« Title VII:  A Response to James Phillips
John Vlahoplus
| Main | New Issue of the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy
Michael Ramsey »


Richard Reinsch Reviews Robert Reilly's "America on Trial"
Michael Ramsey

At National Review, Richard M. Reinsch: In Defense of a Liberty Worthy of Man (reviewing [favorably] America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, by Robert R. Reilly (Ignatius Press 2020)).  From the introduction:

In America on Trial, Robert Reilly excavates the deep foundations of the American Founding. He finds in them the unwritten constitution of Western political philosophy and theology that stretches back to Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. Reilly focuses on the tradition of “right reason,” that is, the metaphysical, epistemological, anthropological, and theological roots of constitutional government. Those roots are thick but forgotten, if not denied, by most of the West’s academic and intellectual class. In his study, Reilly reintroduces contemporary readers to ideas about the primacy of reason over will, universal truth, natural law, and monotheism. From these touchstones, he shows how other truths were discovered: man created in the imago Dei, equality of persons, and the moral grounding of freedom — which empty the state of the divine power it held in the classical world — along with the intrinsic good of happiness and its inseparable relationship with virtue. These are the pillars of constitutional thought and practice that must be understood before we can think about law and politics.

This is a book, therefore, “not so much about the Founding itself as about the provenance of its ideas. Its purpose is to demonstrate that the ideas of democratic constitutional government have only one set of roots in human history.” An underlying concern is the role that our understanding of reason and will plays in establishing constitutional government: “The drama hinges on two opposing conceptions of reality: Is it constituted by reason or by will?” The answer to this question, Reilly repeatedly argues, shapes what we think about the substance of law. This is because the “primacy of reason means that what is right flows from objective sources in nature and the transcendent, from what is, as Plato proposed. Primacy of will, on the other hand, means that what is right flows from power, that will is a law unto itself.”

Reilly describes the ideas of an array of thinkers linked across centuries who contributed to the bedrock of American constitutionalism: Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Francisco Suárez, Richard Hooker, Algernon Sidney, and John Locke are some of the highlights. He also surveys a competing set of thinkers whose ideas he says created the conditions for political absolutism: William of Ockham, Niccolò Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, Martin Luther, and Sir Robert Filmer are some of the dim lights. Reilly argues that our country encapsulates in an exemplary manner Western civilization’s always difficult attempt to forge a liberty worthy of man, a being between God and the beasts. His challenging claim is that the preconditions for becoming a constitutional people are rooted in our philosophical ideas about essence, reality, human nature, and God. Such ideas inevitably shape whether we think we are capable of the morally demanding requirements of freedom. They ground and inform the responsibility needed to govern ourselves according to reason and to flourish.

And here is the book description from Amazon:

The Founding of the American Republic is on trial. Critics say it was a poison pill with a time-release formula; we are its victims. Its principles are responsible for the country's moral and social disintegration because they were based on the Enlightenment falsehood of radical individual autonomy.

In this well-researched book, Robert Reilly declares: not guilty. To prove his case, he traces the lineage of the ideas that made the United States, and its ordered liberty, possible. These concepts were extraordinary when they first burst upon the ancient world: the Judaic oneness of God, who creates ex nihilo and imprints his image on man; the Greek rational order of the world based upon the Reason behind it; and the Christian arrival of that Reason (Logos) incarnate in Christ. These may seem a long way from the American Founding, but Reilly argues that they are, in fact, its bedrock. Combined, they mandated the exercise of both freedom and reason.

These concepts were further developed by thinkers in the Middle Ages, who formulated the basic principles of constitutional rule. Why were they later rejected by those claiming the right to absolute rule, then reclaimed by the American Founders, only to be rejected again today? Reilly reveals the underlying drama: the conflict of might makes right versus right makes might. America's decline, he claims, is not to be discovered in the Founding principles, but in their disavowal.