The Committee on the American Founding (CAF) has the purpose of preserving at Amherst the teaching of the American Founders and Lincoln on “natural rights.” As Abraham Lincoln understood, the American republic began, not with the Constitution, but with that “proposition,” as he called it, “all men are created equal.” That anchoring moral truth was contained in the Declaration of Independence, which has standing as the first document in our laws. As the Founders understood, that proposition provided the moral ground for the claim that the only legitimate governments over human beings “derived their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The Declaration began then with certain rights, grounded in human nature; rights that promised to be the same in all places where that nature remained the same. But in our own day, that “truth” of the Declaration has been called into question on several grounds. Some deny that there is any such fixed “nature” of human beings, a nature that can provide the ground then for “human rights” that hold, as rights, in all places and “cultures.” And certain strands of modern “skepticism” deny the existence of moral truths that hold their truth in all places.
The Committee on the American Founding seeks to engage that argument. It seeks to test the premises and teachings of the Founders and Lincoln against the serious skeptical challenges, of an earlier day and our own. If we take that challenge seriously, it would seriously call into question the moral grounds of this regime, with its constitutional restraints. If those anchoring premises of the Founding turn out not to be true, then Lincoln’s adversaries would be borne out: We could not give a coherent account any longer of a regime of personal freedom, and the rights it was meant to secure. The CAF will pursue these questions in a variety of forums: there will be a series of lectures, spread throughout the year; there will be meetings in Amherst and Washington, held in October, January, and April; and there will also be courses directed to different strands of the problem. The subjects may be grouped conveniently under these headings: the political philosophy and moral principles of the American regime; the question of religion and the law (or revelation and reason); the principles of a free economy; and the defense of the American regime in foreign and military policy. Some commentators credit the American Founding with a remarkable fusion of two abiding strands of thought, leading back to two ancient cities, Jerusalem and Athens. On the one hand, we have had the tradition of biblical revelation, and on the other the tradition of classical political philosophy. That weave, and the testing of these traditions, will make up the steady, continuing work of the CAF.
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