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 argued all of these divergent strands influenced the Founders. But, because these interpretations are mutually incompatible, the founding was ultimately incoherent.

To oversimplify the debate: Was America’s founding modern, classical, Christian, or an incoherent mishmash of contending philosophies?

Carli N. Conklin’s The Pursuit of Happiness seeks to integrate several of these lines of thought. She’s focused on what the Founders meant in the Declaration of Independence when they spoke of an unalienable right to pursue happiness. Secondly, she explores the relationship of William Blackstone (1723-1780) and his Commentaries on the Laws of England to American Revolutionary thought and to that particular phrase in the Declaration. Blackstone was a Tory judge and jurist whose Commentaries were the most widely read study of English common law in the world. The American Founders were steeped in Blackstone’s arguments.

Conklin seeks to harmonize the intellectual strains about what consitituted “the good life” which informed the political discourse of early America. She examines British legal thought as embodied in the work of Blackstone and then turns to classical antiquity, including Aristotelian eudaimonia (well-being or flourishing) and ideas found in Polybius, Cicero, and the Stoics; Christian Scripture and theology; and the Scottish Enlightenment’s notion of common sense.

According to Conklin, Blackstone wanted to establish the study of English law as a science. He wanted to show that the common law contained a system of jurisprudence built on a natural law foundation, not just an ad hoc amalgamation of disconnected principles and decisions. At the same time, Blackstone maintained that the foundation and architecture of English law had become obscured, largely by Parliament’s “uneducated alterations to the common law.”

As Blackstone saw it, English legal education only made matters worse. Law students in England studied sixth-century Byzantine Emperor Justinian’s Corpus Juris Civilis, which distilled the basic principles of Roman law. They also focused on the Scholastic method of jurisprudence, writes Conklin, which “emphasized deductive, syllogistic reasoning.” She writes that Blackstone believed the method of the Scholastics produced “all of the complexities and inconsistencies in human law.” In contrast to the complexities of Scholastic method, “the Creator had made the path to knowledge of the law of nature open to every man through the pursuit of happiness.”

Scholasticism and its deductive-reasoning method dominated the medieval university system starting with the 13th-century writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, who drew upon the works of Aristotle, Conkin writes. Catholic clergy also adopted Scholastic methodology. Blackstone, however, had the same opinion of the Scholastic tradition as he did of Roman Catholicism, “as unnecessarily complex and ultimately unknowable by the layperson,” Conkin writes.

Blackstone rejected the idea that the first principles of the law of nature could only be known through a long chain of metaphysical reasoning. Rather, Blackstone wrote that the creator, a being of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, “contrive[d] the constitution and frame of humanity, that we should want no other prompter to enquire after and pursue the rule of right” than “our own self-love.” The Creator, says Blackstone, “has so intimately connected, so inseparably interwoven the laws of eternal justice with the happiness of each individual, that the latter cannot be attained but by observing the former.” This happiness was not just a matter of individual perception, however, but was real and substantial and, Conklin repeatedly insists, one with Aristotle’s notion of eudaimonia.

Conklin highlights the way Blackstone’s account of the laws of nature seems to draw on English thinkers Richard Hooker, the 16th-century Anglican theologian, and Isaac Newton—and also the Swiss Calvinist legal scholar Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui. Blackstone writes, “[W]hen the supreme being formed the universe, and created matter out of nothing, he impressed certain principles upon that matter, from which it can never depart, and without which it would cease to be.”

These principles, says Conklin, “are the laws of nature,” which the Creator impressed on both animate and inanimate nature. Moreover, according to Conklin, Blackstone followed the Scottish Enlightenment’s appropriation of Newton’s method, holding these principles or laws are learned through observation and induction, rather than deduction. In Conklin’s account, Blackstone’s science of jurisprudence synthesizes classical, Christian, and modern elements in an effort to restore the common law to its original architecture and foundation.

