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Thomas West
Thomas West
Vindicating the Founders
ISBN: 0847685160
Vindicating the Founders
Today students are taught that America's Founding Fathers were racist, sexist, and elitist. Historians condemn them as hypocrites who failed to live up to their own enlightened principles.

In this landmark book, Thomas G. West debunks these and other widely held myths about the Founders' political thought. It is commonly but incorrectly , asserted that because Washington and Jefferson owned slaves, because women, even after the American Revolution, enjoyed virtually no rights, and because the poor and those without property wee denied the basic tenets of democratic participation, the Founders were frauds who never really believed that "all men were created equal."

West demonstrates why such politically correct interpretations are no only dead wrong, but dangerous. Because our understanding of the Founders so profoundly influences our opinion of contemporary America, this book explains why their views, and particularly the constitutional order they created, are still worthy of our highest respect. West proves that the Founders were indeed sincere in their belief of universal human rights and in their commitment to democracy.

By contrasting the Founders' ideas of liberty and equality with today's, West persuasively concludes that contemporary notions bear almost no resemblance to the concepts originally articulated by the Founders. This controversial, convincing, and highly original book is important reading for everyone concerned about the origins, present, and future of the American experiment in self government.
—from the publisher's website

Vindicating the Founders
Program Air Date: November 2, 1997

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Professor Thomas G. West, in your book in the afterword, you write, `It sometimes seems as if the American founders have no admirers in America except among those who are relatively uneducated.' Why is that?
Professor THOMAS WEST, AUTHOR, "VINDICATING THE FOUNDERS": Well, what I discovered in writing this book is that the leading historians, political scientists and textbook writers who convey the information to our students and to the general public about the founding all pretty much agree that the Founding Fathers are bad. They're racist; they're sexist; they're elitists. They weren't sincere when they said that all men are created equal. They didn't include women; they didn't include blacks. They excluded the poor from the vote. So all of this is out there, and it requires a response.
LAMB: Where did this start?
Prof. WEST: The--historically, really, it goes back to the Progressive era. The first really serious attacks on the founding took place--people like Charles Beard, whose book on the economic origins of the Constitution basically argued that the Constitution was written by a group of self-interested rich people out to protect their private property.
LAMB: What year?
Prof. WEST: Sometime around 1911, I think, 1913.
LAMB: Did everybody just fall in the line with Mr. Beard?
Prof. WEST: Well, this became the orthodoxy as time went along. And then particularly since the '60s, there's--the theme has been the exclusion of blacks and women. That's been the great argument. And so now you pick up a textbook or a standard history book on the founding, a government book, you'll find these things just stated as though this is the most obvious thing in the world.
LAMB: When did you first think about writing this book?
Prof. WEST: I started--I did a series of essays for the Claremont Institute, where I'm a senior fellow, in California in the early '90s on this topic. They were doing a series of events for high school teachers, and that's how it got started. And then when I decided to put them together in a book, I went over them, expanded them and really developed the argument in a way that it deserves to be stated.
LAMB: Where's the Claremont Institute, and what does it do?
Prof. WEST: They're--well, they're a think tank--Claremont, California, and they're devoted to the idea of restoring the principles of the Declaration of Independence in American life. Many of the people associated with the institute are former students of Harry Jaffa, who was, for many years, a professor out there in the Claremont McKenna College and Graduate School.
LAMB: How big is it? How many people belong to it?
Prof. WEST: Well, it's not like--it's not quite as big as AEI, but it's one of the major conservative--sort of second-tier conservative think tanks in America.
LAMB: And where is Claremont, California? What's it near?
Prof. WEST: Well, it's about 30 miles east of LA.
LAMB: In the beginning of your book under acknowledgments, you say, `Through the generosity of Henry Salvatori, Charles Kessler brought me to Claremont McKenna College as a Salvatori visiting scholar.'
Prof. WEST: Right.
LAMB: Who is Henry Salvatori?
Prof. WEST: Salvatori just died recently at the age of--you know, I think he was about 97. He was an Italian immigrant who was a very successful businessman and made a pile of money developing techniques of oil exploration that turned out to be very successful. And in his later years, he became a major donor to causes and to people who were interested in restoring the principles of the founding.

And he established a center at Claremont McKenna College, the Salvatori Center, which is directed by Charles Kessler. And they brought me out there knowing that I was somebody who could help advance that work.
LAMB: Where were you when they brought you out there?
Prof. WEST: Well, I'm based in Irving, Texas, at the University of Dallas, where I'm a professor of politics.
LAMB: Is that a full-time job still?
Prof. WEST: Right. Yes.
LAMB: And when did you--early on in your life, or maybe it wasn't early on--start thinking about things like the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence or the Founding Fathers?
Prof. WEST: Well, it took me a while to get there. I was a student in the '60s and '70s of Leo Strauss and some of Strauss' students out in Claremont; actually, originally, a student of Allan Bloom's at Cornell, then I went out to Claremont.

And originally, I was really focused on the study of obscure texts in the history of political philosophy written by dead white males like Plato and Cicero and people like that. And my first book, in fact, was an interpretation of Plato's Apology of Socrates.

