Vindicating the Founders:
Book Reviews and Commentary
Harry V. Jaffa
Distinguished Fellow, The Claremont Institute, and author of A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War
"There are rare times and places, in the long human story, when
outbursts of human genius supply human civilization with the supreme wonders of
human greatness. It is the contemplation of these that raises the mass of mankind
to levels not unworthy of the divine image in which we are created. Such moments
of supreme achievement are to be found in Periclean Athens, in the Florence of
the Medicis, and in the London of Elizabethand Shakespeare. However, never
beforeor sincehas political genius burst in such profusion on the
human scene, as in the British colonies in America, in the latter part of the
eighteenth century. The period of the American Founding, from the Revolution to
the Framing, Ratification, and Inauguration of the Constitution, saw political
thought and action in the service of human freedom, of a wisdom and power
unsurpassed even by the glory of Greece or the grandeur of Rome. Every human good
we enjoy today is, directly or indirectly, a legacy from what the Founders
wrought, and Lincoln preserved. Yet today that legacy has been thrust aside and
debased, while something called 'political correctness'in which wisdom is
mocked and virtue scornedhas been thrust into its place. It will take a
long and hard struggle to reclaim our inheritance from the forces of evil, but
Tom West's book is a magnificent beginning. Let us then, as Churchill would say,
neither flag nor fail, but with stout hearts go forward."
Harvey C. Mansfield
Professor of Government, Harvard University and author of America’s Constitutional Soul and Taming the Prince: The Ambivalence of Modern Executive Power
"It's hardly news that in our time some Americans have taken to
accusing the Founders of their country of hypocrisy. It is alleged that the
Founders said one thing and did another. They said in the Declaration of
Independence that 'all men are created equal.' But through prejudice or personal
interest, they failed to deliver on that noble principle. Instead of setting a
good example, as an authority should do, they set a bad one. We today, therefore,
can do without them.
"There is something decidedly cheap about such charges. They reek of
ingratitude and imprudence. But they are being made by historians who want to
substitute their own authority for the Founders', and it's necessary for someone
to take them seriously enough to provide a refutation.
"Thomas West, a political scientist at the University of Dallas, has risen to
the challenge with Vindicating the Founders. What looks like grown-up
sophistication by the critics he shows to be childish petulance based on
misrepresentation and misunderstanding."
Wall Street Journal (Read the full review.)
Author of Illiberal Education, The End of Racism and What’s So Great about America?
"An eloquent defense of the principles of the American founding by
one of its most learned students."
Director of Social and Political Studies, American Enterprise Institute and author of On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding
"Thomas West is committed to understanding the American Founders
accurately and in their own terms. His work is unfailingly penetrating and
trustworthy, and I eagerly seek it out."
Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs, University of Virginia and author of Reconstructing America: The Symbol of America in Modern Thought
"It is West's contention that there is no need to spin lies, invent
myths, or indulge in lawyerly obfuscations to defend the founders. Given a fair
chance, they are fully capable of defending themselves.
"Until now, we have seen only part of the founders'
political science the part that treats principles of justice,
institutions of government, and political economy. What has been absent is a
coherent statement of the founders' views on mores and social issues and how
these connect to their political principles. These subjects make up the heart
of the book. . . . West performs a valuable service in bringing together many
of the bits and pieces of the founders' thought [on these questions]."
The Weekly Standard (Read the full review.)
Professor of History, University of Maryland and author of A Living Constitution or Fundamental Law? American Constitutionalism in Historical Perspective
"This is an important book that responds to several lines of
ideological criticism of the framers of the Constitution that appear in
standard works and textbooks in American history and government courses. Tom
West does an excellent job of summarizing the views of the critics and
responding to them in a pointed yet informed way, sustained by what appears to
be strategically conceived and executed research into the writings of the
Mickey G. Craig
Professor of Politics, Hillsdale College
"In the standard textbooks in American government and American
history one finds almost invariably the following opinions about our Founding
Fathers: at best, they were hypocrites; at worst, they were racist, sexist,
anti-democratic, ethnocentric, elitist, and lacked compassion for the poor.
"West takes issue with each of these false opinions.
He aims to prove that our Founding Fathers deserve the high respect and praise
which ordinary Americans still bestow upon them. He takes aim at the debunking
our Fathers have suffered in recent generations at the hands of the cultural
"There are two different notions of liberty at work in
American society today. The autonomous liberty advocated by the cultural elites
results in its vulgar form in a demand for toleration of self-indulgence in
various forms. The more sophisticated versions of autonomous liberty result in
a demand for radical egalitarianism in which all humans are liberated from God
and nature (including biology) and government is used to distribute benefits or
compassion and redistribute wealth rather than being limited to securing
rights. Our Founding Fathers are condemned as racist, sexist, and elitist by
modern scholars because they did not share this understanding of autonomous
"Thomas West's book is an important antidote to this
reigning political correctness. It deserves a wide readership. One can hope
that it might even penetrate the ivory tower of political correctness and help
re-establish the old consensus and the true and original understanding of
liberty as self-government."
Orange County Register
(Read the full review.)
