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Home > Book Reviews> Daniel Mahoney

Were Our Founders Hypocrites?
by Daniel J. Mahoney

The American Enterprise, March/April 1998, p. 83-84

Thomas G. West aims at nothing less than re-establishing the moral authority of the Founding Fathers against the orthodoxy of today's revisionist historians. These critics assert that our nation was founded not on self-evident truths about human liberty and equality, but on a systematic desire to exclude blacks, women, and the poor from participation in a self-governing community.

The nub of the matter, of course, is slavery and the alleged failure of the Founders to recognize its evil character and abolish it swiftly. John Hope Franklin, the African-American historian who heads President Clinton's "National Conversation on Race," expresses the contemporary hostility to our founding when he asserts that "Jefferson didn't mean it when he wrote that all men are created equal. We've never meant it. The truth is we're a bigoted people and always have been." With some notable exceptions, this view dominates contemporary scholarship and forms the backbone of civic education for young Americans today.

But West shows that these historians are wrong—wrong because they fail to approach these matters from the Founders' point of view, and wrong because they are blind to the moral prudence that guided the Founders' political art. No important Founder disagreed with the principle that slavery is wrong because it denies the slave's humanity. The Founders knew, however, that this principle did not settle the practical question of how to eliminate such a deeply ingrained practice. As both Lincoln and Frederick Douglass later recognized, the Founders opposed inserting immediate abolition into the Constitution of 1787 because doing so would have caused the South to leave the Union and thus escape the influence of (to use Lincoln's words) the "abstract truth applicable to all men at all times" of human equality, as proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence of 1776.

The Founders hoped to contain slavery within reasonable bounds and allow the principle of equality to undermine residual justifications for "the peculiar institution." West does not hesitate to point out the limits of these principled compromises; he writes of "the incomplete founding." He suggests that the Founders were perhaps too concerned with the self-preservation and dominance of the white race. He shows that self-interest, combined with an Enlightenment faith in Progress, made them overly complacent about slavery's fate: History would take care of it for them!

After establishing that the Founders did actually mean what they said about human equality in the Declaration, West notes that the Constitution was not fundamentally a pro-slavery document. Its slavery "scaffolding," in Frederick Douglass's phrase, in no way denies the humanity of blacks. Following the insights of Douglass and the recent scholarship of Robert Goldwin, West argues that the Founders deliberately avoided sullying their new Constitution with even the word "slavery."

West is weakest when reflecting on tensions in the Founders' thought. For example, he defends the Founders' opposition to the full "liberation" of women on the grounds that it could have undermined the family, an indispensable pillar of a free society. But this is hard to reconcile with the principle of equality, and we need a more honest confrontation with the ambiguities inherent in the idea of equality than West provides.

Some conservatives, on the other hand, have complained that the Founders' equality principle set in motion a process whereby rights and freedoms are endlessly extended and reinterpreted to the point where they take "priority over community, family, and even nature," as one critic put it. Against this, West argues that the Founders, with their measured understanding of liberty and equality and their sober defense of constitutional democracy, cannot be held responsible for contemporary relativism and radical egalitarianism. He also defends equality and the idea of a common human nature against naysayers, whether they are conservative or multiculturalist. But West is not always sufficiently sensitive to the way that the idea of equality, true in itself, gives rise to a distempered passion for equality that threatens freedom and human excellence. To admit this danger in no way entails a rejection of our founding principles, as West seems to suggest.

In short, West has written a powerful vindication of our common civic faith. But his book is less helpful in navigating some of the tensions inherent in that faith.

Mahoney is Chairman of the Department of Political Science at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, and author of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideology.


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