A first step to expertise on the American founding
It is not yet clear when life is going to return to something like normal in these United States. Meanwhile, many of us have our schedules freed up dramatically. What to do with all that newfound free time? May I suggest we consider taking advantage of this perhaps once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to deepen our understanding of the American founding? Understanding the founding is, after all, the citizen's duty and the patriot's joyful obligation.
A great place to start is a book with the perfect title for our project, The American Founding. What especially recommends this book, in addition to its laser-like focus on our project, is its brevity. There are only 145 pages, made up of only seven brief chapters, each written by a different brilliant student of the founding.
I like brief books. (And I practice what I preach; my own book on the founding has only 176 pages.) Sometimes less really is more. I have good large books on my shelves that have much better brief books buried deep within their pages. Generally, it is a greater challenge to make your point in fewer pages. The beauty of a book of few words is that the writer has to get right to the point — and is often able to get the point even more right as a result.
I recommend that you start with whichever chapter catches your fancy, but one approach would be to start with chapter two, Michael Novak's article on religion and the founding. Written in an open and inviting style, it gives you the gist of his excellent book On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding. If you like this chapter, you will surely like that book.
From there you might skip to chapter four, "The Universal Principles of the American Founding," by my esteemed Claremont Institute colleague Tom West. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book.
Daniel Robinson of Oxford and Georgetown University is the co-editor of the book and the author of the chapter on education. The Founders understood that the common sense of the American people must be strengthened by an education that prepares us for our role as the nation's sovereign.
Professor Robinson, now deceased, was a great and dedicated and generous teacher. He kindly read a draft of my book Common Sense Nation and gave me invaluable feedback. I had shied away from addressing one issue because I had not found a way to present it simply, as the design of the book required. He spotted the gap right away and urged me to find a way to address it. The breakthrough that resulted was one of my three most treasured memories of writing the book, and I am eternally grateful to him.
Fittingly, the final chapter is the one on Constitutionalism. It is by Hadley Arkes. I have learned a lot from him, both from his writings and in person. He can be as brilliant as his dear friend Dan Robinson and as funny as Groucho Marx at the same time, though he eschews humor in this chapter.
If you pick up this book, I urge you to read this chapter especially. I make this special urging not because it is difficult, but because it is a kind of writing that may seem unfamiliar unless you have read enough of the writing of the Founders to have a feel for how they thought. The Founders were masters of a rigorous mode of thinking called "common sense realism." It combined common sense with philosophic depth and rigor. The chapter by Professor Arkes is a modern specimen of that kind of thinking.
When Lord Acton visited Harvard in the 1850s, he found that the junior year there featured a year-long course in Thomas Reid, the father of common sense realism. Harvard was in no way an exception in its dedication to common sense realism. At that time, it was at the core of the curriculum in every American college, necessarily because it was understood then that young people needed to learn to think like the Founders.
If you quickly tune in to how this chapter works, take a victory lap. If it takes some time to get the hang of it, hang in there. In either case, I recommend that you save this one for last.
If you do get a copy of the book, I'm betting that it will, like mine, find an honored place on your bookshelves to be revisited from time to time as the need arises.
Robert Curry serves on the Board of Directors of the Claremont Institute. He is the author of Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea from Encounter Books.