The Case for Bolstering America’s Founding Principles

The Case for Bolstering America’s Founding Principles

Experts and scholars came together at The Heritage Foundation’s 2019 President’s Club Meeting on Oct. 21-23 for three days of policy discussions and inspiration at the Marriott Marquis in Washington, D.C

The following is the full transcript of a session that featured a discussion about the assault on America’s history and founding principles.

GENEVIEVE WOOD: Good afternoon everybody. It's great to see you. I've already had the chance to say hello to a number of familiar faces, but I'm really looking forward to doing that over the course of today and the rest of tomorrow, and of course a big party tomorrow evening.

WOOD: Kay's already thanked you, but I want to thank you too. You guys have no idea what a shot in the arm it is for us, when we have Presidents Club and you all show up. No, I'm dead serious. We're in a building with almost 300 like-minded great folks every day, so I get to go in and I'm with people that think like I do, but there's a lot of craziness in this town as you all know. And sometimes, I'm like, "Is anybody paying attention? Does anybody really know what they're trying to do up here?" And then you all show up and we're like, "Yes, people are paying attention. We know that they are." So thank you. Thank you. Thank you. It's just, like I said, it's such a shot of energy and really it lifts our spirits when you all are here, so thank you for being here.

WOOD: You know, Kay talked earlier about the True North principles, and as she rightly articulated, "They are definitely under attack." But it's not just our principals that are under attack. It's actually our very identity as a country. I mean the Left is isn't a full on assault against America's identity. They want to erase it. In many cases they want to try to rewrite it, but I can promise you that on our watch we're not going to let that happen, and I know that you are not either. And so that's what this session is about.

WOOD: We're going to start off with the topic as you see in your program, Bolstering America's Founding Principles and Winning the War of Ideas. And this first program, we're going to do in three parts. We're going to take a look at the history, how did it get to where we are. Then we're going to have somebody come out and make a great case for capitalism. Then we're not just going to talk about young people, we're going to actually bring some young people up here who are fighting these battles on their college campuses today, and they're not just fighting them, they're actually winning them. And we're going to talk about what they've learned, and how you can take that back, because we want to have application as well, how you can take this back to your communities as well.

WOOD: So to get us kicked off, I want to introduce one of my colleagues, one of my favorite colleagues at the office, Angela Sailor. Angela has over 20 years of experience in Washington. She's worked at The White House, she's worked on Capitol Hill, she's worked at the Department of State, but we're delighted she now is at Heritage, and she's the Vice President of the Edwin J. Feulner Institute. Now many of you know a lot about Ed Feulner, I see him out in the audience, but you're going to learn a lot more about the new Institute tomorrow. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Angela Sailor.

ANGELA SAILOR: Well good afternoon everyone. We are so excited for Presidents Club, and we are so excited about a wonderful survey that we did. Some of you participated in it, and it was on your thoughts about American exceptionalism. And we want you to know that your heritage is listening. One of the things that came back from that survey is that you wanted to hear high-profile scholars and intellectuals define American exceptionalism, in terms of the new climate that we're in. And we really looked at that survey and paid a lot of attention. So therefore we are going to invite you today to participate in what will be a podcast at a later date, but we're going to record it here and we want to invite you to be a part of it, and it is called Bolstering the American Principles and Values. And we again have been listening to you and joining me are the high profile scholars and intellectuals to talk about American exceptionalism.

SAILOR: To my Left is Dr. James Ceaser. He is a professor at the University of Virginia. And seated next to him, is the world renowned Dr. Allen Guelzo. As you know, he has studied Lincoln and The Civil War and has really helped our country understand history and the dynamics of that period of time. And then last but not least, is Dr. Melissa Moschella. She is an Assistant Professor at Catholic University and she deals a lot with parental rights and civics. And we are so excited to have all of you here.

SAILOR: I wanted to begin with asking you to however you like to kind of think about things. I want us to think about President Ronald Reagan and his words about, "The American shining city upon the hill, whose beacon of light, God's freedom, loving people from everywhere." And as you just think about that for a moment, reflect on what that means for you, what that means for your children, and what that means for your grandchildren, and what you're willing to do to ensure that generation, after generation, after generation can enjoy those pleasant thoughts of freedom and opportunity and liberty. You know, there is a rhetoric out there, that this country isn't what it says it is, or what it was founded to be. But like you, The Heritage Foundation says that that is absolutely ridiculous, and we don't believe it for one minute. So as I turn to our scholars and our intellectuals, I'd like to kick it off with having you define American exceptionalism, that compelling message, based on your special area of study. So Dr. Ceaser, let's start with you.

