Principled Action is almost two books in one. In conversations with the author this reviewer has even gone so far as to suggest that Mr. Best produce a derivative work for use in high school history / government classes. As it is written, it provides an excellent analysis of the American Founding and what made it unique. However, it also provides considerable insight into the motivations of the current grass-roots movement for a return to constitutionalism. Thus Principled Action is 9 parts history and 1 part political philosophy. As is, Principled Action would be a valuable addition to any home-schoolers library, or school curricula.
This is not to suggest that Best’s book is not adult reading. Anyone seeking to understand the principles on which the United States was founded will find a good explanation in Principled Action. Best begins by explaining that, although we fought for our independence against Great Britain, the government that we have now is not the government we had until 1789. Sadly, many Americans probably don’t realize that the United States had two revolutions of government. It was the second that gave us the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and all the subsequent amendments. In Best’s words:
The writing and ratification of the Constitution made the United States of America unique. The origins of our republic were not by the sword, but through the calm, sedate medium of reason. There was a long and bloody revolution, but four years of peace had calmed the infant nation before the Founders collectively sat down to debate the design of a republic for millions yet unborn.
But it was a revolution, nonetheless. At the end of the Constitutional Convention, an entirely new system of government was proposed for ratification by the States. The men who crafted this system were men of Principled Action. The Founders went beyond the philosophical hypotheses of the Enlightenment, combining the knowledge of hard-won experience of self-government with the idealism of principle. Best identifies the following as Founding Principles:
Principles and character were the hallmarks of the men who wrote the United States Constitution. Several of the Founders went on to write the constitutions of their respective states. They applied these same principles to those documents too. George Mason, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry collectively wrote the Virginia Constitution
That no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles. XV from the Virginia Declaration of Rights.
A major aspect of character is the application of principle to action. For the Founders, the type of action depended on the relative strengths of the person. While Best points out that the Founders were not a homogenous group – they were united in their patriotism. He characterizes these men as falling into one or more of four groups.
Principled Action focuses on those active in this last group. Best is careful to provide context and careful footnoting for all the quotes liberally sprinkled throughout the book. In fact, he explains that the seemingly endless and frequently contradictory statements of these extraordinary men is proof positive of their intellectual honesty.
We know what they thought—and we know their thinking was learned, intense, and at times acrimonious. Open debate gave everyone a voice, and opinions not only varied between different people, they often evolved over time within an individual person. Because that’s what real debate does—it changes minds. One result of all this recorded history is that now when someone wants to justify a modern position, he or she can usually find a quote by one of the Founders that gives the impression the Founders once thought exactly as they do. This is disingenuous and unfair to the developing thought of the Founders. They studied endlessly, argued incessantly, and then made a choice, and that choice was based on what they genuinely believed was best for their country. Time and again, the Founders took principled action because they wanted to secure and protect liberty for generations.
Those in this group were extraordinary men for their intellect as well as their determination.
The thirty-two years of the founding were one of those rare historical moments where uncommon brilliance was the order of the day. Intelligent leaders not only seemed omni- present, but those principled leaders were driven by a fervent desire to create something great and lasting—and many rose to the challenge. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Gouverneur Morris, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and a host of others didn’t just stage another revolution; they changed the course of history.
Millions world-wide owe them a debt of gratitude,
John Adams’s second cousin, Samuel Adams, said, “Nothing is more essential to the establishment of manners in a state than that all persons employed in places of power and trust must be men of unexceptionable characters.” The language may be old-fashioned, but the meaning is clear. People in places of power need to be honorable. Character does matter. The United States of America was indeed lucky to have a large cadre of unexceptionable characters to take principled action during the early days of our country. Then again, perhaps lucky is not the proper word.
After a brief coverage of some of these unexceptionable characters, Best moves on to briefly discuss the writing of the Constitution, a task for which he is eminently qualified (see Tempest at Dawn). The chapter entitled Who Wrote The Constitution begins with a quote by John Adams which sums it up succinctly.
The greatest single effort of national deliberation that this world has ever seen.
Part III of Principled Action is entitled Founding Principles. Readers of WWTFT will recognize some of the themes that Best explores. Appropriately enough, he starts with the fundamental and revolutionary concept that American freedom is based upon natural rights. If authority comes from God, Nature’s God, or The Creator, as is claimed by the Framers, then it does not come from man. If man derives his rights and responsibilities from God, rather than man-made (flawed) institutions, then such institutions only gain their legitimacy at the sufferance of those governed. In such a scenario the chain of command is God -> man -> government. Under the Divine Right of Kings, the order was God -> Government -> man.
In order to ensure that government remained subordinate to the people, the founders sought to implement structural limitations on the system. These were:
Over the course of the next two centuries, many of the safeguards the founders fought so hard to work through have been steadily eroded. Best points out that the federal taxing authority is one such example.
When the Constitution was written, the national government had limited taxing authority, primarily restricted to imposts, duties, and excise taxes. Money equals power, and the Founders believed the best way to harness national power was to restrict revenue. The Sixteenth Amendment gave the national government the power to collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, which is basically an unlimited taxing authority.
Best covers an extraordinary amount of territory in Principled Action and demonstrates that our republic is under attack from a multiplicity of vectors. Not only has there been a concerted effort to remove the bulkheads put in place by the Framers, but there continue to be efforts to subvert the principles on which the United States was founded. One such attack vector is the propensity to define the Constitution as a “living document.” A malleable document subject to the vagaries of political winds, offers little protection against tyranny.
True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting; it summons to duty by its commands, and averts from wrong-doing by its prohibitions. And it does not lay its commands or prohibitions upon good men in vain, though neither have any effect on the wicked. Marcus Tullius Cicero
But if the principles of justice were founded on the decrees of peoples, the edicts of princes, or the decisions of judges, then Justice would sanction robbery and adultery and forgery of wills, in case these acts were approved by the votes or decrees of the populace. But if so great a power belongs to the decisions and decrees of fools that the laws of Nature can be changed by their votes, then why do they not ordain that what is bad and baneful shall be considered good and salutary? Or, if a law can make justice out of injustice, can it not also make good out of bad? Marcus Tullius Cicero
Or, as Thomas Jefferson observed:
Our peculiar security is in possession of a written Constitution. Let us not make it a blank paper by construction.
The Constitution lays out the framework and defines the limits of government authority. Best devotes several chapters to the thinking that went into its design as well as the issues of the time in which it was written. In so doing, he offers clarity and exposes some of the stretched, or downright inaccurate interpretations prevalent today. He debunks several popular myths about the misinterpretation of the Necessary and Proper clause, The Commerce clause and the General Welfare clause. He also examines each of the three branches of government and looks at where things have gone awry. For instance, the power of the presidency has increased on an astronomical scale in comparison with that of the other branches – or that of the people. Best is careful to point out that the president’s power has also increased proportional to that of the country’s and that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Would we want our president to be less powerful than some tin-pot dictator of a third world country. No. However, in the domestic and governmental realm it is time to reduce the power of government in general and to limit the executive branch in particular by reducing the nation’s spending, and thus reduce government’s ability to direct funding to favored entities and projects. In Best’s words: “Spending equals power: power over people, because governments govern.”
Best concludes Principled Action with more of the kind of analysis that WWTFT was originally formed to explore. In it, Best offers some advice on regaining the government formed by the second revolution. One such suggestion is that we restore the Founders’ Suspicion of Powerful Government. Only by reaffirming those Founding Principles can we once more become a people of Principled Action.