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

Peter C. Myers

The great contribution of West’s book is to bolster the argument that the founders are a formidable group, not only in their political prudence but also in their claim to genuine moral and political wisdom.


Tom West’s new book The Political Theory of the American Founding is a very good book and a very ambitious book. It is, I think, a book of somewhat concealed ambition, in the sense that the author may seem to have retreated a bit from the public square that he entered to great effect with his previous book. He calls this latest one an effort in “archaeology,” an exposition in contrast to a vindication of the founders. That description suggests a work more scholarly and less polemical in its primary design, perhaps even a display of theoretical more than of practical virtue.

The book certainly does present an impressive display of scholarship. Even so, the new book is in its way no less combative than its predecessor; the difference is that it trains its sights on a different set of targets. Its explicit suggestion is that it directly addresses not those who attack the founders but rather those who misunderstand them. That suggestion doesn’t quite capture the difference between the two books, because those two kinds of targets are easier to distinguish than they are to separate: the attacks on the founders are often dependent on the misunderstandings.

It seems more fully accurate to say that the two books target different classes of attackers and misinterpreters. Vindicating was concerned with attacks on the founders representative of what we might call the classical PC era: the charges that the founders were on the wrong side of the race, sex, and class antagonisms that have preoccupied the academy since the 1980s. In the new book (which I will refer to in abbreviation as Political Theory), race, sex, and class again play important parts, but they are considered amid a quite broad variety of readings and misreadings of the founders’ ideas.

Among the various misreadings that West seeks to dispel are these:

·       that the founders’ idea of republicanism, at least during the Revolutionary period, was essentially anti-capitalist;

·       that the founders’ idea of equality was compatible with the institution of chattel slavery;

·       that the founders’ idea of equality entails a belief that individuals are roughly equal in natural abilities;

·       that the founders conceived of the state of nature as a purely hypothetical, fictitious contrivance;

·       that the founders’ natural-rights theory entails a hostility to revealed religion or a strict separation of church and state;

·       that the founders’ natural-rights theory, as epitomized in the Declaration of Independence, is indefinite regarding the choice among forms of government;

·       that the founders were deeply divided on questions of political economy.

The list could be expanded, but for present purposes I will contract it. In differentiating this book from Vindicating, one might say that West, in this way reminiscent of Socrates in his Apology speech, addresses in this book the founders’ truly dangerous accusers—those who are not only politically but also philosophically dangerous, those whose misunderstandings, as West considers them, are rooted in deeper philosophical challenges.

In Political Theory three main lines of misinterpretation and critique receive extended attention. First is the relatively longstanding view, variants of which are traceable to Rousseau and Nietzsche, that the political theory that informs the founding consists in a bourgeois form of individualism, with natural rights grounded in supposedly indefeasible, “low but solid” passions. The result, in the orthodox Straussian variant of this view, is an ethic in which human rights and virtues are viewed as mere means to the end of comfortable self-preservation—or in the variant held by the old Progressive left, an ethic of materialist egoism issuing in oligarchy.

The second main error with which West is concerned appears in the contention, prevalent on the communitarian left and among traditionalist and some Christian conservatives, that the founders’ political theory rests on a more libertarian, no less morally corrosive individualism. A recently prominent exponent of that view is Patrick Deneen, who maintains in his book Why Liberalism Failed that liberalism’s basic principle is “unfettered and autonomous choice” for individuals—or as West summarizes it, that the founders’ liberalism is a doctrine of “all rights, no duties”—resulting in their ultimately fatal inattention to the need to cultivate moral and republican virtues among the citizenry.

Finally, the third main error, overlapping with the first two, consists in the claim that the founders’ political thought is incoherent. This is the “amalgam” thesis, as West refers to it using Michael Zuckert’s coinage. The idea is that the founders’ moral and political thinking is a kind of house divided, a contrived and inevitably unstable union of mutually incompatible elements: of classical republicanism and classical liberalism, of Enlightenment rationalism and Protestant Christianity, of natural law and natural rights theories, of ancient and modern political philosophies.