But it really wasn't until the '80s that I got interested in a serious way in American politics and I used my knowledge of the history of philosophy to help to understand the principles of this country. And I think it really did help, as a matter of fact, in articulating what the founding was all about.
LAMB: Do you have a family?
Prof. WEST: I do.
LAMB: Kids?
Prof. WEST: I've got four children...
LAMB: How old are they?
Prof. WEST: ...and a wife who teaches classics with me at the University of Dallas. Let's see, three boys, 10, 13, 15, and then a daughter who's a freshman at University of Dallas who's 18.
LAMB: You have inside the book under the chapter of women in the family this sentence: `Bachelors have much higher rates of almost every social ill on which statistics are kept: criminal behavior, victimization by crimes, unemployment, disease, mental disorders, drunkenness and drug addiction, suicide and even rates of accidents.'
Prof. WEST: Astounding, isn't it?
LAMB: Why is that in the book?
Prof. WEST: Why is--that's from the chapter on women in the family. And one of the charges that's made against the founders is that they were mean to women. They didn't really believe that women were created equal. The standard scholarship says that women were oppressed; women had no rights; women were excluded from society. And the--I had--you know, I thought that was--deserved looking into. It's a serious charge, and there's some facial evidence to support that. Women didn't have the right to vote, for example, and there were different legal rights for women within marriage than men.

So that led me to the question of `Well, what did they think they were doing?' Jefferson, for example, among others, attacked the Indians for suppressing and exploiting their women. He said the problem with the Indians is they don't treat women as the equals of men, which is what they are. So Jefferson must have thought that he and the other Americans were treating women as equals.

So the question I had is, `Well, how could Jefferson have thought that? How could he have thought that we were better than the Indians, treating our women in the right way, while at the same time women weren't voting and women didn't have property rights separate from their husbands when they were married?' So I had--that led into the question of what did they think they were doing?

And the answer was that they thought that the major way in which women would be protected is through marriage, through family and family integrity. Their idea was to support the institution of marriage so that people would get married and stay married as much as possible, barring death, make divorce difficult, focus people's sexual energies in only one direction, marriage. And in that way, women, men and children would end up being happier and better protected.

I ended up--and that quote you mentioned about single men is from a section on whether marriage is good for men. The answer is that by practically any objective measurement today, married men are happier, better off, have fewer accidents, fewer pathologies, etc., than single men. And the same thing--similar patterns can be observed for women and in terms of the benefits of marriage.
LAMB: When you speak of the founders, name the ones that are the most important to you.
Prof. WEST: Well, I mean--by the founders, I just mean those Americans who were prominent in the writing of the fundamental documents that governed the nation in the founding era. The top people obviously would be Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Washington, Hamilton. Those would probably be the top four.
LAMB: What were their relationships with women?
Prof. WEST: Well, Jefferson is probably the one whose relationships with women are--his are most thoroughly documented. He had a--his wife died when he was young, and he had very close relationships with his daughters, with whom he exchanged a voluminous correspondence, which is now all published. And he had a great interest in their well-being and that their education, that they married well and so on. So yeah, he's certainly someone who deserves a--you know, whose writing on this is--has--is one of the most important sources.
LAMB: One of the things I noted is you mentioned Abigail Adams, John Adams' wife. And I wanted to ask you what's in the famous `Remember the ladies' to her husband--letter or what was that?
Prof. WEST: Letter, yes.
LAMB: And why did you use that here?
Prof. WEST: Well, this is a letter where she writes to John Adams right at the moment of the Declaration of Independence. And she says, `Please, when you make your new laws for this new country, remember the ladies, and don't allow men to tyrannize over them. Remember that all men would be tyrants if they would, and there's a need to restrain that.'

She was referring to the problem of some men abusing their wives. And this was a problem that was acknowledged and in the early legislation that was passed in the various states, particularly in the northern states, the laws were changed to accommodate those kinds of extreme situations. Cruelty was established as a ground of divorce in most of the states--northern states, actually, in the pre-Civil War period. And that was what she had in mind.

The reason why I mention it is because sometimes people will quote that; feminists will quote that, saying, `Ah-ha, here's an early statement of feminism.' And that's exactly the opposite of what she's saying. She ends up quoting a passage from the Bible from Ephesians which tells husbands to love their wives just as Christ loved the church. Her attitude was not that women should be free of men--free of marriage, but rather that men should do their duty and treat their women as they deserve to be treated.
LAMB: What's your wife's reaction to your book, by the way?
Prof. WEST: She's very supportive of this. We're--as I say, I think in our family, we all believe that all men are created equal, men and women included in the term `men,' of course.
LAMB: What evidence do you have that when they wrote `All men are'--whether it was the committee or Thomas Jefferson--wrote, `All men are created equal,' that they really meant, `All people are created equal'?
Prof. WEST: They said so over and over again. If you look at the formulations, there were dozens of different ways they formulated this statement. They talked about the rights of humanity, the rights of mankind, human rights, the human race all having the same rights of life and liberty. It was a constant discussion of this idea of equal rights in inclusive language, so that when the Declaration says `all men,' obviously it means `all human beings.' It's a typical canard of certain--of some modern scholars to claim that `men' means males. That's not at all what they meant.

