Orange County Register, November 16, 1997, Commentary Section
Ronald Reagan was ridiculed in the 1980s when he argued that supply side economics would lead to trickle down prosperity, but today the political correctness of our "best" Universities trickles down to the textbooks not only at the majority of colleges and universities, but also at all levels of our public schools. In the standard textbooks in American government and American history one finds almost invariably the following opinions about our Founding Fathers: at best, they were hypocrites; at worst, they were racist, sexist, anti-democratic, ethnocentric, elitist, and lacked compassion for the poor.
In his new book, Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins of America, Dr. Thomas G. West of the University of Dallas takes issue with each of these false opinions. Professor West aims to prove that our Founding Fathers deserve the high respect and praise which ordinary Americans still bestow upon them. He takes aim at the debunking our Fathers have suffered in recent generations at the hands of the cultural elites, especially the apparatchiks of the Universities.
In seven compelling chapters, West takes on the reigning dogmas which currently dominant scholarship on the American Founding. West examines the thought, speeches, and deeds of our Founding Fathers on such issues as slavery, property rights, women's rights, voting rights, the poor, and immigration. West contrasts the real Founding Fathers with the false perceptions left by today's scholars and opinion leaders. Among scholars West takes on are Gordon Wood, Charles Beard, Garry Wills, James Q. Wilson, Rogers Smith, Cass Sunstein, Larry Sabato, Conor Cruise O'Brien, Paul Finkelman, Kenneth Karst, Michael Parenti, Stephanie Koontz, Vernon Parrington, Jennifer Nedelsky, and Edmund S. Morgan. Among other opinion leaders, he challenges Thurgood Marshall, Robert Bork, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, John Dewey, John O'Sullivan, Russell Kirk, and John Hope Franklin.
West begins with slavery, the most troublesome contradiction in the Founding and U.S. Constitution. If the Founders truly believed that 'all men are created equal,' why the compromises with slavery? In other words, although the Founders used the phrase 'all men are created equal,' did they really mean only white males? Didn't they exclude blacks and women in particular? Doesn't the fact of slavery alone prove that the Founders were at best hypocrites and at worst tyrants?
West doesn't beg the question but faces this serious criticism head on. He demonstrates that the period 1776-1800 was the period of the greatest anti-slavery movement in American history until the Civil War. West shows that the actions of the Founders in this period did in fact lead to freedom for many blacks. In 1776 slavery was legal in all 13 colonies. In the following 30 years, eight states abolished slavery. Some of the state laws which abolished slavery explicitly recognized the connection between the principles of the Declaration of Independence and slavery abolition. West further notes that even in those Southern States which did not abolish slavery, laws were passed which made it easier for individual slave owners to emancipate their own slaves. In addition, West recounts other actions which the Founders, including especially Jefferson, took to roll back, isolate, and weaken slavery: the prohibition against slavery in the Northwest Ordinance, the abolition of the slave trade with Africa, and the proposed gradual emancipation of slaves in Virginia by Jefferson.
West argues that it was politically impossible to abolish slavery everywhere in America in 1787. He writes: "If liberty for anyone was to have a future in America, the indispensable first step was a stronger national government on a democratic basis . . . Frederick Douglass, the leading black spokesman against slavery during the Civil War era, favored continuation of the union, even with slavery, for the same reason: 'My argument against the dissolution of the American Union is this: It would place the slave system more exclusively under the control of the slaveholding states, and withdraw it from the power in the Northern states which is opposed to slavery.'" West marshals the facts which most modern scholars conveniently ignore in their debunking of the Founders. He demonstrates that the Founders' approach to political problems was not utopian. Their actions were guided by an understanding of what is best and most desirable, tempered by an understanding of what good is possible in the circumstances.
West's chapter on slavery typifies his approach to the other issues in the book. In the rest of the book, West demonstrates the misunderstanding and misrepresentations of the Founders by modern scholars on women's rights, voting rights, property rights, the poor, and immigration. Just as in the chapter on slavery, each on these chapters presents overwhelming evidence which refutes the current misunderstandings and misrepresentations among modern scholars.
While West offers ample evidence to demonstrate that most scholars simply get the facts wrong or ignore inconvenient facts about the Founding generation, equally revealing is his analysis of why they get it wrong. The Founding Fathers believed that every human being possesses certain inalienable rights which are the gifts of God. The limited purpose of government is to secure these God-given rights. There was a consensus running through all elements of American society at the time of the Founding that human liberty was a gift from God. Most modern scholars and the cultural elites who have been educated by them reject this notion of liberty and substitute a progressive or historicist view of liberty. This notion of liberty sees human autonomy as the ideal in which the idea of liberty is divorced from the idea of nature and God.
In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville observed a striking contrast between Europe and the United States. In America, Tocqueville said the spirit of liberty and the spirit of religion were not only seen as compatible but worked together mutually reinforcing the responsible practice of each. In Europe, by contrast no such consensus existed. In fact, in Europe and especially in France the spirit of liberty and the spirit of religion were at war with one another. The intellectuals in Europe in the 19th century believed that religion was the enemy of liberty and that true liberty was liberation from the Kingdom of Darkness.
The culture war in American today very much resembles the culture war in 19th Century Europe. There has been a breakdown in the consensus of the understanding of human liberty in the last two or three generations in America. There are two different notions of liberty at work in American society today. The autonomous liberty advocated by the cultural elites results in its vulgar form in a demand for toleration of self-indulgence in various forms. The more sophisticated versions of autonomous liberty result in a demand for radical egalitarianism in which all humans are liberated from God and nature (including biology) and government is used to distribute benefits or compassion and redistribute wealth rather than being limited to securing rights. Our Founding Fathers are condemned as racist, sexist, and elitist by modern scholars because they did not share this understanding of autonomous liberty.
Thomas West's book is an important antidote to this reigning political correctness. It deserves a wide readership. One can hope that it might even penetrate the ivory tower of political correctness and help re-establish the old consensus and the true and original understanding of liberty as self-government.
Craig is Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College.