West, “The Political Theory of the American Founding”

Here is a book we are late to notice, but that I am reading and enjoying now: The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom (CUP), by Thomas G. West, published last year. The core claim of the book is Westthat the natural rights framework of the early republic can explain, in a comprehensive way–that is, without too much recurrence to other cultural and historical factors including Protestantism as well as European enlightenment thought–the founders’ shared assumptions about the interplay of rights and duties. Liberalism and republicanism, in West’s treatment, do not coexist in an uneasy tension, but are entirely consistent and mutually reinforcing. I am finding it a useful treatment of the conception of natural rights as it existed at the founding, and helpful also in identifying competing claims about the relationship of rights and duties.

This book provides a complete overview of the American Founders’ political theory, covering natural rights, natural law, state of nature, social compact, consent, and the policy implications of these ideas. The book is intended as a response to the current scholarly consensus, which holds that the Founders’ political thought is best understood as an amalgam of liberalism, republicanism, and perhaps other traditions. West argues that, on the contrary, the foundational documents overwhelmingly point to natural rights as the lens through which all politics is understood. The book explores in depth how the Founders’ supposedly republican policies on citizen character formation do not contradict but instead complement their liberal policies on property and economics. Additionally, the book shows how the Founders’ embraced other traditions in their politics, such as common law and Protestantism.

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