And they also spoke very directly about women. As I mentioned, Jefferson, in his discussion of the Indians, talked about the fact that women do have equal rights. James Otis, one of the early writers--one of the early Massachusetts founders in 1760s in a striking passage, says, `Wouldn't it be infamous to claim that the ladies are all slaves by nature? And isn't it true that in the state of nature, they had as much right as the men did to say what form of government they should live under?'

So there's no question that the founding generation understood this point that the equality of men meant the equality of all human beings.
LAMB: On your cover, you have a quote from Forrest McDonald: "Compelling, accurate, closely reasoned, and entirely convincing." Why did the book publisher think that quote was important to put on the cover? And who is Forrest McDonald?
Prof. WEST: Forrest McDonald is a leading historian of the founding. He's at the University of Alabama. He's published many books on the period. One of his early books, "We the People," was a refutation of the Charles Beard thesis on the Constitutional Convention. McDonald showed that Beard simply had his facts wrong in claiming that the convention was dominated by the rich who were out to exploit the poor. And he's written a very fine biography of Hamilton which is well-known. So they thought his testimony was worth having, and so do I.
LAMB: The company is Rowan & Littlefield. Who are they? …that published the book.
Prof. WEST: Rowman & Littlefield? They're...
LAMB: I'm sorry. Rowman, yeah.
Prof. WEST: Yes, they're a very prominent academic publisher. They're now moving into the realm of doing more trade books. This book is being marketed more as a trade book than as an academic book. And they're publishing authors like Robert Novak, who's got a book out this fall as well.
LAMB: And where are they based? Who owns them? Do you know?
Prof. WEST: They're right outside the District, somewhere in Maryland. I've never been there, but they're close by here.
LAMB: This your first book by them?
Prof. WEST: With them, yes. I've published chapters in some books by them before, but, yes, this is my first book with them.
LAMB: On the back you have some other endorsements. Rush Limbaugh: `A path-breaking book,' he says. `The American people finally have a definitive answer to the distortions about the founding that liberals have been pouring into the American mind since the 1960s. I recommend this book heartily. It belongs on every bookshelf and in every classroom in America.' What's that endorsement worth to your book, do you think?
Prof. WEST: I think that what the publisher had in mind was this is a guy--Rush Limbaugh--who is very well-known --to the American people. He's got a huge audience with his radio show. Rather than put on an academic that a very small number of people might have heard of, why not put on a guy like this who's famous? And hopefully by marketing the book as a provocative book in that way, they'll get some attention.
LAMB: How tough was it to get his endorsement?
Prof. WEST: It was--I don't really know the answer to that question. The endorsement was--the manuscript was passed on to him by a woman who's a very good friend of his. And apparently what happened was that he read enough of it to decide this is good, and so he said, `Yeah, I'll--I want to endorse this thing.'
LAMB: What was your reaction when you found out he was going to endorse it?
Prof. WEST: I thought it was terrific.
LAMB: Newt Gingrich: `One of those rare publications that promises to shape the field of inquiry about the American founders for decades to come.' How tough was that endorsement?
Prof. WEST: That I don't know anything about. Someone--an acquaintance of mine asked -- him or his office, and he was good enough to do it.
LAMB: You also have --Dinesh D'Souza: `An eloquent defense of the principles of the American founding by one of its most learned students.' What's the value of that endorsement?
Prof. WEST: Well, Dinesh D'Souza is, I think, one of our outstanding young writers. His book "The End of Racism," I thought, was fabulous, really did a terrific job of laying out the whole problem of race in America today in a dispassionate way, but at the same time, in a way that suggests that our approach to the problem deserves some fundamental rethinking. So--and I know him; I've met him before, and I think we have a mutual respect for each other's work.
LAMB: Chapter on slavery--what's the premise?
Prof. WEST: The premise is that the founders really did believe that all human beings of all races are created equal, that they're endowed by God with equal rights, and that the government's job is to respect that. That's the premise.

Now the question then becomes: Well, how in the world can we justify Jefferson and Washington and Madison owning slaves in the face of this? How do we make sense out of this? So I tried to do that. I tried to show that the--first of all, that the founders really did say that blacks were created equal to whites.

There's a quote on--I think, in the second or third page of the chapter where--from Samuel Eliot Morison, very famous Harvard historian who's written a book, "Oxford History of the American People," published in 1965, still in print, still available in all leading bookstores. And what Morison says is that--he asked the question, `Was Jefferson thinking of blacks when he wrote, "All men are created equal"? His subsequent career indicates that he did not, that blacks were not men.'

Now that is one of the most misleading statements ever written by a historian because, in fact, as Morison knew very well, Jefferson, in the very draft of the Declaration that he wrote that day, said--condemned the King of England for the institution of slavery and for preventing the states from ---doing something about the slave trade, and referred to blacks as men, and even put `men' in capital letters in his draft of the Declaration.

And so Morison leaves the reader with the impression that this Jefferson wasn't even thinking about blacks, whereas in reality he knew--or should have known, unless he was incompetent--that Jefferson was not only thinking but writing about blacks being men on the very same day he wrote the Declaration of Independence. So that's point one; they really did believe that blacks were human beings.

And second, what about their actions? I mean, the problem is, you know, why didn't they abolish slavery right away? Well, part of the answer is they did abolish slavery. Slavery was legal in every state in America in 1776. They had inherited this institution from colonial times as something that, in effect, no American ever questioned back then. This was assumed as just something that happened, something that was OK.

