Monday, March 14, 2011

Larry Schweikart: What Would The Founders Say?

"What Would the Founders Say" is the most recent entry in a string of works by politically-minded historians in defense of a conservative ideal. Written by Larry Schweikart, University of Dayton professor and Fox News commentator, this book argues strongly for an "original intent" approach to modern political issues.

To the extent this work is defined by its title, it largely succeeds. With few exceptions, it conveys the common understanding of the Founding Fathers with impressive clarity.  If, however, this book were meant to be anything more -- if it were meant to argue against liberal or progressive policies, or meant to be a template for such arguments -- it would unfortunately fail before it could even get out of the gate.

The crux of the matter appears in the last two paragraphs of the introduction:
The best way for America to find its way again is to return to the ideas and principles of the Founders.... The Founders owed it to us to make their positions plain and understandable, and they succeeded.  We owe it to them to embrace and apply them (pp. 9-10).
Unfortunately, this argument from "original intent" assumes perhaps the most important point of contention in debates over political philosophy. An equally notable stream of conservative thought argues that the intent of the Founding generation should have no hold over Constitutional law, and that only the original meaning of the Constitution, treaties and laws of the United States should be applied to modern governance. This position, "textualism," is most notably espoused by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and is widely considered (even among liberals) as the most formidable legal argument for conservative policies.

On the other end of the spectrum is the "Living Constitution" arguments from latter-day progressives such as Laurence Tribe.  This argument points out (courtesy of post-modernist epistemology) that the meaning of words is often conditioned on cultures and social environments, and that any attempt to apply an "original intent" or "original meaning" will therefore apply a stringent if arbitrary standard of interpretation. This thesis is quite common among scholars and legal professionals.

Most importantly for our purposes, however, this "Living Constitution" thesis rejects from the beginning any effort to bind modern policy-making to Founding-era values. Thus, "What Would the Founders Say?" is at its heart a book preaching to its own choir. There's nothing wrong with this.  Indeed, as Schweikart points out in the same introduction, the Founding Fathers "are far more than 'dead white men.' They were geniuses..." (pg. 9). The Founding generation lived under a tyranny and studied history extensively, and in the end they crafted a government more free and more stable than anything that had been created before in history. It's an impressive achievement, and we would do well to listen to their advice and guidance. But, unfortunately, that is a premise not always shared among modern progressives, and therefore persuasive appeals must find other grounds for argument.

As for the substantive chapters, I found the seventh chapter on banking and monetary issues to be the most effectively written and argued. While I lack the knowledge of early monetary history to confirm or dispute his statistical arguments, the principles of economic theory were clearly outlined and applied, and the pivotal historical events were presented with clarity and meaning.

There was one aggravating error regarding my own field, the history of economic thought, but Schweikart is hardly responsible for the mistake.  He wrote on pg. 127 that "capitalism as [Adam Smith] outlined it was little known as a theory (though it was already a widespread practice)" -- relying on the common misunderstanding that Adam Smith was the father of classical economics and not reliant on the work of prior economists, notably the French Physiocrats. Likewise, while I wanted to sing from rooftops when Schweikart mentioned the appallingly under-appreciated Jean-Baptiste Say (pg. 155), it appeared that he misunderstood the importance and meaning of Say's contribution to economic thought.

This last point regarding Say is actually part of a broader theme in Schweikart's book. One of main thrusts of the book is a rehabilitation of Hamilton's reputation among conservative audiences. The author's slight misunderstanding of Say is ironically appended to an apologia for Hamilton's misunderstanding of Say. Schweikart is also dismissive of John Adams for the same reason. At one point he notes Adams' tendency to "congratulat[e] himself with characteristic hyperbole" when relaying Adams' opinion late in life that "save for me, [Hamilton] would have involved us in a foreign war with France and a civil war with ourselves" (pg. 165). In all honesty, I'm pretty confident Adams was right, and that his self-congratulation was earned: he did manage to keep us out of the wars raging in Europe at the time, even though it cost him his own prospects for re-election, most of his ties in the Federalist Party, and his close friendship with Thomas Jefferson.

The first two chapters were impressively detailed summaries of the Founder's opinions on religion and education.  I had already read most of the quotes in other works, so it didn't affect me as strongly, but it serves as a decidedly useful antidote to any assertion that the Founding Fathers were generally deists or apathetic to religion, when that is quite possibly the furthest thing from the truth.  The third and fourth chapters, ostensibly on environmentalism and health care, mostly focused on the history of property rights in America -- useful in its own right, but tangential to the question at hand.  I found the ninth chapter on foreign policy to be of particular interest. Where most writers in my experience treat the Founders as non-interventionists, Schweikart argued that the Founders would have preferred a neoconservative approach to foreign policy, but were stymied by the lack of organization that characterized the early republic. I wasn't entirely convinced, but his arguments were well developed, and I will be giving the subject more thought.

On the whole, "What Would the Founders Say?" is a valuable overview of the opinions of the Founding Generation on issues affecting modern America. Some of the issues are developed in a superficial manner, but given the breadth of issues covered and this book's intended popular audience, I'm less surprised by that and more surprised that Schweikart managed to cover issues in as much depth as he did.

If you're interested in purchasing this book, check it out at What Would the Founders Say?: A Patriot's Answers to America's Most Pressing Problems

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