BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Professor Thomas G. West, in your book in the afterword,
you write, `It sometimes seems as if the American founders have no admirers in America
except among those who are relatively uneducated.' Why is that?
Professor THOMAS WEST, AUTHOR, "VINDICATING THE FOUNDERS": Well,
what I discovered in writing this book is that the leading historians,
political scientists and textbook writers who convey the information
to our students and to the general public about the founding all
pretty much agree that the Founding Fathers are bad. They're racist;
they're sexist; they're elitists. They weren't sincere when they said
that all men are created equal. They didn't include women; they
didn't include blacks. They excluded the poor from the vote. So all
of this is out there, and it requires a response.
LAMB: Where did this start?
Prof. WEST: The--historically, really, it goes back to the
Progressive era. The first really serious attacks on the founding
took place--people like Charles Beard, whose book on the economic
origins of the Constitution basically argued that the Constitution was
written by a group of self-interested rich people out to protect
their private property.
LAMB: What year?
Prof. WEST: Sometime around 1911, I think, 1913.
LAMB: Did everybody just fall in the line with Mr. Beard?
Prof. WEST: Well, this became the orthodoxy as time went along. And
then particularly since the '60s, there's--the theme has been the
exclusion of blacks and women. That's been the great
argument. And so now you pick up a textbook or a standard
history book on the founding, a government book, you'll find
these things just stated as though this is the most obvious thing in
LAMB: When did you first think about writing this book?
Prof. WEST: I started--I did a series of essays for the
Claremont Institute, where I'm a senior fellow, in California in the
early '90s on this topic. They were doing a series of events for
high school teachers, and that's how it got started. And then when I decided to
put them together in a book, I went over them, expanded them and really
developed the argument in a way that it deserves to be stated.
LAMB: Where's the Claremont Institute, and what does it do?
Prof. WEST: They're--well, they're a think tank--Claremont,
California, and they're devoted to the idea of restoring the
principles of the Declaration of Independence in American life. Many
of the people associated with the institute are former students of
Harry Jaffa, who was, for many years, a professor out there in the
Claremont McKenna College and Graduate School.
LAMB: How big is it? How many people belong to it?
Prof. WEST: Well, it's not like--it's not quite as big as AEI, but
it's one of the major conservative--sort of second-tier conservative think tanks in
LAMB: And where is Claremont, California? What's it near?
Prof. WEST: Well, it's about 30 miles east of LA.
LAMB: In the beginning of your book under acknowledgments, you say,
`Through the generosity of Henry Salvatori, Charles Kessler brought me
to Claremont McKenna College as a Salvatori visiting scholar.'
Prof. WEST: Right.
LAMB: Who is Henry Salvatori?
Prof. WEST: Salvatori just died recently at the age
of--you know, I think he was about 97. He was an Italian
immigrant who was a very successful businessman and made a pile of
money developing techniques of oil exploration that turned out to be
very successful. And in his later years, he became a major donor
to causes and to people who were interested in restoring the
principles of the founding.
And he established a center at Claremont McKenna College, the
Salvatori Center, which is directed by Charles Kessler. And they
brought me out there knowing that I was somebody who could help
advance that work.
LAMB: Where were you when they brought you out there?
Prof. WEST: Well, I'm based in Irving, Texas, at the
University of Dallas, where I'm a professor of politics.
LAMB: Is that a full-time job still?
Prof. WEST: Right. Yes.
LAMB: And when did you--early on in your life, or maybe it wasn't
early on--start thinking about things like the Constitution or the
Declaration of Independence or the Founding Fathers?
Prof. WEST: Well, it took me a while to get there. I was a
student in the '60s and '70s of Leo Strauss and some of
Strauss' students out in Claremont; actually, originally, a student of
Allan Bloom's at Cornell, then I went out to Claremont.
And originally, I was really focused on the study of
obscure texts in the history of political philosophy written by dead
white males like Plato and Cicero and people like that. And my
first book, in fact, was an interpretation of Plato's Apology of
But it really wasn't until the '80s that I got interested in a serious
way in American politics and I used my knowledge of
the history of philosophy to help to understand the principles of this
country. And I think it really did help, as a matter of fact, in
articulating what the founding was all about.
LAMB: Do you have a family?
Prof. WEST: I do.
Prof. WEST: I've got four children...
LAMB: How old are they?
Prof. WEST: ...and a wife who teaches classics with me at the
University of Dallas. Let's see, three boys, 10, 13, 15, and
then a daughter who's a freshman at University of Dallas who's 18.
LAMB: You have inside the book under the chapter of women in the
family this sentence: `Bachelors have much higher rates of almost
every social ill on which statistics are kept: criminal behavior,
victimization by crimes, unemployment, disease, mental disorders,
drunkenness and drug addiction, suicide and even rates of accidents.'
Prof. WEST: Astounding, isn't it?
LAMB: Why is that in the book?
Prof. WEST: Why is--that's from the chapter on women in the
family. And one of the charges that's made against the founders is
that they were mean to women. They didn't really believe that women
were created equal. The standard scholarship says that women were
oppressed; women had no rights; women were excluded from society. And
the--I had--you know, I thought that was--deserved looking
into. It's a serious charge, and there's some facial evidence to
support that. Women didn't have the right to vote, for example, and
there were different legal rights for women within marriage than men.