And what happened was during the 1760s and '70s, as they were articulating their reasons why the Brits shouldn't be able to run our lives without our consent, they started making these arguments. All men are created equal. All men have the same rights. No one deserves to take away someone else's liberty. And that led to people saying, `Wait a minute, what about the blacks? What about slavery?' And, in fact, they did say, `Yes, this is a problem. We have to do something about it.' And they did abolish slavery in about half of the original states in the early days.

Finally, the really decisive thing is slavery was able to be abolished in America later on, at the time of the Civil War, only because of the fact that the founders had dedicated our country to the proposition that all men are created equal. As Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address, that's what made it all possible.
LAMB: You quote quite often in the book Alexis de Tocqueville. Why?
Prof. WEST: Tocqueville was one of the great observers of the American scene. He really understood a lot about what made America work. He especially, I think, understood the necessity for the right kind of character, the right kind of moral character in the citizens. He spoke about the way in which the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty complemented each other in American life and made it possible for there to be a country devoted to freedom that didn't degenerate into license and self-indulgence.

He saw in his discussion of the American family how different it was from the European family, where women were put on a pedestal, worshipped in a sense, but then treated with contempt in reality. He pointed out something that's probably not very well-known today, but that the rape laws in America in the time when he visited here in the 1820s were much more severe against rapists than they were in Europe, and he thought that was a sign of the American respect for women, which I would argue goes back to the founding, goes back to the fact that we did say all men, meaning all human beings, are created equal.
LAMB: When did you first start studying him?
Prof. WEST: Well, he's one of the staples in the history of political philosophy. And I probably first ran across Tocqueville in a course taught by Walter Berns at Cornell back in the '60s.
LAMB: Did you graduate from Cornell?
Prof. WEST: I did.
LAMB: What did you study there?
Prof. WEST: I was a government major.
LAMB: Walter Berns is here in town now.
Prof. WEST: He's still around, yes. He's a very prominent writer on American politics, American political thought and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute here in town.
LAMB: You quote Tocqueville in here; you're saying, after his visit to America in the 1820s, Tocqueville feared that, quote, "the most horrible of civil wars would occur if slavery were abolished, terminating perhaps in the extermination of one or other of the two races." Why'd you use that quote?
Prof. WEST: The point I'm making there is that Americans in the pre-Civil War period--many Americans of good will, and Tocqueville, a foreign observer, also of good will, people who believed in the principle of equality, also believed that the immediate abolition of slavery in those states where there were very large numbers of slaves could create a situation that would be even worse in the short run than the institution of slavery itself.

What I was trying to understand was: Why is it that in the Deep South, men like Jefferson and others who favored abolition in principle didn't eagerly rush to create immediate abolition in practice? And that was their concern; they really did believe in the possibility of a race war that might lead to the extermination of one or the other of the two races. And that belief, which was widely shared among many Americans, I think, was an important reason and, to some extent, a justification, for their failure to act as quickly as we today think they should have acted in getting rid of that institution.
LAMB: How much impact do you think the politics of the college professor has on the student for the rest of their lives?
Prof. WEST: Well, I guess that's like asking how much impact does a single cigarette have on the rest of your life. Are you going to get lung cancer from it? No. But an accumulation of cigarettes over many years can destroy your lungs. An accumulation of bad professors over the years can wreck your mind if you don't break with that point of view and start thinking for yourself at some point. So I think it's a great--I think it has a tremendous impact. And the same is true for good. People who have sensible things to say, who help their students think clearly, become better citizens, understand the principles of their country. It can have a tremendously helpful impact.
LAMB: What were the politics of most of your professors as you were going to school? And where did you go besides Cornell?
Prof. WEST: Well, I did my graduate work at Claremont Graduate School in California. I'd say the majority of my professors were standard, run-of-the-mill plain vanilla liberals of the sort that dominate the academy. I did have a number of professors who didn't fit that mold and by whom I was probably more influenced.
LAMB: Like?
Prof. WEST: Well, people like Berns and Allan Bloom at Cornell, and then Leo Strauss, Harry Jaffa, Martin Diamond at Claremont, Harry Neumann. These are people that didn't go with the conventional flow. They questioned a lot of the contemporary orthodoxies, made a point of returning to the original sources in the tradition. And I respected that and, I think, got my own turn of thought decisively from that approach.
LAMB: Was there a point where you were starting to figure out that professors had a point of view?
Prof. WEST: That's pretty obvious, I think. You walk into a classroom, unless it's on something like calculus or physics, if it has anything to do with human life, the point of view is going to come across pretty quickly and pretty decisively, usually. There are some exceptions to that, of course. But you can tell--doesn't take long to figure out who has an ideological agenda and who's really trying to understand something.
LAMB: I guess the question was related to what--when you start out in school, and if you're not paying attention, do you know what's being fed to you, or did you walk in already knowing what your politics were and you were starting to figure it out from the professors what theirs were?
Prof. WEST: I was--I was not--I didn't have any definite political point of view when I was an undergraduate student at Cornell. I --you know, this was the time of the '60s, civil rights. I was very sympathetic to the civil rights movement. I remember Walter Berns criticizing Goldwater. I was persuaded by that at the time probably, although looking back I'm not sure that was the right position to take.

