Matthew Spalding Is the constitutional scholar who heads the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation. He is also the author of the new book We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future, out today. We invited Matt to review the the book’s themes for our readers. Matt writes:
America is unique among nations in that universal principles of liberty are the foundation of our system of government and political culture. More than two centuries since the American Revolution, these principles–proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and embodied in the Constitution–still define us as a nation. They inspire us as a people.
Despite constant scorn from academic elites, political leaders and the popular media, most Americans still believe in the principles of the Founders. And they’re deeply concerned–witness the town hall meetings and expanding “tea parties”–about turning away from these principles.
They’re right to be apprehensive. The path America is following so quickly today will end in our nation becoming a European-style, centralized state. We’re increasingly stifled by a highly regulated economy and newly nationalized industries, and we’re on the way to socialized health care. We’re increasingly ruled by unelected bureaucrats.
In We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future, I explain the core principles of liberty, detail the progressive liberals’ assault on those principles and argue that we must defend and recover them in our politics if we are to save our country.
The book is built around 10 foundational principles that created a free, prosperous and just nation unlike any other: liberty and equality, natural rights and the consent of the governed, religious freedom and private property, the rule of law and limited constitutionalism, all culminating in self-government at home and independence in the world. These core principles have long served as the unchanging standards that guide America in changing times.
Nevertheless, these principles came under direct assault at the start of the last century. So-called progressive thinkers sought to re-found America according to ideas alien to those of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton and Madison.
The “progressives” repudiated the Founders’ principles, holding that there are no self-evident truths–in the Declaration of Independence or elsewhere–but only relative values. They contended there are no permanent rights with which man is endowed by his Creator, but only changing rights held at the indulgence of government.
In the progressives’ view, we must be governed by a “living” Constitution that endlessly evolves and grows. This view, imported from German and other European philosophers, drove American politics and the rise of big government in the 20th century. Today, it dominates the academy, the media, intellectual elites and significant portions of the leadership in both major political parties.
The Progressive Movement–first under a Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt and then a Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson–set forth the political platform for modern liberalism.
“Progress” means fundamentally transforming America with a new form of government that will engineer a “better” society by assuring equal outcomes. It would redistribute wealth through a distant, patronizing welfare state that regulates more and more of the economy, politics and society. President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society were grand steps toward achieving the progressive platform.
Though the ideas are over a century old, we are in the beginning of a new and more aggressive move in this direction.
However, we don’t need to remake America, or discover new and untested principles. We need a new American revolution. Not an overthrow of the government, or a great social upheaval, but a great renewal of the true roots of American greatness–and a radical reapplication of America’s core principles to the great questions of our day.
Do Americans have a fundamental right to government-provided health care? What does it mean to be truly equal before the law? Don’t laws promulgated by unelected bureaucrats violate the consent of the governed? Does religious liberty mean the government can impose a secular culture?
Property still is the necessary foundation of free markets and widespread prosperity. The rule of law still means everyone–especially judges–must act within the confines of constitutional government. Self-government requires a radical decentralization of government. It requires a vast expansion of the authority of family, community, schools, churches and the marketplace. Independence means a commitment to national sovereignty and defense. It means renewed confidence in upholding our principles in the world.
These core principles can be the source of a new and unified American conservatism, one that reminds economic conservatives that morality and self-reliance are essential to limited government, reminds cultural conservatives that unlimited government threatens moral self-government, and reminds national-security conservatives that energetic but responsible government is the key to safety at home and prominence in the world.
But this isn’t just about new policy prescriptions. In a world of moral confusion, of arbitrary and unlimited government, the American founding is our best access to permanent truths. It’s our best ground from which to launch a radical questioning of the whole progressive project.
We must rediscover America’s principles as a people, teach them in our schools and give voice to them in our politics and public square. We must recover a popular understanding of constitutional government, and develop leaders who will revere and abide by the Constitution.
Our purpose must be to conserve the principles of liberty and make them the central idea of our politics once again. They must become again, as Jefferson said, “an expression of the American mind.”
Matt’s Heritage page includes video clips of his appearances on Glenn Beck’s FOX News program. His previous books include The Heritage Guide to the Constitution (for which he was executive editor) and A Sacred Union of Citizens.