We Still Hold
Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future
by Matthew Spalding
ISI, 288 pp., $26.95
At the end of this new book, Matthew Spalding calls for “a commitment at every level of education to promote awareness and appreciation of the true principles of the American Founding.” Only in this way, he argues, can we restore the public consensus necessary to sustain a healthy pluralism. Otherwise, we will continue to regress down the path of might-makes-right politics with bureaucrats and interest groups vying to have their way through administrative agencies and the courts.
Spalding’s own effort is an excellent example of what such a renewed civic education would look like. Well organized, clearly written, expertly argued, We Still Hold These Truths provides, perhaps, the single best introduction to the political thought of the American Founding. Spalding largely takes a unifying approach to the Founding Fathers and the scholars who have studied them. We may speak of an American founding because there was a “principled consensus,” he writes, among those great men of the late 18th century, “transcending important differences of practical application and party competition.” He acknowledges the legitimate contributions of different elements to that consensus, such as British custom, colonial experience, Christian faith, Lockean liberalism, and classical republicanism. But it is clear that he is most interested in the role of political ideas. Early chapters provide just enough historical context to set the scene, and those interested in further reading will find footnotes modestly sprinkled throughout and a superb bibliographic essay.
Spalding builds his study around 10 principles that define American government: liberty, equality, natural rights, consent of the governed, religious freedom, private property, the rule of law, constitutionalism, self-government, and independence. Each illuminates a different aspect of the American experiment, from the political theory of the Declaration of Independence and the structure of the Constitution, to family law and education, citizenship, and foreign policy.
Although the idea of an intelligible, universal standard of justice had been working itself out in Western thought for centuries, the United States was the first nation explicitly established on the basis of the “laws of nature and nature’s God.” Spalding highlights several remarkable innovations that followed from this claim, including “the principle of religious freedom as a natural right,” which he calls “a great achievement, perhaps the greatest, of the American Founding.” Freedom of conscience tempered reason’s and revelation’s often bloody claims to rule, and instead united them where they agree on morality and politics—in the process adding a further support to limited government.
Instead of keeping property concentrated in a few hands, the Founders’ dynamic approach to protecting it opened up opportunities to the industrious and creative. The book provides a useful overview, too, of the Founders’ foreign policy, which was guided by “a worldview that was both principled and practical” and from which today’s “utopian idealists” and “vulgar realists” can learn much.
Spalding is especially good at showing that the American Founders were not indifferent to the kinds of choices free men would make. Self-government was understood as both political and moral self-government: Despite “important tensions,” the Founders could “favor individual rights and promote public virtue at the same time.” George Washington declared, in his first Inaugural Address, that “the foundation of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality.” John Adams warned that our government “was made only for a moral and religious people,” else “avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net.” Thomas Jefferson was the proud father of the University of Virginia precisely because it was to be a school of republican orthodoxy, educating citizens to understand and perpetuate good government. (Before devoting himself to this endeavor in his retirement, Jefferson, along with almost every other prominent founder, had called for a national university dedicated to the same purpose.)
Then why, if the Founders did so much to perpetuate the moral character and devotion that constitutional government needs to sustain itself, do we find ourselves, as Spalding laments, “on a course of self-destruction”? In a chapter entitled “A New Republic,” he details how Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Croly, John Dewey, and other progressives of their day drove modern liberalism’s rejection of natural rights and constitutionalism, and its subtle redefinition of freedom and equality to feign some continuity with the American creed. One is left to wonder why the Founders’ ideas didn’t prove harder to dislodge than the progressives’ today.
Of course, Spalding’s title sounds a more defiant note, proclaiming not that we once held these truths but that we still hold them. And paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln, he concludes that
It is not the affirmation of a peculiar set of antiquated claims that tie us to America as much as it is our common recognition of transcendent truths that bind us all together and across time to the patriots of 1776. Only with this sure foundation can we go forward as a nation, addressing the great policy questions before us and continuing to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.
Spalding has not penned a manifesto simply to rally the right. He has reclaimed the best of the American political tradition for all Americans, as their birthright and sacred obligation, and as a rebuke to the enervating tendencies of the past century. He reminds us of the civic duty our forefathers bequeathed to us to educate each generation in this rich tradition, and provides a shining example of how it ought to be done.
John B. Kienker is managing editor of the Claremont Review of Books.