So that led me to the question of `Well, what did they think they
were doing?' Jefferson, for example, among others, attacked the
Indians for suppressing and exploiting their women. He said the
problem with the Indians is they don't treat women as the equals of
men, which is what they are. So Jefferson must have thought that he
and the other Americans were treating women as equals.
So the question I had is, `Well, how could Jefferson have thought
that? How could he have thought that we were better than the Indians,
treating our women in the right way, while at the same time women
weren't voting and women didn't have property rights separate from
their husbands when they were married?' So I had--that led into the
question of what did they think they were doing?
And the answer was that they thought that the major way in which women
would be protected is through marriage, through family and family
integrity. Their idea was to support the institution of marriage so
that people would get married and stay married as much as possible,
barring death, make divorce difficult, focus people's sexual energies
in only one direction, marriage. And in that way, women, men and
children would end up being happier and better protected.
I ended up--and that quote you mentioned about single men is from a
section on whether marriage is good for men. The answer is that by
practically any objective measurement today, married men are happier,
better off, have fewer accidents, fewer pathologies, etc., than
single men. And the same thing--similar patterns can be observed for
women and in terms of the benefits of marriage.
LAMB: When you speak of the founders, name the ones that are the most
important to you.
Prof. WEST: Well, I mean--by the founders, I just mean those
Americans who were prominent in the writing of the fundamental
documents that governed the nation in the founding era. The top
people obviously would be Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Washington,
Hamilton. Those would probably be the top four.
LAMB: What were their relationships with women?
Prof. WEST: Well, Jefferson is probably the one
whose relationships with women are--his are most thoroughly
documented. He had a--his wife died when he was young, and he had
very close relationships with his daughters, with whom he exchanged a
voluminous correspondence, which is now all published. And he had a
great interest in their well-being and that their education,
that they married well and so on. So yeah, he's certainly
someone who deserves a--you know, whose writing on this
is--has--is one of the most important sources.
LAMB: One of the things I noted is you mentioned Abigail Adams,
John Adams' wife. And I wanted to ask you what's in the famous
`Remember the ladies' to her husband--letter or what was that?
Prof. WEST: Letter, yes.
LAMB: And why did you use that here?
Prof. WEST: Well, this is a letter where she writes to John
Adams right at the moment of the Declaration of
Independence. And she says, `Please, when you make your new laws for
this new country, remember the ladies, and don't allow men to
tyrannize over them. Remember that all men would be tyrants if they
would, and there's a need to restrain that.'
She was referring to the problem of some men abusing their wives. And
this was a problem that was acknowledged and in the
early legislation that was passed in the various states, particularly
in the northern states, the laws were changed to accommodate
those kinds of extreme situations. Cruelty was established as a
ground of divorce in most of the states--northern states, actually, in
the pre-Civil War period. And that was what she had in mind.
The reason why I mention it is because sometimes people will quote
that; feminists will quote that, saying, `Ah-ha, here's an early
statement of feminism.' And that's exactly the opposite of what she's
saying. She ends up quoting a passage from the Bible from Ephesians
which tells husbands to love their wives just as Christ loved the
church. Her attitude was not that women should be free of men--free
of marriage, but rather that men should do their duty and treat their
women as they deserve to be treated.
LAMB: What's your wife's reaction to your book, by the way?
Prof. WEST: She's very supportive of this. We're--as I
say, I think in our family, we all believe that all men are created
equal, men and women included in the term `men,' of course.
LAMB: What evidence do you have that when they wrote `All men
are'--whether it was the committee or Thomas Jefferson--wrote, `All
men are created equal,' that they really meant, `All people are
Prof. WEST: They said so over and over again. If you
look at the formulations, there were dozens of different ways they
formulated this statement. They talked about the rights of humanity,
the rights of mankind, human rights, the human race all having the
same rights of life and liberty. It was a constant discussion of this
idea of equal rights in inclusive language, so that when the
Declaration says `all men,' obviously it means `all human beings.'
It's a typical canard of certain--of some modern scholars to claim
that `men' means males. That's not at all what they meant.
And they also spoke very directly about women. As I mentioned,
Jefferson, in his discussion of the Indians, talked about the fact
that women do have equal rights. James Otis, one of the early
writers--one of the early Massachusetts founders in 1760s in a
striking passage, says, `Wouldn't it be infamous to claim that the
ladies are all slaves by nature? And isn't it true that in the state
of nature, they had as much right as the men did to say what form of
government they should live under?'
So there's no question that the founding generation
understood this point that the equality of men meant the
equality of all human beings.
LAMB: On your cover, you have a quote from Forrest McDonald:
"Compelling, accurate, closely reasoned, and entirely convincing." Why
did the book publisher think that quote was important to put on
the cover? And who is Forrest McDonald?
Prof. WEST: Forrest McDonald is a leading historian of the founding.
He's at the University of Alabama. He's published many books on the
period. One of his early books, "We the People," was a
refutation of the Charles Beard thesis on the Constitutional
Convention. McDonald showed that Beard simply had his facts wrong in
claiming that the convention was dominated by the rich
who were out to exploit the poor. And he's written a very fine biography of
Hamilton which is well-known. So they thought his testimony was worth
having, and so do I.
