Lift a Glass to the Past: America Rooted in Tradition or a New Covenant?

Is the United States a grand experiment, a new covenant invented out of whole cloth by the fertile minds of the founders from never before seen ideas or is it a nation spawned from deeply rooted traditions of western thought? This was the question posited in a one-day-long conference on classicism in America’s founding sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) and held in Skokie, Illinois, a near northern suburb of Chicago.

The short answer is that the liberal mindset that holds that we should invent the USA anew with each succeeding generation is an erroneous conception of what the United States was meant to be when it was founded. Sure America has some ideas never before seen by political man, but at heart, America is rationalism informed by tradition, not some amorphous mélange of constantly changing ideas.

The founders created a new nation based heavily on Western ideas through British tradition, not one based solely on rationalist thinking. As they struggled to set their new nation on its new Constitutional course, for instance, the words of Founder John Dickinson of Delaware served as their benchmark.

Let experience be our only guide. Reason may lead us astray.

An intimate crowd of 60 some participants enjoyed four separate addresses by lecturers associated with ISI. Appearing behind the lectern were Bruce Thornton, Professor of Classics at Fresno State University; Brad Birzer, Professor of History at Hillsdale College; Mark C. Henrie, Senior VP and Chief Academic Officer of ISI; and E. Christian Kopff, Professor of Classics at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

In these three installments, I will lay out what we talked about at this interesting one-day conference.

Part One: How it all Began

We began the morning with Bruce Thornton whose topic was America’s Classical Roots. Through Thornton we discovered the roots of democracy and western thought in classical Greek history.

As Thornton began, one of the points he made at the top was that politics is a result of citizenship and this was something new to man in the time of the ancient Greeks. Before the concept of citizenship men were governed by mere power as opposed to participation. What struck my mind with this point is that so many Americans today pronounce their disinterest in politics and have a mistaken conception that politics and politicians are separate from them. But, as Thornton reminds us, politics IS we the people. Politics isn’t separate from us, it IS us.

With this in mind, we must also remember that the law is also owned by we the people. Our politicians, our officers of the law do not own it. We do. It would behoove us to remember our role as citizens in this compact instead of sitting idly by grumbling about our out-of-control government.

Thornton warned us that it is a great mistake to dismiss the ancient Greeks (and Romans for that matter) as the fathers of our democratic freedoms just because they don’t today live up to our modern concept of what democracy and rights are. The idea of citizenship, though unevenly applied, was a revelation for the day and we cannot be over harsh in our judgment of their intellectual progress because they hadn’t yet reached the same level we have today. Yes, there was slavery, sure women did not have the same equal consideration under the law, but giving the citizen any role in government at all was an incredible breakthrough that should not be dismissed.

After all, for all of man’s history until the ancient Greeks (as far as we know) there were no other cultures that even had names for the totality of humanity. These peoples often used tribal words meant to describe people as “us” while everyone else was “them.” It manifested as if “them” were less than human, i.e. not “us.” But the Greeks philosophized about the human condition — again even though unevenly applied — they thought of humanity in totality.

Slavery is another touchy subject, of course. All the way until our Civil War, slavery was endemic to mankind. It had only been since the 1830s with England in the lead that the concept of slavery had at long last begun to suffer a loss of ready acceptance. So, to say that the Ancients are easily dismissed because they had slavery is ridiculous because they knew no other condition. But even at that there is proof that the ancients were beginning to wonder about the legitimacy of slavery. Thornton related a concept from one of these philosophers (whose name I don’t recall) who said — and I paraphrase — The god makes men yet nature enslaves no one. The point here is that men use power to enslave. Slavery is not a natural condition but man made one.

Thornton’s main point was that the classical Greeks served as our touchstone, our bedrock for the American system. The main concepts of citizenship, participation, and the ideas of government were laid in those early centuries before Christ. Our founders cited the ancients more often than other influences except Christian principles in their tracts, letters and papers on their efforts to launch the U.S.A. So, to say that America was entirely “new” is absurd and a misreading of history.

Next: Christ in Our Soul

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