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Commentary By Myron Magnet

The Founders’ Priceless Legacy

Culture Culture & Society

Editors’ note: The following is an edited version of remarks delivered for The New Criterion’s second annual Circle Lecture on September 30, 2020.

However unfashionable to say so at the moment, the American Founding is one of the noblest achievements of the Western Enlightenment. It created something breathtakingly new in history: a self-governing republic that protects the right of individuals—not serfs, not subjects, but equal citizens before the law—to pursue their own happiness in their own way. Who could have imagined that such a triumph would come under the violent attack that now seeks to deny and besmirch it? Whether it flies the banner of The 1619 Project, Black Lives Matter, or Critical Race Theory, the new anti-Americanism condemns the Founding Fathers’ project as conceived in slavery, not liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that we can never be equal citizens with equal rights.

It is a militant anti-Americanism, too. Like the iconoclasm of the most violent English Puritans, who smashed the faces off the carved saints and angels in one sublime medieval church after another, or of the French sans-culottes, who dug up and desecrated nine centuries of royal bodies from their tombs in the Abbey of Saint-Denis, defacing for good measure the statues of the Old Testament kings on the façade of this first great Gothic building, today’s anti-Americanism seeks to pulverize and obliterate our national past as something too offensive and obscene to have existed.

The current upheaval is the latest paroxysm of a cultural revolution that has gained momentum for half a century or more, and its trajectory from the universities to popular culture is too well known to need repeating. What I want to discuss here is the precious value of our inheritance from the Founding Fathers that today’s vandals want to destroy. If they succeed—since history, even our own, doesn’t always go forward and upward, despite the claims of the so-called “progressives”—we will find ourselves in a new Dark Age of constraint and superstition.

At the heart of the Founding was a thirst for liberty. In announcing our national freedom from imperial domination, the Declaration of Independence began by asserting our right to individual liberty. For the Founders, that liberty was not some vague abstraction. They understood it concretely, as people do who’ve suffered its opposite. They grasped it like those Eastern Europeans who once lived under Communist tyranny, for instance, or like Jews who survived the Holocaust.

Remember that the Plymouth Pilgrims were only the first of many who came to America to escape religious persecution. Hard as it is to believe today, British law once forbade non-Anglican Protestants from worshiping freely, and it barred them from the great universities and from political office for holding and professing the wrong beliefs. In response, thousands of Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, and others fled. They brought with them their Dissenting tradition of governing their own congregations, and hiring and firing their own ministers—in other words, they brought to these shores a political culture of self-government. Moreover, because they were accustomed to reading the Bible and feeling free to judge its meaning for themselves—to believing that they had a direct relation to God and his word independent of any worldly institution or authority—they also brought a deeply rooted culture of individualism and personal responsibility. For them, the individual and his conscience, his freedom of thought and belief, were preeminent.

The longtime New Jersey governor and signer of the Constitution, William Livingston, for instance, wrote to readers of his hugely influential mid-eighteenth-century journal, TheIndependent Reflector, that it was “the countless Sufferings of your pious Predecessors for Liberty of Conscience, and the Right of private Judgment” that drove them “to this country, then a dreary Waste and barren Desert.” One such exile for the right to think and believe for oneself was his own Presbyterian grandfather.

John Jay, our first chief justice, grippingly recalled how his grandfather, a French Protestant, returned from a foreign trading voyage to find his family and neighbors gone. Their homes were occupied by soldiers, their church destroyed, their savings confiscated. While he’d been abroad, he learned, France had revoked its toleration of Protestants. Only by luck did he sneak aboard a ship and sail away to freedom in the New World. Two of Jay’s other grandparents similarly had to flee anti-Protestant persecution, one from Paris and one from Bohemia. Jay’s son and biographer recounts this proudly; it was a living family tradition.

As Edmund Burke warned his fellow members of parliament four weeks before Lexington and Concord, when it was already too late, “All protestantism . . . is a sort of dissent,” but American Protestantism “is a refinement on the principle of resistance; it is the dissidence of dissent, and the protestantism of the protestant religion.” Whatever might be the differences among the American Protestant sects, they all agree, he said, “in the communion of the spirit of liberty,” so don’t push them.

