Making Sense of the American Founding with Thomas G. West

What makes American freedom unique in the world? What have Americans forgotten in the 21st century that America’s Founders knew and took for granted? How can such a forgetful nation remain a free country? What will it take to recover the principles of the American Founding today? American Greatness Publisher Chris Buskirk discusses these questions with Thomas G. West, professor of politics at Hillsdale College and author of The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy and the Moral Conditions of Freedom. 

Seth Leibsohn: Welcome back to the Seth and Chris show. Chris and I were privileged to have a professor of political philosophy in Claremont named Tom West who’s now at Hillsdale, and Chris did a long interview with him about his brand new book, The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy and the Moral Conditions of Freedom and I thought it would be particularly good to air it now, in light and wake of Constitution Day.

Chris Buskirk: Tom West, San Francisco, APSA. Tom, in the acknowledgments to your book, The Political Theory of the American Founding, you talked about . . . the different versions, I guess, with the different iterations or evolutions of your thinking about the founding. You were a student of [Leo] Strauss and [Harry] Jaffa but you’ve also had a lifetime to think about these things. Can you talk about how your understanding of the founding has evolved within the context of the Claremont view of the world, maybe explain what the Claremont project is and how your understanding of the American founding has evolved over time?

Thomas G. West

Tom West: . . . I think the continuity in the Claremont project is, going all the way back to the founding of the Institute in the late ’70s, was, well the American Founding seems to have been pretty good, and maybe we should try to restore it, just try to restore those principles in American life. Seems like America is pretty far from that in many ways. Let’s try to get back and let’s try to understand what those principles were, too. Let’s try to understand the meaning of that.

And I guess I’d have to say though that in the original Claremont Institute, it was probably more interested in Lincoln than the Founders, because Jaffa back in those years—and that was the guy we all looked up to—had himself had started with Lincoln was the go-to statesman in the American tradition who really understood the way to think about natural rights and American government and, you know, this is how you understand justice through Lincoln, the eyes of Lincoln.

And the early Jaffa held the view that Lincoln had changed the Founding in some important respects. So you go back to Jaffa’s 1959 book, Crisis of the House Divided. He made the argument in that book, Lincoln had a noble understanding of the idea of equality but the Founders had a more debased understanding because, for the Founders, equality really meant the equal right to be passionate in your own self-interest.

Lincoln had to take that equality idea from the Founding and turn it into something noble, turn it into a goal—a goal of justice for all Americans, black as well as white. That’s how he viewed the whole—that’s how Jaffa viewed the relationship between Lincoln and the Founders. and then people like me, students of that, who came out of Claremont at that time held something like that view.

And that view was consistent with the view that was being taught by Leo Strauss or at least appeared to be taught by Strauss. And Strauss was one of Jaffa’s major teachers, and was one of my minor teachers. Strauss was at Claremont briefly while I was there as a student. And Strauss doctrine on modernity and on Locke in particular was Locke and other modern thinkers really tried to take virtue out of politics. There’s some formulations of Strauss in various places about how Locke thought you could substitute interest for virtue, and thereby make government concern for virtue no longer necessary. Strauss’s argument was that was characteristic of a number of writers in the early modern traditional political thought, especially the English writers. People like Locke and Hobbes.

So that was my initial understanding of all this and I have to say as a graduate student I didn’t spend much time on any of this. I was a Plato guy. And I was also more of a Harry Neumann student and he was very interested in Plato but also very interested in Thucydides and Nietzsche and Heidegger and Thomas More, and all kinds of people. I mean, Neumann was a great books guy, and that was more the way I was back then. I was much less interested in politics in the ordinary sense, and more interested in books written by major thinkers of the past. So I didn’t even look into this question very much until the ’80s—so 10 years after I had finished with graduate school.

Buskirk: Interesting sidebar, because I didn’t realize you were a Neumann student. I had one class with Harry Neumann, it was the class that the Harrys thought—you know, Jaffa and Neumann together, and they were the dynamic duo. But I always thought that we could have used more Neumann, and that he was a great foil for Jaffa. Maybe because of that, maybe because Jaffa was always so focused on certain issues and Harry Neumann brought this other—just brought a different perspective because of his particular interest in Heidegger.

