As we approach the millennium, the country is recovering a belief that had seemed outworn over the last cynical decades: a sense that the American republic, in the freedom, prosperity, and security it bestows, is exceptional among nations. With that realization comes a renewed appreciation for the wisdom of the Founders. As anyone over 30 recalls, it wasn't so long ago that critics spelled "Amerika" with a k, and scholars made their reputations unmasking America's racist, patriarchal, and genocidal origins. No one, it seemed, took seriously the idea that the Founders—those quintessential Dead White Males, excoriated by Charles Beard and his fellow Progressives in the early decades of this century and reviled by the radicals of the sixties—could have acted on any principle other than their own selfish class interest.
But now things are changing fast: the respect that all sides professed for the Founders during the Clinton impeachment debates, when many politicians and pundits read more of the Federalist Papers than they had during their student years, is only one of many cases in point. In universities and law schools, a vigorous new scholarship is taking the ideas of the Founders seriously indeed, and these ideas are rapidly reaching the broader reading public.
Much of this new writing, conservative in temper, has called into question the Progressive critique of the Founders' motives, defending the Framers' preference for a limited national government as opposed to the regulative, redistributionist leviathan the left favors. But when liberals and modern-day progressives fight back—unlike their predecessors, who had no use for "the American political tradition and the men who made it," in historian Richard Hofstadter's phrase—they understand that they must first ceremonially embrace the Founders before easing them out of the way in favor of revisionist alternatives that hallow their own icons, above all the expansion of national power under the New Deal and the Warren Court. Right and left, today nobody wants to be on the wrong side of the Founders.
Political developments in the 1980s helped fuel the change. The success of Ronald Reagan—not just a Republican, but a conservative—suggested that the onward march of New Deal statism, with its long-standing antipathy to the Founding, might not be inevitable. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the efforts of the East European states to establish democratic republics fanned interest among foreign elites in America's founding principles. After 1989, no one could seriously argue that communism offered a workable alternative to Western liberal democracy, and nowadays the democratic left is even hard-pressed to hold up struggling Sweden and Japan as models. At the end of the millennium, the Founders' "new science of politics" stands unrivaled.
Ideas, even more than events, powered the resurgence of interest, beginning with the ideas of one German Jewish refugee, political scientist Leo Strauss, who encouraged a number of his students in the forties and fifties to study the Founders systematically. At the time, many on the left had serious reservations about whether a constitution founded on Lockean appeals to self-interest and dedicated to the protection of individual rights, including property rights, could truly be called democratic. Didn't a democracy need to rest on higher fundamental principles? Beginning in the late fifties, Strauss's students, led by Martin Diamond, Harry Jaffa, and Herbert Storing, defended the Founders with a three-part argument, which took for granted that men do and will act on their self-interest, so that any political science that assumes otherwise—that assumes you can change human nature and create some kind of New Man—is deluded.
First, Straussians as a group emphasized the importance of "natural rights" as the powerfully legitimating basis of the American constitutional order. Where earlier scholars had largely dismissed the opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence about man's natural endowment as just so much boilerplate—or empty glorifications of selfish individualism—Straussians insist that the idea of equal natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness establishes a moral standard. There is a higher law than man-made law that sets limits to what men may do to one another in the pursuit of their self-interest and instructs them in how they should live, when they apply their reason to finding it out.
Any government that denies individuals their natural rights, depriving them of life, liberty, or property without their consent, becomes illegitimate. No custom or law that runs contrary to nature can ever be legitimate. In this sense, the idea of rights grounded on "the laws of Nature and Nature's God" serves as America's moral compass, since it lays on governments the duty to protect the rights of all human beings and holds them accountable if they fail to do so. What surer foundation for free government than to ground it on the equal right of every individual to those things that all men naturally desire?
For those on the left, though, the idea of natural rights is troublesome. If our rights derive from nature, that means that our freedom of action has certain limits that we do not set. The liberal ideal of autonomy requires us to make our own moral law, not passively to accept laws decreed by some source outside of us, whether God or nature. But, the Straussians reply, the limits that nature sets to human freedom keep us from slipping into the nihilistic belief that everything is permitted and that we are free to do whatever we want with other consenting adults.