Long before Emma Lazarus wrote about the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, George Washington noted that, for “the poor, the needy, & the oppressed of the Earth,” America was already what he called “the second Land of promise.” This Promised Land offered, said James Madison, “an Asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every Nation and Religion.”

In fact, for Madison—trained at Princeton by the radical Scottish-born Presbyterian minister John Witherspoon—it was red-hot outrage over a remnant of religious oppression in the New World that drove him into a political career. Virginia, where Anglicanism was still the official, established religion until the Revolution, had jailed a group of Baptist preachers for their unorthodox religious writings. If you aren’t free to think your own thoughts and believe your own beliefs, fumed Madison, you aren’t free, period, since freedom is seamless. And as a practical matter, there can be no progress, either material or moral, without intellectual freedom. So when the twenty-five-year-old revolutionary took part in drafting Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, he rejected its original provision for religious toleration. It’s not government’s business to “tolerate” somebody’s belief or not. You are unconditionally free to think whatever your reason convinces you is true, government or no government—and that’s what the Declaration of Rights ended up saying.

After Independence, Madison shepherded through the Virginia Legislature the Statute of Religious Freedom that Jefferson, then serving as ambassador to France, had drafted. No one can deny, Jefferson’s statute declared, echoing Milton’s sublime Areopagitica and prefiguring Mill’s On Liberty,

that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself; that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.

Madison would never use Jefferson’s high-flown language, but he would certainly agree with his friend’s sentiment that “I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” These Virginia neighbors knew what it meant to individuals and to a whole culture to have to parrot an official orthodoxy, or else shut up—and they knew what further physical tyrannies such unfreedom of belief could unleash, as Milton had seen when he visited the aged Galileo, imprisoned for saying the Earth revolved around the sun. All history teaches this simple and obvious truth about freedom of thought and speech, but can one find a college administrator or newspaper editor with the courage to say this to politically correct mobs howling down unorthodox speakers or writers today? Today’s slogan seems to be: speak power to truth.

The Founders’ conception of liberty rested on their Lockean political philosophy, which got diffused throughout the colonies by journals like William Livingston’s—ones that John Adams believed had created the real American Revolution, the decades-long revolution of sensibilities that sharpened the “principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections” of the colonists and ultimately led them to take up arms in 1775. At Princeton, Madison and his classmates were still quoting Livingston’s articles twenty years after publication: talk about the political power of freedom of speech and of the press!

As Livingston paraphrased Locke, men are born free and equal into the State of Nature, endowed with rights to life, liberty, and property that come from nature “prior to all political Institution.” But because fallen human nature is what it is—because the inborn “Depravity of Mankind” gives individuals a tendency to invade the “Person or Fortune” of their neighbors—“the Weak were a perpetual Prey to the Powerful” in the State of Nature. To “preserve to every Individual, the undisturbed Enjoyment of his Acquisitions, and the Security of his Person,” Livingston wrote, men “entered into Society” and appointed magistrates, arming them with “the total Power” of the community to protect everybody’s safety and property. Such was the origin of government.

This formulation contains several tightly compressed propositions that need unpacking. First, it includes a psychology. Men are not born with original virtue. They are not peaceful creatures, naturally living together in harmony, before the rise of capitalism or private property or racism sows strife among them. They come into the world with instinctive aggression that can lead them to oppress, rape, steal, and kill. “Man is a wolf to man,” as Plautus put it, and such thinkers as Hobbes and Freud have quoted his epigram in drafting their own political philosophies.

Second, government is in essence a police power. On entering society, people authorize officials to protect their lives, liberty, and property, by force if necessary, against the predations of others. The fundamental civil right—a right guaranteed by government, that is—is to be kept safe in your home and streets.

Third, in the Founders’ view, economic freedom is an inseparable component of liberty. In their Lockean political scheme, because your natural right to own the private property you have acquired or built is as absolute as your right to life and liberty, its protection by government is no less fundamental a civil right. You are free to accumulate it and do with it what you please, under government protection.

