Theories of Human Nature at the Founding

Daniel N. Robinson
Oxford University

( Amherst College, November 11, 2003)


For those who were not present last week, I should take a few lines from the first lecture to provide a bridge to my remarks of this evening. What I said then was that the Founders, notwithstanding their well known disagreements, were inclined to regard moral science as,

"... basic to the political project. Once the view is adopted that political entities are made by human beings and in response to their needs and rational desires, the central questions become located in the human sciences, chiefly the sciences of mental life and of action. A science of action - contrasted with a science of reflexes and reactions - is by its very nature a moral science. Behavior rises to the level of action when plausible accounts of the action require recourse to matters of volition, choice, desire, and the principles to which these are beholden. The foundation, then, of political science is moral science. And the foundation of moral science is human nature itself..."

In the matter of moral science, I offered a sketch of the broader philosophical framework within which the Founders participated; the framework being that ageless contest between passion and reason; a contest at once worrisome and unavoidable, for, absent the energy and conviction supplied by the passions, the plans of reason must remain unrealized. At the same time, passions in the service of no more than popular enthusiasm, all regulating authority now suppressed, must yield a civic wreckage. Thus do we find a perplexed John Adams, in a letter to Richard Price, in the year following the French Revolution, complaining: "I know not what to make of a republic of thirty million atheists".

It is a commonplace to reduce Adams's form of mock perplexity to the Founders' sometimes grudging but ubiquitous acknowledgement of a divine, providential intelligence. The usual way of explaining this is to note the emergence of something called "Deism" in the period, attempting here to distinguish between various Christian orthodoxies and a less committed position on religious matters. A closer examination of Deism itself is in order, however, lest one miss the central point of Adams's perplexity. It is useful to begin with the ideas dominant within Enlightenment thought, for the Enlightenment was a veritable workshop of theoretical fancies and truly fantastical visions.

Where to begin...Perhaps the most instructive starting point, at least for developments that were most important in the American colonies, is with Jonathan Edwards, already at war with Deism. In his recent study of Edwards, Gerald McDermott notes that Deism, the very religion of the Enlightenment, put Edwards on a collision course with the entire Enlightenment project. The deism that Edwards would oppose stood as a challenge not solely to the truth of scripture but to the authority that truth claimed for itself. But it is revealing that Edwards himself, even as he sermonized to the native American Indians of Stockbridge in 1753, would assert the authority of reason to establish that the Holy Book is, indeed, the word of God.

The Deism Edwards confronted was by the middle of the Eighteenth Century, something different from the original. By Edwards' time, as an ism it struck many as just a variant of the fashionable atheism of the salons of Paris. But even older versions, adopted by the Levellers during England's Revolution, were so grossly materialistic as to offend both the faithful and the sturdy aristocratic sensibilities still obtaining in the colonies. The word itself has a history long predating the Enlightenment and marked by controversy. By the early decades of the seventeenth century one witnesses whole armies of free-thinkers, atheists, libertines. Burton's classic The Anatomy of Melancholy even reserves a special psychiatric category for all of them; that of religious melancholy arising from the woeful thesis that God is merely Nature itself.

Of the colonial variants, the most influential were advanced by Charles Blount and Charles Gildon, both widely read and claiming large and diverse followings. To complicate the story, Blount actually regarded himself as an opponent of deism, and Gildon's The Deist's Manual ( 1705) reserved pride of place to the Bible. But in 1695 Blount would declare reason to be "the Supream and Primitive Director of every Man", insisting further that, "to infringe its Liberty of directing, is to invade the Common Charter of Nature, and every Man's Right and Property..." As for Charles Gildon, he is firmly in the camp of those outraged by the materialism of Hobbes, and counters it with an alternative narrative:

"Man then being confes'd to be the Effect of an Intelligent and good Cause, not of Chance, this Cause could want, neither the Will, nor the power to put him into a Station capable of yielding him that Happiness, which was design'd (for) him; but it being evident, that this entirely depends on Society; it follows that Society is of divine Institution...It is also as evident, that God cou'd not in his Wisdom and Goodness, lay on Man a necessity of Society , without furnishing him with means of making that Society conducive to that End...This Means is evidently Reason " .