What about Blackstone’s relation to the Declaration and those most responsible for its text—Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams? On the one hand, Conklin claims her investigation shows the Founders and Blackstone meant the same thing by “the pursuit of happiness,” even though there’s no specific reference proving the Founders intended to invoke Blackstone when they wrote the Declaration. On the other hand, since Blackstone was the most widely read English jurist in the Revolutionary era, it’s natural to assume his thought guided the Founders’ pens.

above: portrait of Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui, date unknown, print by Heinrich Pfenninger (Wikimedia/public domain)Conklin does claim that the idea that England’s common law was founded on natural law influenced the Founders. Here Conklin invokes John Adams’ writing about the English “writs of assistance,” or English legal orders that could be used by authorities to search private property for contraband. Rebellion against these writs played a part in the Revolutionary War and in the Constitution’s prohibition against unlawful search and seizure. “[W]hen an act of Parliament is against common right or reason,” Adams wrote, “the Common Law will…adjudge such act to be void.”

For Blackstone, natural law provides the ground of common law. But Blackstone rejected the idea that common law could contramand even an unreasonable act of Parliament. On this matter, the Founders parted ways with Blackstone.

Conklin also points to the influence of the Greek philosopher Polybius’s description and affirmation of the Roman republic as a mixed regime and the Roman philosopher-statesman Cicero’s endorsement of Polybius’s view as influential. In particular, John Adams followed Cicero and Polybius, viewing each simple regime or pure form as tending toward corruption and a mixed regime as providing the “exact Ballance” and “Counterpoise” essential to preserving liberty and preventing tyranny.

Stoic moral philosophy, found in the writings of Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus, also influenced the Founders. Here Conklin notes the Stoic connection of natural law to right reason. To live virtuously is to live according to the natural or common law and right reason. To live according to this exceptionless natural law is “to live in harmony with logos” and according to human nature. Finally, following Carl Richard, Conklin holds the Founders got their understanding of slavery, liberty, and tyranny from classical thought. Slavery, “the antithesis to liberty,” prevented virtuous living. Following Richard, Conklin holds the Founders understood the opposition of tyranny to liberty in similar terms. Tyranny corrupts citizens and robs “them of their virtue.”

With respect to Christianity and the founding, Conklin notes that terms in the Declaration such as “Almighty God,” “Providence,” and “Supreme Judge” were distinctly Christian names for God in 18th-century England and America, as evidenced by the use of these terms in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and Articles of the Christian Religion, and in the Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith. Moreover, the Declaration refers to the “Creator,” who endows humans with inalienable rights. Such notions have no antecedent in classical thought.

While some Founders held heterodox beliefs, they were nevertheless immersed in Christian thought. University entrance exams, for instance, required potential students to translate passages from New Testament Greek into English. One such passage was John 1, which describes Jesus of Nazareth as logos—wisdom or reason—incarnate. From Heraclitus forward, logos played a central role in Greek philosophy. John 1 says divine logos created the world, thereby combining Greek and Hebraic ideas. In another familiar passage—Romans 1—St. Paul speaks of God’s law that is written on the heart and witnessed by conscience.

Conklin persuasively argues that these New Testament passages cohere with classical—and especially Stoic—understandings of natural law and natural order grounded in reason. And these points of convergence also cohere with the Founders’ views.

The final strand of founding thought Conklin harmonizes is the Scottish Enlightenment. Referencing Jefferson’s trinity of Bacon, Newton, and Locke, Conklin notes Bacon’s emphasis on induction and experimentalism and Locke’s claim that we can “discover” the law of nature, which Locke says is “enacted by a superior power and implanted in our hearts.” Her main contention, however, is that the Scottish Enlightenment and the American Founders appropriated the Newtonian method of inducing first principles through observation, not only for physics, but also for ethics, law, and politics. Through his method, Newton sought to uncover “the natural order of things.” Though heterodox in some of his religious beliefs, Newton affirmed the world was made by an infinitely powerful and wise creator who established laws of nature both universal and harmonious in every sphere of life.

