JMC faculty partner James Stoner has reviewed The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom, a book by Thomas G. West, also a JMC fellow. Stoner recently authored the lead essay for JMC’s Constitution Day Conversation,”Free Speech, Diversity, and Inclusion: Is There a Balance?” In it, he reflects on freedom of speech, which is the theme of this year’s Constitution Day Initiative. Stoner also delivered a Constitution Day lecture at Oglethorpe University, one of many JMC Constitution Day events held across the country.
A Partial Vindication of Thomas West
By James Stoner
Why should we go to the trouble of trying to understand correctly the political theory of the American Founding? I can think of three reasons.
There might be a strictly historical interest: to see how men thought and lived and acted in a time (if not a place) different from our own. Of course, this leads us to ask, why study history?—but here my concern is simply with the achievement of historical understanding, understanding men as they understood themselves and observing their thoughts and lives as a traveler might try to capture a culture and country in a distant corner of the globe, if there still were any. That effort could itself be preparatory to a philosophical appreciation of the ways of gods and men, so to speak, but it has a certain integrity in itself. Indeed, it often requires great self-discipline to achieve genuine historical knowledge, for we seem disposed to see, and in a sense cannot avoid seeing, everything from our own perspective and to assume our concerns regnant in every time and place.
Secondly, the thought of the Founders is worth studying for the sake of illuminating the meaning of the Constitution. Many patrons of this website probably read the Founders with this in mind, and whether or not one is a strict originalist, it is a valuable study. A judge in the mold of Justice William Brennan might read the Founders to show why today one wouldn’t want to be bound by their views, while a faithful originalist like Justice Clarence Thomas would read them to learn the meaning of a text he considers authoritative. In both cases it would be preferable to speak with knowledge of the Founding rather than thoughtlessly to attribute to the Framers one’s own ideas.
Finally, one might study the Founders simply to learn from them. For it is hard to deny that they possessed no small measure of political wisdom, indeed sufficient wisdom that even their mistakes and injustices are instructive.
In The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom, Thomas G. West admits only to undertaking the first of these tasks, but it is difficult to read the book without concluding that he really means to probe the Founders’ wisdom. The work is organized in three parts. West begins with an overview of the Founders’ political theory, which he defines as based entirely on natural rights rather than being an amalgam of natural rights with some distinct intellectual tradition, such as classical republicanism, Christianity, English common law, or Thomistic natural law.
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