The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 23, 2019

Page 5 of 5
The American Experience

Lesson 1: The English tradition of liberty

  1. The Magna Charta of 1215
    • According to this document, what is liberty’s source and purpose?
    • Why are people spoken of in groups (clergymen, villeins, barons, etc.)? How does a group or place hold liberties?
  2. The Petition of Right of 1628
    • When and why is taxation unjust, according to the Petition?
    • What are the legal and actual relationships between Englishmen and the king’s army? What is the gap between legality and actuality, and why does it exist?
  3. The English Bill of Rights of 1689
    • What is the relationship of religion to the English constitution?
    • Do the freeholders of 1689 differ from the barons of 1215 in their description of liberty and its source?
  4. Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England in Four Books, Chapter 1: Of the Absolute Rights of Individuals, §122-128
    • What account of the origins of man and of the law does Blackstone give? How does this color his thinking about rights?
    • How did the English come to enjoy such liberties as they have? What does this say about other, less liberal nations?

Summary question: What is the source or what are the sources of English liberty or liberties? Is the answer conditional upon the age?

Further reading:

  1. William Campbell, “Blackstone’s Law and Economics”

Lesson 2: The colonial tradition of liberty

  1. The Mayflower Compact
    • Who composes the “body politick” and for what purpose does it exist?
    • What is the source of the law and constitution?
  2. The Combination of the Inhabitants upon the Piscataqua River for Government
    • How does this “body politick” relate to the laws ordained by the sovereign?
    • What precedes the institution or existence of civil government, if anything?
  3. William Penn, Preface to the Charter of Liberties and Frame of Government for the Province of Pennsylvania in America
    • Why and how is “liberty without obedience...confusion, and obedience without liberty is slavery”?
    • What is meant by the “divine right of government”? How is such right granted, and how is it discerned?
  4. William Cullen Dennis, “Puritanism as the Basis for American Conservatism”
    • Who is the covenant-maker, and with whom and for what purpose does he covenant? Answer this simultaneously in relation to theology and Anglo-American history, as the Puritans did.
    • Did the migration to America mean the creation of a society de novo, as if from a state of nature?

Summary question: What place does the Biblical concept of a covenant, which was especially prominent in English Protestant theology, have in American history? Are we a covenant people for the sake of our “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”?

Further reading:

  1. Brian Brown, “Beyond the Liberal Myth”

Lesson 3: The natural right tradition

  1. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, XIII & XVII
    • Whence comes equality, and when it exists, in what does it consist?
    • What do the terms “nature” and “laws of nature” mean for Hobbes? Are they conducive to or opposed to life in a commonwealth?
    • What is a covenant, and why is it made? What is its effect on the heretofore free individual?
  2. John Locke, Concerning Civil Government, Second Essay, I, II, & VIII
    • How is Locke’s state of nature like and unlike Hobbes’?
    • What place does the family have in the state of nature?
    • Can a majority be legitimately sovereign?
  3. Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government, chapter 1, sections 5, 9, 10, and 11
    • Does Sidney’s natural-right reasoning differ from Hobbes’ or Locke’s? If so, how? If not, why not?
    • What is the relationship of liberty to equality in a just government?
    • Is there a lordship of man over man not grounded in consent or force?

Summary question: What similarities and dissimilarities do the English and colonial American charters, compacts, and covenants bear to Hobbes’ and Locke’s political philosophies?

Further reading:

  1. Leo Strauss, “Locke as ‘Authoritarian’”
  2. Donald Devine, “John Locke: His Harmony Between Liberty and Virtue”
  3. Richard Stevens, “The Constitutional Completion of the Liberal Philosophy of Hobbes and Locke”
  4. James Keim, “Strauss and Watkins on Hobbes’ Political Philosophy: A Review”

Lesson 4: The Declaration and the Revolution

  1. The Declaration of Independence
    • Who are the “people” of the document and how did they come into existence as distinct from the British people?
    • What are the similarities and dissimilarities between the Declaration, the Magna Charta, the Petition of Right, and the Bill of Rights of 1689?
    • Is the Declaration a Lockean document?
    • Who makes up the “world,” and what is the world’s role in the Declaration?
  2. Edmund Burke, Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies, March 22, 1775
    • Is Burke’s list of six causes of America’s spirit of liberty a hierarchy? How does each cause relate to all the others?
    • Is the Declaration devoted to an abstract liberty, according to Burke’s definition, or to one “according to English ideas”?
  3. John Dickinson, Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, V & IX
    • Is the right to one’s property the fount of all other natural rights, without which no other rights can long exist?
    • Does American colonial history bear out Dickinson’s analysis of its purposes and character? Why were the various colonies settled?
  4. Joseph Galloway, The Claim of the American Loyalists, Chap. 1, “The Case of the American Loyalists briefly stated”
    • What are Galloway’s first principles, and how and why are they similar and/or dissimilar to his fellow Americans on the other side of the question?
    • Does Galloway handle the concept of natural right? Provide a philosophical or political reason for your answer, e.g. an Hobbesian would naturally speak of natural right in the political realm.

