Author Meets Critics: Thomas G. West’s The Political Theory of the American Founding

S. Adam Seagrave

The parochialism implied by the title of West’s book and reflected in much of its content contrasts with the universality of the founders’ rhetoric and with the timelessly applicable ideas of natural rights and the natural law.  

 

The Political Theory of the American Founding is a remarkable, important, and impressive book. It is a decisive answer to many manifestations of the “bungled Founding” thesis that continue to be prevalent in academic scholarship and university teaching today—from the modest point that there were many founders who didn’t always think exactly alike, to the more extreme claims that the American founding was the incoherent result of compromise over selfish interests and narrow ideas. West shows clearly and with incredible thoroughness that there was an underlying public agreement within the founding generation on political fundamentals, and that the core of this agreement consisted in the ideas of natural rights and the natural law.

Among the highlights of the book, in my view, are West’s recurrent emphasis on the distinction between the “purpose of politics” and the “purpose of human life” as central to the political theory of the American founding; his insistence that the modern theory of natural rights and the social compact, including as it is expressed in the thought of John Locke, is not inherently individualistic or anti-Aristotelian; and his explanations of how natural rights theory is connected to policies the founders endorsed with respect to the punishment of violent crimes, marriage, the economy, and foreign relations. There are also, of course, quotable gems scattered throughout. One of the best comes at the very end, when West says that “The founders would maintain that the natural rights doctrine will be politically relevant as long as there are people who claim the right to rule not by consent but because they belong to a class anointed by God, by History, by moral credentials earned by serving the disadvantaged, or by Harvard and Yale.”

Overall, though, one of the book’s virtues stands out most to me, and this is its explicit openness to and concern for the truth; and not just the truth about what the American founders thought and did—though this is certainly very important—but the truth about politics and human nature. This comes out most clearly at the beginning and the end. In the Introduction, West announces that “my book treats the founders’ political theory as if it might be true,” as opposed to “most writers on the founding” who “do not take seriously the founders’ claim that there really are natural rights and laws of nature that ought to govern human action.” And then the very last sentence of the book says that “the founders’ doctrine that all men are by nature equally free and independent…might even be true.” This openness to the possibility of trans-historical truth doesn’t show itself throughout the book as a kind of prescriptive or normative bent—this is almost entirely absent from West’s account—but it gives his descriptive account of the founders’ political theory a significant interpretive advantage over many others by allowing him to better get inside the founders’ heads, where there were claims about the absolute truth of the matter bouncing around.

West’s account is not partisan, but it is undeniably particular.

At this point, though, the book’s greatest virtue seems to me to introduce the most significant tension, difficulty, or at least incompleteness into West’s account. This incompleteness is certainly remedied to some extent in other of West’s works, but it is still something that pertains to this work in particular. The title of the book is The Political Theory of the American Founding. But the parochialism implied by the title—that this is how a certain generation of Americans thought about politics—contrasts in some way with West’s admirable openness to trans-historical truth, with the universality of the founders’ rhetoric, and with the timeless, universally applicable ideas of natural rights and the natural law.

In other words, if the political theory of the American founding is about the ideas of natural rights and the natural law—about human nature simply, rather than history or tradition—and if there’s a possibility that these ideas might be true, then this becomes less “the political theory of the American founding” and more “political theory during the American founding” or “political theory in the American founding.” Perhaps something like the Christian dictum about being in the world but not of it could be similarly applied here. Natural rights theory would be in the American founding but not of it.

This is not, though, at all the tack that West takes in the book. West’s account is not partisan, but it is undeniably particular; it is of the American founding in a way that sometimes constricts and narrows the political theoretical lens of natural rights. One example of this is the scant attention given to the issue of slavery; it is discussed at points throughout the book, and at these points it is, in my opinion, generally treated very ably and accurately. And I understand, moreover, why West would not consider it appropriate to focus on the issue of slavery in this book—he is, after all, presenting a case for the coherence of the political theory of the American founding, and the problem of slavery is not a problem for the political theory of the American founding. It is clear, straightforward, and relatively uncontroversial from the natural rights perspective.