They conceived of the natural rights republic as a genuine moral regime, designed to cultivate in the characters of their citizens a fitness for self-governing liberty.

All three of these lines of interpretation and critique can be addressed on two levels. One level concerns the founders’ self-understanding or intention, and a second level concerns the cogency of their political thought. On the first level, concerning their self-understanding, I think West’s treatment of these three lines of interpretation is on the whole a resounding success. On the second level, concerning their cogency, I think the result is less definite, with the amalgam thesis in particular remaining an open question.

As to the claim that the founders’ natural rights argument is fundamentally Hobbesian, grounded in the passion for self-preservation, West presents a great abundance of evidence to the contrary. Natural rights is the founders understood them are grounded not in passions we share with lower animals but in distinctive human faculties; in the morally decisive respect, we are not self-preserving but instead self-owning beings, by virtue of the faculties that render us capable of reflection and choice.

This means that among our basic natural rights, the right that holds the place of moral primacy is not the right of self-preservation but rather the right of liberty. So as West observes, when revolutionary-era Americans expressed, as they commonly did, the “liberty or death” sentiment made famous by Patrick Henry, they were not contradicting themselves. Their natural rights liberal republicanism was and is perfectly compatible with heroic virtue.

This idea of natural rights beginning in self-ownership might seem to lend force to the second line of interpretation West is concerned to discredit. Does the founders’ (and John Locke’s) idea of self-ownership necessarily reduce to or entail a libertarian idea of the radically autonomous, duty-free self? The founders’ answer, as again West shows in abundant detail, is an emphatic No.

This, to my mind, is one of the book’s most valuable contributions. Not only does West demonstrate the founding generation’s pervasive invocations of virtue in speeches and writings – the “lip service” they paid to virtue – he goes much further in elaborating their efforts in practice to cultivate it in various realms of public policy, ranging from marriage to education to welfare policy to public support for religion.

He shows, in other words, how the founders were Aristotelians, in practice if not in basic philosophical orientation, in at least one very important respect. They conceived of the natural rights republic as a genuine moral regime, designed to cultivate in the characters of their citizens a fitness for self-governing liberty.

That mention of Aristotle, however, might recall to our minds the “amalgam” reading and the question of the founders coherence and cogency. About this I want to make one particular and one general point. Extending the link to Aristotle, the particular point touches on the matter of reparative justice, and the particular focus is on the founders’ treatment of race relations (so-called) between black and white Americans.

West rightly observes that the founders were predominantly anti-slavery. He ascribes to them four further positions:

(1)   that blacks were not considered to be actually or prospectively part of the American people;

(2)   that the pertinent criterion for inclusion into the American people was not racial but cultural;

(3)   that the historical antagonisms and cultural differences between blacks and whites constituted prohibitive barriers to their integration as fellow citizens of a republic; and

(4)   that according to the social compact theory that stands as a corollary of the natural rights theory, the body of citizens of the U.S. possessed a perfect right to admit into their political society and to exclude from their political society whomever they chose.

This seems to me a faithful exposition of the founders’ thinking. It does not seem to me finally persuasive as an exposition of what the founders’ natural rights principles entail as policy in the circumstances.

First some concessions. There is no abstract natural right to be a citizen of the U.S. or of any particular political society. There is a natural right to judge, within the bounds of reasonableness, what is required for one’s self-preservation and to act on that judgment. The violence incident to the Haitian revolution generated understandable fears, with respect to the aftermath of slavery’s abolition, among the founders and members of subsequent generations. Beyond those security concerns, the position that admission to U.S. citizenship should be regulated by considerations of cultural compatibility is in principle reasonable. The founders harbored understandable doubts concerning the viability of integration across the black-white color line in the U.S., in view of what Jefferson called the “deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites” and “ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained.” For all these reasons, it is understandable that on this exceedingly difficult question, the notion that abolition must be followed by the colonization of those newly liberated came to be a mainstream position among antislavery founders.

In contemplating race relations after slavery’s abolition, the Founders did not face squarely the implications, in context, of their own principles.

