The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 23, 2019

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The American Experience

ISI recommends reading through the introductory essay before following the embedded hyperlinks or before working through the course itself. The essay can orient your reading and reflection so that like Caleb and Joshua you are calm and perceptive in the face of the intellectual giants you will find in this land.

Throughout American history the nature and significance of our nation’s Founding period (commonly defined by the beginning year of 1775 and an end-date of 1800) has been contentious because one’s interpretation of them is fundamental to his conception of America. In opposition to leftists such as Charles Beard, who thought the Founders were motivated to frame the Constitution purely by economic self-interest, conservatives have desired a clear understanding of what the Founding means to America. An American conservative by definition finds something to conserve in the American political tradition. There are nonetheless wide disagreements between conservatives over the nature of the Founding, divergences of opinion sometimes almost as wide as those between conservatives and their liberal and leftist opponents.

Signing the Constitution, Thomas Rossiter

In order to define what conservatives have in common on the Founding, it is easiest to say first what they firmly reject. Beginning with Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913), leftist and sometimes liberal historians have written of the Founding as a period motivated by the self-interest of, variously, white men, rich men, slaveholding men, and just plain men. One of the older incarnations of this view was in Beard based on a Marxist analysis of the Founders as bourgeois desperate to ensure their socioeconomic standing, but more modern variations on the same premise of writing off the Founders focus on factors such as race or gender to prove that modern Americans should disregard the cramped and irrelevant opinions of the Framers. The ideological character of such analysis is rejected by conservatives for its moral relativism and methodological historicism, betraying as it does the presumption that modern people are a great deal more enlightened than the Founders and can therefore reject all our fathers’ works and ways.

There is an older and deeper liberal tradition of interpretation, best articulated by Louis Hartz in the mid-twentieth century, that the American Founding was an ur-Lockean moment of free individuals coming together to form a social contract. As the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 stated, “The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals; it is a social compact by which the whole people covenants with each citizen and each citizen with the whole people that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good.” America had no established church or feudal history, and so the nature of its political tradition is defined by the free and equal individuals who came together to form the United States. Since America is therefore so beholden to Locke for her nature, there can be no such thing as a conservative or even a socialist tradition in American politics. All Americans are categorically classical liberals, so American conservatism must amount to right-wing liberalism. America’s story is one of the gradual extension of Lockean natural rights to all Americans, and the role of conservatives in that tradition is to ensure that equality of rights does not bleed into a doctrine of equality of results, i.e. that the rich man and poor man being equal as to their right to life does not become their being equal as to their right to the rich man’s money. There is nothing to conserve besides the original deposit of natural rights announced in the Declaration and secured by the Constitution.

John Locke 1632-1704

The objections of Straussian conservatives or libertarians to this thesis are either nonexistent or hard to understand, since the narrative of America for a Straussian such as Harry Jaffa is the gradual extension of equality to all men who by the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” are entitled to it. Libertarians such as Murray Rothbard indeed view America’s lack of an European feudal tradition as a positive good, since it ensured that free Americans would be jealous of their traditional liberties. For traditionalists, consignment to classical liberalism is more upsetting, since defining the Founding as the institution of a novus ordo seclorum effaces the connection they see between the traditional prescriptive liberties of Englishmen and the “unalienable rights” of the Declaration.  

Beginning in the late 1960’s, the liberal consensus on the Founding was challenged by a school of politically liberal historians who nonetheless dissented from the view that the Framers were orthodox Lockeans. The conservative critique of the liberal historical consensus on the Founding was aided immeasurably by this controversy among historians about the character of the American Founding. These historians, including Bernard Bailyn, John Pocock, and Gordon Wood emphasized the centrality of old Whig constitutionalism to the Founders’ way of understanding politics. The Founders drew their politics from their classical education and the lessons Whigs had learned in the struggle for constitutional liberty in Britain. This historical school itself was called the “civic republican” school to differentiate it from the Lockean interpretation of the Founding. Rather than seeing the Founding and hence American history as the promotion and extension of individual rights, the Founders (according to the civic republicans) promoted civic participation and virtue after the Roman manner for the sake of the commonwealth. They stressed a continuity between English history and American politics that detracted from the primordial nature of the Lockean Founding. Locating the Founders in history revealed that the Founding itself was deeply involved in traditions besides classical liberal political philosophy.

Subsequent revisionist historians emphasized the importance of Protestant Christianity, dissenting from civic republicanism’s view of the Founding as motivated by a classical conception of virtue. Chief among these was Barry Alan Shain whose The Myth of American Individualism posited a Reformed Protestant conception of virtue and liberty as the basis of the Founders’ thought. Although admittedly influenced by Greek and especially Roman ideas about virtue, the Founders were working with Reformed conceptions of human nature as fallen and unable to find fulfillment in the earthly city and of virtue inculcated first by the church and family. The typically congregationalist polity of this form of Protestantism exemplified the local and fiercely independent collective promotion of godliness that Shain saw as fundamental to the Founding, which was seen to stand in a tradition beginning with the original godly covenant, the Mayflower Compact. Taken together, these efforts, whatever their disagreements on the source of the Founders’ ideas, undermined the academic validity of the liberal conception of the Founding.

There are two distinguishable conservative traditions of interpretation which provide an heuristic frame for studying the Founding. On the one hand, the traditionalist interpretation of the American Founding has emphasized the Founders’ hostility to centralized power, their dedication to practical liberty, and their commitment to limited government. The sources of these three political virtues are located by traditionalists in various historical traditions, notably the long one of English constitutional liberty. On the other hand, the West Coast Straussian interpretation of the Founding era has focused on the Founders’ commitment to universal principles like natural rights and natural equality and, for some such conservatives, to an energetic government capable of defending those principles.

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