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The American Founders Knew A Virtuous Republic Requires Virtuous People


“Does this nation in its maturity still cherish the faith in which it was conceived and raised? Does it still hold those ‘truths to be self-evident’?”

This is the pivotal question the political philosopher Leo Strauss raised in the opening pages of his most well-known book, Natural Right and History. Quoting part of the famous second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, Strauss implied that the knowledge of founding principles and continued belief in their truth were vital to the success of the American experiment in self-government.

But if recent findings are any indication, Americans’ acquaintance with the founders’ principles and practices seems to be at a nadir. According to a report of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a majority of college graduates can’t recall “the substance of the First Amendment, or the origin of the separation of powers.” Perhaps most alarmingly, “nearly 10% say that Judith Sheindlin—‘Judge Judy’—is on the Supreme Court.” A big part of the problem seems to stem from the fact that of the 1,100 “liberal arts colleges and universities” surveyed, just “18%” require students to take a course on American history or government before graduation.

Though certainly more classes and study are necessary to correct these glaring deficiencies, scholar Thomas G. West suggests that the problems go much deeper. While professors are undoubtedly intelligent, he argues that their views on America—especially regarding our nation’s founding—have some serious flaws.

Truth Above All

In his new book The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom, West sets out to remedy this problem. West, professor of politics at Hillsdale College and a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, gives a comprehensive overview of the founders’ political theory and the intricate web of policies that flowed from those principles. (For what it’s worth, I am former student of West.) This sober and deeply learned work represents the culmination of decades of serious study and reflection on the American founding. And it might just be the best book ever written on the subject.

In his previous book Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins of America, West defended the founders’ natural law and natural rights principles and controversial policies from historians and public intellectuals, liberals and conservatives who have attacked them as controversial according to contemporary standards. But as West says in the introduction to his new work, he did not understand at the time how much those principles were simply misunderstood:

After I published Vindicating, I became increasingly aware that for many people—often including scholars who might be expected to know better—the founders’ political theory might well be buried in some deep dark and long-forgotten pit. My task, then, has something in common with archeology—digging up old bones. But these bones, unlike those of long-dead Romans or Chinese, are of interest today because they claim to be living principles based on timeless truths.

What makes West unique among scholars and historians, then, is that he actually “treats the founders’ political theory as if it might be true.” In an age when an easy-going historicism envelops the American mind and History itself is thought to pick winners and losers, this standpoint is refreshing. West comes from the perspective not of the dogmatic skeptic nor the blind zealot but of a concern for the truth of things above all.

West divides his book into three overarching sections: an overview of the founders’ political theory, an argument for why they thought government should inculcate citizen morality and virtue, and an extended examination of their views on property and economics. As he reasonably argues in the book’s introduction, before we can praise or condemn the founders, we must “first know” both “why the founders set up the regime they did” and “how their political order worked.”

West more than lives up to the daunting task he sets before himself.

The Founders’ Political Theory of Natural Rights

In the book’s first section, West argues that a “natural rights doctrine” is at “the core of the founders’ political theory.” This stance sits squarely against the bulk of scholarship on the American founding, which tends to view the founders’ theory as a combination of liberalism (natural rights), republicanism, Scottish enlightenment theory, British common law, and Protestant theology, among other elements.

West, by contrast, posits that although “the conditions and traditions of colonial America before 1776” were surely important, natural rights determined “which traditions would continue and which would be discarded.” This argument is a useful corrective to the popular idea in certain circles that America is a “proposition nation”—meaning that it is defined solely by “abstract principles” without regard to any other considerations such as citizen character.

Citing a copious amount of primary sources, West meticulously pieces together the founders’ political theory. Natural rights are the inalienable liberties all human beings possess, not through government largesse, but by nature. Because “all men are created equal” in the sense “that there are no natural masters or natural slaves,” everyone has the natural liberty to order his life “without interference from other people.” Among these rights are the right to life, possessing and acquiring property, religious liberty, and to seek happiness—what West calls “the goal of human life.”

On the reverse side of rights are the duties all men have not to transcend the moral limits on the use of their rights. The founders called these natural limits the law of nature, or natural law. Natural law, which can be discovered through the faculty of reason, is “both the source of natural rights and a statement of our duties.” West argues that “natural liberty exists only within the moral limits of the law of nature.” Liberty, in other words, does not equal license.

