Vital Remnants: America's Founding and the Western Tradition

The Amnesia of Our Day Is a Potentially Deadly Malady

This book is a collection of essays that had their genesis in lectures delivered at a week-long conference on “America and the Western Tradition,” in Colonial Williamsburg in 1998. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) brought together some of the best students and college faculty in the country to explore the Western roots of the American constitutional order. Professor Gary L. Gregg, who holds the Mitch McConnell Chair in Leadership at the University of Louisville, has written a fine introduction and done a superb job in editing the ten well-crafted essays that make up the volume.

The various authors do not subscribe to the popularized notion that everything is relative; nor do they call true whatever happens to be useful in achieving political goals, whether conservative or “liberal”—including certain progressive constructions of history. Instead, they explain and reflect on the long tradition of Western civilization and culture of which America is part. As Gregg states in his introduction, “America is a multicultural nation because it is a Western nation and it is in that Western heritage that our values and our institutions find their roots and continuing vitality.” The Founding generation also contributed to Western tradition and, in that sense, our inheritance is both Western and uniquely American.

In that vein, Wilfred McClay opens the collection with a question: “Is America an Experiment?” His is an interesting discussion, because the word “experiment” actually occurs in 24 of The Federalist papers. McClay uses the language of Washington, Hamilton, and others to demonstrate the degree to which the Founders believed America was “experimental.” The connotations of their day reduce the spirit of radical experimentation substantially. Their “declaration of independence” was political; it was independence not from every stable arrangement, tradition, or given, and the states were to be “laboratories of democracy” only within very serious constraints.

E. Christian Kopff demonstrates the important influence the classics had on the Founding generation, though mediated by Christianity and American experience. To the extent we fail to understand a basic Western canon, including the classics and tenets of Christianity, we are distanced from our Founders’ vision and philosophy. Indeed, Graham Walker contends in his essay that our constitutional order was grounded in Augustinian theology, which came to frame an American notion of common sense.

Robert George sees the Founders as dedicated to a natural-law understanding of politics, albeit one that did not necessitate judicial enforcement of principles not found in the Constitution. The Founders’ natural law did not embrace expansive judicial review or judicial activism at the expense of legislatures and states. It meant, rather, that certain crucial aspects of human endeavor were not subject to political dictates at all.

Barry Alan Shain examines several understandings of the concept of liberty used in the eighteenth century. In every case, the notion of liberty is consistent with a Western, communally based understanding in which rights are married to responsibilities. To the Founders, liberty was restrained by moral purpose and “framed by traditional Anglo-American presuppositions of a divinely ordered universe in which the twin antitheses to liberty were tyranny and licentiousness.” Donald Livingston agrees and takes issue with so-called Enlightenment politics. He shows that an alternate, “medieval” tradition espoused byJohannes Althusias and David Hume is actually the correct idiom for America’s founding. The American constitutional order embraced divided sovereignty and recognized the legitimacy of independent social authorities, as well as the right to resistance.

Bruce Frohnen states the American Revolution was in fact a conserving war, which sought to re-establish the balanced constitution of post-1688 England. In this light, independence was hardly based on abstractions, nor was it a design to remake society. One such design, however, is examined by Peter Lawler. His concluding essay penetrates the postmodern attempt to create a therapeutic society. The therapeutic society is an American “experiment” divorced from actual history, not even rational in the Socratic sense. It seeks to produce universal prosperity and equality and to eradicate all human experience of unpleasantness.

Lawler brings the point home, but danger is implicit in all the essays, lest we sell our inheritance for the “pottage of the hour.” This book aims to revitalize and to reappropriate select remnants of America’s shared past, to call into question widespread cultural celebration of the unreflective approval of things new and “modern.” For once we forget totally, all things are indeed possible—pernicious, as well as benign. The amnesia of our day is a dread and potentially deadly malady. Vital Remnants is tonic for it—and for postmodern reformulations against the principles of ordered liberty and truth of human existence that watchfully wait our sleep.

Wesley Allen Riddle is fellow at the National Humanities Institute in Washington, D.C., and a correspondent for Fragments magazine. His publications include The American Political Tradition (FEE, 1996).

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