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Our Founders’ Vision Thing

So here’s a rare treat: The leading historian of our Founding (Gordon Wood) receives a thoughtful and sympathetic–but indirectly somewhat critical–review by our leading political scientific student of our Founding (James Ceaser).

Here’s a rather large and meaty taste:

So great is the temptation to score points by invoking or attacking the Founders that most historians, whether consciously or unconsciously, have been unable to resist. Progressive writers like Charles Beard and Vernon Parrington railed against the robber barons and big corporations of their day and found it helpful to their cause to tarnish the Founders’ reputation, accusing them of designing the Constitution to promote their economic interests.

The Progressives’ unitarianism in opposing economic injustice has broadened in our day into a trinitarianism that focuses on concerns of race, class and gender, producing a host of studies treating the Founders’ “sexism,” “homophobia” and “racism.” Thus Thomas Jefferson, who received a pass from some Progressives because of his hostility to finance capitalism, has become a favorite target today. “Much as most historians continue to dislike businessmen and the commercial classes, they dislike slaveholders and racists more,” Mr. Wood wryly notes in his latest book, “The Idea of America.”…

Within the little band of brothers and sisters in the academy who stress the centrality of the Founding ideas to the American experience there is a long-standing family feud. On one side are those who identify the content of the idea with a “republican ideology,” an inheritance of classical, Renaissance and a strand of English Whig thought that subordinates the individual to the community. Arrayed against them are those who emphasize the centrality of the doctrine of natural rights, an Enlightenment discovery that stresses individual liberty as a universal principle. This debate has had important implications for our polity, with republicanism being warmly seized upon by many modern-day egalitarians and communitarians and natural rights being cited by many conservatives. While the origins of Mr. Wood’s view lie more in the “republican ideology,” this book makes it clear that his understanding of republicanism is supple enough to embrace the enlightenment idea of natural rights as well. In the end, Mr. Wood is content to avoid much of this debate and describe the core principles generally as “liberty and democracy.”

The germ of these principles is the notion of equality—a concept akin to the egalitarianism Tocqueville identified as the catalyst of American development. For Mr. Wood, it produced an explosion of energy that reshaped the America of the early republic and has been reshaping it—and the world—ever since.

Mr. Wood fully acknowledges all the hierarchies based on race, class and gender, but unlike so many other historians he views the battles against them as deriving from within the Revolution’s principles, not from outside. His idea of democracy is perhaps best grasped in a negative formulation: In America no principle of hierarchy can ever openly be sustained as a title to rule. The “natural” America that Mr. Wood describes has a populist tinge to it. In its cruder application it can appear as the celebration of ordinariness, but it can also accept, and even reward, any individual’s accomplishment of wealth, education or merit, though never as an a priori claim of a title to govern.

The historian has the advantage of hindsight. He can see the development of an idea or principle in a way that the participants along the way never can. In Mr. Wood’s analysis, the force of the democratic principle was bound to undo or modify some of the hierarchic aspects of the Founders’ plan….

Here are my quick comments:

1. It’s perfectly true that most American arguments take place within the context set by our Founding’s “revolutionary ideology”–which was, I agree with Ceaser, much more about natural rights than classical republicanism.  So the individualistic, Lockean principles of the Declaration were opposed, from the very beginning, to legal distinctions based on race, class, and gender.  That’s ‘the ideological” reason why even the Constitution of 1787 is strikingly silent on race, class, gender, and religion, and why Jefferson wrote so eloquently against the injustice of slavery (yes, I know, he didn’t do much otherwise to end slavery in our country).  So when we criticize “the practice” of Americans during the Founding generation and subsequently, we do it from the point of view of their “theory.” 

2. So our Progressives, when they imported alien theory into our political life from Hegel (History) to Darwin (organic evolution as antidote to the Constitution’s allegedly Newtonian mechanism), never managed to come up with theoretical innovations that had “legs.”  That’s why, for example, Roosevelt’s new and allegedly improved list of rights in 1944 never caught on.  It’s also why our welfare state has been–comparatively speaking–minimalist and why our courts never bought into the idea of “welfare rights.”  It’s also why when our Supreme Court, when upholding affirmative action schemes, has consistently rejected quotas and insisted that every applicant be treated as a free and equal individual.  That’s even why our Court now thinks it’s adhering to the Founders’ expansive view of liberty when it strikes down laws that interfere with the dignified, autonomous activity of homosexual individuals.

3.  I think Ceaser is wrong to neglect completely the place of Biblical religion and particularly Calvinist Christianity in our Founding.  There are two reasons, to begin with,  why “classical republicanism”–with its subordination of the individual to the political community–never really caught on that much in America.  The first is the individualism of Lockean natural rights, of course:  The free individual consents to government with his own interests or rights in mind.  The other, though, is Christianity, which teaches that the individual is not, deep down, a citizen;  he is, as St. Augustine says, an alien or pilgrim in every earthly city. 

Locke himself celebrates that breakthrough in egalitarian self-understanding that came with the Christians, and the most idealistic and egalitarian of our various Founders–the Puritans–never treated creatures as merely citizens (yes, I know, they also had some bizarre and tyrannical laws–mainly flowing from their misguided and even un-Christian effort follow parts of the Old Testament in criminalizing sin).  And, of course, the anti-slavery or abolitionist movement in America was more neo-Puritanical than anything else (google the founding of Oberlin, for example)…  (Well one more point:  Even our Declaration of Independence was a legislative compromise between the Lockeans and the Calvinists–with, in fact, very little republicanism.)


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