Liberty Tree's Roots

By , Thomas D'Evelyn is general editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

A GOVERNMENT OF LAWS: POLITICAL THEORY, RELIGION, AND THE AMERICAN FOUNDING. By Ellis Sandoz, Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 259 pp., $37.50 VACLAV HAVEL writes: ``In everyone there is some longing for humanity's rightful dignity, for moral integrity, for free expression of being and a sense of transcendence over the world of existence.''

Jefferson couldn't have said it better. Humanity, not the lone individual, is the unit of concern; expression is of being, not self, and the ``sense of transcendence,'' overshadows ideology and blueprints for revolution.

Jefferson's is one of the voices in Ellis Sandoz's ``A Government of Laws,'' which is a recovery of old words, words used by the Founding Fathers in the mid-18th century. Sandoz shows their words echoing down the ages - from Aristotle, to the medieval jurists, to the Enlightenment. The key words - substance, providence, reason, faith - still reflect a search for truth.

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Sandoz presents the debate of law and liberty from classical times to ``the American founding,'' one of the many phrases that he rehabilitates. He writes as a historian - and against historians, specifically against the ``obtuse secularism'' of those who have denied the mix of classical and Christian influences in the alloy invented by the founders.

As recent events in Central Europe remind us, the belief in sacred liberty is inevitably radical; Sandoz uncovers the roots of this radicalism. The first part, devoted to the Greek philosophers on human nature and politics (including law) will be new to many readers.

Sandoz's interpretation of John Locke may prove controversial. Locke is often considered the philosopher of the American Revolution; Sandoz shows that Locke ended by denying substance, restricting knowledge to the senses, and ridiculing Providence. After Locke, Sandoz discusses new and old heroes. He shows how the Founders - especially Jefferson and Adams - reacted to the deification of George Washington.

Sandoz introduces the Scottish Evangelical Presbyterian, John Witherspoon, the influential teacher of James Madison at Princeton University. Witherspoon's Christianity worked hand in hand with his understanding of classical and modern philosophy. Then there is Sir Edward Coke, the jurist who more than any other (including Blackstone) passed on the classical and medieval heritage of the sovereignty of laws.

Sandoz writes well. He punctuates his flow of quotation and analysis with pithy remarks of his own:

``In a sentence, the founding was the rearticulation of Western civilization in its Anglo-American mode.''

``In short, liberty is a holy thing in America.''

He salvages terms like Americanism by showing how Jefferson used and meant them. He writes of the ``metaphysical depths of the American mind.'' Sandoz knows that his fellow academics prefer to avoid the appearance of sentiment and that they look sideways at notions like ``metaphysical depths'' or ``the American mind.'' Above all, Sandoz orchestrates his complex chorale with great skill, keeping each voice distinct and in its place. Thus he tells the story of the ``conspiracy of faith and reason'' - a vivid phrase of his that points up the inspiring quality of the ideas he discusses - with suavity, diplomacy, and great good cheer.

For Sandoz, the founding takes place between the two ``horizons'' of Christianity and classical philosophy. This vision explains and inspires simultaneously. Sandoz will be taken as naive by some. Far from it. His standpoint is that of William James, whom he paraphrases: ``We live... in a pluralistic universe, a differentiated reality of transcendence and immanence that invites exploration of its richness in the open and generous spirit of wonder, awe, and the humility of the reflective part confronting the intelligible Whole in search of meaning and truth.''

So if Vaclav Havel is America's guest soloist this Independence Day, Ellis Sandoz is my pick for the grand choirmaster. ``A Government of Laws'' is a sane, witty, triumphant recovery of the nation's essential heritage.

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