President of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights
"West . . . challenges the reigning orthodoxy as expressed by the
high priests of multiculturalism. Those who reflexively reject his thesisthat
the nation's founding is the source of our greatnesshave a moral and
intellectual duty to refute him. . . . I don't know of a single book that is more
worthy of debate on college campuses than Vindicating the Founders."
Society (Read the full review.)
Director, Center for American Studies, and Director, Lectures and Educational Programs, at the Heritage Foundation and author of A Sacred Union of Citizens: George Washington's Farewell Address and the American Character
"There are important lessons in this book for political thinkers,
for both liberals and conservatives often misunderstand and misuse the founders'
views of liberty and equality. On the one hand, liberalsand libertarians
tend to forget that liberty and the protection of equal rights require the constant
formation of the right kind of character in the citizenry. Conservatives, on the
other hand, often ignore the extent to which the founders provided for character
above and beyond institutional arrangements.
"'Liberals need to recognize that the language of equality in the Declaration
of Independence was sincere and that the Founders implemented its principles to the
best of their ability,' Mr. West writes. But, he continues, 'conservatives need to
recognize that there is no need to go beyond the Declaration, or to reject the
Founders' principles, in order to justify limits on the abuse of liberty.' The idea
of liberty, properly understood, embraces its own restraints for the 'natural right
to liberty is not a right to licentious or destructive conduct.'
"By challenging popular new ideas and reviving unfashionable old ones, Mr.
West contributes to the process of reclaiming the founders. By clearing some of the
intellectual underbrush that has grown in the way, he has helped clear the path
toward making their principles ours again."
Washington Times (Read the full review.)
Professor of History, University of Alabama, author of Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution
"I found it compelling, accurate, closely reasoned, and entirely
convincing. This is a book that should be in the hands of every high school teacher:
there are thousands and thousands of them who intuitively agree with West's
understanding of the significance of the Founding but, given the plethora of
politically correct books of the sort that West attacks, they find it difficult to
obtain solid supporting works. . . . High school students should have no difficulty
in reading and understanding the book, for despite the subtlety of the reasoning at
various points it is written clearly, simply, and forcefully."
Chairman, Department of Political Science at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts and author of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideology
"It is an original contribution which corrects widespread prejudices about and systematic distortions of the Founders' position on issues of race, sex, slavery, and equality. It . . . combines impeccable scholarship with an admirable civic seriousness. West has written a powerful vindication of our common civic faith."
The American Enterprise (Read the full review.)
Historian in Residence, Center for the American Idea and author of The Myth of the Robber Barons
""West has written a landmark book. It is wide-ranging, thorough,
scholarly, clearly organized, and well-written. I enjoyed every page of it from
beginning to end and think it has the potential to make a great difference in the
way intellectuals view the Founders and the issues of race, sex, poverty, and
justice. This is among the top ten academic books I've ever read."
Chair of the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis and commentator for National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."
"As political scientist Thomas West explains in his new book,
Vindicating the Founders, every leading American Founder believed that slavery
was morally wrong.
"Why, then, didn't the Founders abolish slavery outright? As West observes,
'The slavery provisions of the Constitution must be read as concessions to a brute
fact rather than as affirmations of the rightness of slavery.' Given Southern
sentiments, 'the choice was not whether to permit or prohibit slavery, but either to
establish a union in which slavery was tolerated, or not to have union at all.'
"Though compelled to tolerate slavery, the Founders both limited and undermined
it. In 1776, every colony permitted slavery. By 1804, it had been abolished in a
majority of states. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 forbade its expansion into a
large new territory, and in 1808the earliest date permitted under the
ConstitutionCongress outlawed the international slave trade."
Minneapolis Star Tribune
(Read the full review.)
Jean M. Yarbrough
Professor of Political Science at Bowdoin College and author of American Virtues: Thomas Jefferson on the Character of a Free People
"The great merit of West's book is that he takes the Founders
seriously, and shows that they were not reflexively parroting the prejudices of
"In the opening chapter, West persuasively demonstrates that the Founders knew
slavery to be morally wrong and inconsistent with the principles of the Declaration.
But unlike the authors of the textbooks he reviews, West emphasizes the tension
between moral principle and political necessity, or, as Jefferson famously put it,
between justice on the one hand and self-preservation on the other.
"In chapters on property, property qualifications for voting, and the
responsibility of society for the poor, West defends the Founders against charges of
elitism and economic injustice. While some of these arguments are familiar, others,
particularly his treatment of poverty and welfare are original and thought-provoking.
For in addition to showing how the Founders' views are consistent with the core
principles of the Declaration, West argues that these policies actually encourage the
kind of virtues upon which a free society depends.
"Indeed, the subtext of the entire book is character.
"Vindicating the Founders is not only about justice, but about how to
cultivate the whole cluster of virtues which 'are necessary for a people to be free'
(p.160). West's admirable study begins a discussion that is long overdue."
The Review of Politics
(Read the full review.)
Editor, Appellate Journal, American Bar Association
"This defense of the founders with their own words and voices is closely
reasoned, sharply focused, and highly convincing. . . . This is a superb book. The
historical research is excellent, the analysis quite penetrating, and writing quite
lucid. This book is rich with truth and wisdom. It deserves a wide audience."