To say that their position is understandable is not, however, to say that it is right. Further, countervailing considerations persuade me that the anti-integrationist, colonizationist position is  not right. To the contrary, so far as it embodies a determination that the newly freedpeople were to be forcibly “removed beyond the reach of mixture” (Jefferson), it is profoundly wrong as a representation of what the natural rights principles required in the circumstances.

To tell a class of voluntary migrants that the present body of American citizens holds the natural right to incorporate them or turn them away is one thing. It would be quite a different matter to say the same to a class of people whom those citizens’ ancestors forcibly imported, severed their connections to their native cultures, and systematically violated their rights and dehumanized them, all the while extracting from them a substantial contribution to the development of the country.

To such a class of persons, would it not fall well short of the requirements of natural justice to say that after their emancipation the country owes them no more than “colonization”—meaning, if we are to speak frankly, forcible deportation—into a condition of natural freedom?

The case against colonization and for an earnest effort at integration becomes decisive, it seems to me, when we consider further that the blacks living in America from the founding onward were, in the vast majority, Americans, living in the only country they had ever known. The carnage of the Haitian revolution was certainly frightful, but against the inference that it warranted continued enslavement or post-slavery expatriation, one must consider that the violence was perpetrated against slaveholders, not against emancipators. Aggrieved as they were, the vast majority of blacks in America had given no evidence of any design of violence, vengeful or otherwise, against their fellow Americans but instead simply desired equal citizenship.

In that desire they shared the sentiment articulated by the greatest among them, Frederick Douglass, who addressed a public letter to Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, an advocate of colonization, in October, 1862. “It is you who wish to get rid of us,” Douglass wrote, “not we who wish to get rid of you…. We are Americans by birth and education, and have a preference for American institutions as against those of any other country. That we should wish to remain here is natural to us and creditable to you.”

In view of all this, it seems to me that in this exceptional case, the founders’ political thought may have been an amalgam of natural rights principles and less savory elements. At any rate it seems to me that in contemplating race relations after slavery’s abolition, they did not face squarely the implications, in context, of their own principles.

Now to the more general point about the amalgam reading. I said that I think the broader case against the amalgam reading is inconclusive, but I say it not as a detraction; I think West agrees with me, which he indicates when he acknowledges that the founders’ invocations of natural law were assertions or expressions of conviction rather than genuine arguments (80, 86). If we don’t know the basis of natural law, we cannot know whether it is ultimately compatible with the natural rights doctrine, and we cannot conclusively dismiss the amalgam reading.

This, to me, is the large question that pervades the book. The deepest criticisms of the founders’ political thought converge in the claim that the founders’ regime depends for its health on a reservoir of cultural capital that the founders’ principles inexorably dissipate and cannot replenish.

Against this claim, West’s book mounts a formidable defense. Broadly considered, it is his great contribution to bolster the argument, perhaps more than any other single volume ever has, that the founders are a formidable group, not only in their political prudence but also in their claim to genuine moral and political wisdom.

As West argues against the likes of Deneen, the fact that we have lapsed from the founders’ principles does not necessarily support an indictment of those principles themselves. The founders expected us to lapse from our principles; they thought it was incident to the frailty of human nature, even a predictable consequence of the success of those principles, that we should lapse from them. We might recall the teaching of Hobbes: “Men are then most troublesome, when they are most at ease.”

To start with the founders, then, is not necessarily to end as oligarchs or libertarians or libertines or radical egalitarians or postmoderns. To start with the founders is not necessarily to end with John Rawls or Richard Rorty or Murray Rothbard, let alone with today’s “social justice warriors.”

To show this conclusively, though, we would have to show that to begin with the likes of Locke and the Baron de Montesquieu is not necessarily to end with Friedrich Nietzsche or Michel Foucault. To explain and to vindicate America’s founders in full, one must explain and vindicate the founders of modernity at large, or at least the most sober and sensible of them.

That, however, would require another book—another exceptionally ambitious book. It is better for now to conclude with an expression of gratitude for this one, which I hope and think will long be regarded as a truly exemplary work of scholarship.

Peter C. Myers is Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Author Meets Critics…

by Peter C. Myers time to read: 12 min