Fourth, government officials work for the citizens, not vice-versa. As Jefferson later put it, “Kings are the servants, not the proprietors of the people.” If officials don’t do the job government was instituted to do, or if they use the power that citizens have given them for any purpose beyond what the citizens have specified, they lose their legitimacy and, as Locke wrote and the Declaration of Independence emphasized, they can be fired. Government by expert administrators who supposedly know better than the people themselves was no part of their vision. As early as the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was complaining that George III “has erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hither Swarms of Officers to harass our People, and eat out their Substance.” Might as well be the epa.

Moreover, because the money that pays officials and supports their activities comes from the property that they are hired to protect, Livingston argued that any “Tax ought to be considered as the voluntary Gift of the People, to be applied to such Uses, as they, by their Representatives shall think expedient.” That’s why, to make an up-to-the-minute aside, “Defund the police” is a logical incoherence. If there is no police power, there is no government, and hence no authority to collect taxes. “Defund the police” means dissolve the government.

Eighteenth-century English Whigs, also Lockeans, believed that their taxes were voluntary gifts, too, made through their elected representatives. Given England’s corrupt electoral system and limited franchise, this was only a partial truth. But the American colonists, with no members of parliament, lacked even this shadow of consent. The Founding Fathers were deadly serious, therefore, when they said “Taxation without representation is tyranny!” It wasn’t a metaphor when George Washington called the stamp tax and the tea tax the “most grievous and intollerable Species of Tyranny and Oppression, that ever was inflicted upon Mankind.” The Continental Congressman Richard Henry Lee didn’t think he was overwrought in comparing the taxes to “Egyptian bondage.” In their explicitly stated view, the British government was stealing the property it was supposed to preserve.

In addition to their Lockean philosophy, the Founders had concrete historical reasons for their outrage over taxation without their consent. Their ancestors had planted a civilization in the New World wilderness on their own initiative and by their own efforts. They did build that!

Having forged prosperity out of wilderness, the Founders had a positive, optimistic vision of what economic liberty could achieve. It was a vision that George Washington nicely articulated. The “spirit of commerce,” he noted, lies at the very heart of America’s national character. How could it not, given that the country’s first settlers were self-reliant, enterprising risk-takers even before they arrived? They had crossed the ocean seeking to live on their own terms and to make their own fortunes, and they created a culture of free enterprise that Washington believed should be vigorously nurtured.

Though a slave-owning Virginia planter, he was also a large-scale entrepreneur. He built a grist mill and a distillery, the latter of which became America’s biggest, he set up a fishery that exported salt herring and shad internationally, and he speculated so successfully in land that he became one of the country’s richest men. He had no patience with Jefferson’s sentimentality about farming’s moral superiority to manufacturing and finance. He had seen beyond mercantilism before the Revolution ended: yes, he remarked, Spain has rich colonial silver mines, but the truth is that “Commerce and industry are the best mines of a nation.” He was the prime mover of a Potomac canal to serve as a highway for the trade of the Ohio country, and the conference he arranged at Mount Vernon for representatives of Virginia and Maryland to plan the canal led to the 1786 Annapolis Convention that in turn set up the Constitutional Convention the next year. His vision of America as “a Land of promise, with milk & honey,” was a vision of opportunity for all.

As president, he fully backed Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton’s financial program for fostering the entrepreneurial spirit and turning his dream of a land of plenty into a reality. You know the details of that plan—the funding of the national debt, the bank, the mint, all to create sufficient credit to exploit fully the vast resources of the new nation. It was the key accomplishment, after the Bill of Rights, of Washington’s first term.

As important as Hamilton’s economic vision was, though, his moral one was even more so. Why is it vital to have a highly developed, highly diversified economy?, he asked in his Report on Manufactures. The object is not just the production of more goods and services, but of human fulfillment in thinking them up and creating them. So while “a more ample and various field of enterprize” will certainly increase the wealth of the nation, it will also allow all “the diversity of talents and dispositions which discriminate men from each other” to develop to their fullest excellence. In a society with limited opportunity, he wrote, “minds of the strongest and most active powers for their proper objects . . . labour without effect, if confined to uncongenial pursuits.” But “when all the different kinds of industry obtain in a community, each individual can find his proper element, and can call into activity the whole vigour of his nature.”

