Gary Gregg proposed in “Vital Remnants” that we see the Founding as the Founders saw it, not as we wish them to have seen it. In this, Dr. Gregg went directly against the reigning historiography of the 1990s and its fetishist obsession with social justice, class, and gender.
Twenty years ago the Intercollegiate Studies Institute published Vital Remnants: America’s Founding and the Western Tradition. It was, in 1999, a great book. In 2019, it’s an even better book. Edited by Gary L. Gregg II, then ISI’s National Director, Vital Remnants was the product of a June 1998 conference held in Colonial Williamsburg and inspired by the last published book by Russell Kirk during his lifetime, America’s British Culture (1993). Introduced by Dr. Gregg, Vital Remnants is made up of extraordinarily insightful and advanced-thinking essays by Robert George, Will McClay, Bruce Frohnen, Christian Kopff, Peter Lawler, and Bruce Thornton.
Dr. Gregg sets the tone perfectly on pages xii-xiii:
We are a nation of the West because our Founders were men of the West. They received the language of the English countryside, the literature of the Latin poet, the rule of prescriptive common law, and the religion of the Cross. In their schools, in their fields, in their meeting houses, and by the hearth, they were part of the great Western tradition. In the fervor of revolution and founding, they could have abandoned their Western past; they could have severed the great links connecting their world to their heritage. They could have become radicals of the form that would later strike at the very heart of France. But, America’s Founders were conservative revolutionaries, not radical social tinkerers, and it was in the spirit of preservation that they worked their revolution.
Even at age 30, Dr. Gregg could not only think, but he could also write! One must wonder if there was a little bit of J.R.R. Tolkien’s spirit residing in Dr. Gregg. To be certain, Dr. Gregg has fully captured the spirit of Russell Kirk, and his introduction remains an essay in the craft.
I first read Vital Remnants in 1999, only days after it came out. I had spent the years 1994 through 1999 studying almost nothing but the American Founding, though I was focused on the role of the Founding among and on the American Indian tribes of the Great Lakes. I had studied with some of the single best scholars of the Founding, including R. David Edmunds, Bernard Sheehan, and Gregory Dowd. My knowledge was very broad, but not truly deep. I very well knew what the founders believed, but I had yet to imagine it in the depths of my soul. I could recite chapter and verse and yet more chapters and more verses, but I had never allowed the Founding to become a part of me.
When I read Vital Remnants, an entirely new world opened up to me. And, not merely because I had been so immersed in one aspect of the Founding, but because Vital Remnants made me fully aware just how profoundly deep the Founders were, in their minds and in their souls. Reading “When in the Course of Human Events” strikes any patriot at the heart. But, when one realizes—as is so well expressed in Vital Remnants—that the Founders themselves knew the very course of human events, something seismic in the soul shifts.
Interestingly enough, Dr. Gregg, as editor, follows the mode of the Founders, as Founders. Just as the Founders saw themselves as new Romans, behaving classically, so Dr. Gregg proposed seeing the Founding as the Founders saw it, not as we wish them to have seen it. In this, Dr. Gregg went directly against the reigning historiography of the 1990s and its fetishist obsession with social justice, class, and gender, and instead embraced the Whig and republican philosophy of history as found in Russell Kirk’s John Randolph of Roanoke, Caroline Robbins’s The Commonwealth Men, Douglas Adair’s Fame and the Founding Fathers, and Trevor Colbourn’s Lamp of Experience. Many books from the 1990s have failed to age well, but Vital Remnants has.
In the first half of the book, Bruce Thornton considers the Founders as farmers, and Christian Kopff considers them as Romans. Each notes that the very classical education—then, the only kind of education—radically shaped the Founders. Not only did they read Montesquieu, but they lived and breathed Virgil, Cicero, Tacitus, Livy, and St. John.
Writing of saints, in the fourth chapter, Graham Walker offers a fascinating examination of the Founders and the Augustinian philosophical and political traditions. Just as the Founders lived and breathed Cicero, “Augustine’s theology of original sin, transmitted by Protestant Christianity, was second nature to early Americans.” Through the Augustinian influence, the American Founders especially appreciated and revered virtue.
Robert George writes, not surprisingly, on Natural Law, but in the second half of the book, it’s the essays by James Stoner and Bruce Frohnen on common law that really shine. “Traditionally, common law was the ancient and customary law of England, the basis of decisions in the Court of Common Pleas and the King’s Bench. It was not the only law of England—ecclesiastical law and admiralty law, for example, were parade bodies of law administered by separate courts—but in the seventeenth century common law judges succeeded in establishing its claim to being the most comprehensive, most fundamental, and most characteristic form of English law,” Dr. Stoner explains. In his extraordinary chapter, “Revolutions, Not Made, but Prevented,” Dr. Frohnen details the role of common law in promoting the norms and mores of the local traditions and associations as against Leviathan. Dr. Frohnen is especially effective in showing how well the English balanced that which is universal (Natural Law) with that which is particular (common law).
This year, we celebrate the 243rd anniversary of the Declaration of Independence as well as the 20th anniversary of Vital Remnants. Both have aged incredibly well, and both make me want to be the best patriot imaginable. This year, I will raise a toast to Mr. Jefferson and to Dr. Gregg.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a photo by Wikimedia user Wknight94 of the statue of George Washington sculpted by Horatio Greenough, in the National Museum of American History, courtesy of Wikipedia.