Here the pursuit of happiness is inextricably connected to life in society. Happiness is attainable through the use of reason by which all the rules necessary for the preservation of a decent and nurturing society can be discerned. But there is really more to it than even this. On Gildon's understanding, it is by way of the right understanding of human nature itself that one is led to true religion. As he says in Manual,

"To make a Religion true it ought to know our nature, because

the true Knowledge of the Nature of Man, his true Good,

and true Religion, are inseparable" 11 . .

There were powerful examples at work in forcing the wiser heads toward rationalism and away from fundamentalism. Chief among these, I would suggest, were witch persecutions of the period we celebrate as, yes, Renaissance. The centuries of trials and executions that followed encouraged those of a scientific bent, including astrologers and alchemists, herbalists and anatomists, to record the "objective" aims of their studies lest they be tarred with the same brush as the witches. Thus does a rhetoric of objectivity appears a century before Bacon's Novum Organum . 12

It would simplify matters if, along with so much received scholarship, deism could be explained as the reasonable person's reliance on Bacon and Newton and Locke to guide all speculation, restricting confidence to those propositions clearly confirmed by science. The problem with attempts to reach an understanding this way is that science itself, throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, retained vestiges of earlier superstitions and errors. Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (1628) is again instructive. Having argued, on the basis of numerous medical and scientific studies and reports, that mental illnesses "...have their chief seat and organs in the head", he goes on to conclude that those most prone to madness are persons born under the moon, Saturn or Mercury, as well as those with little heads, hot hearts, cold stomachs, moist brains and melancholy parents." 13 The witch trials, it should be remembered, were conducted under rules of evidence, were disciplined exercises in judicature, and - whether the court was secular or ecclesiastical - were mindful of the importance to retain the confidence and trust of the wider world. Given the very theory of witchery, however, trials were open to "evidence" that must appear absurd and macabre in retrospect. The "tear test", the flotation test, and other guides supplied by that best-selling manual, the Malleus Maleficarum , were bound up with a deeper set of issues and beliefs which, had they been true, the tests would have been as apt as finger-printing. At our current distance, it is not easy to calibrate the horror and shame that the refined intellectual community of the Eighteenth Century would experience, reflecting on persecutions and executions of such a nature - some of them still going on as the Federalist Papers were written. Progress, we must understand, is not always monotonic! But of the historical and cultural events that were likely to give prominence and sober respectability to the brand of Deism embraced by the Founders, surely the Witch Persecutions must rank high.

Against the background, then, of anti-spiritism and the rejection of all that smacked of superstition, Newton's achievements -- recognized as exemplifications of the power of those methods developed and advanced by Francis Bacon -- were a spur to materialistic theories of mind and mechanistic theories of society. In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Locke had proposed an essentially Newtonian theory of mind - corpuscular in its elementary composition and, through the gravitation-like laws of association, soon furnished with complex ideas - a Newtonian theory that surely supported more radical theories of "thinking matter". In France especially these implications were drawn out with confidence, even a kind of gleeful defiance in the face of traditional religious doctrine. Consider La Mettrie's outrageous thesis in Man: A Machine: The soul itself is but "an enlightened machine". 14 But by La Mettrie's time, these currents were already deep and swift. Descartes' dualistic psychology, which conferred independent ontological status on the mental, had already faced heavy criticism from such illustrious contemporaries as Pierre Gassendi and Thomas Hobbes. The entire project of Seventeenth Century science led increasingly toward mechanistic and reductionistic approaches to all of nature, including human nature.