According to Conklin, these four strands intermingled in the thought of the Founders. They were bound together by the idea of the pursuit of happiness—that each person should pursue his own well-being by means of virtue and obedience to immutable natural laws, which each can discover by induction and, especially, by reflecting on the constitution of human nature.

Professor Conklin advances a serious and intriguing argument that also raises some important questions. First, Blackstone misrepresents Scholastic moral philosophy. For Aquinas, the most fundamental principles of natural law are reached neither through deduction nor through observation. They’re not reached at all. The first principles of moral reason, as first principles, don’t admit of demonstration or inference. Rather they are self-evident.

above: Sir William Blackstone, detail of portrait by Tilly Kettle, c. 1755 (British Library/Wikimedia)Moreover, Aquinas holds the first principles of moral reason are not only right for all, but also known to all—though not necessarily consciously or as formulated propositions; knowledge of them may be inchoate and latent. One wonders, therefore, whether Blackstone’s rejection of the Scholastics might not involve more than a complaint about overly complicated syllogisms.

For modern theorists, the usual correlative of anti-Scholasticism was mechanistic philosophy, which included the rejection of final causes as part of the natures of things. For Aristotle—and for Cicero—good has the nature of an end. For Aristotle, eudaimonia is the final end of human action and therefore the highest good. Eudaimonia is desirable for its own sake and not for the sake of anything else.

Given the antipathy of modern mechanistic philosophy to final causality and given that Aristotle’s eudaimonia is the final end of human action, Conklin might have done more to demonstrate the compatibility of Aristotle with Newton and Blackstone. Some have argued Newtonian physics can be reformulated to be compatible with final causation. In an appendix to a later edition of his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, Newton spoke of the necessity of a God with final causes. But if so, this separates Newton from a central claim of modern mechanistic philosophy as conceived by Francis Bacon and his progeny.

Although Blackstone may have gotten his understanding of happiness from Burlamaqui, who got his from Aristotle, Blackstone’s claim that “the power of Parliament is absolute and without control” rejects a central—rather than peripheral—tenet of classical natural law. After all, essential to natural law is the proposition that human laws contrary to justice or natural law lose their power to bind.

These queries notwithstanding, Conklin’s claim that the Founders coherently threaded together ideas usually considered incompatible when crafting the Declaration strikes me as fundamentally correct. So does her claim that Christian Scripture and classical thought can be coherently synthesized, and that both of these cohere with the central claims of the Declaration of Independence. Most scholars see these things as fundamentally opposed. Conklin advances a bold and substantial challenge to their view.

Paul R. DeHart

Paul R. DeHart is associate professor of
political science at Texas State University.
He is the author of Uncovering the Constitution’s
Moral Design

Add a Comment


Join the conversation...

You are currently using the BETA version of our article comments feature. You may notice some bugs in submission and user experience. Significant improvements are coming soon!


The familiar passage from Paul that speaks of God's law written on the heart and witnessed by conscience is actually Romans 2.


Greatly appreciated the piece, though. Very helpful account of the lay of the land and perceptive thoughts about the book itself. Makes me want to pick up Ms. Conklin's book.


Tom Van Dyke
I found the author of the review, Paul R DeHart, far more persuasive and interesting than the author in question. :-) Once again, attempts to evade Aquinas's edifice fail; natural law necessarily passes straight through it. One did not credit Catholics in the Protestant milieu, or if one did, it would be like pulling teeth. "Tho the Schoolmen were corrupt, they were neither stupid nor unlearned: They could not but see that which all Men saw, nor lay more approv'd Foundations, than, That Man is naturally free; That he cannot justly be depriv'd of that Liberty without cause, and that he dos not resign it, or any part of it, unless it be in consideration of a greater good, which he proposes to himself."--Algernon Sidney, c. 1680 A prejudice that persists to this day, albeit mostly due to the lack of contemporary historians' understanding and familiarity with their work and influence, no different than Blackstone's.