New Philosophy Reading: The Political Theory of the American Founding

For my next longer work, I'll be reading The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom by Thomas G. West. It is available in several formats including Kindle from Amazon if you want to read along.

West takes an unusual view of the Founding among scholars, although I think it is ordinary among ordinary Americans. Specifically, he believes that the Founders had a pretty uniform view of what made their program right and just, as opposed to being driven by variant ideas of republicanism and liberalism that were in tension with each other. This coherent view is the view of natural rights, which is to say the rights all people have prior to the formation of a government or a social compact. 

These natural rights, he argues, also create moral duties: if you have a right to be free from being murdered, everyone else has a duty not to murder you. Many of these duties must be respected even after a social compact is formed, and cannot morally be surrendered as part of any such compact or formation of government. These rights are the ones the Declaration of Independence calls inalienable

West's view is thus that the American Founding has a lot more moral content than most scholars believe today; but he is also (he claims; I haven't gotten there) to argue that the Founders had a larger moral vision for the inculcation of virtue in the citizen. 

One thing we will be exploring as I post about this book is the debate Joel and I were having about whether the Declaration ought to inform the Constitution. Initially what I find him to be saying about that is that the constitutions and the Declaration inform each other: that is, the state constitutions that pre-date the Declaration often give fuller explanations of what terms like "equality" mean, and how they arise, than the Declaration itself bothers to do. However, later constitutions (like New York's of 1777) specifically refer back to the Declaration's language and project. Thus, the two kinds of documents end up being in dialogue with each other even though they serve different purposes. 

If any of you care to read along, I'll be doing a series of posts about it similar to what I did with Weber's lecture and the recent books of Plato that we've read through. 


Tom said...

This sounds like a good read. Maybe I can catch up when my summer work is done and normal re-asserts itself ... Whatever normal is, now.

sykes.1 said...

The real question is whether the Declaration has legal force. The Constitution obviously does. I suppose the Declaration has legal force in those State whose Constitutions cite it. Otherwise, not so much, Lincoln not withstanding.

Oddly, nowadays Lincoln gets beat up by both the hard left and the hard right, although for different reasons.

Grim said...

I don’t agree that is the major question. The question that interests me is whether the Declaration will be what justifies the next revolution, vice that revolution being justified eg by Marxist thought. If the Constitution is judged to have failed on the Declaration’s terms, and is replaced on those terms, in a sense the documents will remain in useful dialogue.

Narr said...

The legal scholar Kermit Roosevelt argued recently that the FF's were NOT making universalist claims--that they were instead focused on their own political communities and traditions.

Crusading Constitutionalism among the heathen was not part of their plan,
according to Roosevelt. Since I lack the crusader spirit entirely, I find his ideas appealing to the extent I understand them.

Cousin Eddie

J Melcher said...

The rebels in the Continental Congress responsible for the Declaration were attempting to justify the "cause of separation from Great Britain" to the governments of France and Spain. This reasoning was made explicit in the discussions of the motion for independence. Britain, of course, was holding on to the premise that the colonies, in rebellion, were NOT separate but merely astray.

The situation was/is closely analogous to the Mainland China CCP's position with regard to the Formosa/Taiwan/Kuomintang government.

Taiwan's status remains in limbo but the 1783 "Treaty of Paris" -- especially article I of that internationally recognized social contract -- confirmed the Declaration. Britain acknowledges the United States... to be free, sovereign, and independent states, and that the British Crown and all heirs and successors relinquish claims to the Government, property, and territorial rights of the same, and every part thereof...

To whatever extent one concedes to the odd notion of "international law" (a system that is presumed to exist without a government to enact or enforce it), 1783 makes 1776 as legal and enforceable as anything else in the system.

Joel Leggett said...

I believe it is a mistake to view the Declaration of Independence as some sort of touchstone serving as the philosophical founding of our nation. That was not its intended purpose at the time. It served to justify the separation with Great Britain and inspire support at home and abroad by pointing out how the Crown had violated the colonist’s rights as Englishmen. It did not even address the question of a proper form of government. A monarchy that properly protected the aforementioned rights of Englishmen would have been just as consistent with the Declaration’s claims as a republic. In fact, there were those that wanted to make Washington a King. Consequently, the Declaration does not inform the Constitution and should not be used as a standard by which to measure its effectiveness. Consequently, I think it would be a great mistake to use the Declaration as a standard to measure the effectiveness of any future reforms of the Constitution, or any government for that matter.

