The following is adapted from the essay “Are We All German Now?,” which was originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of Modern Age.
We like to think of Jefferson drafting the Declaration of Independence with Locke or Cicero at his elbow. But shortly after the Declaration was signed, Jefferson proposed as symbols of Americans’ new freedom “Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon chiefs, from whom we claim the honor of being descended and whose political principles and form of government we have assumed.”
Although it has become unfamiliar, the argument about the Teutonic sources of American liberty is not new. Until about the First World War, the so-called Gothic thesis was a staple of American historiography. In works with titles like The Germanic Origin of the New England Towns, historians such as Herbert Baxter Adams, a founder of the American Historical Association, argued that the British settlers of North America were “merely only one branch of the great Teutonic race, a single offshoot from the tree of liberty which takes deep hold upon all the past.”
The stakes in this debate were political as well as intellectual. Proponents of the Gothic thesis aimed to prove, in James Ceaser’s words, that “constitutionalism derived from mores or ‘culture’ rather than from theoretical principles.” One implication was that people or peoples of non-Germanic origin lacked the habits and assumptions necessary to sustain ordered liberty. Not coincidentally, most admirers of Gothic liberty were old-stock Americans who opposed immigration from outside northern Europe.
The Gothic thesis should not be reduced to crude racialism. But if it is to offer lessons to a multiethnic society, it has to be modified from its original form. We can learn from the ancient Germans and their descendants. In order to do so, however, we need criteria that allow us to identify those aspects of their customs that teach something of enduring importance.
To put the same point in a slightly more abstract way, history cannot dismiss theory or philosophy so easily as the Gothic thesis suggests. The ancestral may contain elements of the good, but these elements are worth recovering because they are good—not simply because they are old. This process of recovery inevitably calls on nonancestral elements of reflection and judgment. Facts become examples only in the light of reason.
Jefferson understood that history offers political instruction only when it is subjected to rational scrutiny. Rather than pitting Enlightenment against tradition, as the Jacobins would later do, he assumed that both strands converged in the cause of liberty. Like the Whig historians who followed him, Jefferson’s interpretations of the past were political rather than conceptual. The important distinction for him was between the friends and enemies of freedom, rather than the specific practices or theories invoked by either side.
Thomas Jefferson’s 1774 tract “A Summary View of the Rights of British North America” reflects this moralized approach. According to Jefferson, the Saxon ancestors made use of “a right which nature has given to all men, of departing from the country to which chance, not choice, has placed them, of going in quest of new habitations, and of there establishing new societies, under such laws and regulations as to them shall seem most likely to promote public happiness.” In Jefferson’s view, the British settlers of North America made use of a similar right when they took possession of new lands. Because the Saxon migrants owed no “superiority or dependence” to their kinsmen on the Continent, the American colonists were under no special obligation to their mother country.
This looks like a historical argument for independence. Considered more carefully, however, it reflects Jefferson’s assumption that the ancestral was authoritative only to the extent that it corresponds to the rational. Jefferson does not argue that the American colonists are independent of the Crown simply because they were descendants of the Saxons. Rather, he contends that both people made use of the same “right which nature has given to all men.”
For Jefferson, then, there was nothing inherently Germanic about the freedom to separate oneself from an existing social order and to set up a better one in a different place. The German case was relevant because it exemplified a “universal law” that is neither historically nor ethnically specific.
Jefferson’s view of the common law assumed a similar correspondence between history and philosophy. Jefferson preferred common law to feudal statute not just because it was older but also because it reflected more fully the nonhistorical rights of man. In an 1812 letter, Jefferson rejected “the ordinary doctrine, that we brought with us from England the common law rights. This narrow notion was a favorite in the first moment of rallying to our rights against Great Britain. But it was of men who felt their rights before they had thought of their explanation. The truth is, that we brought with us the rights of men; of expatriated men.” Again, Jefferson bases the authority of historical example on philosophical truth. The colonists were aware of their rights because they were lucky enough to be descendants of the Saxons—but their rights themselves did not rest on this inheritance.
Jefferson also suggests a distinction between different phases of the Founding. His remark indicates that arguments about German liberty were important in motivating the Declaration and the original state constitutions but were later superseded by other ideas. This indication could be supported by means of a remark from Federalist No. 1. According to Publius, the debate over ratification was an opportunity “to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” Whatever the framers may have learned from history, the authority of the Constitution comes from rational will instead of ancestry.
It is finally worth noting that Jefferson’s philosophical conception of liberty made him remarkably hostile to historical argument that did not suit his purposes. At the University of Virginia, he advocated teaching the Anglo-Saxon language so students would have access to an important model of a free society. Yet Jefferson also proposed to ban Hume’s History of England, which argued with considerable success that Britain’s institutions of liberty were surprisingly modern. Jefferson, in short, was not interested in the ancestral as such. He revered a usable past that taught what reason showed to be political lessons.
These considerations do not refute the claim that American patriots believed they were defending the liberty of their ancestors. The sincerity of this belief, however, does not make it true. As Hume argued in the History, many of the precedents on which Whigs relied were misunderstood, made up, or simply impossible to verify. German liberty was a powerful myth that grounded political arguments in an imagined past.
Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of political science at George Washington University, where he is also director of the Politics & Values Program. He writes frequently for the American Conservative, among other publications. You can follow him on Twitter at @SWGoldman.