But in any case, you know, I was very sympathetic--and during the Vietnam War, of course, you couldn't help--at that time I was very much of age to go to fight, and I couldn't help thinking about these questions and where I should stand on them. And, yeah, I'd say my teachers had a--had helped a lot in giving me a sensible framework in which to think about all those partisan questions.
LAMB: But as you know, Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich spent a lot of time over the years talking about--that the--one of the big problems in America is academia, the politics of professors. Would you agree with that?
Prof. WEST: I do. Yeah. I think that the--I mean, what I found out in writing this "Vindicating the Founders" is that there is a massive distortion out there going on about the principles of the American founding and about the actions and beliefs of the founders themselves. To me, that's just wrong. I mean, it's wrong historically; it's not true. But it's also wrong in the sense that it is teaching people to have contempt for the principles of a country which, I think, can be easily demonstrated to be the freest country in all world history, the country that has done more to conquer the poverty problem of any country in world history, a country which has really done a tremendous job in establishing religious and civil liberty for the majority of citizens.
LAMB: Who's Gordon Wood?
Prof. WEST: He's considered, I think, one of the leading historians on the founding era. Teaches at Brown.
LAMB: His politics?
Prof. WEST: I really can't say what his politics are. I don't know that much about it.
LAMB: His slant? Do you know which--I mean, I'm looking at Page 46: `Both Wood and his critics take it as a given that blacks and women were excluded from the Declaration. Such is the state of the debate within the historian's guild.' And you quote him earlier, `Gordon Wood, widely regarded as the leading historian of political thought of the American founding, asked, "What was radical about the Declaration in 1776? We know it did not mean that blacks and men were created equal to men--white men," although, it would in time be used to justify these equalities, too'--you have that in parentheses--`It was radical in 1776 because it meant that all white men were equal. Surprisingly, Wood was actually trying to defend the founders with this statement.'
Prof. WEST: Right. I mean, he--the historian's profession, as I understand it, is--right now is being --is divided by a--one group on the far left, who wants to say that the American founding was just totally contemptible and dismissible, and then people like Gordon Wood, who was--who's probably more of a moderate a--who is saying, `Well, look, at least they said all white men are created equal. Maybe they didn't include blacks and women, but let's at least acknowledge that they included white males.'

My point is that both of those points of view are very misleading or I'd say incorrect; that, in fact, the principles of the founding included all human beings. It's wrong of Wood to claim that blacks and women were excluded. They were not excluded. They were understood to be part of that humanity that has equal rights.
LAMB: One of the reasons I bring up Gordon Wood is that Newt Gingrich, when he came into office as the speaker, endorsed his book. And it was one of his first choices. And I'm just trying to figure out, you know, which side he came down on and whether or not he endorsed him because of his politics or whatever. That's why I brought the two of them up.
Prof. WEST: I don't think so. I think --you know, I don't know what Newt had in mind when he said that. Newt says a lot of things that--some of which I agree with.
LAMB: What do you agree with that he says?
Prof. WEST: I think he has a very sound understanding of the merits of my book.
LAMB: And is that a period after that sentence?
Prof. WEST: No, there are lots of things he does that I like.
LAMB: What about property rights? You write a lot about property. First of all, why?
Prof. WEST: Well, this is another one of those areas where the current scholarship is really opposed to the principles of the founding. They -- the general line you get in the history books and in the government textbooks is that property rights were OK for the first 100 or so years of our history. But then went the closing of the frontier and the rise of the corporation, property rights were not OK. Property rights at that point led to the oppression of the poor and the exploitation of the masses; therefore, property rights had to be curtailed and, to some extent, abolished in the 20th century in order to protect the rights of the downtrodden.

My point is--or my argument is --that's not true. That's a misunderstanding of 20th century history. And it's also a misunderstanding of what the principles of the founding really were. What I'm saying is that if you understand property rights in the sense that they did, namely--not only as the right to keep property, but as the right to acquire, as the right to go into business, as the right to use your mind and use your property in a way that will enable you to provide for yourself and your family, that's a system that is very much in favor of the poor and in favor of the downtrodden.

I think--I mean, my argument is the problem with the 20th century is that we are proceeding to abandon their principles, principles of the founding, and we're substituting for that this other notion that somehow government knows best about how people ought to use their property; government ought to dictate to people whether they should be allowed to go into business or not. And the result of that, I think, is that it's making the country less able to deal with the problem of poverty.

I mean, it seems to me that the problem of poverty--if you look at a--the big scope of American history, 1776 to the present, you had a hugely successful anti-poverty program that lasted from 1776 to about 1965. And the graphs, the charts, any kind of--by any measure at all, poverty was dramatically declining throughout that whole period. And then in the '60s you have the charts leveling off; the poverty problem somehow seems to be not improving any longer. What happened?

