Wednesday, December 9, 2009


By Matthew Spalding

ISI Books, $29.65, 288 pages

Reviewed by John R. Coyne Jr.

“When in danger, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.” A slogan for our times? Perhaps, especially if you’re conservative, or Republican, or a combination of the two. And since it’s a big tent, there’s plenty of room for conservative Democrats and independents as well. Today a great cacophony of chatter and babble emanates mainly from Washington pundits, panelists and politicos, issuing a steady stream of advice about what to do next, the most common prescription being to do whatever was most recently politically successful - in other words, become more liberal.

Conservatism is passe, the line goes, the age of Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley Jr. has faded like an old daguerreotype, and the principles they adhered to - principles that gave us direction and shaped a powerful political movement - are now just matters of strained and dated rhetoric, with no meaningful contemporary application.

Is that true? Matthew Spalding says not at all.

Mr. Spalding, whose specialty at the Heritage Foundation is American political history and constitutionalism, believes that despite the current drive in Washington to radically expand the reach of government, the timeless principles that have structured our nation remain immutable.

In “We Still Hold These Truths,” Mr. Spalding lays out those core principles - liberty and equality, natural rights and the consent of the governed, religious liberty and private property, the rule of law and constitutionalism, self-government and independence.

He takes us through American history from the earliest days to the present, demonstrating how these first principles, deeply rooted in Western history, were understood by our Founders and came to define our national identity, and he also shows us just how far we’ve strayed.

Mr. Spalding examines the assault on these basic principles by the “progressives” who in large part control the universities, the law schools and the national media, and have in recent years, with great success, intensified their attacks. As a result, the federal government has been provided with the relativistic rationale justifying massive federal intrusion into every aspect of our daily lives, with “change” as the only watchword, and with little or no concern for what they see as outdated and irrelevant constitutional limitations.

Perhaps even worse, as Mr. Spalding reminds us, is the way in which we’ve all let it happen. It’s up to us as individual Americans, he tells us, to bring this assault to a halt: “We need to reclaim the idea that self-governing citizens have a serious responsibility to defend the principles and practices of constitutional liberty … self-government compels knowledgeable citizens to assume their moral obligation to be involved in American political life, from the local school board to the highest offices of the land.”

Ignorance may be bliss, but eventually it also leads to the loss of freedom. Mr. Spalding quotes Reagan: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States when men were free.”

In this splendid, strongly written study, Mr. Spalding sets out to halt the slide toward mindless collectivism by setting out a strategy for restoring America’s defining principles and reincorporating them into the social, political and economic life of our nation - and in so doing, as William Bennett puts it in his foreword, “makes a clear and compelling case for America’s principles as an enduring source of real, practical guidance for today explaining how we got so far off track, and laying out how to get our nation back on course.”

Now what may be required is that we quiet that Washington-based cacophony, turn down the volume and, as Mr. Spalding advises, think about where we are, how we got here and where we want to go as a nation. If we could do that, we might actually be able to have an authentic national discussion, free of high emotionalism and expedient political concerns. And if that were possible, there’d be no better starting point for our discussion than Mr. Spalding’s eloquent explication and defense of our nation’s first and Founding principles.

One suspects that Ronald Reagan would strongly approve.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author with Linda Bridges of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley, 2007).

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