The Review of Politics Spring 1998
As Thomas G. West tells us in the Preface, his provocative book, Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class and Justice in the Origins of America, was originally conceived as a response to high school and college textbook writers who routinely depict the Founders as racists, sexists, and biased against the poor or those otherwise unlike themselves. Where did these lowly textbook authors get such ideas?
According to West, pretty much the same opinions, stated more elegantly to be sure, can be found in the writings of some of our most eminent historians. However subtle and nuanced their overall arguments, when it comes to questions of race, class, and sex (West resolutely avoids the fashionable term "gender" to underscore his argument that these differences are natural and not socially constructed), almost all misunderstand and, hence, fail to do justice to the Founders' intentions.
The great merit of West's book is that he takes the Founders seriously, and shows that they were not reflexively parroting the prejudices of their time. The Founders had good reasons, reasons worth considering, for acting as they did. Throughout, West argues that the Founders were guided in their political science by the principles of the Declaration, that is, by an understanding of rights and liberties which was limited by the "nature of man as a rational creature, subject to the 'laws of nature and nature's God'" (p. 177). This last point is crucial, since it challenges the idea that there is no principled way to prevent rights from expanding almost indefinitely.
In the opening chapter, West persuasively demonstrates that the Founders knew slavery to be morally wrong and inconsistent with the principles of the Declaration. But unlike the authors of the textbooks he reviews, West emphasizes the tension between moral principle and political necessity, or, as Jefferson famously put it, between justice on the one hand and self-preservation on the other.
In so doing, he builds upon the argument of Harry Jaffa, concerning the importance of prudence and statesmanship in political affairs. Moreover, while critical of much recent historical scholarship, West recognizes a good argument when he sees one. Citing Bernard Bailyn, West insists that what was remarkable was not that the Founders failed to extinguish slavery completely, but that they "went so far in condemning it, confining it, setting in motion the forces that would ultimately destroy it" (p. 32).
If West finds slavery to be a clear violation of the principles of the Declaration, he is more cautious regarding the claim of free blacks to be admitted to full citizenship rights. That all men are created equal does not mean that all men have an equal right to become members of a particular polity. The equality of the Declaration means that individuals have the equal right to form themselves into a distinct people, but they do not have the right to join an already existing political community, unless that people chooses to admit them. Significantly, West sees the Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment as the fulfillment of the Declaration's principles. He says nothing about the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, and he argues that the colonization of blacks was consistent with the principles of the Declaration (p. 29).
Yet at the same time West maintains that the Declaration provides the theoretical foundation for a multi-racial polity (pp. xiv, 28). How can the principles of the Declaration permit Americans both to exclude and to include blacks (and others) as citizens? If I understand him correctly, a "people" is justified in excluding others when it determines that it is not in its interest to admit them (pp. 25, 157), but interest should be based upon questions of individual moral character (pp. 26, 171), rather than considerations such as race, religion, language, and ethnicity alone. West's discussion here and in the chapter on immigration is not altogether satisfactory, for it leaves ambiguous the difficult question of whether a people may, consistent with the Declaration, define itself by the "thicker" interests than individual character (p. 156).
In subsequent chapters on property rights, women, and the family and the responsibility of society to the poor, West insists that the Founders' views are superior to our own and predicts that "sooner or later" we will have to choose between these "two competing visions of liberty and equality" (p.xiv). Indeed, in the chapter on women and the family, West goes so far as to maintain that the Framers' views on women actually accord with "the best" (p. 87) contemporary social science research.
West's conclusion is worth quoting in full: despite occasional exceptions, "recent research strongly supports the Founders' view that 'nature has made [women] fittest for domestic cares' and that women are naturally suited for, and generally (not always) prefer a 'retired mode of life' centering in the household" (p. 91 ). He concedes that this system "had its costs," especially for the most talented women who "were unlikely to bring that talent to fruition," as well as for men and women who married foolishly, and could not escape through no-fault divorce (p. 105), but on balance, these are costs West thinks it reasonable for society to pay because they help to secure the rights of the vast majority of women, children, and even men to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as most people understand these terms.
Still, it is difficult to imagine that West would so quickly write off the claims of the best men to bring their talents to fruition for the sake of the well-being of society. Do the principles of the Declaration require that the most talented women forego their right to pursue happiness as they understand it? Is there no middle ground between barring women from professions and "pushing women into the job market"? (p. xiii) Finally are the "laws of nature and nature's God" compatible with the "neo-Darwinist" conception of nature West relies upon to support his arguments for traditional sex roles? (p. 88)
In the chapter on women and voting rights, West takes up the thorny question of how it was possible to hold that the principles of the Declaration applied to women and yet deny them the vote. The crucial distinction here is between natural rights and legal or political rights (p. 74). All women are endowed with the same natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but because most find their happiness in marriage and the care of the family, it is permissible for the civil law to strive to unify the interest and will of husband and wife.
But as a matter of public policy, West does not find the exclusion of women from the franchise as compelling as the case for traditional sex roles within the family and the job market: "the modern movement for equal political rights for women is fully compatible with the founding principles" (p. 83). However, West does not adequately reflect upon the effect of women's suffrage upon the traditional sex roles he finds so desirable.
In chapters on property, property qualifications for voting, and the responsibility of society for the poor, West defends the Founders against charges of elitism and economic injustice. While some of these arguments are familiar, others, particularly his treatment of poverty and welfare are original and thought-provoking. For in addition to showing how the Founders' views are consistent with the core principles of the Declaration, West argues that these policies actually encourage the kind of virtues upon which a free society depends.
Indeed, the subtext of the entire book is character. In chapter after chapter, West argues that the Founders favored measures such as local government support for the poor, property qualifications for voting, restrictions on naturalization, and laws protecting the traditional family, because they were concerned with the character of the citizens. The Founders' statesmanship aims not merely at constructing political institutions which secure the principles of the Declaration, but at reinforcing those social institutions which form the character of a free people.
In this important respect, the title of West's book does not fully capture the extent of his project. Vindicating the Founders is not only about justice, but about how to cultivate the whole cluster of virtues which "are necessary for a people to be free" (p.160). West's admirable study begins a discussion that is long overdue.
Yarbrough is Professor of Political Science at Bowdoin College, and author of American Virtues: Thomas Jefferson on the Character of a Free People.