An email following up the earlier post West Coast Straussianism Explained:
Steve, I don’t know if you want to continue this or not. I suspect that you might, given that you added another post, the WSJ review of Hayward’s book. If you do, I have some thoughts below, inspired by some of the comments. I can all but guarantee that this will be my last word, because my holiday break will soon be over!
This is not an attempt to systematically address everything said, but to focus on those objections or misunderstandings that I think are most important. I’m also not going to interfere in the re-litigation of the Civil War. As a self-professed West Coast Straussian, it should be obvious where I stand on that.
Although on that point, I think it’s worth noting that several commenters have Jaffa wrong. Jaffa is most famous for Crisis of the House Divided (1959) which argues that Lincoln transformed the Founding, which was inherently low and flawed, into something noble. East Coast Straussians still speak highly of this book because it begins from one of their core assumptions (America is fundamentally low and flawed) and because it elevates Lincoln to a kind of philosopher-prophet-statesman.
By the mid-1970s, Jaffa had revised his thesis: Lincoln grafted nothing onto America; he merely rediscovered and rearticulated what was already there. This revised thesis is one of the sources of the East-West break. The East has never accepted it. The revised thesis is most fully articulated in A New Birth Freedom (2000),
Actually, I would be quite happy to relitigate Lincoln and the Civil War and I do think it’s worth doing. Just not right now. That’s both for reasons of time and space, but also because those of us who disagree about it have more pressing priorities (or at least we should). For the time being at least, we face a common enemy. I recall, many years ago, visiting a site in China which the Chinese government alleged to have been the place where Mao and Chiang formally agreed (actually Chiang was kidnapped, but that aside) to put aside their differences and focus (for the time being) on the Japanese. Regarding Lincoln, I make the same plea. Can’t we first defeat the people who want to destroy us all, and THEN commit mass fratricide over Lincoln? Just a suggestion …
Speaking of issues over which mass fratricide can (and should) also wait: “propositionism.” This is a big theme around here, with you (Steve) unfortunately often contributing to the confusion. By all means, reject the West Coat Straussian teaching on this if you all want to; but at least reject the ACTUAL teaching, and not some silly caricature.
And let me say that the “West Coat Straussian” teaching on this is meant be simply an accurate account of what the Founders believed. It’s not something we made up, though we are often accused of that. I think Tom West’s new book, mentioned before, definitively proves what the Founders really believed. At the very least, it will have to be reckoned with. Mere handwaving about “the rights of Englishmen” is not going to cut it any more.
Let me also say that there is nothing inherently “Straussian” about the Founders’ political philosophy. Some commenters seem simply allergic to Strauss or his school for various reasons and use that allergy to dismiss the whole account of the Founding as foreign and evil or something. That’s a mistake. First because in doing so they’re discarding something extremely valuable and part of their (our) rightful inheritance as Americans. Second, in dismissing this account of the Founding they are not dismissing Strauss. Straussianism was instrumental in laying the foundation for the recovery of the true understanding of the American principles. It was Strauss—against 20th century dogma—who taught a generation of students to look past historicism and examine past thought on its own terms.
The most influential account of the Declaration of Independence before Strauss’s students turned to it was Carl Becker’s. Becker explicitly says that “to ask whether the natural right philosophy of the Declaration is true or false is essentially a meaningless question.” Because of how they were trained by Strauss, Jaffa and others saw that as THE essential question.
Contra the many commenters who complained that my prior email was nonsensical gobbledygook (not that I am claiming it was concise or well organized), this question or something like it has been at the root of both philosophy and religion—central to what it means to be human—for as long as there has been humanity. How should I live? What is justice? What is right and what is wrong? What is good and what is bad? And so on. These are hardly meaningless questions and the debates over them, if perhaps irresolvable and often impractical in the here-and-now, are core to human life itself. These are THE most important questions. And whether we recognize it or not, every actual society—every government every nation, every community of men—presumes to have answers to these questions. Even if those answers are implicit and never stated, they are always there, as presuppositions. Every action we take presupposes some idea of what is good and right.
First sentence of Aristotle’s Ethics: “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action as well as choice, is held to aim at some good.” From the first sentence of Aristotle’s Politics: “every community is constituted for the sake of some good (for everyone does everything for the sake of what is held to be good).”
Had Strauss not taught his American students to re-raise these fundamental questions and apply them to the American Founding, perhaps someone else might have. But he was the one who did. One of the things the West Coasters have found is that if you look back not just to the Founding but also to other periods, until recently, most American statesmen and intellectuals understood American principles in just this way. The Claremont school has studied the Progressive Era with more care than anyone and found that all the major opponents of Progressivism (e.g., Coolidge) had the same understanding of the Founding that the West Coast school does today. Not to sell short what the West Coast school accomplished, but it was fundamentally an excavation of something forgotten, rather than the invention of something new. So once can be as anti-Strauss as one wishes; that does not dispose of the argument that the West Coast school has accurately explained the political theory of the American Founding.
To get more specific: you (Steve) have often mentioned that the simplest way to “debug” the Declaration of Independence would be to add one word (in all caps): ”We hold these truths to be self-evident, IN that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
No West Coast Straussian would disagree with that sentiment. Men are equal in being all born by nature equally free and independent. No man may justly rule any other man without that other man’s consent. That is the extent—and limit—of natural equality. Men are obviously not equal in virtue, talent, intelligence, strength, etc. West proves that this was the consensus view of the Founders, among other ways, by looking a vast variety of their public statements: state and national (pre- and post-Constitution) laws; the state constitutions, public pamphlets and sermons, and so on.