Summary question: Does the Declaration establish America as a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal?

Further reading:

  1. M.E. Bradford, “How to Read the Declaration: Reconsidering the Kendall Thesis”
  2. Robert Heineman, “Edmund Burke and the American Nation”
  3. James Stoner, “Is There a Political Philosophy in the Declaration of Independence?”
  4. J. Michael Bordelon, “The Historical Henry”

Lesson 5: The Articles & the Constitutional Convention

  1. The Articles of Confederation
    • Are the people in the Declaration and the Articles identical? What is the purpose and relation of the states to each other in each document?
    • Are the Articles like or unlike previous colonial documents?
  2. George Washington, “To Jonathan Trumbull, Jr.” & “To James Madison”
    • What is the object of the melioration for which Washington hopes? Are the local jealousies of which he speaks mere parochialism or Burke’s “spirit of liberty”?
    • How does monarchy relate to the needful change of government?
  3. James Madison, “Vices of the Political System of the United States”
    • Were the states within their rights as sovereigns to do any or all of the acts Madison claims against them?
    • Are Madison’s complaints relevant to a small republic with a very limited government? That is, is he dissatisfied with the states under the Articles or with the Articles themselves?
  4. Lance Banning, “James Madison and the Dynamics of the Constitutional Convention”
    • What is the significance for our interpretation of the Constitution that Madison’s thinking in particular and the Convention’s in general evolved from melioration of the Confederation’s defects to wholesale renewal in the form of the Constitution?
    • What role did the turbulence of state governments and the Confederation Congress have in the Convention’s deliberation?

Summary question: For what polity were the Articles sufficient? For what purpose or purposes were they inadequate?

Further reading:

  1. Forrest McDonald, Ne Philosophos Audiamus: The Middle Delegates in the Constitutional Convention”
  2. Kevin Gutzman, “Invoking the Patrimony”
  3. Gordon Lloyd, “Let Justice Be Our Guide: A Reconsideration of ‘True Federalism’ at the Constitutional Convention”

Lesson 6: The Constitution

  1. The Constitution (only through the Bill of Rights)
    • Has the definition of “the people” changed from the Magna Charta to 1787? If so, how and why? If not, how and why not?
    • How are the powers delegated to the Congress comparable to those possessed by English and colonial legislative bodies, if existent?
    • What is the role of the individual states in affirming the document and within the text itself?
    • Why would the Bill of Rights seek to limit power, and whose power does it limit? Answer these questions in light of history rather than philosophy.
  2. The Federalist, No. 10
    • Are opinion, passion, or interest (chiefly parochial) admissible in political debate?
    • How does Publius handle the notion of equality and the distinction between a republic and a democracy?
    • Is Madison’s case for an extensive republic convincing?
  3. George Mason, “The Objections of Hon. George Mason to the proposed Federal Constitution”
    • Were Mason’s objections fully acceded to in the Bill of Rights?
    • Is there anything in which Mason is prescient? If so, why? If not, how does Mason get it wrong?
  4. William Allen, “The Constitutionalism of The Federalist Papers”
    • In what sense does Antifederalism compose a part of the American constitution?
    • Can and/or why would we speak of an American constitution not contained in the written document ratified by a majority of the states?

Summary question: Is the Constitution antithetical to the spirit of the Revolution?

Further reading:

  1. George Carey, “Conservatism, Centralization, and Constitutional Federalism”

Lesson 7: The Federalists and the Antifederalists

  1. James Wilson, Speech to the Pennsylvania Convention, November 24th, 1787
    • What kind of knowledge and reasoning from its premises predominates in Wilson’s speech? Why does this matter for how the state conventions understood the Constitution’s relation to the American body politic?
    • How and why does Wilson (along with many other Founders) see our republic as almost without precedent?
  2. Roger Sherman, “A Countryman,” The Letters: II in the New Haven Gazette, November 22, 1787
    • Why does Sherman reject the need for a federal bill of rights?
    • Why is the nature of a government essential to the preservation of liberty? Are there considerations of still greater importance to liberty’s health?
  3. Noah Webster, “A Citizen of America,” “An Examination into the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution,” October 17, 1787
    • What are the relative weights of pure reason and history’s lessons and experiences in Webster’s argument for ratification?
    • How and why is the concept of progress fundamental to Webster?
  4. Edmund Randolph, “Letter on the Federal Constitution, October 16, 1787”
    • What are the principal dangers of keeping the Articles of Confederation, according to Randolph? Were they warranted by historical experience?
    • Why, then, did he refuse to sign the Constitution? Would his fears about that document have been assuaged by the Bill of Rights?