To Hamilton, economics was soulcraft. As he put it, “To cherish and stimulate the activity of the human mind, by multiplying the objects of enterprise, is not among the least considerable of the expedients, by which the wealth of a nation may be promoted.” To nurture human talent and realize human potential, to facilitate the pursuit of happiness: has the free enterprise system that is central to the Founding ever had a more magnificent defense? And when he came to set up the mint, Hamilton took care to issue coins of the smallest denominations, so that the humblest Americans could participate in the opportunity economy that this self-made immigrant framed.

It’s a grim paradox that the Founders also valued liberty so highly because they lived amid slavery. Even the slave owners among them knew how obscenely unjust the institution was. “The whole commerce between master and slave,” wrote Jefferson, “is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.” I needn’t detail the toil, the sadistic punishments, the sexual exploitation, the break-up of families, the enforced ignorance, and the regulation of every aspect of life comprehended in Jefferson’s decorous statement of the inhumanity of which human nature is capable.

In 1759, more than a century before the Civil War, Richard Henry Lee of Stratford Hall, later the president of the Continental Congress (and a cousin of the Stratford-born Robert E. Lee), made his maiden speech in the Virginia House of Burgesses. His message to his fellow slave-owners: end slavery. How can anyone who calls himself a Christian, he demanded, think that “our fellow-creatures . . . are no longer to be considered as created in the image of God as well as ourselves, and equally entitled to liberty and freedom by the great law of nature?”

Jefferson, who had written that all men are created equal and who had tried unsuccessfully at the age of twenty-six to persuade the colonial legislature to allow Virginians to free their slaves, wrote, in words that prefigure Lincoln’s Second Inaugural,

When the measure of their tears shall be full, when their groans shall have involved heaven itself in darkness, doubtless a god of justice will awaken to their distress, and by diffusing light and liberality among their oppressors, or at length by his exterminating thunder, manifest his attention to the things of this world, and that they are not to be left to the guidance of a blind fatality.

Like most of the Founders, he himself trusted the advance of Enlightenment to end slavery, but it was exterminating thunder that did the job, after all.

At any rate, when the young and pigheaded King George III began meddling in American affairs after decades of Britain’s official policy of “salutary neglect” toward its New World colonies, the Founders had a ready explanation for his intentions. The king, concluded Washington in 1774, aimed “to make us as tame, & abject Slaves, as the Blacks we Rule over with such arbitrary Sway”—a sentiment whose full implications it took the General a lifetime to grasp, before he left deathbed instructions to free his slaves. Even earlier, Richard Henry Lee’s brother Arthur, who became one of the Revolution’s foreign agents, declared, “I cannot Conceive of the Necessity of becoming a Slave, while there remains a Ditch in which one may die free.” For such men, to repeat, liberty wasn’t just a word. Choosing your beliefs, your thoughts, your job, your officials, your laws, your taxes; speaking your mind; being equal citizens before a law that was the same for all: how could they take these freedoms for granted?

Government, the Founders recognized, is a double-edged sword. You arm officials with the power to protect you, but those officials have the same fallen human nature as everyone else, so who is to say that they won’t use that power to oppress you, as European governments oppressed the colonists’ forebears? Even a democratic republic has to be run by imperfect men, and thus even it can turn into what Richard Henry Lee called an elective despotism. It’s important to remember today the Founders’ warning that the mere fact that you elect representatives to govern you is no guarantee of liberty. You will readily think of examples.