JAMES CEASER: Well thanks Angela. Exceptionalism to me refers to our fundamental principles, principles that form our tradition, and principles that we conservatives cherish. So the most important is probably certainly liberty, the natural right to be free of a very active government that continues to make its failings felt in all areas. Thanks to Senator Warren, who will form a government, which will set all our medical care, that will assign everyone the amount of wealth that they should have, and that will finally interfere in everything we do in our universities, once public tuition sets in. But bear this in mind, I think liberty does not mean that everyone just sits around and does his own thing. Liberty is understood to be an activity, in which people engage with others, forming arrangements and agreements with each others to create charitable institutions, economic institutions, educational institutions.

CEASER: We call this sphere, a civil society, and a free people has governed I think as much by civil society as it is by government. Exceptionalism is misunderstood, if it means that we alone possess these traditions and principles that we always will be the exceptions. I think that's false. Other nations have adopted some of our principles in part or in whole, and our hope is to spread these principles far and right. So exceptionalism is really the friend of universalism, not its enemy. Exceptionalism, I think finally means that we were the first to declare these principles as our own, to announce this to the world and to make it clear to the world. We haven't always followed them, but the principles have always been there. And John Adams said it the best, "We began to dance," and he uttered that before Sean Spicer ever did the tango on Dancing for the Stars.

SAILOR: Dr Guelzo.

ALLEN GUELZO: Angela, I think it's safe to say that the founding of the American Republic followed a pattern never before seen in human societies. It modeled itself on the scientific revolution of the 17th century, by trying to find a natural order in human politics, rather than fall back upon the artificial and irrational hierarchies that govern the way the ancients understood both the physical and the political universes. So our Declaration of Independence stated as a self-evident truth of nature, "That all men are created equal." Our Constitution prohibited all titles of nobility, and required virtually all of its offices to be matters of public election, rather than inheritance or class.

GUELZO: The American Republic would therefore be a theater of those who, like Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas, could be self-made men. And the solutions to the problems of their day would be governed by a host of voluntary associations, working from the bottom up rather than through government from the top down. And yet nature is not always kind or predictable, and neither has been the path of the Republic. There has always been the temptation to slide back into the comfortable abyss of hierarchy, whether it be the racial hierarchy of slaveholders in the civil war era, or the newer hierarchies of bureaucracy and socialism. But that temptation has always been resisted, and our task today is to resist it in its newer forms as well.

SAILOR: Thank you. Thank you. Dr. Moschella.

MELISSA MOSCHELLA: Well, America's founders recognize the crucial role that strong families and robust civil society play in the health of our nation. And they understood that government needs to be limited to respect the authority of families and civic associations and religious institutions, to direct their own affairs without unnecessary government intrusion. They also recognize that a free society cannot thrive without virtuous citizens, and virtue is taught primarily and most effectively in the family and in partnership with communities of faith.

MOSCHELLA: In his seminal work, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that, America had succeeded where other experiments in self government had failed in large part due to strong families and the influence of religion, inculcating the qualities of character that are necessary for healthy civic life. Both of these pillars of our democracy are in some sense being threatened right now, and we need to work hard to reinvigorate them.

SAILOR: Thank you. Thank you.

SAILOR: Well, we want to really delve in, in the short period of time that we have, to look at some of these issues from a very practical standpoint. Dr Ceaser, you and I have had some conversations about this environment that we're in, where people are calling to abolish the Constitution. They have a feeling, or they have a sense that it's now inadequate to deal with the political environment that we're in now, to deal with some of the challenges we have, the lack of civil discourse.

SAILOR: So what I'd like you to do is to talk about that, but from the standpoint of an uncomfortable situation for one of our audience members, our members of the Heritage Foundation, that they're in a uncomfortable situation in a classroom learning and they're the only person who has the viewpoint that they have, that the Constitution is great, that it should be preserved, that it represents freedom and liberty. And they are sitting there battling against a room full of people who want to abolish it.