LAMB: The company is Rowan & Littlefield. Who are they? …that published the
Prof. WEST: Rowman & Littlefield? They're...
LAMB: I'm sorry. Rowman, yeah.
Prof. WEST: Yes, they're a very prominent academic
publisher. They're now moving into the realm of doing more trade
books. This book is being marketed more as a trade book than as an
academic book. And they're publishing authors like Robert
Novak, who's got a book out this fall as well.
LAMB: And where are they based? Who owns them? Do you know?
Prof. WEST: They're right outside the District, somewhere in
Maryland. I've never been there, but they're close by here.
LAMB: This your first book by them?
Prof. WEST: With them, yes. I've published chapters in some
books by them before, but, yes, this is my first book with them.
LAMB: On the back you have some other endorsements. Rush Limbaugh:
`A path-breaking book,' he says. `The American people finally have a
definitive answer to the distortions about the founding that liberals
have been pouring into the American mind since the 1960s. I recommend
this book heartily. It belongs on every bookshelf and in every
classroom in America.' What's that endorsement worth to your book, do
Prof. WEST: I think that what the publisher had in mind was this is
a guy--Rush Limbaugh--who is very well-known --to the American
people. He's got a huge audience with his radio show. Rather than
put on an academic that a very small number of people might have heard
of, why not put on a guy like this who's famous? And hopefully
by marketing the book as a provocative book in that way, they'll get
LAMB: How tough was it to get his endorsement?
Prof. WEST: It was--I don't really know the answer to that
question. The endorsement was--the manuscript was passed on to
him by a woman who's a very good friend of his. And apparently what
happened was that he read enough of it to decide this is
good, and so he said, `Yeah, I'll--I want to endorse this thing.'
LAMB: What was your reaction when you found out he was going to endorse it?
Prof. WEST: I thought it was terrific.
LAMB: Newt Gingrich: `One of those rare publications that promises
to shape the field of inquiry about the American founders for decades
to come.' How tough was that endorsement?
Prof. WEST: That I don't know anything about. Someone--an
acquaintance of mine asked -- him or his office, and he was good enough to do it.
LAMB: You also have --Dinesh D'Souza: `An eloquent defense of the
principles of the American founding by one of its most learned
students.' What's the value of that endorsement?
Prof. WEST: Well, Dinesh D'Souza is, I think, one of our outstanding
young writers. His book "The End of Racism," I thought, was
fabulous, really did a terrific job of laying out the whole
problem of race in America today in a dispassionate way, but at
the same time, in a way that suggests that our approach to the
problem deserves some fundamental rethinking. So--and I know him;
I've met him before, and I think we have a mutual respect for each other's work.
LAMB: Chapter on slavery--what's the premise?
Prof. WEST: The premise is that the founders really did believe
that all human beings of all races are created equal, that they're
endowed by God with equal rights, and that the government's job is to
respect that. That's the premise.
Now the question then becomes: Well, how in the world can we justify
Jefferson and Washington and Madison owning slaves in the face of
this? How do we make sense out of this? So I tried to do that. I
tried to show that the--first of all, that the founders really did say
that blacks were created equal to whites.
There's a quote on--I think, in the second or third
page of the chapter where--from Samuel Eliot Morison, very famous
Harvard historian who's written a book, "Oxford History of the
American People," published in 1965, still in print, still available
in all leading bookstores. And what Morison says is
that--he asked the question, `Was Jefferson thinking of blacks when he
wrote, "All men are created equal"? His subsequent career indicates
that he did not, that blacks were not men.'
Now that is one of the most misleading statements ever written by a
historian because, in fact, as Morison knew very well,
Jefferson, in the very draft of the Declaration that he wrote that
day, said--condemned the King of England for the institution of
slavery and for preventing the states from ---doing
something about the slave trade, and referred to blacks as men, and
even put `men' in capital letters in his draft of the Declaration.
And so Morison leaves the reader with the impression that this
Jefferson wasn't even thinking about blacks, whereas in reality he
knew--or should have known, unless he was incompetent--that Jefferson
was not only thinking but writing about blacks being men on the very
same day he wrote the Declaration of Independence. So that's point
one; they really did believe that blacks were human beings.
And second, what about their actions? I mean, the problem is, you
know, why didn't they abolish slavery right away? Well, part of the
answer is they did abolish slavery. Slavery was legal in every state
in America in 1776. They had inherited this institution from colonial
times as something that, in effect, no American ever
questioned back then. This was assumed as just something that
happened, something that was OK.
And what happened was during the 1760s and '70s, as they were
articulating their reasons why the Brits shouldn't be able to run our
lives without our consent, they started making these arguments. All
men are created equal. All men have the same rights. No one deserves
to take away someone else's liberty. And that led to people saying,
`Wait a minute, what about the blacks? What about slavery?' And, in
fact, they did say, `Yes, this is a problem. We have to do something
about it.' And they did abolish slavery in about half of the original
states in the early days.
Finally, the really decisive thing is slavery was able to be abolished
in America later on, at the time of the Civil War, only because of the
fact that the founders had dedicated our country to the proposition
that all men are created equal. As Lincoln said in the Gettysburg
Address, that's what made it all possible.
