It was 20 years ago that Thomas G. West, nowadays the Potter professor of politics at Hillsdale College, published Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins of America. The book was a tour de force against the left’s relentless attacks on and distortions of the American founding, and it is an indispensable reference book for every one of the left’s clichés about the supposed defects, if not downright evil and oppression, of America. The book is a model of engaged scholarship, showing how it is possible to be both partisan in favor the decency of America while remaining objective about facts and unbiased interpretation.
West returns this week with a new blockbuster book on the founding that, in a rightly ordered world, would be universally regarded as one of the most significant works ever produced on the subject: The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom (Cambridge University Press). This book is not casual reading. It is 410 pages of detailed argument and analysis, though it should be quickly added that West’s prose is clear and direct, and never lapses into typical academic jargon or obscurity.
It is impossible to offer a summary overview of this book in a short space (and I’ve only just started reading it), but two central points stand out. First, West’s account is not just at another rich synthesis of the various intellectual traditions and currents that most historians attribute to American political thought, but instead makes a powerful case for the centrality of the idea of natural law and natural right above other ideas: “If I am correct, the founders embraced ‘other traditions’—common law. Protestantism, etc.—only to the extent they helped to ‘secure these [natural] rights.’”
Second, West directly and powerfully rejects the smug historicism typical of most accounts of the American founding today even by some authors who regard themselves as sympathetic to the founding. Historicism assumes our current opinions, even consciousness itself depending on how far out you travel on the historicist spectrum, are limited by our own historical horizons. For people trapped in the prison of historicism, the “truth” of the founders may have been true for their time, but our times and ideas are—and must be—different. (This is the root of that laziest of liberal tropes about “the side of history.”) West believes (and I agree) that the achievement of the American founding was crystalizing the accumulated and hard-won political wisdom of two millennia of western civilization into a truly novus ordo seclorum—a new order for the ages, meaning an advance of human social order based on permanent principles of right. As George Washington wrote in 1783: “The foundation of our empire was not laid in the gloomy ages of ignorance and superstition; but at an epoch when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any other period.”
“Ignorance and superstition” is the very ground of contemporary liberalism, which is why Tom West’s book is necessary antidote to decades of defective history and scholarship about the founding.