Vindicating the Founders:
Race, Sex, Class, and Justice
in the Origins of America

Rowman & Littlefield, 1997

Thomas G. West


What Vindicating the Founders is About

The conventional wisdom of our time accuses America’s Founders of racism, sexism, and elitism. It condemns them as hypocrites who failed to live up to their own professed belief in human equality. Leading scholars, and the textbooks most often used in high schools and colleges, commonly cite as evidence the fact that Washington and Jefferson owned slaves. We are also often told, incorrectly, that even after the American Revolution women enjoyed virtually no rights, and that the poor and propertyless were denied the basic tenets of democratic participation.

West demonstrates that the Founders were indeed sincere in their belief in universal human rights and in their commitment to democracy and opposition to slavery. They really did believe that all human beings—black and white, men and women, rich and poor—are created equal. West shows that the opinions that prevail today are full of distortions and falsehoods about the founding. His book debunks numerous widely held myths about the Founders’ political thought and practice.

Far from being the oppressive regime that it is so often said to be, the Founders’ America, as West shows, in many ways did a better job of securing the individual rights of all citizens than government does now. West contrasts the Founders’ ideas of liberty and equality with today’s, concluding that contemporary notions of liberalism bear almost no resemblance to the genuine liberalism originally articulated by the Founders.

Vindicating the Founders not only demonstrates that the Founders were more "liberal" than today’s liberal critics of the founding say they were; it also shows that the Founders were more "conservative" than today’s conservative critics of equality and "rights talk" say they were. The Founders denied that the right to liberty means the right to pornography or irresponsible "self-expression." They denied that women who bear children outside of marriage have a right to demand that government take money from husbands who are supporting their own families and give it to themselves. (The Founders did believe that government should help those who are in need through no fault of their own). They believed that only a moral and religious people would be capable of establishing and sustaining free government.

This controversial, convincing, and highly original book is important reading for everyone concerned about the origins and fate, present and future of the American experiment in self-government.

Vindicating the Founders, pp. 175-79: Afterword

On the verge of the twenty-first century, it sometimes seems as if the American Founders have no admirers in America except among those who are relatively uneducated. Leading sophisticates—writers, professors, and journalists, whatever their political persuasion—seem convinced that there was something profoundly wrong with the origins of America.


Liberals condemn the Founders because they supposedly did not believe that all human beings are created equal, or because they supposedly betrayed their own stated belief in human equality. "Jefferson didn’t mean it when he wrote that all men are created equal," writes historian John Hope Franklin. "We’ve never meant it. The truth is we’re a bigoted people and always have been."{1} We have seen that such falsehoods are incessantly repeated and broadcast by many of today’s leading scholars and textbooks. Historian Paul Finkelman writes that Jefferson committed "treason against the hopes of the world" because he failed to do more to abolish slavery.{2} This ungenerous verdict is contradicted by the record of Jefferson and other Founders. It is contradicted above all by the career of Abraham Lincoln, who appealed again and again to Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and his eloquent denunciations of slavery, in order to build opposition to the expansion of slavery in the Western territories.

The right to private property, loudly condemned as oppressive for a hundred years by those who do not understand the political economy of plenty, has proved to be the source of the most successful anti-poverty program in world history.

The Founders’ legal supports for the family, denounced for three decades as anti-feminine and tyrannical, now appear to have been an important element in the stability of marriage. And without lasting marriage, as we are now learning, life is becoming increasingly hard and unhappy for large numbers of Americans.

Finally, the Founders have long been accused of mean-spirited elitism because of their approval of a property requirement for voting. Contrary to this impression, we have shown that they established the most inclusive electorate in a large country in history, and that their principles, as they understood them, were fully compatible with a broadening of the right to vote to include almost all adult Americans.

In the course of this book, we have seen that these and many other charges against the Founders either have no merit or are wildly exaggerated.


Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to be just as critical of the founding, although from a different angle. Robert Bork, for example, thinks the Founders believed in equality too much. In Slouching towards Gomorrah, Bork asserts that it is "profoundly unfortunate" that the equality idea in the Declaration of Independence became "the single most powerful and radical ideological force in all of American history." He believes that America’s "rage for liberty" and "passion for equality" are responsible for today’s problems, including seemingly endless demands for bigger government, higher taxes, and ever more explicit public expression of the most degraded possible passions.{3}

Conservatives are especially critical of the Founders’ supposed indifference to the character of the people and the moral conditions of freedom. Leon Kass, in a thoughtful article on the collapse of the family and the derangement in relations between the sexes, says he is "deeply pessimistic" about the future. He fears that the "destructive trends" that have been unleashed are "largely irreversible" because "they spring from the very heart of liberal democratic society and of modernity altogether." Allan Bloom elaborates Kass’s point in this way: "in modern political regimes, where rights precede duties, freedom definitely has priority over community, family and even nature." Bork, Kass, and Bloom imply that America made a wrong choice in its turn to individual liberty and its dedication to the proposition that all men are created equal. They think that this turn necessarily led to today’s decay.{4}

Here too we have shown that the critics misunderstand the Founders. They rejected the amoral understanding of liberty so common today. For the Founders, "freedom" could never have "priority over . . . nature," because nature—the nature of man as a rational creature, subject to the "laws of nature and of nature’s God"—was itself the ground of freedom. The Founders therefore distinguished liberty from license and encouraged responsibility toward family and community. They promoted "religion, morality, and knowledge" as "necessary for good government and the happiness of mankind," in the phrase of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.{5} They were far from taking for granted the moral character of the people. As we saw in the chapters on property, on women, on welfare, and on immigration and the moral conditions of citizenship, they devised a variety of policies to support the morality of republican self-control and self-assertion.

The Founders

The liberal and the conservative critics of the founding both tend to overlook a central theme in the Founders’ reflections on political liberty. The Declaration of Independence speaks of two requirements that follow from the natural equality of all men: government must be by consent of the governed (that is, democratic); and government must protect the rights of all. These two requirements can be, but are not necessarily, in harmony with each other. The threat of what Madison in Federalist no. 10 called "majority faction"—the violation by the majority of the rights of the minority or of the common good—is an ever-present danger.

Liberals (and libertarians) often forget that in order for democracy to protect the equal rights of all, the majority needs to have the right kind of character and convictions about justice. It must be enlightened as to the rights of mankind. It must be vigilant in defense of those rights for itself. It must be respectful of those rights in others. That means government must promote moral restraint, strong families, and limits on self-indulgence and irresponsible "self-expression."

Liberals (but not libertarians) also forget that the right to acquire property, rightly enforced and protected, favors the interests of the poor no less than of the wealthy. When government protects the fruits of one’s honest industry, it eventually enables the large majority of the poor to become self-sufficient by their own efforts. Liberals sometimes fail to note that anti-poverty programs can easily have a corrupting effect if they are not set up in a way that promotes rather than breaks down the morality of self-restraint and self-assertion that is a necessary foundation of what Jefferson called "temperate liberty."

Conservatives do not give the Founders the credit they deserve for understanding the tension between consent and protection of rights, and for doing something about it. We have seen examples of that in almost every chapter. They knew that institutional restraints on selfish passions are indispensable, but that they are not a sufficient guard by themselves against unreason in the majority. They devoted considerable thought and energy to providing for the right kind of citizen character. They established public schools and universities in several states. They refined but also continued in force the laws supporting responsibility in sexual and family relations. They fostered a manly assertiveness in the population through laws promoting gun ownership and protecting property rights. They taught citizens to respect "the laws of nature and of nature’s God" through speeches, laws, and the good example of their own statesmanship. Because of these concerns, although they favored immigration, they were cautious about the kinds and numbers of newcomers, many of whom lacked the character and principles of republican citizenship, that they admitted into the body politic.

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. The lot of women, blacks, and the poor improved substantially in the founding era and afterwards. Conservatives need to recognize that there is no need to go beyond the Declaration, outside the Founders’ principles, in order to establish limits on the abuse of liberty. The idea of liberty in the Declaration contains its own limitation, for liberty is not license, and, as Lincoln said, there can never be "a right to do wrong."

America has a great and noble heritage. It would be a shame if it were to be thrown away because of the misunderstanding and dishonesty of intellectuals. Our task as scholars and teachers is to understand the truth, to discover the best in the past, and to pass it along intact to future generations, not to distort and defame it. This book is my contribution to that effort.


{1}John Hope Franklin, "The Moral Legacy of the Founding Fathers," University of Chicago Magazine, Summer 1975, 10-13.

{2}Paul Finkelman, Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1996), ch. 5.

{3}Bork, Slouching towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline (New York: Regan Books, 1996), pp. 56, 66.

{4}Kass, "The End of Courtship," The Public Interest, Winter 1997, pp. 43-4. Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), p. 113.

{5}The words of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, discussed in the chapter on immigration.