Vital Remnants: America's Founding and the Western Tradition
edited by Gary L. Gregg II
ISI Books * 1999 * 369 pages * $24.95
This book is a collection of essays that had their genesis in lectures delivered at a week-long conference on "America and the Western Tradition," in Colonial Williamsburg in 1998. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) brought together some of the best students and college faculty in the country to explore the Western roots of the American constitutional order. Professor Gary L. Gregg, who holds the Mitch McConnell Chair in Leadership at the University of Louisville, has written a fine introduction and done a superb job in editing the ten well-crafted essays that make up the volume.
The various authors do not subscribe to the popularized notion that everything is relative; nor do they call true whatever happens to be useful in achieving political goals, whether conservative or "liberal"-including certain progressive constructions of history. Instead, they explain and reflect on the long tradition of Western civilization and culture of which America is part. As Gregg states in his introduction, "America is a multicultural nation because it is a Western nation and it is in that Western heritage that our values and our institutions find their roots and continuing vitality." The Founding generation also contributed to Western tradition and, in that sense, our inheritance is both Western and uniquely American.
In that vein, Wilfred McClay opens the collection with a question: "Is America an Experiment?" His is an interesting discussion, because the word "experiment" actually occurs in 24 of The Federalist papers. McClay uses the language of Washington, Hamilton, and others to demonstrate the degree to which the Founders believed America was "experimental." The connotations of their day reduce the spirit of radical experimentation substantially. Their "declaration of independence" was political; it was independence not from every stable arrangement, tradition, or given, and the states were to be "laboratories of democracy" only within very serious constraints.
E. Christian Kopff demonstrates the important influence the classics had on the Founding generation, though mediated by Christianity and American experience. To the extent we fail to understand a basic Western canon, including the classics and tenets of Christianity, we are distanced from our Founders' vision and philosophy. Indeed, Graham Walker contends in his essay that our constitutional order was grounded in Augustinian theology, which came to frame an American notion of common sense.
Robert George sees the Founders as dedicated to a natural-law understanding of politics, …