A review of The American Founding and the Social Compact edited by Ronald J. Pestritto and Thomas G. West
The first in a planned trilogy, this collection of essays seeks to establish "the consensus version" of "the political theory of the founding era." Although the editors admit that some of the partisan divisions of the founding period were "as bitter as anything in American history outside the Civil War," they still believe that the fundamental agreement among the leading founders on the basic principles of government was and is more important.
The book emphasizes consensus partly because Ronald Pestritto and Thomas West (politics professors at the University of Dallas) do not study American political thought out of mere historical curiosity, but as "a great debate over the destiny of America," a debate between the founders and their nineteenth- and twentieth- century American critics. Whatever their differences, the American founders "were convinced that their theory of politics was based on permanent truths about human nature." Since then, progressives, liberals, and certain conservatives have largely succeeded in displacing the founders' theory with historicism and relativism. By establishing in this volume the "coherence and intelligibility" of the founders' political theory, the differences between the founders and their challengers (whose ideas will be taken up in the second and third volumes) can be better understood.
The editors divided the book into three chapters on European philosophers and the social compact (Locke, Blackstone, and Hume); three "on what one might call the official American version of the social compact argument" (an overview chapter, one on Jefferson, and one on citizenship); and three on individual founders (Hamilton, Adams, and Franklin).
Despite the editors' desire to present a consensus view, their contributors often focus on differences among the founders, as well as among their philosophical precursors. The men featured in this book are by no means in total disagreement among themselves, but they do display a (perhaps invigorating) variety of views about the social compact. This may be because seven of the nine chapters are devoted to individual political thinkers, whose distinguishing features claim our attention.
Jean Yarbrough's very comprehensive chapter on Thomas Jefferson illustrates this tension. Yarbrough surveys the ground that Jefferson shared with other founders, but she also recalls some of the propositions (e.g., the usefulness of rebellion, the natural time limit on laws and constitutions, the case for states' rights of nullification and secession) that made Jefferson seem imprudent to many of the other founders—not just to his partisan enemies, but also to some of his partisan allies. In this vein, Yarbrough explains some of James Madison's sage responses to his old friend.
Focusing on Jefferson's view of social compact theory brings out some of his more peculiar and questionable ideas, for he was fond of speculating about the elements and ramifications of the theory. By contrast, in Karl Walling's excellent account of the politics of the adaptable, practical, and strategic-minded Alexander Hamilton, the focus on social compact theory proves difficult if not impossible to maintain. Social compact theory simply does not explain all that much about Hamilton's politics.
Similarly, Steven Forde makes no excuses for Benjamin Franklin's atypically pragmatic, untheoretical political thinking, in which the social compact rarely even makes an appearance. As the colonial representative in London, Franklin might well have found social compact theory unsuitable to his purpose of reconciling Britain and America. In fact, Forde concludes (more extremely than the editors, who claim Franklin as "a reluctant adherent" to social compact theory) that "Franklin's thoughts on social and political matters put him outside the social compact tradition, strictly speaking."
Social compact thinking does figure in John Paynter's study of "John Adams' 'Hobbism'," but "[o]n this topic, as in most matters," Paynter observes, "Adams was his 'own man.'" Paynter shows that Adams, like the other founders, did reject the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, whose version of social compact theory was divorced from natural moral law and served as a prop for unlimited and undivided government. But he also reminds us (admittedly only indirectly in an endnote) that Adams proposed impressive senatorial honors and a very strong executive for free constitutions, in order to counterbalance the dangers posed by the ambitions of the few to the liberty of the many. This distinctive concern in Adams's thinking, partly because it was so vulnerable to distortion by his partisan enemies, made him seem out of step with other founders.
* * *
Turning to the founders' philosophical precursors, Michael Zuckert and Bradley Watson are excellent in chapters dealing with William Blackstone and David Hume, respectively, although these essays risk making it seem as if their subjects were philosophically superior to, and more influential on the founders, than John Locke. In the end, Zuckert avoids this result, by correcting his initial judgement that Blackstone's amalgam of customary rights and natural human rights is "plausible" to, a few pages on, concluding that this amalgam is in fact rather "strained and in many cases implausible."
Watson's sympathetic portrait of Hume, however, goes so far as to suggest that the founders intended a merger of Lockean "Enlightenment rationalism" with Humean "Tory skepticism" and historical groundedness. Were the American Founders (all "Whigs," Jefferson said) really so fond of "Toryism"? Watson overlooks the damage done to Lockean political thinking by Hume's critique, which began the utilitarian exaggeration of historical circumstances and customs as factors in free government. Besides, it was not necessary for Hume to improve on Lockean thinking by asserting the importance of custom. As Peter Myers's fine chapter on Locke shows, Locke had strategies for inspiring and maintaining customs that would support liberty based on a creed of natural human rights.
At the bottom of the difficulties in mustering a consensus version of the founders' political theory, there is some doubt about the wisdom of calling it "the theory of the social compact." In the editors' preface, the just purposes of government— securing natural rights—are as basic to social compact theory as the need for consensual government. Yet later in the book, Steven Forde writes that Franklin "agrees with Hume rather than the contractarians that the elaboration of society's ends, rather than its origins, is the best way to uncover the proper political institutions on the level of thought and to secure them on the level of practice." This inaccurately assumes that Hume was right when he argued that contractarians such as Locke placed too much weight on the formality of consent, and neglected the end of "security and protection" as the decisive criterion for allegiance or resistance to government.
Making social compact the basic theme of the founders' political theory may invite such inaccuracies, because the idea of a social compact is so often misunderstood, and not only by Hobbes who gets things all wrong. Even Thomas Jefferson occasionally had to be rescued by Madison. And what of Franklin, who could support the fundamental principles of the founding without needing to resort to the idea of a social compact? Social compact theory may be helpful or even essential for understanding some issues (such as immigration and citizenship, which Edward Erler convincingly addresses in his chapter), but was it the founders' basic political principle?
In setting out a general overview of "The Political Theory of the Declaration of Independence," Thomas West quite logically delays discussion of the social compact until nearly half way through his chapter. More basic themes—natural law, natural rights, natural human equality—all come first. As West recognizes, the justice of instituting and operating government by the consent of the governed is a conclusion drawn from these more fundamental observations about human nature and politics. So is there not a case for describing the founders' fundamental political theory not in terms of the social compact but in terms of natural moral law, natural rights, or natural equality and liberty?
* * *
None of the preceding comments and suggestions are meant to deny that this book magnificently succeeds in restoring the politics of natural right as an intelligible and persuasive alternative to the politics of historicism, whether a conservative historicism that would limit us to traditions, or a radical historicism that would lead us to a limitless and unknowable future.
One of the book's further strengths is that it does not claim to settle the dispute between the founders' natural right thinking and the historicist challenges. (That would have made the later volumes in this series unnecessary.) In his overview chapter, West makes a very strong case for the reasonableness of the founders' way of thinking. But he concedes that basing politics on reasoning about human nature might not always be better for civilization than less universal political thinking would be. This is not simply because prudent attention to circumstances always limits what such reasoning can accomplish. It is also because such reasoning can be imitated by impostors and perverted into supporting great injustices and hideously tyrannical regimes.
On the other hand, what other hope is there for good government than a politics based on natural right? As West says, "where else in the modern world can one turn?"