Last Friday, March 16, was the 250th anniversary of the birth of James Madison—fourth president of the United States, “Father of the Constitution,” the major political theorist of The Federalist Papers and the last U.S. president to lead troops into combat (at the battle of Bladensburg, which he lost, in the War of 1812). But hardly anyone noticed. Indeed, given the shape of historical education in this country today, it's surprising anyone even knows who Madison is.
Yet someone did notice, namely columnist Seth Lipsky of The Wall Street Journal, who unleashed a column on the paper's website about what he takes to be the sudden reawakening of interest in the American Founding and those who made it. Most of what Mr. Lipsky says is unexceptionable, though I have to confess I haven't noticed all that much interest in the Founding lately. But a passing remark Mr. Lipsky emitted suggests that he and many other people harbor a radically wrong view of the Founding and therefore of what America as a public order is today.
One reason Mr. Lipsky proposes as a cause of the renewed interest in the Founding lies in what two writers in New York's City Journal in 1999, Jean M. Yarborough and Richard E. Morgan, suggest, “that America has no 'biological fathers to provide an ethnic basis' for its nationality.” “For us,” Yarborough and Morgan write, “the Founding Fathers and their ideas must do the work.”
Well, not really. The idea that America has no “biological” (or ethnic, cultural, social or other) concreteness but is simply one big idea unbosomed by the Founders has generally come to be known as the theory of the “credal nation,” that America as a nation is defined by a creed of abstract ideas, sort of like the Boy Scouts' Oath, and that the creed that defines us is contained in the opening sentences of the Declaration of Independence about all men having been created equal. That's one idea of America. It's not the only one, however.
The alternative idea is that while we certainly have our creeds, we also have a fabric or historical context that makes those creeds meaningful. The fabric or context consists precisely in the very ethnic or “biological” basis that Mr. Lipsky and his friends deny. It consists in the fact that, so far from having no “biological” fathers to provide an ethnic basis, America had nothing but an ethnic basis in the British roots of the American identity.
About 90 percent of the Americans of the founding generation were of British ethnic background—English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish—and the idea of government they inherited and adapted in America was rooted in the British political tradition — representative government; the rule of law; it regarded executive power as an institution to be checked; it recognized various “rights” of the subject incorporated into the Bill of Rights and the very body of the Constitution; and it clearly rejected both pure “democracy” and pure “equality” in favor of a republican mixed government of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.
Moreover, as Madison's Federalist co-author, John Jay, wrote in Federalist No. 2, Americans were “one united people, a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs.” In other words, there was an ethnic and cultural homogeneity to the American people that made their nation cohere and their creed and their peculiar form of government work at all. The Founders had no problem whatsoever in understanding and recognizing that America does indeed have a specific ethnic and cultural foundation and that when that foundation vanishes, the American republic disappears with it.
That foundation, as the newspapers keep telling us this week in particular, is indeed beginning to vanish. Some estimates place the British-descended stock of the United States today at a mere 20 percent or less, and even the European-descended stock has dwindled from 90 percent in the 1960s to a bare 70 percent today. Hispanics, Asians and non-Europeans of other ethnic and cultural backgrounds are well on the way to transforming the United States, for the first time in its history, into a non-European nation.
It's hardly an accident that as ethnic and racial diversity has flourished, the limited republican government the Founders created from their own British heritage has begun to wither, and the “creed” that Mr. Lipsky, Mr. Yarborough, and Mr. Morgan think defines America is now dismissed as nothing more than propaganda designed to rationalize the rule of dead white males. Maybe the new universal nation that has no “biological fathers” and no “ethnic basis” will adhere to the creed anyway, but neither history nor anything the Founders really believed give us any good reason for thinking so.
COPYRIGHT 2001 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.