This danger worried the Founding Fathers constantly, and they struggled to protect their new government from it. Their first experiment was to make that government too weak to oppress them. But it was also too weak to do its chief job of protecting them. The war against Britain proved longer and harder than it needed to be, since the central government lacked authority to tax to pay soldiers or buy arms. With scanty funds, Washington’s army starved and froze and died through the nightmare winters at Valley Forge, at Middlebrook, at Morristown. “To see Men without Cloathes to cover their nakedness,” Washington wrote, “without Blankets to lay on, without Shoes, by which their Marches might be traced by the Blood from their feet, and almost as often without Provisions as with; Marching through frost and Snow, . . . is a mark of patience and obedience which in my opinion can scarce be parallel’d.” Yet they were willing to do this to uphold principles so lightly discarded today. That they won the war was a miracle, made possible by the second miracle of George Washington himself.

(Just as an aside, exploring Philadelphia years ago, I chanced upon Washington Square, an airy expanse with a marble monument at one end. Curious, I went to see what it was. A bronze statue of Washington guarded an everlasting light and a tomb, which read: “Beneath this stone rests a soldier of Washington’s army who died to give you liberty.” In fact, the two and a half acres of grass cover thousands more unknown soldiers who succumbed to wounds or disease. In June, some vandal desecrated the memorial with the spray-painted lie “Committed genocide.”)

Well, when the Founders set out to write a new Constitution to give the federal government powers sufficient to its purpose, they did so with their hearts in their mouths. They strictly limited those powers to what they deemed absolutely essential, and they carefully spelled out what they were. They divided and subdivided power, and made each branch of government a check on the others, to guard against overreaching. They set frequent elections, gave the president a veto, and in turn made him and other officials subject to impeachment.

No one was more alive to the danger of democratic despotism than Madison. If an elected majority tramples rights to life, liberty, or property given individuals by nature or God, it is still despotism. In the most famous of the Federalist Papers, Number 10, Madison confronts the thought that—hold on—taxation withrepresentation can be tyranny. “Those who hold, and those who are without property, have ever formed distinct interests in society,” he writes. “Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest . . . grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes. . . . The regulation of these differing interests forms the principal task of modern legislation.”

The heart of that task is taxation. “The apportionment of taxes on the various descriptions of property,” Madison continued, “is an act which seems to require the most exact impartiality, yet there is perhaps no legislative act in which greater opportunity and temptation are given to a predominant party, to trample on the rules of justice. Every shilling with which they overburden the inferior number, is a shilling saved to their own pockets.” And you can’t count on enlightened statesmen, or morality or religion, to prevent such injustice. They won’t.

Nor is unjust taxation the only “improper or wicked project” a democratic majority might cook up to trample the property rights of the richer minority, Madison noted. There could also be, he wrote, a “rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property.” America had seen all of these, as either a threat or a reality, since the Revolution began. During the war, as Congress printed paper currency backed by nothing, inflation had soared. A dollar of gold or silver brought eight paper dollars at the start of 1779, forty-two at year’s end. By then, George Washington wrote, “a waggon load of money will scarcely purchase a waggon load of provision.” The General was all too aware that such inflation meant a huge transfer of wealth from creditors to debtors. Someone who long ago had bought six hundred acres from him “in the most valuable part of Virginia, that ought to have been pd. for before the money began to depreciate; nay years before the War,” he complained, wanted to pay the debt in 1779 in paper money then worth no more than a year’s salary for “a common Miller.” Though fearful “of injuring by any example of mine the credit of our paper currency,” Washington also feared that to accept the deal “is not serving the public but . . . countenancing dishonesty.”

As for the abolition of debts and the equal division of property, a year before the Constitutional Convention, an uprising called Shays’ Rebellion gave the Founders an ominous glimpse of the property-rights invasions citizens could plot. Thousands of depression-squeezed, pitchfork-armed young farmers in western Massachusetts had tried to hijack guns from the Springfield armory to force the courts to close before judges could take their farms for tax delinquency or allow creditors to foreclose. Washington reported to Madison, quoting the Secretary of War, Henry Knox, that the rebels’ “creed is, that the property of the United States has been protected from confiscation of Britain by the joint exertions of all, and therefore ought to be the common property of all.” Washington’s letter bristles with incredulous underlinings. Further, Knox had written him, “They are determined to annihilate all debts public & private.” In that case, Washington demanded in his letter to Madison, “what security has a man of life, liberty, or property?”