Summary question: Did the Antifederalists “lose”? In what respects were their concerns (not) addressed or their recommendations (not) adopted?

Further reading:

  1. Daniel Dreisbach, “Founders Famous and Forgotten”
  2. M.E. Bradford, “A Teaching for Republicans: Roman History and the Nation’s First Identity”
  3. Barry Shain, “Oversights, Leaps, and Confusions”
  4. Ellis Sandoz, “Classical and Christian Dimensions of American Political Thought”

Lesson 8: The Civil War and American conservatism

  1. Abraham Lincoln, Cooper Union Address
    • How does Lincoln make the case that the prohibition by the federal government in the territories is truly the conservative policy? What kind(s) of evidence does he use?
    • Did the moral evil of slavery call for a more radical policy than is advocated by Lincoln in this address? Was John Brown justified in some sense?
  2. “The Real Abraham Lincoln: A Debate” between Harry Jaffa and Tom DiLorenzo
    • Who is Jaffa’s Lincoln? Who is DiLorenzo’s Lincoln?
    • Is secession a constitutional prerogative of the states?
    • What did Lincoln intend to do about 1) slavery and 2) tariffs when he was elected to the presidency?
  3. M.E. Bradford, “Dividing the House: The Gnosticism of Lincoln’s Political Rhetoric”
    • Compare Lincoln’s use of Scripture to both pre-Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary documents and essays on the syllabus.
    • What is “gnosticism” in political philosophy, and was Lincoln a priest of its cult?
    • In light of Lincoln’s speeches and actions before and during his presidency, does Bradford’s division of his life into two distinct stages make sense?

Summary question: Was Lincoln true to the republic’s founding principles, or did he fundamentally remake the American political order in a different image?

Further reading:

  1. Stephen Tonsor, “Political Religion”
  2. M.E. Bradford, “The Lincoln Legacy: A Long View”

Lesson 9: Conservatism and the American Founding I

  1. Mark C. Henrie, “Russell Kirk’s Unfounded America”
    • How does America have a British culture? How does it not? What is its extent?
    • How is a community without a telos not a collection of “mere will”?
    • What is the difference between Kirkean conservatism and historicism? Is there one?
  2. “Kirk’s ‘Unfounded’ or Jaffa’s ‘Founded’ America?”
    • Is culture a result of “accident and force”?
    • Does the Declaration adhere to the “pristine, Lockean form” of natural right or more to the definition Fitzgerald claims Jaffa has given it?
    • Is the good exhausted by the right?
  3. George W. Carey, “America’s Founding and Limited Government”
    • Is what Carey calls “republicanism” borne out in the writings of the Founders? Has its spirit flourished at any other times of American history?
    • Can a conservative agree with the Smith/Beard theses? Why would he, if you answered “no”?
    • Is “atomistic social freedom” part and parcel of our republic?

Summary question: Can or should we speak of an American “Founding” or, less grandiloquently, “founding period”? If so, when is it, and who are the founding fathers/Founding Fathers?

Lesson 10: Conservatism and the American Founding II

  1. M.E. Bradford, “The Heresy of Equality: Bradford Replies to Jaffa”
    • Why should the Declaration be read within the English political tradition? Why should it not be so read?
    • Is millenarianism intrinsic to American politics?
    • How and why is the Declaration still or no longer relevant?
  2. Harry Jaffa, “Equality, Justice, and the American Revolution: In Reply to Bradford’s ‘The Heresy of Equality’”
    • How does someone in disagreement with Jaffa reckon with The Federalist?
    • Why did the Founders fail to abolish slavery or even to print Jefferson’s original objection in the Declaration to it, permit state churches in New England, or deny women the vote?
    • Does an equality of rights necessitate an equality of conditions?
  3. James E. Dornan, “The Founding Fathers, Conservatism, and American Foreign Policy”
    • How can Hartz’s thesis be refuted or defended from the readings in this syllabus?
    • Is intervention in the affairs of foreign powers antithetical to American conservatism? If not, is there a specific kind of American conservatism that is categorically opposed to such intervention, and why is it so?

Summary question: Is the American political tradition necessarily and from its founding a tradition of liberalism?

Take the Quiz
Page 5 of 5

Library of Modern Thinkers Logo

By clicking the logo above to shop, every purchase helps to support ISI.

Intercollegiate Studies Institute • 3901 Centerville Rd. • Wilmington, Delaware 19807-1938 •
Please direct all inquiries regarding First Principles to [email protected].