LAMB: You quote quite often in the book Alexis de
Prof. WEST: Tocqueville was one of the great observers of the
American scene. He really understood a lot about what made America
work. He especially, I think, understood the necessity for the right
kind of character, the right kind of moral character in the citizens.
He spoke about the way in which the spirit of religion and the
spirit of liberty complemented each other in American life and made it
possible for there to be a country devoted to freedom that
didn't degenerate into license and self-indulgence.
He saw in his discussion of the American family how different it was
from the European family, where women were put on a pedestal,
worshipped in a sense, but then treated with contempt in reality. He
pointed out something that's probably not very well-known today, but
that the rape laws in America in the time when he visited here in the
1820s were much more severe against rapists than they were in Europe,
and he thought that was a sign of the American respect for women,
which I would argue goes back to the founding, goes back to the fact
that we did say all men, meaning all human beings, are created equal.
LAMB: When did you first start studying him?
Prof. WEST: Well, he's one of the staples in the history of
political philosophy. And I probably first ran across Tocqueville in
a course taught by Walter Berns at Cornell back in the '60s.
LAMB: Did you graduate from Cornell?
Prof. WEST: I did.
LAMB: What did you study there?
Prof. WEST: I was a government major.
LAMB: Walter Berns is here in town now.
Prof. WEST: He's still around, yes. He's a very prominent
writer on American politics, American political thought and a scholar
at the American Enterprise Institute here in town.
LAMB: You quote Tocqueville in here; you're saying, after his visit
to America in the 1820s, Tocqueville feared that, quote, "the most
horrible of civil wars would occur if slavery were abolished,
terminating perhaps in the extermination of one or other of the two
races." Why'd you use that quote?
Prof. WEST: The point I'm making there is that Americans in the
pre-Civil War period--many Americans of good will, and Tocqueville, a
foreign observer, also of good will, people who believed in the
principle of equality, also believed that the immediate abolition of
slavery in those states where there were very large numbers of slaves
could create a situation that would be even worse in the short run
than the institution of slavery itself.
What I was trying to understand was: Why is it that in the Deep
South, men like Jefferson and others who favored abolition in
principle didn't eagerly rush to create immediate abolition in
practice? And that was their concern; they really did believe in the
possibility of a race war that might lead to the extermination of
one or the other of the two races. And that belief, which was widely
shared among many Americans, I think, was an important reason and, to
some extent, a justification, for their failure to act as quickly as
we today think they should have acted in getting rid of that
LAMB: How much impact do you think the politics of the college
professor has on the student for the rest of their lives?
Prof. WEST: Well, I guess that's like asking how much impact does a
single cigarette have on the rest of your life. Are you going to get
lung cancer from it? No. But an accumulation of cigarettes
over many years can destroy your lungs. An accumulation of bad
professors over the years can wreck your mind if you don't break with
that point of view and start thinking for yourself at some point. So
I think it's a great--I think it has a tremendous impact. And the
same is true for good. People who have sensible things to say, who
help their students think clearly, become better citizens, understand
the principles of their country. It can have a tremendously helpful
LAMB: What were the politics of most of your professors as you were
going to school? And where did you go besides Cornell?
Prof. WEST: Well, I did my graduate work at Claremont Graduate
School in California. I'd say the majority of my professors were
standard, run-of-the-mill plain vanilla liberals of the sort that
dominate the academy. I did have a number of professors who didn't
fit that mold and by whom I was probably more influenced.
Prof. WEST: Well, people like Berns and Allan Bloom at Cornell,
and then Leo Strauss, Harry Jaffa, Martin Diamond at Claremont,
Harry Neumann. These are people that didn't go with the
conventional flow. They questioned a lot of the contemporary
orthodoxies, made a point of returning to the original sources in the
tradition. And I respected that and, I think, got my own
turn of thought decisively from that approach.
LAMB: Was there a point where you were starting to figure out that
professors had a point of view?
Prof. WEST: That's pretty obvious, I think. You walk into a
classroom, unless it's on something like calculus or physics, if it
has anything to do with human life, the point of view is going to
come across pretty quickly and pretty decisively, usually. There are
some exceptions to that, of course. But you can tell--doesn't take long
to figure out who has an ideological agenda and who's really trying to
LAMB: I guess the question was related to what--when you start out in
school, and if you're not paying attention, do you know what's being
fed to you, or did you walk in already knowing what your politics
were and you were starting to figure it out from the professors what
Prof. WEST: I was--I was not--I didn't have any definite
political point of view when I was an undergraduate student at
Cornell. I --you know, this was the time of the '60s, civil rights.
I was very sympathetic to the civil rights movement. I
remember Walter Berns criticizing Goldwater. I was persuaded by that
at the time probably, although looking back I'm not sure that was the
right position to take.
But in any case, you know, I was very sympathetic--and during the
Vietnam War, of course, you couldn't help--at that time I was
very much of age to go to fight, and I couldn't help thinking about
these questions and where I should stand on them. And, yeah, I'd say
my teachers had a--had helped a lot in giving me a sensible
framework in which to think about all those partisan questions.
LAMB: But as you know, Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich spent a lot
of time over the years talking about--that the--one of the big
problems in America is academia, the politics of professors. Would
you agree with that?