Second, in disposing of the leftist idea that the Constitution marked a Thermidorean retreat from the more democratic principles of the Revolution a decade earlier, Straussians point out that the entire Western tradition of political philosophy warns against the twin dangers facing all popular or democratic governments: majority tyranny and demagoguery. That's why, according to Harvey Mansfield, the preservation of democracy depends on those institutions that restrain and refine majority sentiment, such as federalism, the separation of powers, and the whole machinery of limited government that the Constitution established. That's also why Straussians tend to admire those leaders who, at some risk to themselves, have sought to lead, rather than simply reflect, popular opinion.
Third, Straussians come to the defense of the Framers by analyzing the realities of statesmanship, with its need for practical realism, for prudence and moderation. Americans today routinely condemn the Framers for tolerating slavery or violently suppressing the Indians, but they don't say how they might have acted differently. What options were available to them to advance the principles of the Declaration and the Constitution as fully as possible? Would the moral high road have led to larger political disaster? Could there have been a Union at all if the Framers had agreed to abolish slavery in Philadelphia? How would a weaker Articles of Confederation have helped the plight of the slaves? Contrary to what some of the ablest historians today assert, the most talented statesmen are not simply the products of their historical circumstances but actually help to shape events. Straussians assume that the most thoughtful men of their time reflected on the choices before them, and that they still have something to teach us about political necessity and the limitations of politics.
Not long after the first generation of Straussians offered their spirited defense of the Lockean principles of the Founding, historians to their left began to develop an alternative view. In place of Lockean liberalism, with its emphasis on the selfish passions and individual rights, especially the natural right to property, Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood joined forces with intellectual historians J. G. A. Pocock and Lance Banning to offer a genuinely novel account of the American Founding. Wood's 1969 Creation of the American Republic launched the "classical republican" interpretation of the Founding, but it was Pocock's The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republic that spelled out fully what "classical republicanism" was and where it came from. Pocock traced the tradition of civic republicanism from Greece and Rome to Machiavelli, then to the English republicans and radical Whigs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and finally to the creation of the American republic. In Pocock's interpretation of America, Locke and natural rights (especially property rights) were out; Machiavelli and civic virtue were in. Where Lockean liberalism rested, as Strauss had put it, on "low but solid" appeals to self-interest, and especially economic self-interest, classical republicanism was higher-minded, arguing that the Founders had based their republic not on the rights of the individual but on the virtue of citizens, which would impel them to advance the common needs of the community through political participation.
It's hard to overstate the influence of classical republicanism on a whole generation of left-leaning political theorists and historians, many of whom came of age in the late sixties and early seventies. Classical republicanism tapped into their frustrated idealism and offered an alternative to Lockean liberalism, which they caricatured as an obsession with property and money. At some point, these writers argued, republican virtue lost out to liberal self-interest in America, but at least the beginnings were good, and Americans might once again recover them. They might move beyond crass self-interest toward a politics of virtue, community, and equality, while remaining faithful to their country's founding principles.
In time, the inevitable correction set in. Historians (led by Joyce Appleby) and political theorists, who had carefully studied both liberal and classical republican texts, launched a two-pronged assault on the more implausible of these claims, especially the wholesale banishment of Locke and natural rights from the Founding. At the same time, they exposed the profoundly illiberal implications of a society organized around a single-minded dedication to virtue and the common good. The classical republicans of Greece and Rome were slaveholding, propertied gentlemen, hardly a model for a republic of hardworking equals.
In response to these criticisms, classical republican scholars began to retreat. In 1988, Banning distanced himself from his earlier republicanism, arguing that the kind of civic virtue that eighteenth-century Americans sought to cultivate was not as austere as civic-humanist partisans had once supposed. Civic virtue, as the Americans understood it, could happily coexist with self-interest. Gordon Wood, in a 1991 New Republic essay, conceded that classical republicanism's theorists had overstated their case. The Founding was far too complex to be reduced to a single intellectual paradigm. The Founders never felt that they had to choose between liberalism and republicanism, between Locke and Machiavelli. To force them into these "boxlike categories" was to distort the past. Left unclear in the essay was the relative weight of these, and other, intellectual influences in shaping the political thought of the different Founders, a question later resolved most persuasively by Michael Zuckert's Natural Rights and the New Republicanism, which accords pride of place to natural-rights liberalism.
At the end of the day, classical republicanism, purged of its excesses through scholarly give-and-take, has enriched our understanding of the Founding by reminding us that republican government cannot survive on self-interest alone. In their eagerness to defend the Founding against its Progressive critics, the first generation of Straussians had given the impression that the Framers believed that they had created a political order that would in the future have no need for public-spirited men like themselves—that they had in effect invented, to quote the title of Michael Kammen's book, "a machine that would go of itself." The classical republican focus on civic virtue, while exaggerated and even misleading, has led to a keener appreciation on all sides that the Framers never intended to rely exclusively on appeals to self-interest to keep the system running.
