The James Wilson Foundation on Natural Rights and the American Founding

“Our Divided House: A Review of Charles Kesler’s Crisis of Two Constitutions” — Gerard V. Bradley

Gerard Bradley reviews Kesler’s Crisis of Two Constitutions, which argues for a “reborn American conservatism” with natural law principles and the Constitution at its center. Not only does our constitutional government presuppose a virtuous citizenry, but public virtue will last only if we uphold the morality of our constitution.

Some excerpts:

Lincoln is a recurring focus of Charles Kesler’s superb and most timely new book, Crisis of the Two Constitutions. One reason is that Lincoln possessed a profound understanding of the American constitution; Kesler’s book is about its present critical condition.  Another reason is that Lincoln spoke more eloquently than anyone else ever has about the central theme of Crisis, which is that the United States was founded on universal principles of justice ‘applicable to all men and all times’.  Kesler expresses the point when he calls for a recovery of the ‘principles of the American Revolution’, which include ‘permanent standards of right and wrong that were valid for human beings as such’.

“The crisis in Crisis is this: ‘Every republic eventually faces what might be called the Weimar problem.  Has the national culture, popular and elite, deteriorated so much that the virtues necessary to sustain republican government are no longer viable?’ Have we arrived at our Weimar moment?  Not yet, according to Kesler.  But ‘it is not too early to wonder.'”  

Kesler therefore does not take up directly the central question of contemporary constitutional conservatism, which is how moral truths – ‘permanent standards of right and wrong’ — are to be integrated into judicial interpretation of the Constitution.  This crucial matter, most ably explored today by Hadley Arkes, is nonetheless indirectly illumined by Kesler’s argument that natural law and natural rights were our nation’s founding ‘principles’.  These truths await (if you will) their proper placement into working constitutional law. Crisis is thus a prolegomenon to Arkes’ (and others’) project of reforming today’s constitutional conservatism.”  

Crisis also establishes beyond reasonable doubt that the heart of the matter lies elsewhere, in the people’s virtue, in moral truth, in natural rights, in unchanging norms of justice — what Kesler calls the ‘principles of the Revolution’.   Note well: these ‘principles’ are architectonic  of the historical epic that was our war for independence.  That makes them noteworthy, and consequential.  It does not make them true.  Kesler asserts that they are true and that the founders thought so, too.  He is right on both counts, and that is the heart of this book.  Every time Kesler looks back at the Revolution and recommends it as a model for renewal today, he is doing much more than summoning a formative moment in our times.  He is appealing to critical moral truths, especially about natural justice.

Kesler is not here making the familiar claim that the founders thought that republican government presupposes a virtuous citizenry.  They did think that, and it is true as far as it goes.  But putting the matter that way connotes something different from what Kesler maintains.  The familiar expression suggests that the form of government in fact rests upon popular virtue, where virtue is both conceptually and practically independent of the form.  Kelser argues that the founders welded them together.  They were and are mutually interdependent.  The familiar expression implies that without the requisite virtue, the constitutional system will falter.  It implies nothing about virtue withering as the constitution decays.  Kesler does. He thinks that if you subvert the constitutional order, popular virtue will atrophy with it. This is perhaps the central thesis of the book.

Read the full piece here.

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Law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love, unless they first become the objects of our knowledge.
— James Wilson, Lectures on Law, 1790