Prof. WEST: I do. Yeah. I think that the--I mean, what I
found out in writing this "Vindicating the Founders" is that there
is a massive distortion out there going on about the principles of the
American founding and about the actions and beliefs of
the founders themselves. To me, that's just wrong. I mean, it's
wrong historically; it's not true. But it's also wrong in the sense
that it is teaching people to have contempt for the principles of a
country which, I think, can be easily demonstrated to be the freest
country in all world history, the country that has done more to
conquer the poverty problem of any country in world history, a country
which has really done a tremendous job in establishing religious and
civil liberty for the majority of citizens.
LAMB: Who's Gordon Wood?
Prof. WEST: He's considered, I think, one of the leading historians
on the founding era. Teaches at Brown.
LAMB: His politics?
Prof. WEST: I really can't say what his politics are. I don't know that much about
LAMB: His slant? Do you know which--I mean, I'm looking at
Page 46: `Both Wood and his critics take it as a given that blacks
and women were excluded from the Declaration. Such is the state of
the debate within the historian's guild.' And you quote him earlier,
`Gordon Wood, widely regarded as the leading historian of political
thought of the American founding, asked, "What was radical about the
Declaration in 1776? We know it did not mean that blacks and
men were created equal to men--white men," although, it would in time
be used to justify these equalities, too'--you have that in
parentheses--`It was radical in 1776 because it meant that all white
men were equal. Surprisingly, Wood was actually trying to defend the
founders with this statement.'
Prof. WEST: Right. I mean, he--the historian's
profession, as I understand it, is--right now is being --is divided
by a--one group on the far left, who wants to say that the
American founding was just totally contemptible and
dismissible, and then people like Gordon Wood, who was--who's probably
more of a moderate a--who is saying, `Well, look, at least they said
all white men are created equal. Maybe they didn't include blacks and
women, but let's at least acknowledge that they included white males.'
My point is that both of those points of view are very misleading
or I'd say incorrect; that, in fact, the principles of the
founding included all human beings. It's wrong of Wood to claim
that blacks and women were excluded. They were not excluded. They
were understood to be part of that humanity that has equal rights.
LAMB: One of the reasons I bring up Gordon Wood is that Newt
Gingrich, when he came into office as the speaker, endorsed his book.
And it was one of his first choices. And I'm just trying to figure
out, you know, which side he came down on and whether or not he
endorsed him because of his politics or whatever. That's why I
brought the two of them up.
Prof. WEST: I don't think so. I think --you know, I don't know
what Newt had in mind when he said that. Newt says a lot of things
that--some of which I agree with.
LAMB: What do you agree with that he says?
Prof. WEST: I think he has a very sound understanding of the merits of my book.
LAMB: And is that a period after that sentence?
Prof. WEST: No, there are lots of things he does that I like.
LAMB: What about property rights? You write a lot about property.
First of all, why?
Prof. WEST: Well, this is another one of those areas where the
current scholarship is really opposed to the principles of the
founding. They -- the general line you get in the history books
and in the government textbooks is that property rights were OK for
the first 100 or so years of our history. But then went the closing
of the frontier and the rise of the corporation, property rights were
not OK. Property rights at that point led to the oppression of the
poor and the exploitation of the masses; therefore, property rights
had to be curtailed and, to some extent, abolished in the 20th century
in order to protect the rights of the downtrodden.
My point is--or my argument is --that's not true. That's a
misunderstanding of 20th century history. And it's also a
misunderstanding of what the principles of the founding
really were. What I'm saying is that if you understand property
rights in the sense that they did, namely--not only as the right to
keep property, but as the right to acquire, as the right to go into
business, as the right to use your mind and use your property in a way
that will enable you to provide for yourself and your family, that's
a system that is very much in favor of the poor and in favor of the downtrodden.
I think--I mean, my argument is the problem with the 20th century is
that we are proceeding to abandon their principles, principles of the
founding, and we're substituting for that this other notion that
somehow government knows best about how people ought to use their
property; government ought to dictate to people whether they should be
allowed to go into business or not. And the result of that, I think,
is that it's making the country less able to deal with the problem of poverty.
I mean, it seems to me that the problem of poverty--if you look at
a--the big scope of American history, 1776 to the present, you had a
hugely successful anti-poverty program that lasted from 1776 to about
1965. And the graphs, the charts, any kind of--by any measure at all,
poverty was dramatically declining throughout that whole period. And
then in the '60s you have the charts leveling off; the poverty problem
somehow seems to be not improving any longer. What happened?
Well, we have--now have a new view of the poverty problem. We
have--our view today is, `Let's give generous welfare payments and
let's restrict property rights.' And that, it seems to me--those two
things combined, along with the anti-family policies developed during
the same post-'60s period, are in fact undermining the traditional
successes --of the American tradition of fighting poverty through free markets and
LAMB: Do you think any of the founders, if they were here today,
would like what's happened with welfare and property...
Prof. WEST: Oh, I see. Yeah. You mean with these post-'60s
developments? No. I think the--no, because the principles
that are being followed today are different from the principles that
they followed. I mean, if you go back--this is one of the things, I
think, that is not as well understood as it should be by conservatives
as well as some liberals. If you go back to the Progressive era, say
around 1900, when the arguments of today's liberalism were first
being articulated, what those guys were saying is, `The principles of
the United States are bad. The Declaration of Independence is wrong.
