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Philadelphia Freedom Revisited

Having spent an inordinate portion of the summer reading the academic jottings of recently confirmed Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan [1],  it is refreshing to remember that there is another lady on the federal bench who really does know what it is all about.

That would be U. S. Court of Appeals Judge Janice Rogers Brown. At the 46th annual meeting of the Philadelphia Society [2], she very succinctly described America’s founding principles. I had the pleasure of hearing those remarks in person which The Fund for American Studies [3] received her permission to transcribe.

“The historian Jacques Barzun divides the last 500 years into three eras: The years 1500-1660 were dominated by the issue of man’s relation to God; 1661-1789 by debating an individual’s status and the mode of government; 1790-1920 by the question of how to achieve social and economic equality,” she reminded Society members at the April meeting in Philadelphia. “The American Revolution falls into the second category; the French Revolution is in the third.”

“That is, the American Revolution represented the culmination of religious consciousness applied to the designs of government, while the French Revolution heralded the beginning of the secular age. And this discontinuity in worldview has made all the difference.

“America’s Founders were not utopian idealists. They acknowledged the practical limits of human reason, understood the necessity of transcendence and relied on experience. In contrast, the French Revolution succumbed to the powerful notion of abstract human rights and insisted on reinventing the world through principles that are utterly divorced from the reality of human nature. According to the French revolutionaries, man can remake his history, generation by generation, through some collective cultural process.

“The American philosophy of the rights of man relied heavily on the indissoluble connections between rationality, freedom, justice and property. Fully cognizant of man’s aptitude for folly and the antinomy between reason and power, the Founders made a serious effort to limit government—to make it subservient to the people.”

We should note that Judge Brown received a standing ovation for her remarks from a capacity crowd.

Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia [4].

If you would like to comment on this article, e-mail mal.kline@academia.org [5].