Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

America's Original Sin

Spring 1998

Thomas G. West
Rowman Littlefield, 1997, xv + 218 pgs.

Vindicating the Founders is better than I thought it would be. The author proceeds from an excellent idea. The framers have of late come under attack by leftists of various sorts. As these ideologues see matters, America was conceived in sin. The framers were racist, sexist, and xenophobic. As if this were not enough, not even all white males were thought of equal worth by the framers: an elite of property owners, they thought, must keep the canaille firmly in check.

Professor West has had the happy thought of subjecting this farrago to careful analysis. Why, then, did I fear for the worst? The answer lies in one name: Harry Jaffa. Our author is a devout disciple of the irrepressible Harry. "I [West] studied political philosophy and America with Harry V. Jaffa, who has done more than anyone else I know to recover the Founders' understanding of liberty and equality" (p. x).

I regard admiration for Jaffa as a hanging offense. According to Harry the Terrible, all blessings flow from Abraham Lincoln. As he fatuously remarks on the present book's dust jacket, "Every human good we enjoy today is a legacy from what the Founders wrought and Lincoln preserved." Do these goods include a centralized Leviathan state? The horrors and destruction of the Civil War?

In spite of West's training with Jaffa, his book turns out to be quite good. True, a great deal of the analysis suffers from Jaffaite nonsense about equality; and it is on these errors that I propose to concentrate. I'm like that.

The Declaration of Independence states that "all men are created equal." Nevertheless, slavery was widespread in 1776; and the principal author of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson, himself owned slaves. Further, several clauses of the Constitution appear to sanction the institution. Are not the radicals correct to say that the equality clause of the Declaration left black slaves bereft of rights?

And the view is by no means limited to the left. Forrest McDonald, an outstanding conservative historian who admires West's book, notes that the "words equal and equality, as used in the eighteenth century, did not necessarily imply a conflict with the institution of slavery" (p. 2, quoting McDonald, Novus Ordo Seclorum).

But our author is not convinced. He points out that the framers regarded slaves as men. True (and trite) enough: but what bearing has it on the point at issue? Is a society forbidden to enslave those outside its bounds, since "all men" have inalienable rights to life and liberty? Or does the Declaration mean that any group of men is free to form a society to protect the rights of its own members? The fact that slaves are men does not enable us to decide between these two readings of the clause.

Neither do the many condemnations of slavery which West culls so assiduously from the framers have the force he imputes to them. The question is not: did the framers think slavery good or bad? Rather, the issue is whether the framers thought that blacks had a right not to be enslaved.

Another of West's arguments comes nearer to the mark, but it too fails. He quotes a characteristically eloquent passage from Jefferson. Although Jefferson thought blacks inferior to whites in intelligence, this fact did not, he held, imply that they were inferior in rights: but "whatever may be the degree of talent it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others" (p. 9, emphasis removed, quoting Jefferson).

This passage does not, as West seems to maintain, rule out slavery of blacks. It merely denies that lack of rights is entailed by mental inferiority. But what if there are other grounds for slavery? Or what if a group is enslaved not because of its intrinsic qualities, but rather because it is outside the bounds of a given society? (I know I said this before--the point bears repetition.)

Against the contention of West stands a fact, already referred to, that speaks for itself. Jefferson and others of the framers held slaves themselves. Would they not be utter hypocrites if they believed that slavery violated the rights of blacks? What could be simpler than the notion that if you think slavery morally evil, you are unlikely publicly to enslave people?

Our author has anticipated this response, but his counter to it is not to the point. West contends that the framers rightly regarded prudence as integral to morality. Even if slavery violate rights, it does not at once follow that it should be abolished. Always the results of one's actions must be kept in mind. If abolition would have untoward consequences, morality does not require ending slavery at once, even if slavery is wrong.

And, West avers, the framers feared that abolition would have dire consequences indeed. In the late-eighteenth-century context, immediate abolition might lead to racial warfare. Hence, the framers did not attempt this: instead, they prudently held back, hoping that the chance to end slavery might come later. Only with the arrival of Father Abraham did the opportune moment arise.

What's wrong with this picture? Whatever its ingenuity, it fails to address the main point of the hypocrisy objection. That objection, to repeat, is that it is odd to declare slavery immoral while you yourself own slaves. Unless Jefferson was a hypocrite, he did not believe slavery in all cases a violation of rights. The fact, if it is one, that general abolition was at the time imprudent, is irrelevant. What about one's own slaves?

Why have I gone on at such length about this? Not, I hasten to state, because I wish to repeal the Thirteenth Amendment. Rather, extravagant interpretation of the equality clause lies at the heart of Jaffaism. The Great Harry maintains that, under the banner of this clause, a leader (in German the word is Fuehrer) may impose massive state interference on the people of the United States. Jaffa's view of the clause must be strangled in its cradle.

But, it may be objected, is not the price of doing so too high? If the Declaration does not forbid slavery, does this not leave blacks and others vulnerable to exploitation? Would we not be better off with Jaffa's view, regardless of its dangers? At least this rules out slavery.

What, though, are we left if we should take this course? On West's (and Jaffa's) view, rights stand totally subordinate to the whims of the prudent statesman. Blacks, and everyone else, have on this position only such "rights" as the Leader deigns to accord them. The Jaffaite view means not the end of slavery, but its universalization.

So far, I have left completely unjustified one claim about the book. How can I have said that the book is much better than I had anticipated? So far, I have done nothing but denounce West as a Jaffaite.

Fortunately for our author (and for my claim), much of the book makes useful points. West strongly defends individuals' rights to own property. Family laws in the early republic did not reflect a "sexist" belief that women are inferior to men. Quite the contrary, the framers believed that strengthening the family helped women. "A society dominated by intact families does a better job protecting women and children against crime, poverty, and sadness. It also gives men powerful incentives to behave responsibly: love, interest, shame, and honor" (p. 105). That is well said.

West also offers an intriguing criticism of John Rawls and his brand of "welfarist" liberalism, which I wish he had developed at greater length. He correctly notes that Rawls and others of his ilk place great stress on autonomy as an ideal. "The idea of human autonomy is created by the human will. The realization of that ideal requires that those who have intelligence, ambition, sobriety, wealth, and education be compelled to support those who do not have the same talents or fortunes" (p. 63). West contrasts this view with a position that bases rights on human nature.

I am not sure what to make of this. Why must autonomy be created by the human will? What if, like Kant, one regards it as a necessary characteristic of the self? And if one favors autonomy, why must one also support Rawls's welfarism? Maybe persons should try to maximize their own autonomy: I fail to see anything in West's account that rules out this interpretation. And does acceptance of natural rights rule out welfare rights? Why not a natural rights basis for welfare rights?

West has not made out his case. Nevertheless, his remarks about autonomy are valuable, along with much else in Vindicating the Fathers. If only he were not a Jaffaite!


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