Jaffa vs. Mansfield

West, Thomas G., "Jaffa vs. Mansfield," Perspectives on Political Science, Claremont Institute, Fall 2002.


What were the original principles of the American Constitution? Are those principles true?

Many historians and political scientists write about the first question. Scholars are never shy about telling us what happened in the dead-and-gone eighteenth century. But few of them think it is even worth discussing whether the Founders’ principles are true. For example, in a review of my book Vindicating the Founders, historian Joseph Ellis accuses me of having committed “sins of presentism.” My error, as he cleverly puts it, is believing “that ideas are like migratory birds that can take off in the eighteenth century and land intact in our time.” Ellis does not even attempt to refute the Founders’ principles or their arguments, summarized in my book, regarding property rights, women’s rights, and welfare policy. For him, it is enough simply to dismiss my endorsement of their arguments and ideas as “bizarre.”

But what if some ideas—I mean true ones—really are like migratory birds that can land intact in any century? What if the principles of the founding are as true today as they were two centuries ago? In other words, why does Joseph Ellis, and the whole chorus of the academic establishment, assume that the principles of the founding are not true today?

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