An especially interesting chapter in this book of Enlightenment speculation features none other than Franz Anton Mesmer, the father of Mesmerism . Consider these lines of his in 1799 concerning his own discoveries:

"It will become known that the preservation of man is based, in the same way as his existence is based, on general laws of Nature; that man possesses properties analogous to those of the magnet; that he is endowed with a sensitivity by which he can be in contact with beings who surround him, those who are farthest away; that he is capable of being responsible for...motion which he can impart to other bodies, animate or inanimate." 15

Mesmer was another who would Newtonianize not just the mind but the entire body, illustrate its kinship to the material world, reduce its diseases to corpuscular misalignments. Moving to Paris to avoid scandals surrounding him in Vienna (the worst of which involved the young, blind and gifted Freulein Paradies), he could take some satisfaction in the eagerness of Parisiens to purchase "mesmeric water" from street vendors, and the comparable eagerness of educated and sophisticated members of Court to seek his therapeutic services. Our own Benjamin Rush proclaimed mesmerism to be one of the greatest of all contributions to science, and some thought it timely for Mesmer himself to have an audience with George Washington. Finally, celebrity and ever more daring claims called upon the French Crown to appoint a commission to evaluate the whole operation. The committee included not only Drs. Guillotine and Lavoisier from France, but was chaired by the redoubtable Benjamin Franklin, by now an icon of scientific acumen and unparalleled good sense.

Instead of waging a war of theories, the commission looked at the data and asked for demonstrations. Dr. Deslon, a recognized adept of Mesmerism, proceeded to mesmerize one of the trees in Franklin's garden to show how the forces now imparted to the tree would influence a human subject. Sure enough, the chosen subject entered the garden and then fainted -- but in front of the wrong tree! Jefferson, in Paris when the controversy had reached a high pitch, reflected on the claims and noted that they constituted " imputation of so grave a nature as would bear an action at law in America." After the great TREE-experiment, he would record in his Journal on February 5, 1785, "Animal magnetism dead -- ridiculed". 16

In mesmerism Jefferson saw at work the same theory of occult forces, the same appeal to village credulity, the same counterfeit science that will generate folly and horrors in every age. The disciples of mesmerism were members of that utopian Cercle Social that promised social harmony and universal brotherhood, their audiences including the likes of Condorcet and Tom Paine. 17 Jefferson, of all the founders, might have been expected to find in the combination of physical science and a democratic theory of social organization, kinship with his own views. But quite the contrary was the effect. John Adams, of course, had a more natural and perfect immunity to such speculation. In response to the characterization of men such as Mesmer as honest and sincere, he would write to Jefferson that, "so were the Worshippers of the White Bull in Egypt", declaring such persons to possess "...great talent for Lunaticks." 18 The Founders were serious men.

There were, of course, more systematic and philosophically refined arguments for materialism, perhaps the most influential at the time of the Founding being that advanced by Josephy Priestley. Priestley was a controversial dissenting clergyman who emigrated to the Colonies in 1794, already enjoying great celebrity as a scientist and as a political essayist. He would come to found the first Unitarian church in the United States, his sermons attended by both Jefferson and Adams. Long before his emigration, he stood as an ardent defender of revolutionary movements on both sides of the Atlantic. With the publication of The History and present State of Electricity 1767. he joined the ranks of Franklin as a master of the scientific world view. The next year, with the publication of his Essay on the First Principles of Government (1768), he also became ranked among the defenders of liberty, insisting that the pursuit of happiness is an ideal to be furthered by governments. Nonetheless, in the same breath, as it were, Priestley would adopt the physiological psychology of David Hartley - calling himself Hartley's disciple - and compose two vigorously argued treatises, his Disquisitions relating to Matter and Spirit and The Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity , both appearing in 1777. The position is a subtle and complex mix of Christian doctrine, scientific doctrine and Priestley's own original but not fully consistent thought. In the tradition of Augustine, he regards humankind as fallen, thus utterly devoid of that full and rational autonomy that might have obtained before the fall. The cosmos is under the control of a providential divinity who, in the end, secures what is good through the otherwise futile and often malign undertakings of the sinful. Joseph is sold in the temple by his own brothers, but this is merely an early chapter in a story that concludes with the deliverance of the Jews from Egypt. If Priestley's psychology seems as rigidly deterministic as, for example, Twentieth Century behaviorism, it shares with such psychological schools an inherent optimism, even a limited sort of earthly perfectionism. As the mind is formed by the associative processes achieved at the level of the brain and nerves, the right kind of environment, the right sort of political and social world, will result in the formation of mental lives at once rational, competent, pious and at peace. That he would defend the analogy between his phlogiston theory and the revolution in France is another example of the strong tendency to reduce complex social phenomena to chemical or corpuscular types of events, thus reinforcing the notion that science has the range and power to explain both.

