Professor of Politics Thomas West released his first book in 20 years on April 3, attacking the idea that there was no political consensus of justice at the time of the American Founding.
West has been researching for and writing “The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom” off and on since 1984, around when he became interested in the topic.
“One of the main things that I’ve been convinced of over the years is that there really was a coherent political theory of the Founding,” West said. “That’s a theory that’s widely disputed today. Most scholars, I would say, deny that the Founders had a unified political vision.”
West breaks the book into three parts. The first covers the political theory of the Founding and the final two apply that theory to two major policy areas: citizen character and property and economics.
West said while the Founders disagreed on different policies, they believed government’s role was to secure the life, liberty, and property of its citizens on the basis of consent of the governed.
“The primary means to implement that kind of protection is through a foreign policy that is primarily defensive, meaning discourage people from attacking us and be ready for a fight if they do,” West said. “Second, in domestic policy, the primary way government protects rights is by laws — criminal law, primarily.”
Graduate student Sarah Onken read selections from West’s book in The American Founding course she is taking with him and said it was helpful to see how the Founders’ policies cohered with their theory of justice.
“Dr. West’s understanding of the Founding fosters a discussion as to whether contemporary America holds to the Founders’ conception of justice — spoiler, it doesn’t — and in what ways a conception of justice influences practical politics,” she said in an email.
West said many scholars do not recognize these fundamental aspects of the Founding, despite being recognized by the Founders and a majority of the American people at the time.
“We’ve forgotten,” West said. “As a result of the last 150 years of progressivism and liberalism, people have really forgotten the older way of understanding the government.”
When he began his research, West said he thought a lot about the European influences on the Founding such as the works of John Locke.
“I finally realized it wasn’t necessary to talk about where the Founding ideas came from, because we know what the Founders thought,” he said. “It was all over the place. They published all these documents and declarations and constitutions in which they state over and over again the important things you need to know about politics.”
In 1997, West published “Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins of America.” While in that book, he explain the liberal misunderstanding of the Founders, in his newest book, West said, he avoids any type of partisanship.
“It sticks to a much more dispassionately factual description of the Founders’ political theory without worrying particularly about the issues liberals brought up against the Founders,” he said. “It’s focusing on the most important things about what politics is for and how it should be organized.”