SAILOR: Our president, Kay Coles James says to our interns, "You're not here to annihilate the Left, but to win them over." So help us talk about that. How do we win them over with our position and oftentimes being the only one standing?

CEASER: Ah, that lonely feeling, yeah.

CEASER: Yeah, you mentioned the Left and the views of the Left. One of the problems with the Left is it always takes different names for itself. So going back 120 years ago, they were called, the progressives. Then with FDR, they became known as liberals for most of the 20th century. When that term became unpopular, they went back and called themselves progressives for a second time. Today they call themselves as socialists, and you could ask what's next? And they only have 12 years to decide before the earth goes under.

CEASER: Now as you mentioned Angela, when speaking about the Constitution and its supporters, I would say that the Left today as it appears publicly is schizophrenic about the Constitution. It's schizophrenic, because publicly it appears that it supports the Constitution on many points. Look at Nancy Pelosi in the last week, she prayed on television that we would follow the Constitution in this attempt to impeach the president, and that she didn't care about the outcome of the next election, just the Constitution. She loved it so much.

CEASER: So this would be one instance and then we also hear the people on the Left today, speaking of the importance of federalism, this old value. Federalism of course for California, as it enacts every sort of regulation imaginable on human beings, but now, the Left favors this as well as sanctuary cities. But look back a minute, how honest is this approach?

CEASER: If you think of the last year of the Obama administration and where the Left was at that point, you didn't hear any of this sort of talk. The last years of the Obama administration, was give more power to the president, allow the president to sign any sorts of decrees that he wanted. This was the direction in which the Left was going and it hoped for a judicial system, which could creatively make the country anew, under the guides of the Constitution, but not really following the Constitution, following what's called the living Constitution. So to that extent, they believe in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

CEASER: But back to I think where we are today, I think underlying all of this and going back 120 years ago, the Left is hostile to the Constitution, and they said this as much in the early progressive era. They talked about concentrating all powers in the hands of the presidency, eliminating the separation of powers, which was claimed to be a relic, and putting more power in the hands of an administrative state run by what was called an order president, and who could have been more order president than our last president, who was so adept at that activity.

CEASER: I think Liberals moved away from that view, because they saw that the American people weren't following them. What they said that they were going to keep the Constitution. Very nice, but underneath that, the Constitution was to be reformed in every way possible. Giving to the judiciary, the power to make of the Constitution what it will, asking The President and the Administrative State to do what it will to change things. This was, I think, the tack and remains the tack. I think you could say that the last view of the Constitution is transactional. They're going to do with the Constitution what will help them, and they'll forget it, say the week later. Or if they're being good, maybe the month later, but that will end their fidelity to the Constitution. And I think what we need are people who honestly favor the Constitution, and I hope and I trust that many more of those people are to be found on the conservative side.

SAILOR: Absolutely, absolutely.

SAILOR: Dr. Guelzo, our time isn't very long, so I want to get as much information for our audience out of you all as possible. So I want to talk about Howard Zinn and the 1619 project and this whole notion America was founded on slavery. And we have parents today, who were very concerned about a curriculum seeping into their children's classrooms, and the parents don't quite know what to do. How to respond in a parent teacher conference when being confronted with issues like this, and really how to be bold and courageous to go forward and say, "We need primary resources to teach from." Could you respond to that?

GUELZO: Well, Angela, the American Republic inherited slavery from the British Empire. In much the same way that it inherited its fiscal poverty, its lack of manufacturing capability and its primitive infrastructure. We expected to overcome all of those in time, and we would have dealt with slavery the same way too. At the Constitutional Convention, in 1787, Gouverneur Morris attacked slavery wholesale as, "A nefarious institution, which had the curse of heaven where it prevailed."

GUELZO: But the expectation of the founders was also that slavery was a dying institution. So the Constitutional Convention turned a blind eye to slavery, even as it insisted that, "The blind eye was not meant," as James Madison said, "To admit in the Constitution, the idea that there could be property in men." Well, they were of course wrong. The explosion of Britain's industrial revolution, which was built on the production of cotton textiles and the invention of the cotton gin, turned slave-based cotton agriculture into a roaring inferno of profitability. And profitability, first erased shame, and then stimulated angry self-justification, and instead if painlessly winking out, slavery had to be exterminated by the force of civil war, before it could strangle the life of the Republic itself. Even then we botched the eradication of slavery's racial legacy, through a badly designed reconstruction, and we've been paying the price for that ever since.

GUELZO: This however, is not the story told by the so-called 1619 project, designed largely by the journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and members of the New York Times editorial staff. The 1619 project aspires through essays, poems, and short fiction to rewrite entirely the narrative of American slavery. Not as an unwilling inheritance of British colonialism, but as the love object of American capitalism from its very origins. Not as a blemish, which the founders grudgingly tolerated with the understanding that it must soon evaporate, but as the prize, the Constitution went out of its way to secure and protect. Not as a regrettable chapter and the distant American past, but the living breathing pattern upon which all American social life is based, world without end.

GUELZO: This is not history. This is polemic, and a polemic born in the imagination of those whose primary target is capitalism itself, and who hoped to tarnish capitalism by associating it with slavery. Nevermind that no single American, North or South before 1861, ever imagined that slavery and capitalism were anything but mortal enemies. The pro-slavery apologist George Fitzhugh, frankly declared that slavery was a form not of capitalism but of feudal socialism. The anti-slavery President, Abraham Lincoln, explained the war on slavery as a war on behalf of free labor.

GUELZO: Again, the 1619 project is not history. It is conspiracy theory, and like all conspiracy theories, the 1619 project announces with a eureka, that it has acquired the explanation to everything. And thus gives an aggrieved audience a sense that finally it is in control, through its understanding of the real cause of its unhappiness. But historians and most of journalists know that human experience is multivalent, contingent and contradictory, and it bodes ill for the 1619 projects. That while conspiracy theories also arouse tidal waves of attention in their first unveiling, they also like the grassy knoll and the blood libel, also quickly wear out, because of their ability to explain everything, usually ends up explaining nothing.

GUELZO: Once again, the 1619 project is not history. It is ignorance. The 1619 project claims that the American revolution was staged to protect slavery, although it never once occurs to the project to ask, in that case, why the British West Indies, which had a far larger and infinitely more malignant slave system than the 13 North American Colonies, never joined us in that revolution. It claims that the Constitution's three-fifths clause was designed by the founders as the keystone, which we keep the slave states in power.

GUELZO: Although the 1619 project somehow seems not to have noticed, that at the time of the Constitutional Convention, all of the states were slave states, save only Massachusetts. So that the three-fifths clause could not have been intended to confer such a mysterious power on slavery, unless the founders had come to the convention equipped with crystal balls. And it behaves as though the civil war never happened, but the slaves somehow freed themselves. That a white president never put weapons into the hands of black men, and bid them kill rebels who had taken up arms in defense of bondage. The 1619 project forgets, in other words, that there was an 1863 project, and that its name was Emancipation.

GUELZO: Finally, the 1619 project is not history. It is evangelism, but evangelism for a gospel of disenchantment, whose ultimate purpose is the hollowing out of the meaning of freedom, so that every defense of freedom drops nervously from the hands of people who have been made too ashamed to defend it. No nation can live without a history.

SAILOR: Thank you. Dr Moschella, Dr. Guelzo talked about emancipation and you wrote a book, the title of it is, To Whom Do Our Children Belong? It seems like, we've got this dynamic going on in our culture right now of parents' rights. Could you talk to us a little bit about parents' rights and the taking over of parents' rights, and what should we do about this?

MOSCHELLA: Several years ago, there was an MSNBC promo spot in which Melissa Harris-Perry, a political scientist claimed that, "We have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents or kids belong to their families, and recognize that kids belong to whole communities." That claim reflects the troubling but unfortunately dominant view in the Academy and on the Left, that the education of children is first and foremost the task of the state rather than parents. These views would deny the primacy of parents' educational authority, and argue that the state can and should require children to be exposed to values and ways of life that are in conflict with the ways of life, the values that they're trying to teach their children at home. And that the state has the right to mandate "diversity education" or "tolerance education programs", even in private schools. That the state can and perhaps should outlaw homeschooling, and that parents and principal have no right to opt their children out of programs that they object to in the public schools.

MOSCHELLA: Just to give an example. There was a 1987 sixth circuit court case, called Mozart vs Hawkins, that denied the request of Christian parents in Tennessee to exempt their children from a diversity oriented reading curriculum, that they believed conflicted with and undermined their religious beliefs and values that they were trying to pass on to their children at home. People like Melissa Harris-Perry and those on the Left agree with the court's decision in that case. And the sort of curriculum that the parents were objecting to there, was by no means unique, and that was 1987. So imagine the many ways in which parents can object to curriculum now, right?