Most of those documents are clearer than the Declaration on the extent and limit of natural equality. Why the Declaration lacks that word “IN” I do not know. But I am confident that it was not to preach a form of equality that the Founders knew did not exist and could not exist. Jefferson is quite clear on this in many of his other writings. So is Lincoln, who is most maligned for “propositionism.” He says over and over that the American notion of equality is limited to natural rights only. His rightist enemies just glide right past all that.
It is too pat to dismiss all notions of America as a proposition nation. Of course, on one level, it is. We’ve successfully taken people from many different nations and made them Americans. This was true from the beginning. Americans had to unite themselves into a new nation. To some extent that work had been accomplished organically in the ~150 years from the establishment of the first colonies until the Revolution. But 150 years is a short time compared the many centuries that the European nations formed. Also, people’s origins—in part because more recent—were simply much better KNOWN that the average European’s were known. Nationhood lost in the mists of time generally has a great psychological hold. Someone born in England of English parents ad English ancestors going back 1,000 years “knows” he is English even if he does not know how or why. Someone whose grandparents came to the colonies as an indentured servant only 50 years prior—what does he think of himself as? English? American? Pennsylvanian (or whatever)? Not so easy. Propositionism was a way of taking this somewhat diverse group and melding them into one people, including—crucially—in their own minds.
And of course, even after the Revolution, America continued to accept immigrants. Propositionism is effective at assimilating those new immigrants into their new nation. The alternatives would have been 1) accept no immigrants or 2) accept them, but make a cut-off of who counts as “American” at July 4th, 1776 (or whenever) and make every later entrant some kind of resident alien. #2 leads to a lot of problems, as we know from (for instance) the ancient city and modern Germany, And our own situation. If you are going to accept immigrants, some sense of a legitimate belonging to the nation through common citizenship makes a lot more sense.
But all that is not the most fundamental meaning of the “proposition.” The proposition is really just another way of expressing the principle of consent. Consent follows from equality. We are all by nature equally free and independent. THEREFORE, no man is placed by nature as the ruler of any other (“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master”). THEREFORE the only just government is government by consent. To consent is, in effect, to accept the proposition. That is true not just in the U.S. but in any country governed by modern small-“l” liberal and/or small-“r” republican principles. Consent is first established through the social compact—formally, in our case, by the Revolution and the Constitution. In subsequent generations consent is derived from continued residence beyond the age of majority. Don’t like the government you’re born into? Don’t want to give it your consent? Then emigrate.
Some commenters dismiss all such language in the Founding as PR, that is, as an effort to self-justify what they were doing. As if that’s in and of itself proof that all the arguments were disingenuous. But that’s silly. OF COURSE the Founders wanted to justify what they were doing. The Declaration itself begins by stating that “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that [we] should declare the causes which impel [us] to the separation.”
They wanted to explain to themselves, and to the world, that what they were doing was RIGHT and JUST. This is hardly frivolous. This is life and death stuff for the legitimacy of the order they were to found. If the theory of natural rights which the Founders relied on is in fact untrue, then the Revolution was not merely indeed “illegal” (in the words of one commenter) but much worse than that.
Others in the thread noted that men always need to believe that what they are doing (especially the big stuff) is just. I believe that is true. Which is why it was so important to the Founders to be correct in their justification. That is, they didn’t simply say all that stuff cynically, so as to give the appearance that they had good reasons when in their hearts they knew themselves to be simply acting in self-interest. They said it because they thought it through and believed it.
Why the modern right, most of which professes to love America, is so quick to dismiss and denounce all this—their (our) rightful inheritance—I do partly understand. The language of the Founders—particularly the equality rhetoric—has been weaponized by the left, and increasingly by the house-broken right. They use equality as a justification or even demand for redistribution and levelling. They use “proposition” (Lincoln’s word from the Gettysburg Address) to insist on open borders. It’s gotten so bad that one leading West Coast Straussian has said to me, more than once, that he thinks it’s counter-productive today to speak in the Founder’s terms. Their language has been so saddled by wrong-headed leftist spin that any invocation of the Founders just plays to the left, in the current context.
I get that. But it still doesn’t mean the Founders were wrong.
Take but one issue, but one important to this blog and to the 2016 election: immigration. West Coast Straussians have been working on this issue in all its aspects—the Founder’s views, birthright citizenship, etc.—for decades. They’ve amply proved that the case that the “propositionist” Founders believed that a sovereign state—a free people operating through a social compact—has the right to restrict immigration to any degree and for any reason it wants to. They also have a DUTY to do what is best for the existing citizenry—the people actually IN the particular social compact—and if that means restricting immigration, then doing so is not merely a right, but a duty. Claremonsters have also shown that the “propositionist” Republicans who ratified the 14th Amendment did NOT intend birthright citizenship and that “propositionism” in no way requires or even implies birthright citizenship.
I say all this to make the case that the knee-jerk rejection of Strauss, Straussians, Jaffa, Lincoln, the Declaration, etc. on the right is not merely unhelpful. All of that is a source of STRENGTH, or could be, if we would use them.
OK, by all means forget Strauss, Jaffa and all their students. Pretend they never lived. But what good comes of dumping Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, et al? The Declaration, the Constitution, and the whole political philosophy that informed the Founding? Is ditching all that supposed to help make America great again? I don’t see how dumping the core American principles, documents and heroes is in any way good for America. ESPECIALLY when those principles can inform practical policy TODAY that is in line with what so many of us want. (Like I said, we can fight over Lincoln later. I know there will be some who would prefer to secede again, if only in speech, from anyone who claims to be pro-Lincoln. I can only hope they are outnumbered by those anti-Lincolnites who would prefer to win today’s political fights, even with Lincolnites as allies.)
By the way, Anne Norton’s book is garbage. Here is a review by an East-Coaster, published in the West Coast organ, the CRB. East and West agree on the worthlessness of this book: