What Made the Founders Happy

[The Pursuit of Happiness in the Founding Era: An Intellectual History by Carli N. Conklin; University of Missouri Press; 254 pp., $40.00]

The intellectual roots of the American founding and in particular the Declaration of Independence have long been a matter of debate. Over the years, several major interpretations emerged.

The first and most venerable viewpoint credited the founding’s philosophy almost entirely to John Locke, underscoring the primacy of natural equality, inalienable natural rights, individual liberty, and the necessity of consent to establish political authority. Despite its age, this is called the “modern” interpretation, and still has major proponents today.

About 60 years ago, a second viewpoint argued for a classical republican interpretation. Ancient classical thought stressing the importance of virtue and the common good deeply influenced the Founders, argued scholars like Gordon Wood and J. G. A. Pocock. In this view, vice and corruption consisted in pursuing one’s own interest at the expense of the common good.

A third view emphasized the primacy of Christianity and especially Reformed Protestantism.

Other intrepretations argued for the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment’s notions of moral and common sense, while others gave priority to British legal and constitutional theory.

Finally, Forrest McDonald’s seminal Novus Ordo Seclorum...

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