West: Well, the thing about Neumann was, when I was there as a student in the late ’60s, Neumann was really—he was a great books guy. He was a guy who really was interested in major thinkers and trying to figure out what their ideas were. He was very interested in the interpretation of major texts. And by 10 or 15 years later, maybe 20 years later, Neumann had largely given that up, and he had adopted this sort of position of, “Well, I’m a nihilist,” and . . .

Buskirk: That was the era when I was there.

West: Yeah, and that became his constant theme and . . . from then on he began to use great books more as a source for quotes about topics that he was interested in; he was less interested in what those thinkers were saying on their own.

And so I feel like I was there at a time when Neumann’s teaching was probably more useful to students than it was at a later time, when maybe when you were there, when he just got on that one topic and wouldn’t get off it.

Buskirk: Yeah when I was there he really acted . . . Unless you took the time and he was in the mood to speak to with you separately, he really was just always there to be an interlocutor with Jaffa. And was good at it. They played very well together.

So . . . Jaffa’s argument in Crisis of the House Divided, his view of the Founding evolved over time, too, by the time he wrote A New Birth of Freedom 40 years later.

West: Right.

Buskirk: Does your thinking of the Founding evolve on a similar path? Or is there a point at which you diverge?

West: Well I think what happened with Jaffa—well, I would say, broadly speaking, yes, we were on a somewhat similar path, but we did diverge at a certain point, which I’ll get to in a minute. But I think what happened to me in the ’80s was that I . . . It was kind of an accident. I was invited to a series of conferences by Liberty Fund, and the particular series that I was being invited to was run by Bill Allen, who was also a fellow student of mine at the time. We were both at Claremont. And Allen was putting together these conferences for Liberty Fund and he . . . invited me to do a paper on the Founders and the classics. This was in ’83, I believe.

And I said, “Bill, I don’t know anything about the Founders and the classics. I can do something on the classics but I’m not really a founders guy.” And he said, “Well, you need to find out about it then. I want you to write this paper because I think you are in a good position to do a good job with it, but you need to do the work.” And I did, that’s when I first really immersed myself in thinking of the people at the time of the Founding beyond just famous documents of you know the Federalist Papers and the Constitution, and so forth. The Declaration.

Buskirk: So here you are, it’s 1983, you’re just starting to think seriously it sounds like about the founders.

West: Right.

Buskirk: So I guess for somebody who came to Claremont later, how did you get through graduate school at Claremont without thinking about the Founders? Where was your focus and did that change in the graduate school, I guess where was it when you were there and how did it get to where it is or was in the ’80s, ’90s, it is today, where it’s very focused on the Founding and on a particular understanding of the Founding?

West: I don’t remember any of the professors during the time, I was in graduate school there being much interested in the founding. Including Jaffa. He was interested in Lincoln, he had recently finished that book on Lincoln.

He was interested to some degree in Jefferson. I remember a talk a gave once on Jefferson. So yeah he was somewhat interested and I was somewhat interested too. I remember one of my dissertation topics that never got written was Jefferson on education. So I knew kind of this is something I need to know more about but I never did it and it’s because at that time my primary interest was interpretation of major writings in the tradition.

And so my … Another dissertation topic that I didn’t write was Heidegger on Plato. I was going to write about Heidegger’s essay on Plato’s cave which is short and therefore would be something you could maybe do in a dissertation.

I gave up on that when I realized it’s just going to take me too long to learn what I need to know of Heidegger to make this work and I ended up writing on Plato’s Apology of Socrates. Plato being an author I had spent a lot of time on, both in graduate school and also both in formal classes and also informally.

I spent a lot of time reading Plato in Greek as a way of learning Greek and also because I was interested and I wanted to learn about it so that was … Tom West of the 70s was really a Plato, Nietzsche, Heidegger, great books guy. And I had an interest in the founding and I knew a little bit about it but I didn’t really pursue it very much, very far.

Buskirk: Is it the case that Jaffa sort of led Claremont to the Founding through Lincoln? Is that sort of how that happened? In other words, he was interested in Lincoln, and via Lincoln had to learn about the Founding, had to address and interact with the founding . . .