Well, we have--now have a new view of the poverty problem. We have--our view today is, `Let's give generous welfare payments and let's restrict property rights.' And that, it seems to me--those two things combined, along with the anti-family policies developed during the same post-'60s period, are in fact undermining the traditional successes --of the American tradition of fighting poverty through free markets and marriage.
LAMB: Do you think any of the founders, if they were here today, would like what's happened with welfare and property...
Prof. WEST: Oh, I see. Yeah. You mean with these post-'60s developments? No. I think the--no, because the principles that are being followed today are different from the principles that they followed. I mean, if you go back--this is one of the things, I think, that is not as well understood as it should be by conservatives as well as some liberals. If you go back to the Progressive era, say around 1900, when the arguments of today's liberalism were first being articulated, what those guys were saying is, `The principles of the United States are bad. The Declaration of Independence is wrong. We shouldn't allow people to have equal rights. We don't want people to own their own property.'

People like John Dewey, people like Herbert Crowley, Woodrow Wilson, all of these people were explicitly attacking the principles of the founding. And they were arguing, `We've got to get beyond that. We've got to get beyond the Declaration.' Now that's a--that is a--that's a rejection. That's a confrontation with the founding and a rejection of it. And that is what has led into the policy revolution of the '60s.
LAMB: What about Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson? If they were sitting here today and we're having these discussions, would they differ on anything?
Prof. WEST: Obviously, they differed. But I--one of the--I think one of the most misleading characterizations of the founders is to focus on their differences. There were tremendous battles that took place during the founding area, Jefferson vs. Hamilton and so on. But those battles were over questions of how to implement a government that will protect the rights of man. Everybody agreed on what the purpose of government was: securing human rights, securing property rights.

The disagreement was: What should the role of government be in these relatively tangential areas or less-fundamental areas like, you know, `Should there be a national bank? To what extent should government try to--actively to promote commerce? Or should it just leave the economy free to develop on its own?' These arguments, which were huge battles back then, from the point of view of today, look like minor squabbles because all of the founders, from the most radical like Thomas Paine to the most conservative like Alexander Hamilton agreed on the basic principles of government.

No one--everyone agreed that government ought to be limited; that there ought to be a private sphere in which government stays out. There ought to be protection of property rights. This is something which today is questioned by the prevailing opinion of our time.
LAMB: What would you advise--how old's your oldest child?
Prof. WEST: Susannah.
LAMB: How old is she?
Prof. WEST: Nineteen.
LAMB: So she's in college?
Prof. WEST: Yes.
LAMB: What did you advise her or would you advise her on-I--let's say that you're heading off to college and you're concerned about what your kid's going to be taught. How do you tell them to watch for bias among academics either way?
Prof. WEST: Well, it so happens that this is a frequent topic around our dinner table and has been over many years. I think my own kids are inoculated to some degree against the most obvious forms of politically correct propaganda. I'm not too concerned about them. I'm much more concerned about the rest of America who don't know about a lot of the things that we talk about at our table and which I write about in this book.
LAMB: But -- you know, what would you tell a parent then, watching today, that's got a 15-year-old or got a 10-year-old and they're starting the process, they haven't had the benefit of sitting around your table, what would you tell them to do?
Prof. WEST: They've got to stay vigilant. One of the virtues that the founders said that are necessary for a free people is vigilance. And that means you've gotta have that feisty `Don't tread on me' mentality that Americans of the founding era had --and have had ever since. You know, there was that revolutionary flag, the rattlesnake, with `Don't tread on me' at the bottom--that was the attitude of the founders, you know? `You step on me, I'm gonna bite you.'

In other words, don't try to run roughshod over me. Don't try to tell me how to run the details of my private life. Don't tell me that I can't use the property that I have here to go into business or provide for my family. That's something that is my right. I'm gonna stick up for that right. And if you don't support it, I'm gonna kick you out of public office. In terms of what people learn, they've got to find out about the distortions that are in these textbooks. If they read my book, they'll find out about it.

But, you know, I'm not the only person doing this kind of work. You know, there are people like Harry Jaffa, Charles Kessler, I mentioned, at Claremont, Edward Erler, John Marini. There are a lot of leading political scientists who are developing and articulating these themes, talking about what is the character of contemporary America and showing the tremendous break that our policies and our views represent compared to the earlier understanding.
LAMB: Where does your 19-year-old go to school?
Prof. WEST: She's a sophomore at the University of Dallas right now.
LAMB: Who owns the University of Dallas?
Prof. WEST: Who owns it? It's a Catholic school, but not connected in any formal way with the church. It's got its own independent board of trustees.
LAMB: What's the political atmosphere of the history and the political science department at the University of Dallas?
Prof. WEST: Much more balanced than you'll find at most schools. We have--one of our students working for the newspaper, last year I guess it was, went down and looked up the party registrations or party primary votes of our faculty and discovered that it was about 50/50 Republican and Democratic. Now at most other colleges in America that would be viewed as wildly conservative that there would be actual balance.

Somebody did a study of the Cornell government department around the same time and found out that there was one Republican in the entire department. And everybody else, you know, 40--whatever number of people there were, were Democrats.

We have a great atmosphere at Dallas. We have a real give and take. We have--you know, nobody's forced by political correctness to shut up about arguments that are considered to be out of the mainstream. I'd say there's more free speech actually on my campus than on most campuses that I've visited in America.
LAMB: Why, in your opinion, are most college professors liberals and Democrats?
Prof. WEST: Well, those are--that's a long story. It's--the--you have to go back to the Progressive era. What happened in the Progressive era? Why did our leading elites back then--this is 100 years ago--turn against the principles of the founding? And the answer is because many of them had decided that that the--what goes on in private life in America, especially religious life, wasn't enough for them to give meaning to their lives. They began to look to the state for meaning--for almost theological meaning.