Today, most historians and political theorists would agree that the 20-year liberal-vs.-republican debate—at least as it bears on the Founding—is largely over. Both sides are more or less in agreement that the Founders established not a classical republic dedicated to virtue, but a liberal—that is, a natural-rights—republic. Still, the political impulses that gave rise to classical republicanism—distrust of private property and wealth, a revulsion against acquisitiveness, love of equality over liberty, and longing for community—help keep the flame alive among contemporary leftish "communitarians," such as Michael Sandel, who carries the republican project forward in Democracy's Discontent. And in prestigious law schools, legal scholars have appropriated the classical republican language of virtue and the common good to fashion novel arguments against pornography and individual property rights and in support of a more egalitarian understanding of the public good.
The civic humanists helped spark a new round of inquiries into the virtues that are appropriate to liberal republics. Conservatives have begun to take that question very seriously. At the broadest level, Peter Berkowitz's Virtue and the Making of Modern Liberalism, for example, explores the virtues recommended by the giants of modern liberal political philosophy—Hobbes, Locke, Kant, and Mill—and, in so doing, sheds light on the Founders' political science. Turning to America, others have revisited the Founders with a view to exploring the place of virtue in their thought, taking some of their inspiration from works like William Bennett's 1993 Book of Virtues or intellectual historian Gertrude Himmelfarb's The De-Moralization of Society.
In American Virtues: Thomas Jefferson on the Character of a Free People, for example, one of the authors of this essay, Jean M. Yarbrough, examines the moral, civic, and intellectual virtues that Jefferson sought to cultivate in the new American republic and considers Jefferson's understanding of how different institutions—ranging from the family, the farm, and the schools all the way up to organized religions and a "federal pyramid" resting on local self-government—help to shape a distinctive American character, fitted for democracy. Whereas Hamilton, Yarbrough argues, gave greater attention to the virtues required of statesmen, Jefferson, by contrast, thought more about the public and private virtues required of citizens in a liberal republic and took the necessary steps to promote them. Again by contrast with Hamilton, Jefferson correctly anticipated many of the vices associated with a more "licentious" commerce, especially in our big cities, and he understood how easily Hamilton's call for "energy" in government could be perverted into calls for big government, and how quickly big government could become corrupt and corrupting.
In a novel way of dramatizing how crucial to the republic the Founders considered personal virtue to be, Richard Brookhiser has produced compelling character sketches first of Washington and then of Hamilton. These are moral biographies on the model of Plutarch's Lives. Brookhiser's animating assumption is that the Founders took for granted that their new republic couldn't flourish without a virtuous citizenry, and as statesmen they tried to set the proper moral tone for society. But Brookhiser's are no airbrushed portraits; what makes Washington and Hamilton exemplary human beings is that each strove, not always successfully, to control his vices (Washington's temper, Hamilton's ambition and lust) and, in the crucial tests, acted with dignity and honor. At a time when the country ranks questions of character and morals at the top of its list of concerns, Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington and Alexander Hamilton: American have deservedly won a wide popular audience.
Though Straussian conservatives have generally downplayed the importance of religion in shaping the American political tradition, other conservative commentators, such as Ellis Sandoz, have argued that religion is what gave the new republic the ethical foundation it required. In a similar vein, Barry Shain, in his iconoclastic The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought, has recently stressed the importance of rural Christian communities, rather than abstract individual rights, in shaping early American understandings of liberty and the public good. And in the great tradition of foreign observers, who sometimes see aspects of America more clearly that those who write from within, the Englishman Paul Johnson (like Tocqueville before him) emphasizes in A History of the American People the role of religion in sustaining and reinforcing political freedom from its earliest Puritan beginnings until very recently. Johnson, like Tocqueville, regards religion in America as a benign force, and closes his book with a warning against efforts by political and intellectual elites to weaken the power of religion in American life.
Taking the Founding seriously has meant taking the Constitution seriously, too. In jurisprudence, that has given a boost to "originalism," the doctrine that judges ought to be guided in their decision making by what those who framed and ratified the document intended. For liberal intellectuals, of course, this idea is profoundly disturbing, because it threatens the post-1960 judicial imperium in which the left has such a powerful stake—an imperium that depends on reading into the Constitution and statutes things not even remotely contemplated by the people who put those provisions in place.