West: Yeah, I think that’s right I think that he was doing that kind of work. I actually don’t remember all that much about what Jaffa was teaching after I left Claremont. I might have finished my coursework there maybe around ’71. So after that, I don’t know what he was doing. But I think so, from what I’ve heard from other students who came along later. It sounds like he was more interested in the actual political thought of the Founding that developed.

I should also mention—I didn’t mention this before—but I was also a student of Martin Diamond, back in the late ’60s. He was at Claremont for a year, my first year there and then he left and went off to Northern Illinois and I cannot remember.

By the time … I took a year off to go to the Army, a year and a half off, and by the time I got back, Diamond was gone. So I was only there for one year while he was there. And he was a guy very interested in the Federalist Papers, Tocqueville, Willmoore Kendall on the Founders, the  Declaration and the Constitution. The constitutional convention—I mean he had a lot of interests like that, and I got a little bit interested in it. I took some of those courses that he had, that one year I was there with him. So it wasn’t like I didn’t know anything at all, but it was not anything that I pursued at that time any more deeply than doing those courses.

Buskirk: So you come back to the Founding in the ’80s, years later. How influential was Diamond in the way you thought about the Founding then, and has that changed over time?

West: In the ’60s, Diamond was famous for his thesis that the Founders didn’t care about virtue. He had an article about democracy and the Federalist, and it was all about, the Founders’ idea was, “Let’s unleash private interest from private acquisitiveness. That’s the best way to solve a political problem. Let’s just forget about virtue and let’s instead get self-interest unleashed.”

That was a version of that “Straussian” interpretation of early modern political thought. That’s the argument that he was making in the ’60s and that was what I heard. When I went back to the Founding in the ’80s, that was the Diamond that I remembered. Now turned out, as I learned, he actually had some other views that he had been developing right before he died. In fact, he sent me a very memorable letter, very . . . almost right before he died, about how we need to get over the idea that the moderns are a bunch of pigs wallowing in the mire and the ancients are all sweetness and light. He said that isn’t true, and he says “I have an idea of giving a lecture someday called “The Bad Guys versus the Sissies, or Ancients and Moderns.” And his point was, “I’m going to show that neither one of those positions is true.”

The ancients weren’t all dreamy and idealistic and believed in virtue and education, they had their realist side and their tough side and neither were the moderns all blind self-interest.

That side of Diamond, I never experienced as a student. I got a taste of it from that letter he sent me, which I always remembered and kept over the years. And then that late article he wrote on “Ethics and Politics: the American Way” and there you can see he’s seeing, “Yeah, my earlier approach to this wasn’t good enough. I need to recognize the Founders actually did care about the character of citizen, the citizen’s character, and talked about it.” And so Martin Diamond did say, yeah, that’s something I need to get up to speed on.

Then he died right around that time, or shortly after that.

Buskirk: That’s a view, I take it, that you largely agree with.

West: I do agree with it, and that’s why Larry Arnhart accuses me of being a Diamond or a Midwest Straussian. Where I disagreed with Diamond, even the late Diamond, was that Diamond never saw the ways in which the Founders not only believed virtue was important, but also did something about it. They actually had a pretty wide array of policies that they pursued to shape citizen character.

Diamond didn’t know about that, he didn’t write about that, he didn’t really get into that. I don’t think he knew about it.

Buskirk: Right. The Founders were not content to develop “a city in speech.” They had practical political concerns which is why I think for most people that makes them more interesting and more . . . And what they did more . . . of more educational value, practical value, too . . .

West: Yeah I think that’s right and so that’s where … So I wouldn’t say Diamond was much of an influence on me other than just that, something I was aware of. To me, one I got into the ’80s, then that was me, I was just reading these Founding-era documents that Bill Allen and I were just putting together for these Liberty Fund conferences and I got this sort of second graduate education, you might say.

I mean those conferences were great. They would bring together 15 people, have them read 200 or 300 pages worth of documents from the Founding, and sit around the table and talk about what they all meant. There would always be 15 really smart, highly educated, top scholars.

That was amazing. And I have to say that was a very valuable part of my educational experience in my career, which wasn’t like graduate school but it was kind of in its way a second graduate education.

Buskirk: Well I agree, they’re still doing them.