This debate touches on an important point about the American Revolution that needs to be reemphasized. Unlike the French Revolution, ours was not based on vague notions of abstract rights, but grounded in practical experience and traditional practices. That is why our revolution did not dissolve into “The Terror” as it did in France. It is also why the Founding Fathers would have balked at viewing the Declaration as some secular version of divine law handed down to the colonists from an American Mount Sinai.

Grim said...

It is definitely not the equivalent of the Ten Commandments. One of the ways West informs this discussion is by pointing out how much the Declaration is itself derived from earlier works -- often works distributed in and debated in churches. "Educated Americans in every colony, including the clergy, adopted the natural rights theory into their won thinking and writing. Alice Baldwin writes that 'every church-going New Englander long before 1763' was familiar with 'the doctrines of natural rights, the social contract, and the right of resistance.'" (22)

That said, it is the case that the Declaration comes down firmly on what the right forms of government are (not "is"). There's a single criterion against which every and any government can be tested: does the government secure the natural rights of the people, or is it destructive to that end?

In not specifying a single form of government, but rather a single test for any form of government, the Declaration is like Aristotle's Politics. There may be several different forms that past the test; some cultures may find one more acceptable than the others. Yet you will know enough to say, even after just the first page of the Declaration, whether or not yours fits in the range of legitimate governments or not.

Now also I note that the Founders did not view this as 'some secular version of divine law,' but as natural laws that are in fact derived directly from divine law by the work of reason. It's not secular, though it is not sectarian; and it means to appeal ultimately to the same source. In that regard, it is analogically similar to the test I proposed for a Christian nation of looking at the Gospels (which were also written by men, and named after their particular authors) in order to understand if that theoretical nation was or was not on the right path. The Declaration points the way, and it would be a chilling criticism of the Constitution if it finally fails the Declaration's test.

Joel Leggett said...

The Constitution doesn’t have to pass the Declaration’s test. It has to pass its own test, which is set forth in the preamble:

"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

Whether the Constitution succeeds or fails depends on whether it achieves the five objectives it sets as the document’s goals. That, in turn, will depend ultimately on how vigilant “we the people” are in requiring our elected leaders to adhere to the document’s requirements and restrictions. None of that requires resorting to the Declaration of Independence.

Grim said...


I submit that is inadequate for the same reason that the "Living Constitution" is inadequate. If the Constitution is only to be tested against itself, the terms can evolve with the language so that some future President can say:

"We the People of the United States now better fulfill the Constitutional promise than ever before. Our union is now perfect, because no one can now think of leaving, under any circumstances, from a union secured by such total power. Our tranquility is perfect, because our eyes ever watch each citizen for the least deviation. Our common defense is perfected, because our union with the People's Republic of China means that no outward enemies still exist. The General Welfare System now watches over every aspect of every citizen's life, from birth to death; and who among you would say that you lack all the blessings of liberty, which include guaranteed employment by the State and freedom from all forms of want according to common benefits provided to all?"

In reference to the Declaration, you find that the Constitution intends to defend natural rights. In reading the Constitution with the Declaration and the other founding texts, the true meaning of these terms is firmly established. Alone they are open to endless revision, but as a whole they show what the Founding project was -- and what it was not.

J Melcher said...

Hi Grim,
I am not reading West's _Founding_ with you now, but I am reading your commentary. And I thank you for providing food for thought.

Does West mention Thomas Paine's _Common Sense_ at all? It was, after all, a national "Best Seller" as we now understand that term. I've seen estimates ranging from 100K to half a million copies in circulation in the late 1770's, each copy representing several readers. General Washington is said to have considered it a dramatic influence in support for the rebellion.

Whether or not West might be correct about the cohesion of opinion in the Colonies prior to Lexington and Concord in 1775, (and the famous speech of Patrick Henry -- "Give me Liberty or me Death!" -- was a rebuttal to Virginians anxious to stay OUT of the coming war between Britain and Massachusetts) there was a shift during 1776. Jefferson echoes Paine; the Declaration echoes _Common Sense_; and American public opinion about the Divine Rights of Kings and the rule of aristocrats was coalescing in a way still familiar today.

Grim said...

He does mention Paine, yes. “ Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence.” (183)

There’s quite a bit more, but I like that quote.