Against Priestley must be arrayed the criticisms of Thomas Reid. It has been said that, in the time of the Founding, the choice on offer in the matter of a worthy philosophy of human nature was between Hartley and Reid; thus, to some extent, between Priestley and Reid. 19 This is too large a subject for inclusion here, but at least a gloss on the main point is important, for the point itself is important. Reid, as might be guessed, had little patience with speculation as a substitute for systematic observation. His defense of Baconian science was firm and unwavering. Thus, a psychological theory, merged with theological hermeneutics on so vexing a matter as freedom of the will, was precisely the sort of philosophy Reid regarded as useless when not positively pernicious. Priestley had criticized Reid and his supporters, and had been especially dismissive of their reliance on common sense. 20 In rebuttal, Reid was eager to note that common sense, in the Reidian sense, is reason's "first-born", the two "inseparable in their nature", but that reason itself has "two offices". The first of these judges of that which is self-evident and is, as Reid says, "purely the gift of Heaven. And where Heaven has not given it, no education can supply the want". This is the office of reason that just is common sense; or, put another way, that office of reason that we reach intuitively. The second office of reason is to draw conclusions from what is self-evident to that which is not. 21 It is not necessary here to underscore the relationship Reid establishes between truths that are self-evident and what is finally within the ambit of any rational being considering the matters at hand closely.

It is then possible to consider the matter of free will, not beholden to Priestley's (Hartleian) theory, but as a student of nature should consider things. Rehearsing what he calls the first principles of contingent truth, Reid offers as one such principle: "That we have some degree of power over our actions, and the determinations of our will". Implied, of course, is that, otherwise, we could not be called to account for our actions. Indeed, had we no cognizance of any such power, it is doubtful that we could ground any belief we might have in the likely success of our actions - or even that the actions were our own to begin with. 22

Hartley or Reid? Priestley or Reid? To set the options in these terms is likely to be frustrated by the disinclination of most of the Founders to take sides on metaphysical disputes. Jefferson, as is well known, was very much inclined toward scientific - scientistic - modes of explanation. If he found mesmerism a species of quackery, he was entirely comfortable with such works as Pierre Cabanis's treatise on the relationship between the mental and the physiological (a comfort not shared a half-century later by, e.g., Thomas Carlyle). The great French chemist, Lavoisier, who served with Franklin and Dr Guillotine on the Mesmer commission would, alas, meet his own death through Dr Guillotine's infamous invention. Thus, in addition to what was a long tradition of theoretical conservatism, the Founders had the daily and escalating evidence from France of the ease with which science and thought itself could be shaped to serve political ends having little more substance than whatever enthusiasm can transfer to a set of ideas. The Founders were striving to be correct politically, not politically correct, and this aspiration called for a workable and systematic understanding of human nature; an understanding in which the ratio of facts to assumptions was high.

Over and against the scientific loyalties expressed by some of the Founders (where Rush and Jefferson probably rank at or near the top), there were those such as Adams who, if I may say, "knew better". Their admiration for Reid was not sectarian - Jefferson greatly admired Reid as well. The Reidian that was especially serviceable was that which was faithful to the science of Newton; a science not of elusive "causes", but of laws and principles. Even more than this, there was the Reid of the first principles of contingent truth who, if he does not successfully refute the skeptic and the sophist, provides others with a robust justification for ignoring them. By way of the diffuse influence of Scottish thought, -- yes, even including the often irksome skepticism of Hume -- the Founders resisted metaphysical extremes and the extremes of action they often encourage.