The unlikely personification of this threat is a former concert violinist and New Deal lawyer, who turned to constitutional history only in retirement and is still at work in his nineties. Raoul Berger's profoundly influential 1977 work, Government by Judiciary, did not deal with the Founding but rather with the framing and ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment—often touted as our "Second Founding" or "Refounding." Mighty claims have been made for this Reconstruction Amendment. It is alleged to have undone or reversed much of the Founders' original design by extending the prohibitions in the Bill of Rights to the states, thereby effectively ending federalism in the area of civil rights and liberties. Much of the audacious judicial legislating of the Warren and Berger Courts (from Brown v. Board of Education to Roe v. Wade) depended on highly imaginative interpretations of what the country had agreed to when it ratified the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868.
Raoul Berger advanced a powerful argument for a much more limited conception of what the framers of that amendment intended. They intended to forbid states to deny such basic civil rights as the right to own property, to make contracts, and to sue and be sued in the courts. In addition, they required states to provide fair trials for those charged with crimes and to enforce their existing laws equally. But wholesale social reform, enforced by a greatly expanded national government, was no part of their design.
The challenge could not have been clearer. If Berger was right, much of modern constitutional law was wrong. And to make matters worse, the old gentleman followed Government by Judiciary with a 1987 book that did deal with the Founding. In Federalism, he mustered compelling textual and historical evidence showing that the commerce clause in Article I of the Constitution, giving Congress power to regulate commerce "among the states," was of much more modest dimensions than later Supreme Court decisions had held it to be. But much of the legislation creating the modern welfare and regulatory state hangs on this constitutional hook. If Berger was right, where was the constitutional justification for the New Deal's expansion of federal power? And for so much that followed after that?
Tank cars of ink have been expended in "proving" Berger wrong, originalism impossible, and the Court right. But this can no longer be done, as in the sixties or seventies, by dismissing the relevance of history. Now our past must be rearranged so as to protect modern constitutional law. Three ingenious recent books that reinterpret the Founding with this end in mind are by Yale law professors Bruce Ackerman and Akhil Amar and Pulitzer prize-winning Stanford historian Jack Rakove.
We the People: Transformations is the second volume of Ackerman's magnum opus on our constitutional history, in which he aims "to push the Founders off the pedestal without dropping them into the dustbin of history." Its core argument, already sketched in his earlier Foundations, is that the procedures for amending the Constitution set forth in Article V are not exclusive. The Constitution, Ackerman would have us believe, also can be changed legitimately in certain defining "constitutional moments," without going through the formal process of amendment. The particular "moment" at center stage in Transformations is the New Deal and the vast expansion of national legislative and regulatory power unleashed by the Roosevelt Court. This "moment," moreover, ushered in an era in which major constitutional changes have come from the Court rather than Congress or the state legislatures. Ackerman argues passionately that widespread public acceptance of (or acquiescence in) such changes suffices to render them democratically and, hence, constitutionally acceptable.
But Ackerman worries that just as FDR achieved a constitutional transformation by placing strong New Dealers on the bench, so some future strong president might achieve a transformation less to Ackerman's liking (as Ronald Reagan came within one appointment of doing). To preclude future resort to the Roosevelt precedent, while continuing to provide an alternative to Article V for constitutional change, Ackerman would require a two-thirds vote of the Senate to confirm Supreme Court nominees, severely limiting presidential capacity to remake the Court. He further proposes that reelected presidents be allowed to propose constitutional amendments on their own, to be ratified by the people in referenda. (It suits the federalism-averse Ackerman just fine that this process cuts the states out completely.) This argument pushes the Founders off their pedestal as contemptuously as possible in its profound disrespect for the constitutional forms they considered the necessary underpinnings of republican government.
In his much-discussed The Bill of Rights, Akhil Amar has really written two books, one splendid, one tendentious. The first returns the original ten amendments to their proper historical context, presenting them not simply as a charter of individual rights but also as a set of limitations on the power of the new central government. So far, so good: Amar's reading restores the ideas of limited national government and federalism to center stage, as the Framers and ratifiers of the Constitution intended. Trouble is, contemporary liberals, especially Amar's fellow constitutional-law professors, find these conclusions hard to live with, and Amar is quick to assure them that they don't have to.
