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."
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).