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       book review
 
 

Review of the book, We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future, by Matthew Spalding (Wilmington, Delaware: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2009).


Before you read the review you may like to watch this video about the book.
The video is produced by the Heritage Foundation which has been 
advocating American First Principles for many years.  You may find out 
about Heritage at
heritage.org




America is in a desperate place.  Its existence as a constitutional republic is in jeopardy.  Matthew Spalding makes this analysis, “A national government once limited to certain core functions has an all but unquestioned dominance over virtually every area of American life, restricted only by expediency, political will, and (less and less) budget constraints” (p. 215). 
 

This book should be read by every American who has a concern about the future of their country.  This is a book that every high school student in America should have as a textbook to read, study and digest.  It would be good study for all college students and it ought to be required reading for all government elected officials.  I would give them a test on the contents.
 

Matthew Spalding has presented the reader with the essential principles of the American founding documents and the thought of the American founders.  He has done so in a readable and understandable manner so that a person with average intelligence can easily grasp what he is saying. 
 

Though this is not a technical book, he has intertwined the thoughts of the Founders in such a way that the reader quickly grasps that these principles came from the Founders and were incorporated in the Declaration of Independence and The United States Constitution.  
 

Spalding identifies the following ten foundational principles:
 

1.  Liberty.  The founders viewed liberty as freedom “within the context of constitutional and moral order”; not the freedom to do anything and everything.  The roots of this liberty was founded in their British heritage.  Religious faith, especially Protestant Reformed Christianity,  was the foremost force shaping their ideas of liberty.
 

This religious faith was crucial as the underpinning of American liberty because it viewed liberty as a gift of God prior to government.  Government did not grant liberties; it only existed to protect liberties.  Human beings were created in the image of God and this informed the founders understanding of human nature and government (Spalding, pp. 14-15). 
 

2.  Equality.  One of the fundamental natural rights of all men is equality.  All persons are to be given equal protection by the law.  The founders did not mean that all people would be equal in terms of talents, abilities, wealth, property or ambition.  Furthermore, these rights are fundamental and not simply anything that someone wants.  These rights are self-evident; they proceed “from an understanding of man and his place in the nature of things” (p. 43).  These rights pre-exist government and ultimately limit government. 
 

Thomas Jefferson wrote that their “rights derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their Chief Magistrate” (p. 44). 
 

3.  Natural Rights.  The Declaration of Independence lays down the principle that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights….”  These rights belong to all people by virtue of a common human nature; a nature that is capable of judging right from wrong.  It is the “laws of nature and nature’s God,” the Creator that gives these rights and so they are universal and for all time.  These are fundamental rights that cannot be justly denied or interfered with by others.
 

4.  Consent of the Governed.  If all men are equal then there is no natural right to rule.  Government must be established by a voluntary agreement among the sovereign people.  Popular consent must abide by the rights and responsibilities of constitutional agreement and the majority cannot do anything it pleases; the fundamental rights of the minority are protected.  The enlightened consent of the people ultimately determines the legitimacy of government.
 

5.  Religious Freedom.  Many religious groups came to America for religious liberty.  This developed in America a diversity of religious belief and practice.  There is no more fundamental human freedom than the right to worship as one’s conscience determines.  The founders’ idea of religious liberty was that government could not answer the questions of faith.  There would be no one official church or denomination of the nation.  But this never meant that there would be a complete separation of politics and religion or that religion would be eliminated from public life. 
 

The founders believed that religion was necessary for the success of popular government therefore they gave wide freedom to the practice of religion.  George Washington argued that no nation would prosper that “disregards the external rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained” (p. 59). 
 

6.  Private Property.  Founder James Otis declared, “Can there be any liberty where property is taken without consent?”  The Founders believed that property (and therefore free enterprise) was an important part of liberty.  The right to the fruit of one’s labor was a precondition for the enjoyment of other liberties.  Property was not just viewed in economic terms; it was the dynamic for allowing civil liberties to flourish.  In a republic property must be protected by law, including the acquiring and disposing of property as one chooses.  Property is a line of defense against government that would take other liberties from the people. 
 

7.  The Rule of Law.  Spalding calls this “the great foundation of our Constitution” (p. 81).  Governments as well as the governed are to be subject to the law and everyone is to be treated equally before the law.  Thomas Paine wrote that in America “The Law is King.”  In order to put this principle into practice the Founders produced the Constitution of the United States.  Americans wanted and received in this Constitution an “enduring structure and process for securing their rights and liberties and spell out the division of powers within government and its overall limits” (p. 88). 
 

8.  Constitutionalism.  The Founders produced a Constitution that could be understood and debated by the common man.  The Constitution “preserved a republican form of government…and avoided despotism and tyranny” (p. 100).  It created a government of delegated and enumerated powers.  Government only has those powers that have been given it by the consent of the governed.  The Constitution came into existence by a national consensus and changes to the Constitution also required a “deliberative, reasonable, and legitimate” national consensus (p. 115). 
 

George Washington counseled the new American nation that “the basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their Constitutions of Government….But the Constitution which at any time exists till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole People, is sacredly obligatory upon all” (p. 116). 
 

9.  Self-Government.  The Founders understood self-government to include both political self-government and moral self-government.  The foundation of republican government is people governing themselves, their families and their communities.  It was the institutions of family, religion and community that developed citizen virtues in the people.  As John Adams observed, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other” (p. 139).  American virtues included self-reliance, courage, risk-taking, competitiveness, knowledge of the meaning of free government and liberty, self-restraint and respect toward lawful authority (pp. 144-142). 
 

10.  Independence.  In the American Revolution the people declared their independence from Great Britain and the creation of a new and independent country.  The Declaration of Independence claims that America is its own sovereign nation among the nations of the world.  The primary function of the national government was to defend the American people at home and abroad.  Furthermore, the Declaration appealed to a law higher than all other communities and nations; the law of the Supreme Judge, Almighty God.  America is unique in that it was founded on universal principles, but it is also a particular nation with its own history and circumstances.  American foreign policy should seek to apply these universal principles to the practical realities facing the nation. 

Prudence is key understanding of the Founders’ approach to foreign policy.  George Washington advised the country to seek self-sufficiency, command its own fortunes and maintain its sovereign independence (p. 169). 

 

One of the most important chapters in the book is entitled, “A New Republic: The Progressive Assault on the Founders’ Principles.”  The author shows how the Progressive movement of the early 20th century sought to replace the Constitution with its own ideas of good government.  They denied that there was any such thing as permanent principles and universal law.  They asserted that all ideas are relative to time and place.  Old ideas are relevant only to old times and we must change our ideas with the changing times.  The insights into our current cultural and political decline in this chapter are worth the price of the book. 

 

The author ends on a note of hope in his chapter, “American Renewal: The Case for Reclaiming Our Future.”  Spalding offers this advice, “The change we need is not the rejection of America’s principles but a great renewal of these permanent truths about man, politics, and liberty---the foundational principles and constitutional wisdom that are the true roots of our country’s greatness” (p. 221).  His book will help you begin to reclaim those principles for yourself and those you love. 

CKS