We shouldn't allow people to have equal rights. We don't want people
to own their own property.'
People like John Dewey, people like Herbert Crowley, Woodrow Wilson,
all of these people were explicitly attacking the principles of the
founding. And they were arguing, `We've got to get beyond that.
We've got to get beyond the Declaration.' Now that's a--that is
a--that's a rejection. That's a confrontation with the founding and a
rejection of it. And that is what has led into the policy revolution
of the '60s.
LAMB: What about Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson? If they
were sitting here today and we're having these discussions, would they
differ on anything?
Prof. WEST: Obviously, they differed. But I--one of the--I
think one of the most misleading characterizations of the founders is
to focus on their differences. There were tremendous battles that
took place during the founding area, Jefferson vs. Hamilton and so
on. But those battles were over questions of how to implement a
government that will protect the rights of man. Everybody agreed on
what the purpose of government was: securing human rights, securing
The disagreement was: What should the role of government be in these
relatively tangential areas or less-fundamental areas like, you know,
`Should there be a national bank? To what extent should government
try to--actively to promote commerce? Or should it just leave the
economy free to develop on its own?' These arguments, which
were huge battles back then, from the point of view of today, look
like minor squabbles because all of the founders, from the most
radical like Thomas Paine to the most conservative like Alexander
Hamilton agreed on the basic principles of government.
No one--everyone agreed that government ought to be limited; that
there ought to be a private sphere in which government stays out.
There ought to be protection of property rights. This is
something which today is questioned by the prevailing opinion
of our time.
LAMB: What would you advise--how old's your oldest child?
Prof. WEST: Susannah.
LAMB: How old is she?
Prof. WEST: Nineteen.
LAMB: So she's in college?
Prof. WEST: Yes.
LAMB: What did you advise her or would you advise her on-I--let's
say that you're heading off to college and you're concerned about
what your kid's going to be taught. How do you tell them to watch for
bias among academics either way?
Prof. WEST: Well, it so happens that this is a frequent topic around
our dinner table and has been over many years. I think my own kids
are inoculated to some degree against the most obvious forms of
politically correct propaganda. I'm not too concerned about them.
I'm much more concerned about the rest of America who don't know
about a lot of the things that we talk about at our table and
which I write about in this book.
LAMB: But -- you know, what would you tell a parent then, watching
today, that's got a 15-year-old or got a 10-year-old and they're
starting the process, they haven't had the benefit of sitting around
your table, what would you tell them to do?
Prof. WEST: They've got to stay vigilant. One of the virtues
that the founders said that are necessary for a free people
is vigilance. And that means you've gotta have that feisty `Don't
tread on me' mentality that Americans of the founding era had --and
have had ever since. You know, there was that revolutionary flag, the
rattlesnake, with `Don't tread on me' at the bottom--that was the
attitude of the founders, you know? `You step on me, I'm gonna bite
In other words, don't try to run roughshod over me. Don't try to tell
me how to run the details of my private life. Don't tell me that I
can't use the property that I have here to go into business or
provide for my family. That's something that is my right. I'm gonna
stick up for that right. And if you don't support it, I'm gonna kick
you out of public office. In terms of what people
learn, they've got to find out about the distortions that are in
these textbooks. If they read my book, they'll find out about it.
But, you know, I'm not the only person doing this kind of work. You
know, there are people like Harry Jaffa, Charles Kessler, I mentioned,
at Claremont, Edward Erler, John Marini. There are a lot of
leading political scientists who are developing and articulating these
themes, talking about what is the character of contemporary America
and showing the tremendous break that our policies and our views
represent compared to the earlier understanding.
LAMB: Where does your 19-year-old go to school?
Prof. WEST: She's a sophomore at the University of Dallas right now.
LAMB: Who owns the University of Dallas?
Prof. WEST: Who owns it? It's a Catholic school, but not
connected in any formal way with the church. It's got its own
independent board of trustees.
LAMB: What's the political atmosphere of the history and the
political science department at the University of Dallas?
Prof. WEST: Much more balanced than you'll find at most schools. We
have--one of our students working for the newspaper, last year I guess
it was, went down and looked up the party registrations or party
primary votes of our faculty and discovered that it was about 50/50
Republican and Democratic. Now at most other colleges in America that
would be viewed as wildly conservative that there would be actual
Somebody did a study of the Cornell government department around the
same time and found out that there was one Republican in the entire
department. And everybody else, you know, 40--whatever number of
people there were, were Democrats.
We have a great atmosphere at Dallas. We have a real give
and take. We have--you know, nobody's forced by political correctness
to shut up about arguments that are considered to be out of the
mainstream. I'd say there's more free speech actually on
my campus than on most campuses that I've visited in America.
LAMB: Why, in your opinion, are most college professors liberals and
Prof. WEST: Well, those are--that's a long
story. It's--the--you have to go back to the Progressive era. What
happened in the Progressive era? Why did our leading elites back
then--this is 100 years ago--turn against the principles of the
founding? And the answer is because many of them had decided that
that the--what goes on in private life in America,
especially religious life, wasn't enough for them to give meaning to
their lives. They began to look to the state for meaning--for almost
Many of the early Progressives were students of the Hegelian
school. Hegel's argument was, `The state is the divine presence on
Earth.' And a lot of these early-American Progressives believed that.