West: I haven’t been for a long time.

Buskirk: I just did one in April and my experience was the same. It was uniquely valuable and …

West: It depends on how it’s done, but the ones that I was in on, they were wonderful for me.

Buskirk: Very, very good, good people, good topics.

West: Particularly for helping to introduce me to the just really massive amount of literature that exists both in the Founding and on the Founding. That took me a long time to really get deeply acquainted with that. That’s when I got started on it.

Buskirk: So just a bit of sort of institutional history. So we’ve for Claremont in the late ’60s and ’70s which is very focused on Strauss’s project and . . .

West: Wait, let’s go back to the stages, let’s finish that up, I’ll do it very quickly.

Buskirk: Yeah, go ahead.

West: So in the ’80s, my view was the Founders actually did care about—they were not hostile towards religion, they were not against virtue, they actually thought that was important, and they also believed in natural rights.

So there was that blend of those two seemingly different positions, which they didn’t see as different. So that was my position in the ’80s was that: they took a kind of version of Lockeanism that wasn’t really Locke, because I still took for granted that Strauss had figured Locke out. That he was the bad guy who didn’t care about virtue. And I thought well, OK, so the Founders took Locke and then they read him in their own way.

That was my view in the ’80s and ’90s. That really was the view that Jaffa carried with him to the end of his career. Jaffa wrote a late article in the Claremont Review about how the Founders were Lockean Aristotelians or Aristotelian Lockeans. In other words, they were neither Aristotle nor Locke.

That was my view in the ’80s but that I gave that view up when I really got into my research on the founders on virtue and formation of character, but also I got much more into Locke myself.  I engaged in the study of Locke starting around 2000 that led me to change my mind about Locke.

Buskirk: Meaning you think Locke is more interested in civic virtue than . . .

West: Way more interested.

Buskirk: Than Jaffa ever gave him credit for?

West: Way more interested than Jaffa realized. Exactly.

Buskirk: What changed your mind about that?

West: I just started reading more of Locke than the Second Treatise. The thing about Straussians is they tend to read a few things by major thinkers and that’s it. So if you read Locke’s book on education, if you read Locke’s essay on human understanding, if you read Locke’s writings on Christianity, The Reasonableness of Christianity, and the commentaries on St. Paul, he turns out to be a far more rich and interesting writer with a much wider range of concerns than you would expect from just the Second Treatise, which sounds like it’s just property rights and the right to life, liberty, and property, and that’s it.

But the other writings really bring out this other dimension of Locke which tends to be neglected by many scholars. Not all. I mean people who are experts on Locke know all about what I’m talking about. But people who understand Locke as part of a larger tradition, that they’re not really experts on that, sometimes are misled by the fact that Locke emphasizes certain themes in certain books . . . and then leaves out some themes that are present in other writing.

So it’s just one of those things where you have to look at the whole purpose and see how it all fits together. And then you also have to notice things. There’s some passages in Locke’s letter on toleration for example where Locke said, “Well of course government has to be interested in forming morals, that’s the most obvious thing in the world—because morality’s going to have a good deal to do with the preservation of the state.” That’s something that many scholars seem to be not aware that Locke ever wrote.

I remember I was at a conference one time talking about this and Robert Goldwin was in the audience—he was the author of the Locke chapter in the Strauss-Cropsey History of Political Philosophy. He stands up and he says, “I’d like you to tell me one place where Locke shows that he cares about government forming morality.” And I quoted these passages from the Letter on Toleration, which he acted like he never noticed before. I think he really hadn’t noticed them.

So there was that side and some of the . . . people involved in early Straussianism, you know, they were too quick to sort of take Strauss’s statements made in certain writings and just run with those, as opposed to following Strauss’s lead and then delving into the authors and really trying to understand them, not just in terms of the way Strauss did, but also on their own terms.

Buskirk: Yeah, right, which is what Strauss would have advocated, I believe.

West: Which is what he was always advocating, right? Don’t just follow my view of it, look into it for yourself.

Buskirk: Yeah.

West: Anyway so that’s how I . . . That’s how my views changed over time.

Buskirk: So what role, I guess, you can answer this—via Locke or via Tom West? What role can government have in forming the moral character of its citizens? What are within its capabilities and what’s outside of the capabilities of government?