Many of the early Progressives were students of the Hegelian school. Hegel's argument was, `The state is the divine presence on Earth.' And a lot of these early-American Progressives believed that. They looked for salvation from government and politics. And in a world in which the --in which there's a decline of serious religious faith, that is one answer that people have taken, particularly intellectuals have taken to. I think that view of things has had a huge impact on the development of thought throughout the 20th century and helps to explain why it is that so many professors have ended up thinking that way.
LAMB: If you weren't going to send your child to the University of Dallas, and you wanted to make sure they had a balanced education, where else would you send them in the United States?
Prof. WEST: Well, that's a tough question. There are lots of schools where you can find--you can put together a good program, but--and there are some schools that have more balance than others. I think I'll just not mention any of them. I'd prefer people to think about coming to the University of Dallas.
LAMB: In the acknowledgments, you credit a number of institutions. I just want to ask you what they are. You say the first draft of the chapter on property rights was written at a conference for the Pacific Research Institute. What's that?
Prof. WEST: They're a San Francisco think tank. They do a lot of studies focused on property rights. I think I would characterize them as moderate libertarians.
LAMB: How big is the institute?
Prof. WEST: I have no idea, but they do put out some quite good publications. I know there's a particularly good one--Jonathan Emord, a book on electronic broadcasting and how government has--censorship of electronic broadcasting has, in effect, eviscerated the First Amendment in that area. Very good book.
LAMB: You say, `The Earhart Foundation enabled me to take time off from teaching to work on this book.' What's the Earhart Foundation?
Prof. WEST: They're a Michigan foundation that supports scholars. And they've supported me on several occasions over the years. They give people grants to take time off from teaching to do writing.
LAMB: They do a lot of it?
Prof. WEST: Do they do?
LAMB: Yeah. Big?
Prof. WEST: I don't know how big they--I don't think they're huge.
LAMB: Do you know who the Earhart is? The name?
Prof. WEST: No.
LAMB: Is it The Aequus Foundation?
Prof. WEST: Yes.
LAMB: Gave you a grant in '94, '95. Who were they? What is that?
Prof. WEST: That one I know less about. I really don't know a whole lot about them. I know they have given me some--these two grants. But I can't really...
LAMB: You know where they're located?
Prof. WEST: Yeah. They're located in California, and--I just--I don't know that much about them.
LAMB: You dedicate the book, `For my mother and father,' Irving West and Marjorie West. Are they alive?
Prof. WEST: Oh, yes.
LAMB: Where do they live?
Prof. WEST: They're in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And...
LAMB: What do they do?
Prof. WEST: They're retired. My dad was an engineer for many years with Ingersoll-Rand Company. Fine citizens, admirable people and I look up to them.
LAMB: And how much influence did they have on you when you were growing up, what you studied and where you went?
Prof. WEST: Well, they didn't particularly have any academic influence, but, I mean, they raised me, you know, formed my character and, in that sense, had the decisive influence.
LAMB: What is, and I take this from your book, `historicism'?
Prof. WEST: Yes.
LAMB: What does that mean?
Prof. WEST: Historicism is a common--a commonly-held view in our time among most leading academics. It's the view that there are no objective standards outside of the flux and flow of the historical process. So, in other words, when the Founding Fathers said, `All men are created equal; they're all endowed with certain rights,' what the founders meant was--and that is never going to change; that's always been true and it's always going to be true. There will never be a time when men are not, by nature, free, and when government should not be by the consent of the governed. That's always true.

Today the argument is, `Well, that was 18th century ideas and now we have 20th century ideas, and then you had 13 and some 14--you had Greek ideas and Roman ideas.' The idea today is there are no objective facts. There is no exit from this flux. There, in fact, isn't any way to say objectively what is right and what is wrong. And that is one of the things, I think, that is eating away at the principles of the country and is making it difficult for the country to live by its own original principles.
LAMB: Is there anything about the Founding Fathers you didn't like or don't like?
Prof. WEST: I think the --yeah. I think the thing that I have the most reservation about--among--in the founders is that they had perhaps too much faith in progress. They really--Jefferson in particular, I guess, was the most problematic in this way. He really thought all eyes are open or opening to the rights of man and that the world really was going to come to a point where the shackles of aristocracy and despotism would be broken and thrown off.

I don't think that's true. I don't think there's ever going to be a time when despotism disappears or when human evil disappears. And the reason is because human nature is permanent. There's always going to be reason, but at the same time there's always going to be passion. Now Jefferson, in a way, knew that. None of the founders were Marxists, you know? They didn't really think that there would be some point where all men would become capable of living together in peace and harmony without government.

But they did have a--I think, too much faith, too much confidence in this idea of enlightenment, the idea that everybody would eventually see that all men are equal and all men are free. That hasn't happened. In that sense, the world has gone backwards since the 18th century. The common view in the 20th century is that people are not born free.
LAMB: Have you had a chance to argue with anybody about this book yet or somebody that totally disagrees with you? Or have you talked to anybody that totally disagrees with you?
Prof. WEST: Yeah, sure. I've--we had a panel at the American Political Science Association, which I was both praised and attacked. The man who attacked me was a conservative who argued that it is impossible to combine the belief in individual rights with the belief in strong families and morality and serious devotion to religion. And so his claim is that my account of the founders is just historically inaccurate as well as logically impossible.