They looked for salvation from government and politics. And in a
world in which the --in which there's a decline of serious
religious faith, that is one answer that people have taken,
particularly intellectuals have taken to. I think that view
of things has had a huge impact on the development of thought
throughout the 20th century and helps to explain why it is that so
many professors have ended up thinking that way.
LAMB: If you weren't going to send your child to the University of
Dallas, and you wanted to make sure they had a balanced education,
where else would you send them in the United States?
Prof. WEST: Well, that's a tough question. There are lots
of schools where you can find--you can put together a good program,
but--and there are some schools that have more balance than others. I
think I'll just not mention any of them. I'd prefer people to think
about coming to the University of Dallas.
LAMB: In the acknowledgments, you credit a number of
institutions. I just want to ask you what they are. You say the
first draft of the chapter on property rights was written at a
conference for the Pacific Research Institute. What's that?
Prof. WEST: They're a San Francisco think tank. They do a lot of
studies focused on property rights. I think I would characterize them
as moderate libertarians.
LAMB: How big is the institute?
Prof. WEST: I have no idea, but they do put out some quite
good publications. I know there's a particularly good one--Jonathan
Emord, a book on electronic broadcasting and how government
has--censorship of electronic broadcasting has, in effect, eviscerated
the First Amendment in that area. Very good book.
LAMB: You say, `The Earhart Foundation enabled me to take time off
from teaching to work on this book.' What's the Earhart Foundation?
Prof. WEST: They're a Michigan foundation that supports
scholars. And they've supported me on several occasions over the
years. They give people grants to take time off from teaching to do writing.
LAMB: They do a lot of it?
Prof. WEST: Do they do?
LAMB: Yeah. Big?
Prof. WEST: I don't know how big they--I don't think they're huge.
LAMB: Do you know who the Earhart is? The name?
Prof. WEST: No.
LAMB: Is it The Aequus Foundation?
Prof. WEST: Yes.
LAMB: Gave you a grant in '94, '95. Who were they? What is that?
Prof. WEST: That one I know less about. I really don't know a
whole lot about them. I know they have given me
some--these two grants. But I can't really...
LAMB: You know where they're located?
Prof. WEST: Yeah. They're located in California, and--I just--I don't know that
much about them.
LAMB: You dedicate the book, `For my mother and father,' Irving West
and Marjorie West. Are they alive?
Prof. WEST: Oh, yes.
LAMB: Where do they live?
Prof. WEST: They're in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And...
LAMB: What do they do?
Prof. WEST: They're retired. My dad was an engineer for many years
with Ingersoll-Rand Company. Fine citizens, admirable people and I
look up to them.
LAMB: And how much influence did they have on you when you were
growing up, what you studied and where you went?
Prof. WEST: Well, they didn't particularly have any academic
influence, but, I mean, they raised me, you know, formed my character
and, in that sense, had the decisive influence.
LAMB: What is, and I take this from your book, `historicism'?
Prof. WEST: Yes.
LAMB: What does that mean?
Prof. WEST: Historicism is a common--a
commonly-held view in our time among most leading academics. It's the
view that there are no objective standards outside of the flux and
flow of the historical process. So, in other words, when the Founding
Fathers said, `All men are created equal; they're all endowed with
certain rights,' what the founders meant was--and that is never going
to change; that's always been true and it's always going to be true.
There will never be a time when men are not, by nature, free, and when
government should not be by the consent of the governed. That's
Today the argument is, `Well, that was 18th century ideas and now we
have 20th century ideas, and then you had 13 and some 14--you had
Greek ideas and Roman ideas.' The idea today is there are no objective
facts. There is no exit from this flux. There, in fact, isn't any
way to say objectively what is right and what is wrong. And that is
one of the things, I think, that is eating away at the principles of
the country and is making it difficult for the country to live by its
own original principles.
LAMB: Is there anything about the Founding Fathers you didn't like or
Prof. WEST: I think the --yeah. I think the thing that I have
the most reservation about--among--in the founders is that they had
perhaps too much faith in progress. They really--Jefferson in
particular, I guess, was the most problematic in this way. He really
thought all eyes are open or opening to the rights of man and that the
world really was going to come to a point where the shackles
of aristocracy and despotism would be broken and thrown off.
I don't think that's true. I don't think there's ever going to be a
time when despotism disappears or when human evil disappears. And the
reason is because human nature is permanent. There's always going to
be reason, but at the same time there's always going to be passion.
Now Jefferson, in a way, knew that. None of the founders were
Marxists, you know? They didn't really think that there would be some
point where all men would become capable of living together in peace
and harmony without government.
But they did have a--I think, too much faith, too much confidence in
this idea of enlightenment, the idea that everybody would eventually
see that all men are equal and all men are free. That hasn't
happened. In that sense, the world has gone backwards since the 18th
century. The common view in the 20th century is that people are not
LAMB: Have you had a chance to argue with anybody about this book yet
or somebody that totally disagrees with you? Or have you talked to
anybody that totally disagrees with you?
