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DEBATE/ Beyond Wishful Thinking: A Response to Schlueter

In response to what written by Nathan Schlueter in a previous article, PATRICK DENEEN argues that “Natural law liberalism” is a chimera that does not exist in the American tradition

The Committee presenting the Declaration to Congress, by John Trumbull The Committee presenting the Declaration to Congress, by John Trumbull

I remain grateful for the ongoing discussion generated by my article, “Unsustainable Liberalism.” To me, this robust dialogue suggests more than just an academic interest in political philosophy; I sense a preoccupation with the dire and self-destructive course that our liberal democracy seems to be taking. To diagnose the elusive illnesses that plague us is no easy task, but it is one that seems urgent (and thus far richly rewarding), owing to the wide-ranging interest in my exchange with my colleague Phillip Muñoz.

In this debate, my friend Nathan Schlueter recently has raised another intriguing possibility: The American founding should be understood as a continuation of the pre-modern tradition of natural law. Schlueter’s argument echoes, if it does not exactly replicate, a longstanding claim with a particularly Catholic pedigree in the American tradition, one that began with Orestes Brownson, was further developed by John Courtney Murray, and is today advanced by Catholic scholars such as Peter Augustine Lawler. As nicely characterized by Lawler, this tradition can be encapsulated as the “built better than they knew” approach to understanding the American tradition. The claim is that even as the American founders explicitly based the founding on the philosophical tradition of social-contract liberalism, they were instinctive heirs, and even unconscious proponents, of an older natural law tradition.

Schlueter pushes this argument in a somewhat unusual direction: he claims that the founders were altogether cognizant of a tradition about which he admits they had little explicit to say. Following Christopher Wolfe, he calls this “natural law liberalism,” and argues that this is our true inheritance. He contends that “it does not matter that none of the American founders ever articulated the principles of natural law liberalism in a systematic way…. As John Cardinal Newman said of the Apostles, the American founders did not build better than they knew, they knew more than they said.”

Now, claims about whether or not the founders knew about and used the natural law tradition are hard to refute, since they are philosophical versions of the dog that didn’t quite bark, but both Brownson and Schlueter’s claims have every sign of being a form of wishful thinking masked as political philosophy. I wish, in fact, that their claims were true—because it would make it easy for conservatives of a certain type to rest easy that there are ample resources in the American tradition for correcting our current course. The reason why my claims about the self-undermining nature of the liberal founding so disquiet many of my conservative friends, I believe, is that they raise anxiety that our tradition may have fewer native resources than we might believe or want for the restoration of the virtuous republic that we all desire.

I think this disquiet comes not simply from any anxieties induced by my argument alone, but also from the sheer implausibility of the counter-claim. By Schlueter’s telling, the founding is the culmination of a several-thousand-year-old tradition dating back to Aristotle and Cicero, but one that was suddenly and decisively unsettled around the year 1900 (or perhaps 1960) and which, over a relatively short period, has completely routed the natural law basis of the founding and left us with a corrupted political order, a dysfunctional economic system, a degraded and degrading culture, and an exhausted civilization. Forgive my skepticism.