Browse our archive of original historical documents on the themes of this book:

- Founding Principles

- Slavery

- Property Rights

- Women and the Right to Vote

- Women and the Family

- Was the Founding Undemocratic? The Property Requirement for Voting

- Poverty and Welfare

- Immigration and the Moral Conditions of Citizenship

- Afterword: Liberals and Conservatives Abandon the Principles of the Founding

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Home > Book Reviews> Matthew Spalding


The Old Unfashionable Founding
by Matthew Spalding



Washington Times December 17, 1997, A21

"Jefferson didn't mean it when he wrote that all men are created equal," according to the historian John Hope Franklin, now chairman of President Clinton's Advisory Board on Race. "We've never meant it. The truth is we're a bigoted people and always have been." "The American Revolution produced no significant benefits for American women," writes feminist historian Joan Hoff Wilson. "The same generalization can be made for other powerless groups in the colonies—native Americans, blacks, probably most propertyless white males, and indentured servants." While they might strike sensible readers as examples of political correctness run amok, such statements are part of the current intellectual mainstream. They and others like them can be found throughout our newspapers and magazines, popular books and history texts.

The problem is that sophisticated intellectuals—unlike most Americans—are deeply troubled by America's past. From their vantage it seems that the Founding Fathers were not only racist, but also sexist, elitist, xenophobic and undemocratic. Much of modern academic liberalism, as a result, seeks to liberate America from its patriarchal, unenlightened and hypocritical inheritance.

Now comes a book that seeks to set the record straight. In Vindicating the Founders, Thomas West of the University of Dallas and the Claremont Institute argues that there are good reasons for Americans to continue to respect their nation and see its establishment as a great and noble achievement.

Mr. West makes this case by focusing on what was actually said and done during the Founding era concerning slavery, property, women, voting rights, the poor and immigration—topics on which the founders are regularly vilified. In the process he shows not only that the founders were sincere in their opinions and that their actions were consistent with their words, but also that there is much we can learn from the founders about principles, politics and policies.

Consider a few of the book's main conclusions. On slavery: Every leading founder acknowledged that slavery was morally wrong. James Madison called it "the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man," Benjamin Franklin "an atrocious debasement of human nature." Mr. West argues that the founders did not violate their principles when they failed to immediately rid the nation of the peculiar institution. Instead—by blocking slavery where they could, short of jeopardizing the union under a new constitution—they prudently laid the groundwork for the eventual abolition of slavery. Lincoln didn't call for an apology at Gettysburg but a "new birth of freedom" based on the founders' principle of human equality.

On property: The right to hold property was understood by the founders to be a protection for rich and poor alike. "The right of acquiring and possessing property is one of the natural, inherent, and unalienable rights of man," the Supreme Court declared in 1795. Rather than a barrier to keep the poor down, property was seen as the chief means by which the poor could climb out of their poverty. While the founders opposed the idea of government redistributing property, Mr. West notes, they favored abolishing restrictions which prevented others from acquiring their own property.

On women and the family: Women, too, are created equal, but this fundamental equality does not negate the fact that men and women have different roles in society. What the founders understood to be best for the rights of women, according to the author, was lifelong marriage and primary commitment to family." To be the mistress of a family is one of the great ends of a woman's being," wrote Benjamin Rush.

The other alternatives—such as divorce, manual labor and prostitution—were thought to be dehumanizing and corrupting, leaving society with what James Wilson called "the cruel tyranny of savages, which condemns the fair sex to servitude, and the sordid selfishness of luxury, which considers them solely as instruments of pleasure."

On welfare: While marriage, work and property were seen as the leading remedies for poverty, the founders did not renounce public responsibility for the poor. But their view on welfare policy, Mr. West explains, turned on a clear distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor. Thus their "Poor Laws" provided no more than a minimal safety net for those who could not help themselves and required the able-bodied to work. Franklin concluded that "the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves . . ."

There are important lessons in this book for political thinkers, for both liberals and conservatives often misunderstand and misuse the founders' views of liberty and equality. On the one hand, liberals—and libertarians—tend to forget that liberty and the protection of equal rights require the constant formation of the right kind of character in the citizenry. Conservatives, on the other hand, often ignore the extent to which the founders provided for character above and beyond institutional arrangements.

"Liberals need to recognize that the language of equality in the Declaration of Independence was sincere and that the Founders implemented its principles to the best of their ability," Mr. West writes. But, he continues, "conservatives need to recognize that there is no need to go beyond the Declaration, or to reject the Founders' principles, in order to justify limits on the abuse of liberty." The idea of liberty, properly understood, embraces its own restraints for the "natural right to liberty is not a right to licentious or destructive conduct."

By challenging popular new ideas and reviving unfashionable old ones, Mr. West contributes to the process of reclaiming the founders. By clearing some of the intellectual underbrush that has grown in the way, he has helped clear the path toward making their principles ours again.

Spalding is Director, Center for American Studies, and Director, Lectures and Educational Programs, at the Heritage Foundation. He is co-author of A Sacred Union of Citizens: George Washington's Farewell Address and the American Character.





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