In his view, Reconstruction—and the Fourteenth Amendment in particular—changed everything, effectively nationalizing our constitutional order. Not only did the Fourteenth Amendment extend most of the provisions of the original Bill of Rights to the states, but in the process the rights themselves morphed into exactly those rights the courts have been discovering and enforcing since 1960 or so. Where the Bill of Rights had originally focused on protecting the people in their states and localities against encroachments by the central government, the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment changed all that, so that the Bill of Rights now empowers the central government itself to protect individuals and minorities against majorities of their neighbors. In reality, of course, while the framers of the post-Civil War amendments clearly intended to give the national government power to protect individuals against the kind of wholesale deprivations of basic rights that unreformed, Confederate-controlled state governments were visiting upon newly freed Southern blacks, the evidence is overwhelming that they by no means intended to reverse, or seriously dilute, the Founders' basic commitment to federalism and local self-government.
Jack Rakove's Original Meanings is the most successful of these anti-originalist books, because it doesn't seek to replace the historical Founding with something else, as Ackerman and Amar do. Rather, Rakove argues that the real Founding is simply too complicated and too nuanced to be usable in the way originalists assume. But his book is oddly at war with itself. While constantly urging skepticism about how much the Founders can help us decide constitutional questions today, Rakove in fact delivers a series of brilliant lessons about how much we can learn from them. He emphasizes, for instance, that revolutionary American claims of natural rights were largely consistent with earlier colonial claims of specifically English rights: "English rights were the legal application of natural rights." Surely this is richly suggestive of how the Founding generation understood particular rights, such as property and free-speech rights.
Even if we accept Rakove's protestations at face value, his book points in a different direction from where he (as a supporter of the interventionist judiciary) would have us go. For if constitutional meaning is as elusive and indeterminate as Rakove would have us believe, how can judges so frequently invoke the Constitution as authority for trumping the decisions of democratically elected officials? One sensible way of reading Rakove's book is as a warning against judges carelessly invoking the Constitution as a source of power to order people about, and to that one can only murmur, "Amen."
The renewed interest in the Founding has yielded a whole new crop of books offering fresh insights into the political thought of particular Founders, even including John Adams, largely ignored as a thinker up till now. In John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty, C. Bradley Thompson shows how Adams put his vast knowledge of ancient and modern constitutions to work in sketching the political architecture for the great round of constitution making that erupted in the states after independence, and defending the first state constitutions against simplistic attacks by the French philosophes, who saw no need for complex government once the people were truly sovereign. But Adams, skeptical of the Enlightenment's sunny optimism, was insistent on the need for legal and institutional checks to restrain the vices of human nature even in a democracy, Thompson shows, and he rightly worried about the perennial inability of a self-governing people to distinguish between the natural aristoi and the merely rich and famous who flaunt "the gaudy trappings of wealth."
James Madison, often regarded as the junior partner in the "great collaboration" with Jefferson, comes into his own in Lance Banning's The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic and political theorist Gary Rosen's American Compact: James Madison and the Problem of Founding. One of the great puzzles of the Founding is how Madison could have collaborated with Hamilton in 1787 at the Federal Convention and in authoring the Federalist Papers, then in a few short years turn around and, with Jefferson, establish the Republican Party to combat Hamilton and his Federalist allies. Was Madison simply a political opportunist, changing sides as the political landscape shifted, or is there a higher consistency at work in his politics? Both Banning and Rosen (a former City Journal senior editor) argue for the overall coherence of Madison's politics, Banning by emphasizing the shared commitment to hammering out a Constitution that temporarily eclipsed Madison's many differences with Hamilton, and Rosen by stressing the tension between the conflicting demands first of founding the new constitutional order and then preserving it.
In a category all by itself is political scientist James Ceaser's provocative Reconstructing America, which defends the superiority of America's founding principles from 200 years of criticism from European intellectuals, beginning with the French philosophes and continuing up through the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Coming to the rescue are the authors of The Federalist, Alexis de Tocqueville, and, in the twentieth century, Leo Strauss himself. What each of these thinkers reminds us, argues Ceaser, is that the best security for the natural-rights doctrine announced in the Declaration is the "new science of politics" that the Framers invented at the Constitutional Convention. By successfully reconstructing the Founders' political science in the face of these powerful intellectual challenges, Ceaser helps us to appreciate the grandeur and nobility of their political vision.
