One of the pervasive themes of Edmund Burke’s writing and career was the dangers of a levelling spirit—the desire to destroy, rather than reform, any institutions which seem responsible for injustice. This was certainly characteristic of the French Revolutionaries, who targeted nearly every social and political institution for destruction. In his Reflections, Burke argued that such a tendency comes from a false and simplistic assessment of history, which draws basic lessons from the surface level of human experience, failing to see the deeper causes of so much human misery. The past shows us that “pride, ambition, avarice, revenge,” and other vices infect human understanding, inflame political passions, and give rise to calamities, civil strife, and a host of wrongs. Says Burke:
This passage is an excerpt from The Gospel of Buddha, a 1915 work by Paul Carus. The work as a whole, and this passage in particular, is a reflection of Carus’ goal of making Buddhism more familiar and accessible, and thus sympathetic, to a Western audience.
The Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith (1723–1790) was the author of two books, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). In Part VI, Section 2, Chapter 2 of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith discusses the moral tendencies that underlie the organization of society. In this chapter, Smith observes that most people tend to feel warmly towards communities in which they are members and want them to succeed. People often feel both stronger sympathy and its associated feelings of closeness with the community and cooler sentiments towards neighbouring communities against which theirs might be compared. The most obvious community into which each of us falls is our country. But we also exist in communities within that country, “orders and societies”, which have their own interests and identities. The established powers and privileges of the national government and the orders and societies that fall underneath it make up the constitution of the country. Smith says that although we want to defend and promote the powers, privileges, and immunities of the orders and societies in which we are members, we must also understand that the existence and flourishing of these orders and societies depend upon the success of the country as a whole. Love for our country seems not to be related to our natural love for humanity, since we will prefer the well-being of our country to that of others even if the other country has far more people who could be made happy. Rather,
The poet William Blake famously argued that, in Paradise Lost, John Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Satan gets most of the best lines in the poem, is arguably a more exciting character than any of the heavenly occupants or newly created humans, and he had a strong appeal to the idealistic Romanticism ushered in by Blake and brought to a peak by poets like Byron and Shelly. For them, Satan’s arguments for independence and freedom held a great attraction. This passage from one of Satan’s speeches in Paradise Lost contains two of the poem’s most quoted lines, and neatly sums up the kind of bold argumentation that attracted readers like Blake.
About a year into the presidency of John Tyler, Henry Clay proposed a constitutional amendment allowing a presidential veto to be overridden by a simple majority of both houses of Congress. Opposition to executive power was one of the most consistent themes of John Calhoun’s career, but he saw in this amendment a dangerous threat to the constitutional order. His resulting 1842 “Speech on the Veto Power” was long considered to be one of the most articulate descriptions of the character of that constitutional order. A good constitution required a broad concurrence so as to make the government, as much as practicable, one “of the whole people.”
This quote is from John Adams (1734-1826), a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, one of the framers of the Constitution, and the second president of the United States of America. This quote, and especially its famous last line, expresses a sentiment widely held among the statesmen of the Founding Generation that no matter how well a constitution is constructed, It will not insure freedom and prosperity unless it is supported by a moral, virtuous population.
David Hume (1711-1776) was a moral philosopher, historian, and leading member of the Scottish Enlightenment. In an essay entitled, “Of the Standard of Taste,” included at the end of Part I of the Liberty Fund collection of his essays, Hume outlines his perception-and-contemplation-driven account of judgements concerning taste and beauty:
In the debate over slavery leading up to the Civil War, religious arguments were presented by both proslavery and antislavery spokesmen. In some instances, the same biblical passages were used as evidence in defense of their position, as was the case with The Epistle of Paul to Philemon, as referenced here by Frederick Douglass.
John Calhoun’s Disquisition on Government is one of the only theoretical treatises on government written by a prominent American statesman. In it, Calhoun offered some of his more lasting insights on the nature and purpose of constitutionalism.
The epic poems of John Milton (1608-1674)–Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes–unite erudite recountings of their biblical subjects with explorations of the complex political landscape of 17th century England. In Paradise Regained, for example, Satan’s temptations lead Jesus to this meditation on the true virtue of kings.
The Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith (1723–1790) was the author of two books, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). He is best known today for his economic arguments, especially arguments in favour of free trade between nations. In Book IV, Chapter 2 of Wealth of Nations, Smith writes:
Despite possessing a penetrating mind on matters relating to liberty and constitutional government, John Calhoun’s reputation will always bear the stain of his unflinching defense of the Southern slave society. Sharing the belief, almost as ubiquitous as it was wrong-headed, that white and black could not live freely together, he subscribed to the increasingly widespread view among slaveholders that slavery in the South was a neo-feudal, beneficent institution. This paternalism came out on the Senate floor in 1837.
The Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith (1723–1790) was the author of two books, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). Among the best-known passages in his works is the following from Book I, Chapter 2 of Wealth of Nations:
This lengthy passage from the eighteenth chapter of Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1787) demands the serious scrutiny of every historian who genuinely wants to understand both the nature of human freedom and its historical meaning. Few paragraphs have delved so frankly and deeply into the effects of slavery to reveal as much as this encapsulation.
This quotation is taken from Smith’s Lectures on Jurisprudence and reflects his own disgust with what he saw as the immoral institution of slavery. It is a good example of the moral philosophy he expounds in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which our sympathy for our fellow human beings forms the basis for moral behavior.
On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Its limited scope, freeing slaves only in those states “in rebellion against the United States,” did not satisfy abolitionists but did infuriate many in the North who were pro-Union but not anti-slavery.
Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland in 1818, escaped in 1838, and became a leader in the movement for the abolition of slavery. After the Civil War ended, he continued to advocate for the political rights of American Blacks.
Frederick Douglass, best known as a strong advocate of the abolition of slavery, was also an early and outspoken supporter for women’s rights in general and especially women’s right to vote.
This quote from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century thinker and journalist, James Mill (1773-1836) expresses the essential point, one that extends back to ancient historical times, that those who are entrusted with setting the rules and protecting the peace of a community, must themselves be kept within the laws of that community.
This quotation is one of the clearest formulations of the implications of what has been called Jeremy Bentham’s “Utility Principle,” which forms the foundation of his entire philosophical architecture.
In “Government” (1824) James Mill argued that the benefits of representative government would be lost if the pool of electors did not share the same interests as the general community and asked if a portion of the community could fairly reflect the interests of the whole.
James Mill wrote a dozen articles for the 1824 Supplement to the Encyclopedia Britannica, including one on “Government,” which is primarily concerned with the necessity of limiting government power. Before turning to his main theme, however, he offered a thumbnail sketch of the origins of government from a utilitarian perspective.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and associates (Lucretia Mott, Frederick Douglass, etc.) argued women should be allowed the right to vote during the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention held at Seneca Falls, New York. They all discussed the basis for the reason they believed that women should have the right to vote. They based it on Blackstone’s Commentaries. Specifically, they reference this quote:
The Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith (1723–1790) was the author of two books, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). In his discussion “Of Restraints upon the importation from Foreign Countries of such Goods as can be produced at Home”, Smith writes the following passage:
Adam Smith (1723-1790) argues that justice is the only virtue which may be imposed by force: