “has as good a right as another to his life, limbs, reputation and property, is a proposition that no man will dispute. Nor will it be denied that each member of a society . . . has an equal right to protection. But if by equality, writers understand an equal right to distinction, and influence; or if they understand an equal share of talents and bodily powers; in these senses, all men are not equal.” Several writers emphasize, along with Webster, the importance of reputation and the legal protection of individuals from libel and falsehoods about them. There was apparently a widely held view that reputation, or a good name, was indeed valuable property deserving protection along with other species of property.

The editors have performed a useful service in putting together this collection of essays. They have made available much material which was not heretofore to be had in any one place in the country. The selections not only reinforce what we already knew about this period but also bring out some things that were not generally known. I was surprised to dis cover as many references to “utopian” schemes, for, while I was aware that men of that time would have generally deplored them, I did not know that the word was so well known among literate people then. It is worth noting, too, that not only was the revolutionary era in our history a time of great fertility in political thought, there was also a great willingness to explore the pos sibilities in a variety of directions and to learn from experience. The conclusions which they reached, too, speak well for their commitment to the use of reason.

  • Clarence Carson (1926-2003) was a historian who taught at Eaton College, Grove City College, and Hillsdale College. His primary publication venue was the Foundation for Economic Education. Among his many works is the six-volume A Basic History of the United States.