Society, May/June 1998, p. 94-95
We've heard it all before. The Founders were racists, sexists, classists, elitistsmen who wrote some pretty clever documents that camouflaged their rich white male agenda. We know this because the Founders have been thoroughly deconstructed by today's mandarins of knowledge. Indeed, no one but an ignoramus, apologist or bigot would believe otherwise.
Reality checks come in small doses these days, and that is exactly why we are indebted to Thomas G. West. A political scientist at the University of Dallas, West has given us a book that challenges the reigning orthodoxy as expressed by the high priests of multiculturalism. Those who reflexively reject his thesisthe nation's founding is the source of our greatnesshave a moral and intellectual duty to refute him.
Though it is more than intellectual dishonestyit is self-righteousness born of arroganceto judge the past by the standards of the present, those in the academy who haven't succumbed to this temptation are in the minority. Count West among them. More than that, count West among those who believe that the burden is on those who seek to discredit the Founders, not on those who defend them.
A student of Harry Jaffa, West argues that we cannot understand the Constitution without understanding the Declaration of Independence. It is the equality principle, that all men are created equal, that makes our founding, as well as our history, intelligible. By focusing on slavery, the rights of women, qualifications for voting, the poor and the moral attributes of citizenship, West demonstrates how the equality principle was interpreted by the Founders in light of the societal conditions they inherited.
Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson has shown how ordinary the "peculiar institution" of slavery has been in world history. Even after all her research was completed, Margaret Mead had no problem admitting the obvious, namely that women have never ruled any society in all of history, much less have enjoyed equal rights. In the same vein, social scientists of every stripe have long recognized that the franchise is an historical freak. Freakish still is the idea that humans have rights by virtue of nature and nature's God. Considering this background, as opposed to the background of abstract possibilities, the experiment in democracy has worked very well. Thanks to the Founders, West adds.
It is not astonishing that instant liberties were not granted everyone equally as soon as the founding took root. What is astonishing is that so many disparate segments of the population that hitherto did not enjoy rights made such great strides so quickly. Without the Declaration, West informs, progress would not have been made. Consider the conditions that blacks lived under at the time.
Slavery, one of mankind's oldest and most practiced institutions, is rightfully seen as a blight on our past. But it cannot be maintained that it is a blight on our Constitution: as West shows, the Constitution never endorsed slavery and that is why the Taney decision in Dred Scott was so perverse. The Founders, who clearly recognized the humanity of African Americans, gave us a document that, though it did not immediately challenge the Southern practice of slavery, nonetheless made its future dissolution inevitable. Lincoln picked up on this point, citing the Constitution's godfather, the Declaration, and proceeded to make good on its promise.
It would be helpful for college students to ponder why Frederick Douglass opposed the dissolution of the Union, even if it meant keeping slavery. In the world of the classroom, everything is possible. But in the world of reality, the one in which Douglass lived, allowing the slave states to break free would have killed any chance there was to ultimately undermine slavery; adherence to the principles of the Declaration was the subverting force Douglass recognized.
Those who view history through the lens of the Enlightenment complain that the Founders tolerated slavery. They look askance at the fact that during the founding period, slavery was eliminated in eight states. They look askance at the fact that Congress forbade slavery in the territories governed by the Northwest Ordinance in 1787. They look askance at the fact that the Constitution provided for the abolition of the slave trade, something the Congress did as fast as it could have, in 1808. They look askance at the fact that without the equality principle, Lincoln could not have made his eloquent appeals with authority. And this much must be said: it is ideology, not the pursuit of truth, that animates the vision of those who look askance.
In his discussion on women, West acknowledges that the Founders had a different perspective than the one that reigns today. For all kinds of reasons, women were situated quite differently than they are today, and that explains why women, as well as men, were not inclined to make fast mathematical social equations between the sexes. On this point, West could have strengthened his argument by citing how fully both sexes rejected today's understanding of women's liberation. Indeed, it was not until the 1960s that women's liberation underwent a radical reinterpretation.
The reason the Equal Rights Amendment never passed is because most women, including activist women, never wanted it. While it was women like Phyllis Schlafly who opposed the ERA in the 1970s, it was women like Eleanor Roosevelt who opposed it in the 1920s. At that time, and especially later, the ACLU played an integral role in killing the ERA; the fight was led by radical judge Dorothy Kenyon. Not until 1970 did the ACLU do an about-face by endorsing the amendment, the fight being led by Dorothy Kenyon.
West reminds us that there is absolutely nothing in the Constitution that has ever prevented women from voting. In fact, some women, in New Jersey, did vote at the time of the founding. When Wyoming granted women the franchise in 1869, it did not need to request that the Constitution be amended, it simply exercised its proper legislative prerogative.
"The Constitution," West says, "excludes no one from voting or holding office on the basis of race, sex, wealth, or any other criterion." Property qualifications for voting were, of course, commonplace, but such decisions were the province of the states. While the reasons put forth at the time might seem objectionable today (the propertyless, being dependent, could not freely exercise their will), there is a difference between paternalism and a desire to oppress.
Property rights are important to liberty not just because they ensure against unfair expropriation of a person's labor; they also help form the basis of citizenship. As West states, the Founders were not cavalier in their assessment of the moral basis of liberty, and that is why they appreciated the role that property rights played in this enterprise. Restraint is a necessary virtue in a nation that opts for self-government, and this is why property rights need to be taken seriously: they help to facilitate that end.
The moral character of the people, the Founders understood, could not be separated from public policy considerations. Distinctions between the deserving and the undeserving poor, while still condemned in some quarters today, made sense to men whose vision of liberty was not hopelessly legalistic. The current fixation on rights as the sole basis of liberty would rightfully have struck the Founders as bizarre, wrongheaded and destined to fail.
The time has come for a serious reassessment of the founding. In this regard, I don't know of a single book that is more worthy of debate on college campuses than Vindicating the Founders. Those who disagree should state their case, but they should do so by relying on evidence, not emotion. How we feel about the past or the present is not unimportant, but if the goal is to accurately describe reality, then we will have to insist on something more palpable than feelings.
Donohue is President of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.