West: Well, OK, so in my discussion of this in part two of The Political Theory of the American Founding, my new book, I talk about how from the point of view of the Founders, there are four sources of moral law.

One is divine revelation. One is the law of nature, which is reason. The third is government, which tells you what justice is and punishes you if you don’t go along with their view. And fourth is opinion, the opinion of the people around you. Those are the four sources of moral law that you find discussed in the Founding.

And I found letters and discussions of this in John Adams and Thomas Jefferson; it was scattered around in other writers, too. But that’s your choices. There’s only four places you can go. And so the Founders thought . . . what can government do to support all four of these?

So insofar as government was supportive of the prevailing Protestant Christianity—which they were through kind of broad consensus that was thought in public speeches, it was taught in schools and so on—that was a way of them helping to get people to take seriously the notion of divine law. God wants you to do these things and there will be rewards and punishments in this life or in some other life.

Secondly the natural law. The Founders were okay let’s get everybody to understand what the natural law is as much as possible so they . . . if you look at some of the early college curricula, they’re always having the students read books that talk about the natural law. They wanted the leaders of society to understand that reason can get you to the notion of moral obligation and moral duties.

So they had them reading writers like William Paley, Vatel, mostly they weren’t reading Locke anymore by the time you get into the 1790s and early 1800s, but they were reading you know some of these later 18th century writers who had natural law teachings. And those would be conveyed in schools too. Regular ordinary schools would be talking about, OK these are the principals of the founding, they’re all … Those are based, these are rooted in nature, there are laws of nature. There’s right and wrong by nature, known by reason, so there’s a second source of morality.

Third is government. Government criminalizes violations of natural rights. In my book, I said the purpose of government is to enforce the moral law according to the founders by which I meant the purpose of government is to enforce the moral law of the law of nature meaning don’t harm other people’s life, liberty, and property, and that’s what criminal law is about. That’s what civil law is partly about so the right to sue somebody who harms your person or your property lets say car accident caused by negligence. you get to sue them.

That’s a moral law. You’re negligent in a way that makes you morally culpable. Government’s going to give the person who was victimized a chance for compensation. Or criminal law, where somebody gets put in prison for a theft. That’s a violation of a moral law, which is you’re not supposed to take other people’s property. That’s how the Founders viewed this. These were moral laws, not just about rights but about morality.

And the fourth and final kind of moral law is public opinion, or the opinion of the people around you. That’s why talk, speeches, songs, monuments, statues, medals honors, public honors given to the leading generals—that’s why all that was so important too in the Founding. That’s why people were running around giving orations about George Washington as a model for all of us. How do you shape the opinion? The mind of the next generation of Americans was a thought always in their minds. Music, I mean two of the Founders composed songs to help … To generate the sentiments …

Buskirk: Which two?

West: It was Dickinson and James Warren, who died at Bunker Hill, I think. I talk about this in my book on how government helps to shape public opinion, in that chapter.

So those are four ways and I have a long discussion of all this in my book because it’s kind of a complicated thing where there are lots of ways in which each of these four kinds of moral law can be supported and advocated and promoted.

Buskirk: And they interact with each other right?

West: They all interact, yes. Ideally, they’re all teaching the same thing, that’s what you want. What you don’t want is when public opinion is saying one thing, and government is saying the opposite.

So let’s say the 1960s. Public opinion was saying smoke dope and be happy. You know public lead opinion was saying that. Government was saying we’ll arrest you. OK, there’s conflict of moral law. So the moral law of government is, we’re coming after you. The moral law taught by your friends and acquaintances in the elite class is this is the coolest thing ever, to be doing drugs.

Buskirk: And eventually government will reflect the opinion . . .

West: Exactly. That’s why government can’t simply sit back and say well we’ll just sort of wait for public opinion to be formed. If government can take a role in helping to form that opinion, it can and should. Assuming government actually has a sensible view of what people should think about morality.

Of course, the thing about the time of the Founding was there was a real consensus about what the moral law is. The moral law or the natural law. What that was widely accepted and understood to be a set of things that were agreed upon.

Buskirk: Do you think it’s fair to say that the view at the time of the Founding was effectively a view that arose out of biblical religion?

