A flawed book on 'the Founders'.

Author:Neal Coyle
Position::Book review
 
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The Founders' Key: The Divine and Natural Connection Between the Declaration and the Constitution and What We Risk by Losing It, by Larry P. Arnn. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012. 224 pp. $19.99.

The Founders' Key by Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, explores the unity between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, criticizes the interpretations that would drive the two asunder, and exposits the Founders' original intent in drafting both documents. This is no small task for a book of just over two hundred pages, about a hundred pages of which are taken up by the texts of the Declaration; Constitution; Federalist Papers 10, 39, 48, 49, and 51; and Madison's "Property."

Arnn's thesis is familiar: the Founders' "key" is the idea that the Declaration and Constitution are expressions of the same transcendent principles applied to the political realm. The Declaration is the articulation of those principles--especially divine rule through natural law, the rule of reason in American government, the equality of all despite natural variety, and the loosely Platonic idea that government is a picture of the human soul "writ large." The Constitution, on the other hand, which defines the structures and rules of government, is the practical application of these transcendent principles.

Standing opposed to this interpretation are the "progressives" (both the historical Progressives and their heirs) who would keep the "rights" language of the Declaration while separating the Declaration itself from the Constitution. They create such a separation for the purpose of gradually replacing constitutional institutions and rules with a bureaucratic leviathan. Such interpretations, Arnn argues, ultimately destroy the value of both documents and lead to growing tyranny and shrinking freedoms. What we need to do in the face of progressive challenges is get back to the original meaning--the "key"--handed down to us by the Founders, reduce the massive bureaucracy that has replaced the structures created by our governing documents, and hold firm to the principles outlined in the Declaration and the institutions and rules established by the Constitution.

Arnn is a very competent writer. There are far too many poorly written books on the American Founding and the ways in which one might interpret the Constitution. It is always refreshing to come across one that isn't the literary equivalent of a sleeping pill.

More substantively, Arnn's identification of the weaknesses of modern liberal constitutional interpretation are spot-on. Increasingly,...

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