MOSCHELLA: You know, there's evidence of systematic textbook bias against religion and traditional moral values. One study done by Paul Vitz found that religion, traditional values and conservative political and economic positions have been reliably excluded from children's textbooks. For example, none of the social studies textbooks that he looked at for grades one through six contained even one word referring to any religious activity, let alone a recognition that our nation's founders understood that religion was an incredibly important institution for the health of our society. That as we saw today, one of the first things that they did, which set up a chaplaincy for themselves, and that the government has always been in partnership with religious organizations, particularly to promote the religious and moral education of children, which they recognized as essential to the health of our democracy.

MOSCHELLA: Now today, right after the Obergefell decision and with increasing influence of transgender activism, many schools are promoting experimentation with LGBT identities and lifestyles, often under the guise of anti-bullying programs and often without any disguise at all. In one very sad case that I learned about directly from the parents, a teenage boy who was questioning his sexual orientation, which is not that uncommon for somebody going through puberty, confided in his guidance counselor about this. The guidance counselor, without even informing the parents, sent the boy to an LGBT organization. That organization turned the child against his family, encouraged him to experiment with that lifestyle, got him to stop seeing the therapist that he'd been seeing for years to deal with the effects of abuse at the hands of an older bully in school, when he was younger.

MOSCHELLA: As a result, he started to engage in all sorts of destructive behaviors, had a number of psychological problems and so on, that he had not had before. Eventually, The Department of Children and Families in Massachusetts, basically kidnapped the kid, took him away from the parents without even accusing them of abuse and neglect. And apparently this is something that they are kind of trained to do, that they typically do with parents of traditional moral values, when dealing with children going through these kinds of issues, and they boast about this.

MOSCHELLA: So these are real issues that parents are confronting today on many, on many fronts. Just last year in Ohio, parents lost custody of their teenage daughter, because they didn't want to have her undergo hormone treatments to transition to a male gender identity, in spite of the fact that there's no good evidence that these treatments actually resolve gender dysphoria in the long run. And in spite of the fact that these treatments result in permanent loss of fertility and significant longterm health risks. The parents, because they wanted to preserve their daughter from these very serious health risks, ended up losing custody of their child. Right?

MOSCHELLA: So these are very significant threats that we need to deal with. And if somebody like Melissa Harris-Perry is right, and kids belong primarily to the whole community and not to parents, then these are the kinds of outcomes that we should expect. So it's important to really understand the roots of parents' educational authority, and it's important that parents take action and stand up for their rights.

MOSCHELLA: The Supreme court has repeatedly affirmed the primacy of parent's educational authority as a fundamental liberty, deeply rooted in our nation's history, but really the ultimate foundation of parental rights is deeper than that. It's a matter of natural law. That higher law that Martin Luther King Jr. appealed to in his struggle against the unjust laws of the Jim Crow South. To borrow a metaphor from Thomas Aquinas, the family is kind of like a spiritual womb and it's just as natural for children to be raised to maturity within the spiritual womb of their family, under the authority and care of their parents, as it is for children to be gestated in the physical womb of their mother's. Physical gestation ends with birth, but full human gestation takes much longer until the child reaches a level of maturity, at which he can direct his own life. And the family grounded in marriage is a natural authority structure that corresponds to unchanging features of human nature and deep human needs, especially the needs of children.

MOSCHELLA: The state didn't create that structure and it's not from the state that parents get their authority. Parents have that authority by nature and the state has no right to take it away or encroach on it, except in cases of genuine abuse and neglect.

SAILOR: Thank you. We are having so much fun and there's so much information to be discussed, and we wanted to give you a tease of it so that you would know about some of the work that your Heritage Foundation will be doing over the next year.

SAILOR: I want to thank our scholars for your insights, and I want to encourage all of you to know and to believe that as our president, Kay Coles James has said, "There's no place we won't go, and there's no one we won't talk to, to talk about our freedoms, our founding documents, and the principles and values of this nation." And as our founder, Dr. Ed Feulner, in terms of his motto, "We will continue to add and multiply to this movement, to preserve the legacy of freedom for this country."