As America celebrates Independence Day amid a bitter election campaign and political disorder in the streets, C. Bradley Thompson’s mind is on the time when the country first came together. Mr. Thompson, 61, is a political-science professor at South Carolina’s Clemson University and author, most recently, of “America’s Revolutionary Mind” (2019). The book takes its theme from John Adams’s 1815 observation, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, that the true American Revolution took place not on battlefield but “in the Minds of the People, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen Years before a drop of blood was drawn at Lexington.”
That was when Americans formed a national identity around universal principles. In the 1760s they came to reject the contingent notion of “the rights of Englishmen,” which held, in Mr. Thompson’s words, that particular peoples “have rights that have grown or developed out of history” and can “change with time.” That understanding started to look to colonists like “a foundation of sand,” Mr. Thompson says, as Britain tightened its hold on the colonies in the wake of the 1756-63 Seven Years’ War with France. So Americans “latched on to this idea of natural rights.”
“Given man’s nature as a self-owning, self-governing being, whose primary attributes are reason and free will,” Mr. Thompson says, summing up this view, “each person needs to be equally free.” Human beings may be endlessly variable, but the equality of every individual is “a metaphysical fact.”
Yet that is far from self-evident to today’s political left. Progressives often use phrases like “my truth” or “her truth,” implying that reality is subjective. If they really believed that, though, they’d have no basis to object when Donald Trump affirms “his” truth, even when it is empirically dubious. Identity politics reflects the idea that “truth is determined by race, ethnicity, sex, gender.” That concept is hard to reconcile with, and often implacably hostile toward, the idea of inalienable rights.
Up to a point, Mr. Thompson sees recent protests as consistent with America’s revolutionary tradition. He describes the police killing of George Floyd as “a disgusting, egregious case of police abuse” and says that the American revolutionaries—who bristled at the intrusion of the British bureaucracy and military into the colonies after a long period of neglect—“would be appalled by the abuse of police power in all instances.”
Yet the violent and censorious mobs call to mind a contemporaneous revolution. The French Revolution, in its moderate phase before 1792, drew on America’s ideals in seeking to overthrow the monarchy. “At one point you had Franklin, Jefferson and Adams in Paris just before the French Revolution,” Mr. Thompson says, “and they were attending salons with leading French intellectuals and future revolutionaries.”
The differences, however, proved fundamental. Whereas the Americans “began with the individual as the primary unit of moral and political value,” Mr. Thompson says, France’s Jacobins “wanted to create a collective will. But in order to create a collective will, you have to destroy all those wills that are counter to your vision of the general will.” That’s why America’s revolution ended with constitutional government and France’s in terror and tyranny.
America’s government fell short of its ideals, most glaringly in allowing slavery to persist. Yet Mr. Thompson argues that “the Declaration of Independence is the single greatest document in world history for the abolition of slavery.” After independence, “every state in the North began the process of gradual emancipation. . . . The Continental Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, which prohibited slavery in the territory north and west of the Ohio River.”
In the years before the Civil War, abolitionists split over the meaning of America’s founding documents. Mr. Thompson says Frederick Douglass “viewed himself as completing the work of the American founding. His speech, ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?’ ”—delivered in Rochester, N.Y., on July 5, 1852—“is really an attempt to tell white Americans: You need to live up to your own stated principles.” Douglass broke with the Garrisonian abolitionists, led by the journalist William Lloyd Garrison, who argued in the 1850s that the Constitution was a pro-slavery document.
Douglass defended the Constitution in an 1860 speech, which Mr. Thompson reprinted in his book “Anti-Slavery Political Writings, 1833-1860,” published in 2003. Douglass said: “It would be the wildest of absurdities, and lead to endless confusion and mischiefs, if, instead of looking to the written paper itself, for its meaning, it were attempted to make us search it out, in the secret motives, and dishonest intentions, of some of the men who took part in writing it.” He asked: “Shall we condemn the righteous law because wicked men twist it to the support of wickedness?”
Progressives today insist that they inherited the spirit of the abolitionist movement, and that conservative thinking is aligned with the South’s racist past. Mr. Thompson says the ideological lineages are more complicated. As abolitionists marshaled the Declaration to prosecute the case against slavery, pro-slavery intellectuals in the 1830s “began formulating theories that slavery, rather than being a necessary evil, was in fact a positive good.” That required them to cast aside the Declaration’s natural-rights theory in favor of “a radically different view of rights”—one that rejected “even the concept of truth”—the idea that there are “absolute, certain, permanent, universal truths out there.”
Pro-slavery intellectuals were influenced by the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who supported the idea “that all truth is relative to time and place,” Mr. Thompson says. Pro-slavery thinkers “became pre-Marxian Marxists in their criticism of limited government and capitalism,” he adds. “They argued that capitalism is a system of exploitation, which necessarily forces workers into an exploitative relationship with the owners of capital, thereby forcing their wages and their livelihood down to subsistence levels.” They even claimed that slaves “had it better than Northern workers,” notwithstanding that they were deprived of liberty—a position that makes no sense unless you reject the idea of natural rights.
Today, as in the period leading up to the Civil War, the legitimacy of America’s founding principles is under attack. The left increasingly rejects neutral policies of equality and individual rights, arguing instead that historic discrimination can be corrected only through censorship and social control. Some intellectuals on the right also argue that liberal principles inevitably lead to the destruction of traditional society. Mr. Thompson worries that America is stumbling toward “some kind of authoritarian government, of either the left or the right.”
The left has the upper hand. “Whoever controls the institutions that generate the ideas will control a society,” Mr. Thompson says. The past few weeks have made clear the extent of progressives’ hold on these institutions. Universities, professional groups, media organizations and Fortune 500 companies are bending over backward to promote new leftist ideologies and bring skeptics into line.
“Not only have we forgotten the principles which made this country great, but we have an intellectual class now which rejects those principles,” Mr. Thompson says. Yet his confidence in the universal moral truths of the American founding is unshaken. “America is the first nation in the history of the world that was founded on certain principles, philosophic principles,” Mr. Thompson says. Those principles have proved durable enough to bind together a sprawling, multiethnic society for 244 years.
Mr. Thompson’s own contribution is to direct the Lyceum Scholars Program, which describes itself as “the first college program in the US to use a Great Books approach to studying liberty, capitalism, the American Founding, and moral character.” He’d like to see more such efforts: “I think it’s time for conservatives, libertarians and classical liberals to do what they claim to do best,” he says, “and that is to think entrepreneurially, and to think entrepreneurially within the realm of ideas and institutions.” The alternative is to watch as another revolution takes place in the “Minds of the People,” one that repudiates rather than reaffirms the philosophical foundations of America.
Mr. Willick is an editorial page writer for the Journal.