And when I asked what that possibly could mean, he said, `Well, the founders didn't really believe in equality. They didn't believe in equal rights.' And, I mean, this is a view that is actually held by a large number of what I would call traditionalist conservatives. I had a colleague at Dallas, Mel Bradford, who used to hold this view. Russell Kirk, who's widely admired, holds this view.

The view is that, you know, since we want to think well of the founders, we have to claim that the founders didn't really believe in equal rights. Now I think that's just nutty. I think it's both--it's historically easy to refute. But it also, it seems to me, is just imprudent because what do these people think is going to happen if they persuade their fellow Americans that all men are not created equal and that all men do not deserve to be consulted in their form of government? Who do they think is going to end up running things? It's not going to be them.
LAMB: In your afterword at the end of the book, you quote John Hope Franklin--and I guess the reason I want to bring this up after I read it is ask you when you hear this quote and then you know the president has appointed him as the chairman of his Advisory Committee on Race Discussion, what does it mean?

Quote, "Jefferson didn't mean it when he wrote that all men are created equal," writes historian John Hope Franklin. Quote, "We've never meant it. The truth is we're a bigoted people and always have been."
Prof. WEST: Right. And that's the man that President Clinton puts in charge of a national conversation on race. This is scandalous. I mean, this is a man whose understanding of the founding is--it's just incompetent. I mean, it's not true what he says. The Civil War, what Lincoln did becomes unintelligible if he's right. I mean, Lincoln--you know, hundreds of thousands of Americans sacrificed their lives to vindicate the principle that all men are created equal.

And he's saying, `We've always been a bigoted people and we always will be.' This is inaccurate and it's also a shame that such people would be accorded high honor in our society.
LAMB: And on the next page you say that Robert Bork, for example, thinks the founders believed in equality too much.
Prof. WEST: Yeah. That's--Bork's most recent book, "Slouching Toward Gomorrah," makes that claim. He's got two chapters on the Declaration, one of which he attacks their devotion to equality and then the next one he attacks their devotion to liberty.

This is part of that conservative view that I mentioned a moment ago where they think that in order to defend the idea of moral restraint, of responsibility, of decency that they have to attack the principles of the country. In other words, what they've done to some ext--what these people like Bork are doing, I think, are they're buying into the liberal view that if you believe in equal rights and equality, that means you have to accept the welfare state and the denial of property rights and the denial of traditional morality.
LAMB: What would have to happen for you to make the statement, `This has been a terrific success, this book'?
Prof. WEST: Well, I can't say right now what that would be. I guess--I mean, certainly it would help if it got to be well-known, if it turns out to be a big seller.
LAMB: Do you know how many they printed first run?
Prof. WEST: I don't know the number, but I know it was substantial.
LAMB: And on the cover of your book, you have this painting. Do you know what that is and did you have anything to do with choosing it?
Prof. WEST: Gosh, you're catching me on the spot. No, I don't. It looks like--I don't know what it is. I can't tell you. I'll find out for the next time.
LAMB: Go back to the earlier question...
Prof. WEST: I didn't do it.
LAMB: Go back to the earlier question of, again, advising parents about what to tell students or advising students on how to--in a classroom, how to figure out what the professor's up to, if anything. What would you do if you're a student sitting in a classroom and the professor walks in? What can they demand of the professor--Anything?--to find out where they're coming from?
Prof. WEST: Well, the professor's gonna say what he thinks.
LAMB: Always?
Prof. WEST: Well, he's gonna tell you what he wants you to learn, OK, let's put it that way. He's gonna give you some readings and he's gonna talk. And the job of the student is to walk into the classroom and read what the professor says to read, listen to what he says, and then if he's fortunate and ambitious, to find out whether it's true; to look at alternative accounts, for example, of the same things.

I mean, there is-- a literature out there--a growing literature, revisionist literature, showing all of the defects of the prevailing dominant view of American history and the American founding. And it's available for people to find out about and to look it up. And I would certainly encourage them to do that.
LAMB: Can a student ask in advance about what a professor's all about before they go to that class?
Prof. WEST: It's not practical. You walk into the classroom, you have to--that's--your job as a student -- is to listen and to do what the professor tells you to do. The presumption is...
LAMB: You can't...
Prof. WEST: know--that this guy knows something that you don't and he's there to help you learn it.
LAMB: But can you pick a professor at most schools? You know, can you go to that class because the professor's teaching it? Do you have that choice in most schools?
Prof. WEST: Yeah. You have--at most schools, you have choice about who to take and--sure, it does--it helps if you--I think if you ask your fellow students, find out what people think. If someone has the reputation of being an ideologue of either the right or the left, I'd say check it out on your own and find out.
LAMB: Our guest has been Thomas G. West of the University of Dallas and The Claremont Institute. And this is the book, "Vindicating the Fathers: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins." Thank you very much.
Prof. WEST: Thanks very much, Brian.

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