Madison was just as aghast as Washington at the claim that the Revolution should bring about socialist, redistributionist égalité, beyond the equality of rights and equality before the law. The Founders aimed only for liberté. In fact, Madison insisted in Federalist 10, if you want liberty to pursue your own happiness in your own way, as Americans do, you are bound to have inequality, since people have different abilities and tastes. “From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property,” he wrote, “the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results.” So the whole constitutional machinery of which he was the chief architect—the extensive republic comprising many competing and mutually opposing interests; the strictly limited, enumerated powers; the checks and balances of branch against branch, and legislative house against legislative house—all aimed to ensure that a government with the power to tax enough to fight wars effectively wouldn’t be so strong that it would threaten the individual liberty and property it was instituted to protect. One of the main purposes of the Constitution, in other words, is to ensure that the unpropertied majority won’t confiscate, by unjust taxation or any other means, the possessions of the propertied minority. That is what he meant by the tyranny of the majority. Thus the redistributionist welfare state of the New Deal and the War on Poverty is not an evolution from his vision but a repudiation of it, a body-snatching whose history I recount in Clarence Thomas and the Lost Constitution (Encounter Books, 2019).

As the Constitution’s chief designer, Madison constructed his exquisitely balanced mechanism to work by the power of ambition countering ambition, and interest countering interest. A realist about human nature, he devised a government for ordinary men as they really were, not for prodigies of virtue. Perhaps because the Founders recognized that they had to work within the limits of human nature, instead of trying to change it, their revolution was the only great one that succeeded. Still, Madison conceded, there had to be at least a smidgen of virtue somewhere. If “there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government,” he wrote, then only “the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring each other.”

Washington was even more explicit about this, the last great Founding idea we need to protect: a democratic republic requires a special kind of culture, one that nurtures self-reliance and a love of liberty. Constitutions are all very well, the Founders often observed, but they are only “parchment barriers,” easily breached if demagogues subvert the “spirit and letter” of the document. They can do this dramatically, in one revolutionary putsch, or they can inflict a death by a thousand cuts, gradually persuading citizens that the Constitution doesn’t mean what it says but should be interpreted to mean something different, even something opposite. That’s how the Framers’ Constitution of limited and enumerated powers morphed into Woodrow Wilson’s, fdr’s, and Earl Warren’s unlimited, so-called “living” one.

The ultimate safeguard against such usurpation is the vitality of America’s culture of liberty. In his first State of the Union speech, Washington stressed this point, emphasizing a view universal among the Founders. The “security of a free Constitution,” he said, depends on “teaching the people themselves to know and to value their own rights; to discern and provide against invasions of them; to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority; . . . to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness,” and to unite “a speedy, but temperate vigilance against encroachments, with an inviolable respect for the laws.” If citizens start to take liberty for granted, if their culture—molded by reporters and writers, preachers and teachers—starts to hold other values in higher esteem, then the spirit that gives life to the Constitution will flicker out. Americans, Washington advised, should guard against “listlessness for the preservation of natural and unalienable rights,” for “no mound of parchm[en]t can be so formed as to stand against the sweeping torrent of boundless ambition on the one side, aided by the sapping current of corrupted morals on the other.”

The Founders well understood, as John Adams had said, how crucial were the “principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections,” of Americans to the character of our republic. That’s why today’s all-out effort to persuade us that America is the opposite of a shining city on a hill, that our Founding Fathers were self-interested and oppressive schemers rather than heroes, that our national enterprise has been shameful from the start, is so dangerous. For the boundless ambition, the lust for power, that Washington feared doesn’t drive only the various radicals whose agitations have set our cities aflame. It also impels a powerful and ruthless competitor for world hegemony. We can’t overcome these threats if we don’t believe we have something precious, something worth defending. And we most emphatically have inherited just such a priceless and exceptional treasure.

This piece originally appeared at The New Criterion


Myron Magnet is City Journal’s editor-at-large, a National Humanities Medalist, and author of “Clarence Thomas and the Lost Constitution” and “The Founders at Home: The Building of America, 1735-1817.”

This piece originally appeared in The New Criterion