West: No, it wasn’t just that. That’s one out of the four sources of moral law for the founders, is religion. One out of the four. But you have to also think about the fact that religion doesn’t necessarily have to take the form that it did in the Founding.

Buskirk: What are those . . .

West: So, for example, take the case of the version of Catholicism that prevailed in Canada in the 17th century. I read about this … There’s a historian named Francis Parkman, who’s got interesting things to say about this. Basically, the people believed in Canada, in the areas that were … You know the various wars between English and France where sometimes an area would be transferred to English governance.

And there you’d have a situation where the priests were telling their parishioners that it would be sinful for you to obey the British government. And so you had … You had one moral low coming from the priest, which is you’re sinning if you obey the government, then you had the government laying down its moral law, which is these are the things you have to do to stay out of trouble. That can happen.

Now by the time you get to the American Founding, Christians in America, in the American colonies—and I think both Protestant and Catholics—agreed that’s the wrong understanding of Christianity. Christianity doesn’t teach you to be a bad citizen. That’s a misunderstanding. That’s what they would have said, say, in the 1740s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s. Christians were saying things like that in their sermons, in America, in the colonies.

Buskirk: They were saying that, but there was also a school of thought—you know, there was Protestant resistance theory that was developed in the same period of time, which explained that there were times in which that Christian was obligated to disobey government and that civil disobedience, even rebellion . . .

West: Absolutely right, just as the natural law view was the same. Natural law also authorizes rebellion under certain circumstances. The question is, what circumstances? Is it the same, or not?

So if you look at the typical sermon of the Founding era—I’m thinking of some of the Massachusetts sermons that are in that Hyneman and Lutz collection, it’s a wonderful collection. Some of those sermons, you know, their argument is well if you’re a good Christian, you’ll understand that what God wants you to do is follow the natural law, and if you look at the New Testament, you’ll see that the teachings of Jesus is parallel to the teaching of the natural law. So from either point of view, that’s what you should be following, which does mean under certain circumstances, there’s a right of resistance.

And so that’s what these Protestants of that time, say, in the ’60s and ’70s—1760s and ’70s—they were trying to explain to their fellow American Christians under what circumstances should a Christian be willing to rebel. At the same, of course—and the arguments that were being made were meant to be parallel to the arguments that were also being made on a secular basis by other Americans at that time, who were not drawing on Christianity as a source of their understanding of that topic.

Buskirk: So in the way you explain it here, are government and public opinion sources of morality in the same way that religion or the natural law are? Or are they mediators of reason and revelation?

West: They can be. What do you do about a situation like the Soviet Union? The government there was the enemy of revelation. I mean, they set themselves to destroy the Orthodox Church in Russia. Succeeded pretty well for awhile. And they also set themselves against any kind of rational understanding of the moral law by their adoption of Marxism and with its justification of, you know, of torture and murder and treating people according to their class, as opposed to actual things they’d done. So there you have a situation where government doesn’t mediate either reason or revelation, it sets itself against it and is able to do that. One of the things is, government has is a lot of power. They can harm you. They can kill you.

So ideally government is channeling what’s true and what’s right and it’s trying to promote that but it doesn’t have to and in fact, historically, many governments don’t. So, yeah, government’s a source of moral law, but that can be a good or a bad source depending on who’s in the government, sure.

Buskirk: Is it . . .

West: Same with public opinion. I mean, you can be shaped by a public opinion that’s essentially teaching you to be a really bad person.

Buskirk: Right.

West: We see a lot of that in our time.

Buskirk: From the Founders’ perspective, how did they interact with religion? What was their view of the proper relationship between good government, between a good regime, and between revealed religion? And I don’t specifically mean the idea of separation of church and state, but how do they work together to perpetuate a just regime?

West: Well when I teach this in class I like to do two topics. I like to do a day on government’s view of religion and I like to do another day on religion’s view of government. Because they’re both equally important.

So, if it’s a government based on the natural law and the way the founders understood that, government’s view of religion is going to be very simple. They’re going to be very interested in supporting any religion that is pro-natural law and they’re going to be wanting to discourage people from following any religion that’s anti-natural law.

