Thomas G. West
Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class and Justice in the Origins of America
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1997
219 pages, $22.95 hb.
ISBN 0-8476-8516-0
Reviewed by Gary McGath
This review Copyright 1998 by Gary McGath

"Our task as scholars," Thomas West writes in the closing paragraph of Vindicating the Founders, "is to recover the truth about the founding, to discern its strengths, to acknowledge its defects, and to pass that knowledge along to future generations. This book is my contribution to that effort."

West's book is itself a work with great strengths and highly disturbing defects. In seeking to explain and (for the most part) justify the views held by America's founders, he often does an excellent job of exploding myths and refuting misplaced criticisms. On other points, though, he endorses the eighteenth-century status quo in ways which few people of any political persuasion would find palatable today. The book is not long, but it requires careful reading.

We need to distinguish two aspects of the book: its historical explanations of the ideas underlying the country's founding and its evaluation of those ideas. The two questions to ask are: Does West represent the founders accurately? and: Are his evaluations of what he regards as their views justified?

In dealing with the first question, I have to be cautious. While I am reasonably familiar with American history, I am no professional historian. For the most part, I believe that he has represented history accurately, and has successfully refuted a considerable amount of conventional wisdom. There are, however, some points on which he may have placed disproportionate emphasis on statements and actions which best agree with his own views.

His most important achievement is to show that the founding philosophy of the country was in fact one of rights for all, not just for property-owning white males. He cites Jefferson's many statements against slavery and the political actions taken to limit the slave trade. He shows that property rights underlie the liberties of the poor as well as the rich, and draws a distinction between the feudal model of property (which forces wealth to stay in a few hands) and the free-market model. In pre-revolutionary times, there were still some remnants of the feudal system, such as primogeniture and entail, but these were overturned. He shows that slavery is inconsistent with property rights, and argues that this was recognized at the time.

He contrasts the view of government welfare programs in the early United States with that held today, while correctly noting that the founders did believe that some amount of governmental aid to the poor was right. The difference is that then, aid was given only to those who were unable to provide for themselves and had no families to support them; governmental welfare and private charity were "the poverty program of last resort." This, no doubt, is enough for the advocates of "welfare rights" to condemn the founders; so much the worse for welfare rights.

West seeks to portray the founders as advocates of "family values" in the modern, political conservative sense, and here he is less convincing. He notes that the legal system of the time gave all the property of a married couple, even the wife's wages, to the husband. To justify this, he states that "the rights of husbands were granted on the understanding that they would perform corresponding duties." Like primogeniture, such a state of affairs was an extension of the feudal ethic, and would soon be shattered by the logic of America's founding principles. He cites some statements by Abagail Adams which show the beginnings of this trend, but dismisses them as challenging merely abuse of male authority and not the authority itself.

The idea that married women should have equal rights with their husbands had not received any serious attention by 1800; on the other hand, there is nothing in the political philosophy expressed in the founders which opposes such equality. Moreover, as West notes, single women enjoyed considerable freedom even in the early United States, with the very significant exception of the right to vote. He also correctly notes that "The word 'men' in the Declaration means mankind, human beings, male and female, of whatever color or race."

The situation of married women in late eighteenth-century America -- one which the women themselves seldom protested against -- may be best explained not by a theory that male authority was necessary to protect the family, but perhaps by the fact that given the state of medical science, it took all of a woman's resources just to bear and raise children. Without today's resources for birth control, safer childbirth, and treatment of diseases, the issue of women's participation in political and economic society may not have been raised simply because it was not a practical alternative in most cases.

This is not to justify the denial of freedom for those who did wish to participate, of course; but it may explain why the issue had not been raised yet. Regrettably, West appears committed to the idea that female equality has been responsible for the breakup of families which is such a problem in today's society, and suggests that we would be better off returning to the family arrangements of the 1790's. His criticism of the effects of the welfare system on families is entirely valid, but he fails to note that both welfare and mandated sexual inequality are statist interventions.

Apart from the distastefulness of some of West's views, his insights into the history of the period are very interesting, and knock down some politically correct but factually incorrect notions. He points out that at no time in America were women (other than slaves) considered property, and cites the little-known fact that in New Jersey women were regularly permitted to vote from 1796 to 1807. He cites statements by James Otis and Richard Henry Lee which point toward consistently applying the principle of rights to both men and women.

Another area in which West's views are very troubling is his interpretation of "consent of the governed." For him, "the governed" means only the citizens of a country, and regards them as having the same right as a private organization to exclude new entries:

Once a people forms itself, no one has a right to join it without the consent of those being joined. No one has any more right to claim membership in an already existing people than he has a right to intrude himself into a household where he has not been invited.

He applies this even to people born in a country who had previously not been allowed any rights:

All human beings have a right to liberty. But a right to liberty does not include a right to live in the country of one's choice, without the consent of those already citizens in that place. The plan to colonize blacks would not have violated their human rights. What defines a people is not race, not tradition, not geography, but the free choice of a group of human beings to live together as fellow citizens. The blacks were unjustly dragged to America against their will. But justice required no more than to give them back their native liberty, with appropriate aid until such time as they could live on their own. This could have been done by sending them to a place where they could be their own masters, and then leaving them alone.

I can't find any support for this view in the founding philosophy of America. West cites arguments that citizenship should be granted to immigrants only when they show themselves capable of exercising it responsibility, but restrictions on naturalization are not the same thing as restrictions on immigration or forced emigration. The U.S. had no restrictions on entering the country until the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; West grudgingly says that it is "technically correct, but misleading" to call this an open door policy on immigration. The idea that those who shared in the authority to run a country have the right to exclude or expel others living in the same country is precisely what the Declaration of Independence rejects.

Even at his worst, West shows a remarkable level of consistency and integration in his ideas. He sees a tension between the principles of consent and of rights; and given the way he interprets the consent principle, this tension is certainly great. There is a great deal to disagree with in Vindicating the Founders, but nothing that is merely arbitrary. Moreover, the book is of considerable value for the information and perspective it supplies, apart from West's own valuations. Filled with quotations and having extensive notes, the book provides many points of reference for further discussion and study. Right or wrong, West presents a challenge which cannot be taken lightly.

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