But precisely whose vision is it that should prevail? As always, the debate today rages between the Hamiltonians and the Jeffersonians, and these days the Hamiltonians are winning. Not only is Richard Brookhiser's biography of Hamilton more sympathetic to his subject than Joseph Ellis's ultimately unflattering portrait of Jefferson in American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, but an enormous scholarly interest has boosted Hamilton's reputation in recent years. One highly praised study by Peter C. McNamara, Political Economy and Statesmanship, argues that Hamilton's understanding of the relationship between politics and economics is superior to Adam Smith's. Unlike Smith—who, McNamara argues, was a captive of his theories, lacking practical political experience—Hamilton had the prudence to know when to depart from pure free-market economics and let the federal government pursue economic policies, such as subsidies for domestic manufactures, that would enhance American prosperity and security. Karl-Friedrich Walling's recent Alexander Hamilton on War and Free Government makes the case for Hamilton's genius in foreign affairs. According to Walling, no Founder thought more farsightedly about the problem of reconciling a strong defense policy with liberty and free government. In an era dominated by American economic and military power, Hamilton's stock seems to have unlimited growth potential.
Though Americans continue their perennial fascination with Thomas Jefferson, he has always served as a lightning rod for their doubts and anxieties, and, at the moment, this means race and sex. Thus in The Long Affair, Conor Cruise O'Brien complains that Jefferson's racial views, along with his enthusiasm for violent resistance to government, warrant dislodging him from the American pantheon, and Annette Gordon-Reed's Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: Historians and the Enterprise of Defense insists that we take seriously the long-neglected black oral tradition that the author of the Declaration of Independence fathered several children by his slave Sally Hemings.
Of course the Jeffersonian legacy is much richer than our current preoccupation with race and sex. Trouble is, so much of what Jefferson stands for—smaller national government, judicial accountability, strong federalism and local self-government—is anathema to the left, while the right dismisses the rest of his program—opposition to highly developed forms of commerce, fears about the corrupting effects of wealth, hostility toward revealed religion, and confidence in the people to govern themselves—as foolishness and demagoguery.
One noteworthy attempt to break out of the box is Thomas G. West's Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the American Founding. Originally written to refute the standard liberal biases and outright errors in high-school American history textbooks—most egregiously, that the Declaration of Independence was only intended to apply to white, property-owning males, a view repeated only a few months ago by a New Jersey legislator who opposed having the children of her state memorize the Declaration's opening sentences—this slender volume makes it absolutely clear that Jefferson intended the Declaration's principles to apply to everyone, including blacks, women, and the poor. West pulls no punches in arguing that Jefferson's understanding of equality and rights is superior to the contemporary alternative, which casts whole groups of Americans as victims and renders them incapable of self-government.
While much recent scholarship has not been kind to the Sage of Monticello, the debate doesn't end here. As Jefferson himself understood when he had Hamilton's bust placed in his dining room after hearing of his death, these two giants are destined to go on confronting each other in death, as they once did in life, and offering insights and advice that succeeding generations can use according to their own needs.
What does this renewed concern for the Founding portend for American culture and politics? For a "propositional nation," united not by blood and soil but by commitment to a particular body of ideas about how public life should be conducted, such a return to first principles is altogether positive—especially since schools and colleges either ignore American history or deconstruct it. We have no biological fathers to provide an ethnic basis for American nationality. For us, the Founding Fathers and their ideals must do the work.
Of course, the more the new scholarship succeeds in creating respect for our beginnings, the more incentive partisans will have to create designer versions of the Founding that will advance their agendas. Imagine a very powerful civic republican influence on American constitution making, with heavy emphasis on virtuous sacrifice for the common good, and—presto—you have a governmental tradition friendly to sharply redistributionist tax policies. Imagine a radically egalitarian version of the Fourteenth Amendment (as opposed to the actual one guaranteeing basic civil rights), and—voilà—you have a "constitutional commitment" that supports ever more federal government intrusion on behalf of women, homosexuals, and minorities. While it has always been true that to control the past is to control the present, today the stakes are higher. But given the overriding commitments of the Founders to the natural rights of life, liberty, and property, to limited government reined in by federalism and the separation of powers, and to self-government in local communities and private associations, conservatives enjoy powerful natural advantages when fighting on the turf of the Founding.
America was the first nation to be "founded" in the modern sense. As Alexander Hamilton observed in Federalist No. 1, all earlier republics had emerged through "accident or force." It was thus reserved for Americans to demonstrate "whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice." Well, the returns are in: the American Founding is the model that peoples around the world consult as they struggle toward freedom over the ashes of communism and dozens of lesser tyrannies. We can take pride that the wisdom of our Founding Fathers is an inheritance that enriches not just us but the whole globe.