This same influence protected the colonial consumer from most of the products still minted in Europe's frippery shops. Where the philosophes of France were proud of their originality and daily discoveries, even the otherwise admiring Jefferson was content to acknowledge that the American Declaration of Independence claimed nothing inventive for itself. As he said on this point in a letter to Henry Lee,

"Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c".

Rather, a balance was sought and even found between the speculative and the practical, between lofty and sincerely held principles and the dangerous business of genuine self-governance. No one figure among the Founders established a perfect balance within his own judgments, but as a collective, willingly or grudgingly accessible to the chastening refinement of close intellectual combat, the Founders produced something remarkable and original: A means by which a "fallen creature" might set about to achieve decent ends with the aid of a government designed intentionally to hold at bay its several powerful branches. Socrates, finding the character of the good man too difficult to examine, proposed to enlarge the field of view by examining what constitutes the good Polis . The founders worked rather in the reverse direction. They were satisfied that philosophy and science, had their limitations; that a sober comprehension of human history was the faithful guide as to the good and bad in human nature; that core principles of common sense, in the light of this history, left little doubt as to what counts in human life, in life within the Polis; and that a political world indifferent or inimical to the essential nature of human nature could not find in that nature the sustaining power of fidelity.


Cited in Joseph J. Ellis, Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams . New York: Norton & Co., 1994; p. 92.

Paul Conkin is representative. He puts it this way: "The confident assurance of an ordered, logical, comprehensible universe rested on the belief in a purposeful creator." Paul Conkin, Self-Evident Truths: Being a Discourse on the Origins and Development of American Government . Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1974; p. 121

Gerald McDermott, Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods: Christian Theology, Enlightenment Religion, and Non-Christian Faiths . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000; p. 217.

Edwards' target would not become official doctrine until well after Edwards' time. By then it would result in what Hans Frei called The Eclipse of the Biblical Narrative Hans Frei, The Eclipse of the Biblical Narrative . New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974.

McDermott, op. cit. , pp. 72-73.

For Deism and the Levellers, see Margaret Jacob, The Newtonians and the English Revolution 1689-1720 . Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1976; pp. 23-28.

Roger Emerson suggests that it is but an extension of the Reformation itself, with the emphasis on the liberty of individual conscience. See his "Latitudinarianism and the English Deists" in Deism, Masonry and the Enlightenment. J. A. Leo Lemay, ed. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1987; pp. 19-48.

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). Floyd Dell and Paul Jordan-Smith, eds. New York: Tudor Publishing, 1938; pp. 870-932.

Quoted in Roger Emerson, ALatitudinarians and the English Deists@, p. 25. In Deism, Masonry and the Enlightenment . J. A. Leo Lemay, ed. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1987.

10 . Charles Gildon, The Deist's Manual (1705). New York: Garland Publishing Co., 1976; p. 220 . .

11 Ibid, pp. 292-29512 .

12 This is discussed at length in chap. 3 of, Daniel N. Robinson, Wild Beasts and Idle Humours: The Insanity Defense from Antiquity to the Present . Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.

1 3 Burton, op. cit. , Part I, sec. 1, Member 3, subsection 2.

14 The book was published in 1748, three years before La Mettrie's death. He was forced to find protection from Frederick the Great of Prussia. Man: A machine. M. W, Calkins, trans. New York: Open Court, 1912.

1 5 Mesmerism: A Translation of the Original Scientific and Medical Writings of F. A. Mesmer. George Bloch, trans. Los Altos, California: William Kaufmann, Inc., 1980; p. 93.

1 6 Robert Darnton, Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France . Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968; pp. 62-88

17 Ibid, p. 134

18 John Adams, Letter of February 3, 1821, in The Adams - Jefferson Letters, p. 571-572

19 Richard Allen, David Hartley on Human Nature. SUNY, Albany, 2002

20 Joseph Priestley, An Examination of Dr Reid's Inquiry into the Human Mind... (London, 1774)

21 Thomas Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (1785). Derek Brookes, ed. Edinburgh Univ. Press, 2002; pp. 432-433

22 Ibid, pp. 478-479

23 T homas Jefferson, Writings (The Library of America) ; New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1984), 1501

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