The Fundamentalists and the Constitution

The American Founding: Politics, Statesmanship, and the Constitution

edited by Ralph A. Rossum, edited by Gary L. McDowell
Kennikat Press, 190 pp., $26.50

The Complete Anti-Federalist

edited by Herbert J. Storing
University of Chicago Press, 7 volumes, 1840 pp., $175.00

The Constitutional Order, 1787–1987”

edited by Irving Kristol, edited by Nathan Glazer
The Public Interest, No. 86, $4.50

Constitutionalism and Rights

edited by Gary C. Bryner, edited by Noel B. Reynolds
Brigham Young University Press, 163 pp., $12.95 (paper)

The Founders’ Constitution

edited by Philip B. Kurland, edited by Ralph Lerner
University of Chicago Press, 5 volumes, 3520 pp., $300.00

The Framing and Ratification of the Constitution

edited by Leonard W. Levy, edited by Dennis J. Mahoney
Macmillan, 395 pp., $24.95

Saving the Revolution: “The Federalist Papers” and The American Founding

edited by Charles R. Kesler
The Free Press, 334 pp., $29.95

No other modern state has what is called a “founding” in quite the way the United States has. We Americans attribute to the revolutionary generation and to the creation of the Constitution a sacred, quasi-religious character. The Founding Fathers come to resemble Moses and Aeneas more than they do statesmen (which is why “debunking” and “humanizing” them has remained such a cottage industry). We believe that there is something unique about this “Founding” generation of political leaders, that they were giants, or demigods, or what Henry Steele Commager has called “a galaxy of public leaders we have never been able remotely to duplicate since.” We look back at them with awe, with the feeling that they are irretrievably lost to us. Many Americans believe that there at the “Founding” some permanent truths about politics were established, and that we depart from them at our peril.

Although this sense of separation from the “Founding” generation has long been a part of American history and culture, the sense of the sacredness of the “Founding” has seemed especially acute during the recent bicentennial celebrations. Instead of the mechanistic language usually invoked in discussions of the Constitution—separation of powers, checks and balances, and so on—the language in much of the bicentennial literature is strangely spiritual. Everywhere there is talk of the “human soul,” of the “moral foundations” of American politics, of the “founding principle,” of “virtue” and the threats to “virtue,” of “character,” and of religion and its relation to the polity. Much of this talk is traditional American rhetoric. But part of it is new, the result of the growing influence of “conservatism” in our public life. Not just ordinary conservatism; rather a philosophical conservatism of a special kind.

Perhaps the most remarkable fact about the scholarship of the bicentennial celebrations is the extent to which that scholarship has been colored by the students and followers of Leo Strauss, the German-born political theorist who taught at the University of Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s. “Straussians” are everywhere in government and academia, in both high and low places, in conferences, in symposiums, in books and journals. More than any other single group the Straussians are attempting to set the agenda for public debate over the Constitution. They have sought to define the terms, to organize the conferences, and to dominate the discussions. A big reason for this presence is surely their access to power and money in a conservative Republican administration. But nearly as important as governmental patronage has been their long and untiring philosophical interest in what they invariably call the “Founding,” the principles embodied in America’s nation-building at the end of the eighteenth century.

For a generation or more, while government departments in universities throughout the nation were being taken over by behaviorists and policy analysts and becoming departments of political science, tiny groups of scholars kept alive an old-fashioned concern for political philosophy and classic political texts. Among these minorities the most cohesive and determined were certainly …

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Letters

Among the Straussians April 14, 1988