Ignatius Press recently published Robert R. Reilly’s America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding. It is, as the subtitle indicates, a response to recent books and essays arguing that the moral, social, and political disintegration in the United States over the past few decades is the logical result of Enlightenment-era ideas—especially a notion of radical individual autonomy—built into the founding documents and principles.
America’s decline, argues Reilly, is not due to the founding principles, but has come about because of the disavowal and dismissal of those very principles. In defense of this thesis, he draws upon a wide-ranging array of ancient, medieval, and modern sources, as he describes the intellectual, political, and philosophical streams that flowed into and out of the American founding.
Thirteen philosophers, historians, professors, and authors offer here their thoughts on Reilly’s book.
• “An often effective defense of the Founding that is uneven and flawed” by Christopher Altieri, who writes, “Pace Reilly, the way back to reality and reason is a hard road—a methodos—one that will be hard to find and harder to keep.”
• “Was the American Founding a philosophical fait accompli?” by Francis Beckwith, who says that “although my sympathies lie with Reilly, since I think he has the slightly better story, he doesn’t give Deneen and Hanby their historical due.”
• “The debate over the American founding is filled with irony and possible rapprochement” by Casey Chalk argues that Reilly, Patrick J.Deneen, and Michael Hanby share a significant number of ideological commitments, “enough to serve as the basis for agreeing on a way past battles over liberalism.”
• “All these things will be added…and a republic, if we can keep it” by David Paul Deavel, who says Reilly demonstrates that the Founders knew very well that the kind of system they were proposing was dependent on a virtuous and indeed religious people to keep it going.
• “An undeniably timely book during a most troubled time” by Marc D. Guerra, Ph.D., who says the book offers a high-minded defense of the intrinsic goodness, nobility, justice, and wisdom of “the provenance of ideas” that informed the Founding, and is the product of a serious Catholic who is also a grateful American citizen and committed patriot.
• “A remarkable book that defends truth against relativism and historicism” by Dr. Paul Kengor, who states that this book tells us much about how America got to this point and, unfortunately, the further chaos toward which we continue to careen ahead.
• “Both a challenge and a source of consolation” by Kathryn Jean Lopez, who reflects that when you start to meditate on where we started from and how we got to where we are, what we are living through right now all really does makes sense.
• “The American Founding vindicated against its cultured despisers on the Right and Left” by Daniel Mahoney, who says that there can be no meaningful defense of Western civilization, of “order in history,” without a thoughtful and manly defense of the great achievement that is the American republic.
• “A magisterial book on the perennial struggle between realism and voluntarism” by Robert Royal, who states Reilly’s book is not just defense of the nation’s founding, but also a much deeper and broader philosophical presentation of the natural law principles that lie beneath that founding—and must be the basis for any legitimate social order.
• “A clear and well-informed addition to an old and important debate” by Kevin Schmiesing, who writes that the primary reason to stand with Reilly in this quarrel is not because of the practical ramifications of letting the other side win; it’s because he’s right.
• “America, young and beautiful” by Paul Seaton, who says that things were more complex and murky than Reilly’s thesis of traditional “Christian natural law” principles “animating” the founding acknowledges.
• “How Americanism put ‘baby in the corner'” by David Upham, who writes that while Reilly shows that America’s Founding was not a modernist celebration of the autonomous will, his defense is incomplete.
• “Correcting the “no true Founder” fallacy” by Dr. Christopher Wolfe, who says Robert Reilly has told the long story of why the American form of life is worthy, and has made a strong case that the Founding Fathers should be judged “not guilty” of causing America’s current crises of the soul.
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