Many Americans seem to think that the Founding Fathers conceived a new republic on a blank slate, but today’s Fourth of July celebration iS a good occasion to remember that the ideas about human liberty contained in the Declaration of Independence grew out of a longer intellectual tradition.
There’s a nice reminder of that reality in the latest issue of Humanities magazine, which is published by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The issue contains some thoughts by scholar Leo Damrosch on the 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Born in Geneva in 1712, Rousseau had no formal education, but his thoughts on politics would help shape the course of the America Revolution and, later, the French Revolution.
Rousseau consistently questioned political inequality, considering it a condition to be relieved, not accepted. That was a radical idea in the world of the 18th century, a political universe largely based on the rule of kings.
Rousseau’s suggestion that citizens might be able to survive — and even thrive — without the dictates of a royal court helped embolden American revolutionaries. Damrosch says that Rousseau’s influence on the American Revolution has often been downplayed because he had a reputation as a radical, which made it unwise for revolutionaries to claim him openly.
Even so, says Damrosch, the Founding Fathers’ debt to Rousseau is clear. Here’s Damrosch: “Jefferson’s immortal line, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights,’ comes directly out of ‘The Social Contract,’ published two hundred and fifty years ago this year.”
Rousseau, like the Founding Fathers, was an idealist. “That is Rousseau’s legacy as a political thinker: to remind us of the gap between what ought to be and what we have to settle for, and to inspire our belief in ourselves as a communal whole,” Damrosch tells readers.
Rousseau’s ideas were appropriated by leaders of the French Revolution, which occurred several years after his death. French revolutionaries invoked Rousseau as their hero in committing a list of atrocities. “Rousseau,” Damrosch writes, “would have been appalled.”
Rousseau’s influence on the thinking of Founding Fathers such as Jefferson is a reminder that the quest for human freedom is not a uniquely American pursuit. The history of the French Revolution reminds us that revolutionary zeal can often take a wrong turn.
Maybe the real lesson is that political movements, like the people who advance them, are invariably touched by flaws.
But the true accomplishment of America’s founding is that it eventually led to a constitutional system of government. That system has given citizens the means to bring the ideals of liberty and the pursuit of happiness closer to reality.
We celebrate those ideals today, as America blows out the candles on another birthday.