Because all men are created equal, just government can only be founded on the unanimous consent of individuals who want to protect their rights, which are insecure outside of civil society. (The founders called the condition in which there is no common authority to protect against infringements of one’s rights the state of nature.) “The logic of the equality principle,” West contends, “necessarily leads to the right of the people to rule themselves in person or through elected representatives.” Consent, then, must be granted not only at the founding of a regime but also in the course of its operation, lest it degenerate into a tyranny.

Finally, West notes that the government’s purpose is to secure the natural rights of all who are under its auspices. Government violations of the people’s rights may justify the people to resort to what John Locke called an “appeal to heaven”—the natural right of the people to revolt and institute a new government that secures their safety and happiness.

Teaching Virtue

With the founders’ political theory fully sketched out, West turns to an important argument about how they conceived of virtue and the government’s role in inculcating it among citizens.

Against the view of scholars such as Thomas Pangle, Allan Bloom, and Harvey Mansfield, West contends that the founders were far from being concerned only with low bourgeois virtues, such as acquisitiveness, and comfortable self-preservation. In fact, they considered “virtue as a condition of freedom and a requirement of the laws of nature.”

West argues forcefully that the project of sustaining our republic is not satisfied simply by getting government out of the way.

Many public documents from the time spoke of the need for social and republican virtues within the populace such as justice (i.e., obeying the law), moderation, benevolence, temperance, industry, frugality, religious piety, and a responsibility among the people’s representatives to secure their good. In times of war, however, virtues of strength such as courage, leadership, bravery, vigor, and manly exertion are required. “Virtue is of concern to government not as an end in itself, but as a means to security and ultimately to happiness,” West concludes.

Opposed to the libertarian ethos that has consumed much of the Right, West argues forcefully that the project of sustaining our republic is not satisfied simply by getting government out of the way. The founders thought it was the duty of government (at least at the state level) to encourage virtue through public education, support for religious instruction, and a vast network of laws that discourage crime and promote stable families.

West understands, therefore, the decisive role politics plays in shaping the character of the regime. Contra Andrew Breitbart and most commentators on politics today, politics in its highest sense is not downstream from culture. “To know whether a culture is good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, liberating or oppressive,” Charles Kesler once remarked, “one has to be able to look at it from outside or above the culture.” That is, in the founders’ view culture should conform to principles of political justice that are true for all men everywhere.

While West ably proves his arguments here, one wishes he would have critiqued more recent scholarship such as the work of Yuval Levin, whose impressive books and essays deserve a careful and thoughtful appraisal.

Property Rights and Economics

West devotes the book’s last section to an extended examination of the founders’ thoughts on property rights and economics.

Because today’s defenders of capitalism such as Sen. Ted Cruz talk only about the utility of property rights, it is no wonder that ‘capitalism comes to be seen as low.’

The founders featured two arguments when discussing property rights: justice and utility. From the standpoint of justice, property rights are “a fundamental right that would be morally wrong to infringe.” Property rights seen from the standpoint of utility provide “usefulness to life and society.”

But because today’s defenders of capitalism such as Sen. Ted Cruz talk only about the utility of property rights, it is no wonder that “capitalism comes to be seen as low.” This is likely is a major reason why a certain strain of socialism—which, as David Azerrad of the Heritage Foundation has argued, is nothing other than “a continuation of liberalism by other means”—has been making a comeback in America over the last few decades.

West also highlights an important but overlooked part of the founders’ theory of property rights: human beings have the right to possess and acquire property. They thought this important so that “the poor as well as the rich can benefit from property rights.” This stands in stark contrast to feudal ages in which serfs had virtually no prospects of climbing the ladder of opportunity and making their own way in life.

Though founders such as Hamilton and Jefferson disagreed over policies to secure property rights, West argues that they shared a consensus on principles. They agreed on widespread private ownership, the importance of establishing a domestic free market, and the necessity of having a “precious-metals monetary standard.” In an implicit rebuke to conservatives who tend to view global free trade as a principle of natural right, West notes that “considerations of interest” above all determined the founders’ trade policy. The founders, he rightly points out, did not believe “in laissez-faire economics at the expense of American prosperity or national defense.”

The book culminates with West’s overall conclusions on the founders’ project:

The nobility of the founding consists in its realism about the self-interested nature of man, combined with its idealism about building a government that serves the common good by enabling people to acquire enough property to live, while making it possible for people in their private lives to serve God in the way they believed best and to cultivate their minds without being tormented by persecution.

In attempting to understand the founders as they understood themselves, West has done a yeoman’s service not only for scholarship on the American founding, but also for showing how a republican polity must be maintained. This book should be on the bookshelf of every scholar and patriot who cares about the continued success of that nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”