In general in the Founding, the attitude was we’re going to have toleration, but there was always the understanding that you can only tolerate religions that are themselves willing to be basically on board with following the principles of the natural law and being willing to obey the government.

Buskirk: So in that view, is it fair to say that the contemporary understanding of the separation of church and state is being just that, nothing more, is insufficient because it requires a toleration of religions that would be destructive of the regime itself?

West: Yeah, I think that’s … I think we have forgotten the grounds of religious toleration. Toleration was always conditional in the time of the Founding.

Essentially, you could be tolerated if you were willing—if you put it in terms of the social compact, you could be tolerated as long as you were willing to obey the terms of the social compact. Meaning, follow the laws passed by government and give to government whatever appropriate support it is that government asks of you—the same as it asks of any other citizen—and be willing to respect other religions as much as they respect you. So, in other words, you don’t have the right to use private violence, let’s say, against religions you disagree with. So, yeah, religious toleration or religious liberty was always understood in that light, of being conditional on whether you’re willing to obey the terms of the compact.

When Washington wrote his letter to the Quakers, he wrote … You know, Washington, when he became president, wrote letters to all of leading denominations. Most of them were, you know, “Thank you so much for this kind letter you sent me, and I really admire your denomination for the following reasons, and, you know…” he sent this really nice letter to the Jews and a really nice letter to the Presbyterians and another one to the Catholics and all of those similar.

Then he sent a letter to the Quakers and he said, well, you know I really admire you Quakers in many ways except for one. Your unwillingness to give to government, to serve government when it comes to national defense. I don’t remember the exact terms he used, but, basically, you’re really good citizens except in this one really important way and you’re bad citizens. Put more politely than I just did.

Then he concludes the letter by saying, it is my wish and it is my hope that the government will find a way to accommodate your unwillingness to serve but only as long as it does not in any way threaten the national defense.

So, in other words, he was saying, alright I think we can make an exception in your case, even though you’re in principle a bad citizen in that one way, because you’re such good citizens in other ways. But that accommodation, he’s saying, is not a matter of right; that’s a matter of a gift from government. If we choose to give you that, and allow you to not be good citizens in that way, that’ll be . . . simply an accommodation and not something that is by nature, by natural right.

Buskirk: It’s an accommodation for those citizens because everybody else is willing to do their part.

West: Yeah, and of course, if you had a whole society of Quakers then you run into the problem that Franklin ran into in Pennsylvania, is they had trouble getting the government to pay for the militia to defend the state against the French and Indians.

But, anyway, so to go back . . . I’m saying one point of view is what’s the view of government towards religion the other question is what’s the view of religion towards government?

And you can have both: you can have a religious position that is pro-government or anti-government, depending on what the religion is and what the government is.

So you have people I mean I’ve seen interviews with Muslims where they’ll say well you know in principal no we don’t believe we have any obligations whatsoever to obey American government and really we ought to have Shariah law here and not the constitution.

Now again, what Washington would say to that is, well, in that way you’re not a good citizen but, you know, if it’s not really dangerous to the nation, we can maybe accommodate that but don’t think you have a right to advocate that position to the point where it’s going to make it dangerous for us to survive as a free country.

Buskirk: That position is quite a bit different from the position of the Quakers, right? The Quakers had the single exception. They were otherwise good citizens they have a single exception.

What you just described is people saying, well, we live here but we’re not . . . We really aren’t under your authority. It’s a much more sweeping thing.

West: Yeah, much more sweeping, and therefore potentially much more dangerous. But if it’s only a tiny amount of people, fine. The problem would arise if those people with those views are being brought in in large numbers, and that’s the question I think government always have to face.

So the religious attitude towards government then, I think it became—I don’t think we could have had a successful American Revolution had it not been for the internal transformation of Protestant theology that took place over the century and a half from the time that the Puritans and Anglicans first came over in the early 1600s to the time of the Revolution, because there really was a change in the theological understanding of things that made Christians much more likely and much more willing to support something like what the Founders wanted to do.

Buskirk: You mean because they were all . . . they did not feel that it established religion, was a requirement in fact what they felt, they came to believe that they were undermined, not just the government but the church, too.

