The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 23, 2019

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The American Experience

The West Coast Straussian version of the American Founding differs in profound ways from the traditionalist conception, and is, in many ways, closer to the older liberal historical consensus. Indeed its explicit attachment to natural rights fulfills Hartz’s prediction that Americans cannot be other than classical liberals. According to the West Coast Straussian version, the American Founding was a philosophical act of faith in the concept of natural equality. There are quite a few accounts of the character of the act itself, but the most prominent among self-described conservatives are those offered by Straussian political theorists such as Harry Jaffa, Martin Diamond, and Thomas West on the one hand, and libertarian writers such as Murray Rothbard and Randy Barnett on the other. In both versions, the Founding is conceived of as the incarnation of a Lockean natural rights regime, though Jaffa and his intellectual allies posit natural equality as the central concept, while the libertarians emphasize natural liberty as the key to American political thought. For the egalitarians, Jefferson and the Federalists loom large, while, for the libertarians, Jefferson is the primary object of admiration. (Jefferson, like Whitman, was large and continues to contain multitudes.)

Thomas Jefferson, Rembrandt Peale

Harry Jaffa is the most prominent conservative to interpret the American Founding period as an unprecedented act of establishing a philosophically egalitarian government founded upon self-evident and universal principles. Unlike the traditionalists, Jaffa claims that the American Revolution formed a radically new polity and radically new way of thinking about political life. In works like How to Think About the American Revolution and American Conservatism and the American Founding, Jaffa expounds the notion that the United States was created as a creedal nation founded on philosophical principles. He has written that, “the American Revolution represented the most radical break with tradition...that the world had ever seen.” For West Coast Straussian conservatives, including American neo-conservatives, the United States is a creedal nation united not necessarily by a common history and common set of beliefs, practices, and institutions, but instead by a common philosophical commitment to the creation and sustenance of political equality.

Because of their commitment to an egalitarian reading of the Founding period, the West Coast Straussian conservatives understand the Declaration of Independence as the American civil form of the Apostles’ Creed. The Declaration is the statement of the fundamental principles on which the regime is founded. There is a special emphasis on the second paragraph in which Jefferson declares that “all men are created equal.” For the West Coast Straussian conservatives, the Declaration asserts a set of God-given natural rights which serve as the civil theology or political religion which defines the character of American citizenship and the telos of American political activity. Jaffa, among others, also offers a critique of the traditionalist reading of the Declaration, suggesting that the traditionalist reading necessarily misses the ideological power which actually motivated the revolutionaries.

In opposition to Bradford’s contention that the Founding Fathers were mostly unconcerned about slavery, Jaffa marshals quotes from the Framers themselves, as well as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, who in his “Cornerstone” speech (after Matthew 21:42) stated that the Confederacy was specifically dedicated to racial inequality, whereas the United States and the Framers had asserted the natural equality of all men. Further, according to Jaffa, historicizing the claims of the Declaration undermines the moral authority of the state and leads to the moral relativism which informs contemporary liberalism.

The framing and ratification of the Constitution is understood by West Coast Straussian conservatives not as the creation of a procedural republic but as a nationalization of the previously fragmented states in order to pursue more perfectly the political principles enunciated in the Declaration. Jaffa writes that “the principles of the Declaration are...presupposed in the Constitution.” For West Coast Straussian conservatives, the Constitution is best understood as the successful creation of a national republic with a government energetic and powerful enough to ensure political equality. Thus, these thinkers are less concerned than traditionalists with limited government and federalism, although they need not necessarily support a categorically strong central government.

Alexander Hamilton, John Trumbull

The argument over whether or not the Constitution mandates a strong or a weak national government has, however, been primarily fought between disciples of Strauss. Alexander Hamilton, who desired an “energetic” national government, and Thomas Jefferson, who did not, anticipated elements of this debate in the early years of the Republic, as did Hamilton and Madison in the famous Pacificus-Helvidius exchanges. While not all West Coast Straussians are necessarily Hamiltonian, the only conservatives who desire a Hamiltonian, strong central government adhere to the Straussians’ philosophical conception of the Founding.

A strong central government is necessary to this variant of Straussianism, often identified with neoconservatism, because the blessings of liberty cannot be secured without the wherewithal to change regimes in order to make democracy possible. Before Nazi Germany could become democratic, Hitler had to be deposed. The philosophical issue is whether or not post-World War II Germany could be democratic. Democracy is exportable if, as in some variants of West Coast Straussianism, America’s regime is the ideal form of government based on natural rights. A traditionalist who is as suspicious of central government as old Jeffersonian Republicans such as John Taylor and John Randolph and understands American liberty as peculiar to American history would not seek to reproduce the blessings of American liberty outside of America. If, however, the Founding was a recognition of the natural rights belonging to all men by virtue of their Creator’s decree, the possibility of republican democracy outside America is much greater. West Coast Straussians’ understanding of the Founding as a matter of philosophical recognition makes making “the world safe for democracy” a conceivable, if not a logically necessary, enterprise.

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