The Magazine

THE FOUNDERS' FRIEND

Nov 10, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 09 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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He proceeds to present the founders' ideas on a range of matters that we today call the social issues: the nature of the family, the proper relationship between the sexes, the public's responsibility in sustaining those in need, and the qualities of character required to maintain a decent society and a functioning democratic polity. These subjects make up the heart of the book, as West performs a valuable service in bringing together many of the bits and pieces of the founders' thought that have been scattered and buried in obscure places. The need for such an account is clear: Until now, we have seen only part of the founders' political science -- the part that treats general principles of justice, institutions of government, and political economy. What has been absent is a coherent statement of the founders' views on mores and social issues and how these connect to their political principles. The founders did not develop this element as systematically and impressively as they did some others -- there is no social- issues Federalist -- but, here as elsewhere, their thought is highly instructive.


In making his closing argument, West takes to task proponents of all the major strands of modern thought for contributing to anti-founderism -- not only, as one would expect, liberals (for their charges of economic elitism and racism) and libertarians (for their opposition to the founders' insistence on the need to promote certain qualities of character and citizenship), but also conservatives. West's criticism of conservative intellectuals is perhaps unanticipated, because he shares with them an analysis of the problems of modern society and a concern with the twin threats of a radical egalitarianism and an understanding of freedom and rights that borders on license.


Conservatives, West argues, too often attribute our modern crisis to an unexpected but logical development of the founders' principles. The issue here for conservatives is that of political theodicy -- of understanding the sources of modern distortions of liberty and equality and determining how these distortions have managed to acquire such prominence within our polity. Answering these questions in full lies beyond the scope of West's inquiry, but he does insist that modern problems in no sense grow out of the founding. To hold otherwise and find fault with the founders, he believes, is a grave error: "Conservatives need to recognize that there is no need to go beyond the Declaration, or reject the Founders' principles, in order to justify limits on the abuse of liberty. The idea of liberty in the Declaration contains its own limitations."


This is sound advice, with the obvious stipulation that West's warning not to "go beyond" the Declaration be understood in the restricted sense of not contradicting it. As West surely is aware, it has sometimes been helpful, even necessary, to go beyond (in the sense of going outside) the Declaration in order to know how to sustain a healthy liberal democratic polity. Some of the best instructors on questions of mores and social issues -- among them many whom the founders consulted -- begin with a framework other than the Declaration. Not all political science is contained in that document.


Americans can count themselves fortunate to have at the bar a scholar of West's erudition, good sense, and tenacity. Although some critics will surely question whether an advocate should also be allowed to act as judge in his own case, they can always exercise their right of appeal. But this time they had better be ready -- Tom West is on permanent retainer as vindicator of the founders, and he is accepting no plea bargains.




James W. Ceaser is professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia and the author of Reconstructing America (Yale).