West: Well, established religion is too vague a term, because an establishment can mean lots of things. But the specific thing that was a problem on the pre-revolutionary period was especially if you go back to the early Puritans, you couldn’t even be a citizen unless you were a member of a Puritan church. And you just weren’t even a member of society officially you were just a hanger-on. In the South, you had people who were, if they had wrong religious views, they would actually be deprived of specific rights of citizenship in some cases. Same in New York. I mean, there were cases where Catholics in some cases were told well you cannot own this or you cannot do that. So there were, you know—they were way beyond just, say, taxpayers’ support of religion. It was actually limitation of citizen rights that was going on there.

Buskirk: At what point did that begin to change, in the colonies?

West: Well it really began to change early on. I have a long article on this that I published a few years ago on the transformation of Protestant theology but really almost from the very beginning. I went through that—you know, it was interesting how fast … how rapidly the sort of Protestant self-understanding in America began to evolve and develop partly in response to the very difficult conditions in the new world and partly I think due to the influence of some European ideas that came in starting in the early 18th century.

But, yeah, those are some of the things that happened.

Buskirk: You said the government should encourage religion because it supports justice as it’s understood by the natural law. Is that a fair characterization?

West: If the religion does support that then, yeah. From the point of view of the Founders, yeah, government should support religion if religion is willing to support government—that is, support the natural law teaching that government wants to enforce through its legal enactments.

Buskirk: As a practical matter, in your understanding, is it possible for there to be a regime based upon reason only, without having a religious citizenry? In other words, reason can provide the why to be good, consider these things are good for you, don’t do these things they’re bad for you.

But it cannot … The government, it can’t provide the stick that religion can in the sense of West: Right. It’s that extra, moral law that’s the divine law that government can’t do, you’re right. I’ll say this, at the time of the Founding, the overwhelming consensus was no you cannot have a free society without being a religious society. That was the view and even Jefferson signed on to that view in his famous passage in the Notes on the State of Virginia. If the people ever stop believing that liberty is the gift of God, we will no longer be able to preserve liberty.

I’m sure there were a few outlying founders here and there, maybe Madison in his private thoughts but you know most people in the founding held that view. And similarly, if you look at an author like Locke, it looks like he holds that view as well. He certainly says he holds that view in one of his books.

And in fact going back throughout the whole tradition, all the way back to Plato, I mean, you can everybody, all the philosophers, in one way or other seem to have something like that view.

Buskirk: Right and I can’t . . . There’s no example, historical example that stands out of an irreligious people that was free. That governed themselves.

West: Right we don’t have an example of that. Maybe it’s possible, we don’t know I mean not everything has been tried perhaps. But, no, we haven’t seen that.

Buskirk: Yeah.

West: That’s right. They tried it in the French Revolution, they tried it in the Russian Revolution, results weren’t so good.

Buskirk: No. Deadly is usually the way that turns out.


About Chris Buskirk

Chris is publisher and editor of American Greatness and the host of The Chris Buskirk Show. He was a Publius Fellow at the Claremont Institute and received a fellowship from the Earhart Foundation. Chris is a serial entrepreneur who has built and sold businesses in financial services and digital marketing. He is a frequent guest on NPR's "Morning Edition." His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Hill, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter at @TheChrisBuskirk

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2 responses to “Making Sense of the American Founding with Thomas G. West”

  1. Beware of contemporary thinkers that take a narrow view of the great men and women of history, saying that they were limited and only meant this or that. Often the perceived limitations are the limitations of the critics. Great article that fills in a lot of gaps in my understanding.

  2. Regarding Locke and the origins of liberalism, Mr. West and the West Coast Straussians have to prove that Strauss’ theory of esotericism was wrong. There is an important new book on esotericism by Arthur Melzer, Philosophy Between the Lines, that makes that job much more difficult.

    Locke’s Letter Concerning Religious Toleration has a total of exactly one paragraph about the purpose of government, and it supports what Strauss said about Locke:

    “I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other … The commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests. Civil interests I call life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like. It is the duty of the civil magistrate, by the impartial execution of equal laws, to secure unto all the people in general and to every one of his subjects in particular the just possession of these things belonging to this life.”

    The rest of the Letter is about toleration of all religions, there is nothing in it about virtue or morality regarding government.