Prof. WEST: Yeah, sure. I've--we had a panel at the
American Political Science Association, which I was both praised and
attacked. The man who attacked me was a conservative who argued that
it is impossible to combine the belief in individual rights with the
belief in strong families and morality and serious devotion to
religion. And so his claim is that my account of the founders is just
historically inaccurate as well as logically impossible.
And when I asked what that possibly could mean, he said, `Well,
the founders didn't really believe in equality. They didn't believe
in equal rights.' And, I mean, this is a view that is
actually held by a large number of what I would call traditionalist
conservatives. I had a colleague at Dallas, Mel Bradford, who used to
hold this view. Russell Kirk, who's widely admired, holds this view.
The view is that, you know, since we want to think well of the
founders, we have to claim that the founders didn't really believe in
equal rights. Now I think that's just nutty. I think it's
both--it's historically easy to refute. But it also, it seems to me,
is just imprudent because what do these people think is going to
happen if they persuade their fellow Americans that all men are not
created equal and that all men do not deserve to be consulted in their
form of government? Who do they think is going to end up running
things? It's not going to be them.
LAMB: In your afterword at the end of the book, you quote John Hope
Franklin--and I guess the reason I want to bring this up after I read
it is ask you when you hear this quote and then you know the
president has appointed him as the chairman of his Advisory Committee
on Race Discussion, what does it mean?
Quote, "Jefferson didn't mean it when he wrote that all men are
created equal," writes historian John Hope Franklin. Quote,
"We've never meant it. The truth is we're a bigoted people and
always have been."
Prof. WEST: Right. And that's the man that President Clinton puts
in charge of a national conversation on race. This is
scandalous. I mean, this is a man whose understanding of the founding
is--it's just incompetent. I mean,
it's not true what he says. The Civil War, what Lincoln did becomes
unintelligible if he's right. I mean, Lincoln--you know, hundreds of
thousands of Americans sacrificed their lives to vindicate the
principle that all men are created equal.
And he's saying, `We've always been a bigoted people and we
always will be.' This is inaccurate and it's also a shame that
such people would be accorded high honor in our society.
LAMB: And on the next page you say that Robert Bork, for example,
thinks the founders believed in equality too much.
Prof. WEST: Yeah. That's--Bork's most recent book, "Slouching
Toward Gomorrah," makes that claim. He's got two chapters on the
Declaration, one of which he attacks their devotion to equality
and then the next one he attacks their devotion to liberty.
This is part of that conservative view that I mentioned a moment ago
where they think that in order to defend the idea of moral
restraint, of responsibility, of decency that they have to attack the
principles of the country. In other words, what they've done to some
ext--what these people like Bork are doing, I think, are they're
buying into the liberal view that if you believe in equal rights and
equality, that means you have to accept the welfare state and the
denial of property rights and the denial of traditional morality.
LAMB: What would have to happen for you to make the statement,
`This has been a terrific success, this book'?
Prof. WEST: Well, I can't say right now what that would be. I
guess--I mean, certainly it would help if it got to be well-known, if
it turns out to be a big seller.
LAMB: Do you know how many they printed first run?
Prof. WEST: I don't know the number, but I know it was substantial.
LAMB: And on the cover of your book, you have this painting. Do you
know what that is and did you have anything to do with choosing it?
Prof. WEST: Gosh, you're catching me on the spot. No, I don't. It
looks like--I don't know what it is. I can't tell you. I'll find out
for the next time.
LAMB: Go back to the earlier question...
Prof. WEST: I didn't do it.
LAMB: Go back to the earlier question of, again, advising parents
about what to tell students or advising students on how to--in a
classroom, how to figure out what the professor's up to, if anything.
What would you do if you're a student sitting in a classroom and the
professor walks in? What can they demand of the
professor--Anything?--to find out where they're coming from?
Prof. WEST: Well, the professor's gonna say what he thinks.
Prof. WEST: Well, he's gonna tell you what he wants you to learn,
OK, let's put it that way. He's gonna give you some readings and he's
gonna talk. And the job of the student is to walk into the classroom
and read what the professor says to read, listen to what he says, and
then if he's fortunate and ambitious, to find out whether it's
true; to look at alternative accounts, for example, of the same
I mean, there is-- a literature out there--a growing
literature, revisionist literature, showing all of the defects of the
prevailing dominant view of American history and the American
founding. And it's available for people to find out about and
to look it up. And I would certainly encourage them to do that.
LAMB: Can a student ask in advance about what a professor's all about before
they go to that class?
Prof. WEST: It's not practical. You walk into the
classroom, you have to--that's--your job as a student -- is to listen and to do
what the professor tells you to do. The presumption is...
LAMB: You can't...
Prof. WEST: ...you know--that this guy knows something that you don't and he's
there to help you learn it.
LAMB: But can you pick a professor at most schools? You know, can
you go to that class because the professor's teaching it? Do you have
that choice in most schools?
Prof. WEST: Yeah. You have--at most schools, you have
choice about who to take and--sure, it does--it helps if
you--I think if you ask your fellow students, find out what
people think. If someone has the reputation of being an ideologue of
either the right or the left, I'd say check it out on your own and find out.
LAMB: Our guest has been Thomas G. West of the University of Dallas
and The Claremont Institute. And this is the book, "Vindicating the
Fathers: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins." Thank you
Prof. WEST: Thanks very much, Brian.
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