But this could also be viewed as a missed opportunity. The political theory of natural rights and the natural law has an inherent logic that becomes a practical momentum in American history, building to the conclusion of racial equality in natural rights and civil rights over the course of the next two centuries. In this way the natural rights theory might be said to have outgrown the particular historical period of the American founding era, like a child outgrows a coat. But the book’s treatment gives little indication of this striking mismatch, and of the wide gulf that separates historical particularity from theoretical universality, or what’s dead in history from what’s still alive.

Along similar lines, there are a few points in the book where West takes note of the founders’ assumptions regarding the most desirable ethnic make-up of the American republic (white European). As a historical point this seems readily defensible as a description of what the founders thought. But it is quite obvious, as a theoretical point, that the ideas of natural rights and the natural law apply in exactly the same way across all ethnic, racial, and national backgrounds. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the founders’ assumptions, preferences, or policies on this point were wrong, and undoubtedly many of the founders themselves saw this obvious point quite clearly; but the apparent tension calls for some explanation. And, most importantly, a similar opportunity may be missed here to suggest the ways in which the natural rights theory the founders embraced was bigger and more important than they were.

West takes Jefferson’s famous “wolf by the ears” analogy as illustrative of this problem of conflicting natural rights.

In general, I found the book’s account to be stronger on the American founding side than on the political theory side. For example, in an early section on “The Natural Rights to Life, Liberty, and Property,” West derives the natural right to life from the fact that no one is entitled to take away one’s natural freedom; or, in other words, from the natural right to liberty. This seems to me backwards. And later in the book, the doctrine of the natural right to property is described as “a sound practical substitute for a complex chain of reasoning showing that property rights are indispensable for human well-being;” or, in other words, natural rights are grounded in a form of utility. This sounds more like Hutcheson than Locke—and at any rate seems an unpromising derivation to me.

A more substantial difficulty concerns the potential for natural rights to come into conflict with one another. According to West, “In the founders’ theory, it is possible for one person to have a natural right to violate the natural rights of another.” This comes up a number of times in the book, but it is most directly addressed—intriguingly and also troublingly—with respect to slavery. West takes Jefferson’s famous “wolf by the ears” analogy as illustrative of this problem of conflicting natural rights.

On my reading, though, this isn’t a problem of conflicting natural rights at all. Jefferson says “justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” He doesn’t say the slaves’ natural right to justice is in one scale, and the slaveholders’ natural right to self-preservation is in the other. “Justice,” by itself, already includes the weighing of the natural right to liberty of the slave against the presumptive natural rights of slaveholders. “Self-preservation” here is something besides justice; it is a felt desire, a personal interest, or a selfish instinct. Self-preservation might be claimed as a right, but it also might be something I want, and wants can be and often are illegitimate and unjust.

Now maybe Jefferson meant what West says he meant—that the slaves’ natural right to liberty hopelessly or tragically conflicts with slaveholders’ natural right to self-preservation. But hopefully Jefferson didn’t mean this, and hopefully this isn’t the founders’ considered opinion on the matter, because this would be to make the political theory of the American founding incoherent at least on this particular point. If natural rights can conflict in this way, they can’t be moral rights that carry any obligation to respect. They can’t be part of a framework of natural law that derives from an intelligible, purposeful, and authoritative source in nature. To the extent that nature speaks to human behavior in gibberish, it’s not worth listening to at all.

These are serious theoretical difficulties that have significant consequences for how we should view political theory in the American founding era, as well as how this political theory continues to speak to us today. In arguing for his main thesis regarding the American founding’s inspiration by natural principles, on the other hand, West is clear and persuasive. It is an extraordinarily instructive and illuminating account. This book will undoubtedly be read with great benefit by generations of scholars, students, and American citizens.

 

S. Adam Seagrave is Kinder Institute Associate Professor of Constitutional Democracy and Editor of Starting Points.



Author Meets Critics…

by S. Adam Seagrave time to read: 9 min
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