The Magazine


Nov 10, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 09 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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Thomas G. West


Vindicating the Founders

Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the origins of America


Rowman & Littlefield, 200 pp., $ 22.95

For the more orthodox thinkers inside the academy today, the publication of Thomas G. West's new book Vindicating the Founders is not a joyous occasion. West is a scholar in search of justice. He aims to try a generation of intellectuals that has charged the founders with racism, economic elitism, and sexism. In a forum allowing for full due process, he requires the accusers to submit their case, and he affords the accused the right of reply. If the charges against the founders don't fit? Then readers must acquit.

If his jurisdiction allowed, West would clearly go even further. He would indict any who has made false allegations -- if not for libel, then for gross negligence and wrongful harm. Reverence for the founders, he writes, "has long been out of fashion among America's elites," and it is debatable whether even the most rational nation can survive a permanent campaign against its own founding. Of course, not all scholars have participated in this campaign, but there have been enough of them to create a prejudice of anti-founderism in educated circles. "Leading sophisticates -- writers, professors, and journalists, whatever their persuasion -- seem convinced that there was something profoundly wrong with the origins of America," says West. This view does not yet prevail with the average citizen, but it has clearly begun to penetrate the broader community. West reports that he began his study in connection with a program for high-school teachers, where he had ample opportunity to observe how elite intellectual opinion is rapidly becoming a staple of America's secondary-school texts.

The growth of anti-founderism may account for the urgent tone of West's book, but he makes clear that he has no intention of conducting a show trial. He wants an honest judgment based on "truth" and an "historically accurate picture" (quaint standards indeed for someone writing history today). It is West's contention that there is no need to spin lies, invent myths, or indulge in lawyerly obfuscations to defend the founders. Given a fair chance, they are fully capable of defending themselves.

The verdict? It comes in two parts. First, on some counts, the founders are not guilty. On the question of equality and slavery, for example, West shows that, while the actions of many founders may be challenged and faulted, there can be no doubt that they meant the principle of equality to refer to persons of all races. As for economic elitism, West demonstrates that the founders' purpose in defending a right of property was not to protect the privileges of a narrow elite, but to open up society to the acquisition of wealth by the vast majority. He points out that it is insufficient to defend property merely as property, because some forms of property -- feudal property, for example -- do not serve the broadly democratic purposes that the founders had in mind. Property must be defined and understood in light of its end, which is to protect a natural right to enjoy the fruits of honest labor and industry.

The second part of the verdict requires taking into account considerations of equity. The founders, West acknowledges, are guilty of some of the charges made against them: They did not, for example, hold 1990s views about the roles of the sexes, and they understood marriage to be a monogamous and heterosexual institution. West contends that we must sooner or later "choose between two competing visions of equality and liberty: the founders' views, and today's."