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Home > Book Reviews> Harvey Mansfield

Men of Principle
by Harvey C. Mansfield

The Wall Street Journal (Minneapolis, MN), November 26, 1997, 19A

It's hardly news that in our time some Americans have taken to accusing the Founders of their country of hypocrisy. It is alleged that the Founders said one thing and did another. They said in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal." But through prejudice or personal interest, they failed to deliver on that noble principle. Instead of setting a good example as an authority should do, they set a bad one. We today, therefore, can do without them.

There is something decidedly cheap about such charges. They reek of ingratitude and imprudence. But they are being made by historians who want to substitute their own authority for the Founders', and it's necessary for someone to take them seriously enough to provide a refutation.

Thomas West, a political scientist at the University of Dallas, has risen to the challenge with Vindicating the Founders (Rowman & Littlefield, 219 pages, $22.95). What looks like grown-up sophistication by the critics he shows to be childish petulance based on misrepresentation and misunderstanding.

Slavery is the foremost charge in the indictment. The Constitution failed to abolish slavery, indeed compromised with it; and some Founders were actually slave-holders. So how could they believe that all men are created equal? One eminent historian says the Declaration meant merely that "all white men are equal."

Mr. West is able to quote all the Founders strongly denouncing slavery for blacks. Then was their eloquence all for naught? The reductionist view reads their words in the light of progress today: We think slavery is wrong and abolished it. If they did not abolish it, they must not have thought it wrong.

"Naivete" is one excuse for such reasoning, envy for a generation far more accomplished than ours is another. Not only did it make no sense for the Founders to exclude the slave states, from the new union of 1787, which would have allowed a slave Confederacy an unopposed beginning on an equal footing with a free republic—but also, as Mr. West reminds us, the principle of equality was as subversive as it was foundational. While compromising with slavery, the Founders asserted a principle that undermined that very compromise—"condemning [slavery], confining it, and setting in motion the forces that would ultimately destroy it, " in the words of the historian Bernard Bailyn.

Nor was the compromise based on mere amoral calculation. Mr. West points out that the principle of equality itself has two parts that often conflict. One is equal rights; but among those rights is the right of consent to government. The trouble is that through prejudice people may not accord equal rights to others; yet the right of consent belongs just as much to people with prejudice as to the enlightened.

So the principle of equality requires an effort of persuasion, even if it may ultimately fail, as in the period leading up to our Civil War. It was precisely in accord with the principle of equality that the Founders—and later, Abraham Lincoln—made an effort to persuade those opposed to equality for blacks. In doing so they set an example of democratic behavior ignored by their facile critics, who suppose that what seems easy to us must have been easy for them.

Mr. West's book is not confined to the issue of slavery. He also discusses such topics as women's rights, poverty and immigration. To do so, he changes tone, imagining how the Founders would react to changes we have seen in modern politics and society.

Of these ventures the best concern property rights and immigration. When critics say that the poor get little or nothing from property rights, they assume that a right is not a right unless it is funded by government, unless somebody else makes it effective for you. But, as Mr. West shows in his analysis of Thomas Jefferson and the attacks on him by Progressive historians like J. Allen Smith and Charles Beard, property rights for the Founders were directed more to acquiring property than redistributing it. Such rights make it sensible to acquire because you can keep what you get. You may remain relatively poor, but you have the dignity of having earned your living. In this, you are equal to your fellow-citizens.

On immigration, Mr. West argues that the Founders were not narrow-minded even though they were not cosmopolitans. They correctly insisted on a people's right to exclude immigrants and on their duty to judge the probable character of those they admitted. The Founders had the notion of a "people" defined by consent, not by culture, but still distinct from, and having rights against, foreigners.

In our age of self-expression, the worst accusation you can face is being unfaithful to yourself. That is why personal attack, always a danger in a democracy, so often today replaces serious argument over principle, as in the debate over the Founders and their alleged hypocrisy. Mr. West reminds us that our "self" is mainly constituted by our principles.

Mansfield is Professor of Government at Harvard University.


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