A defense of America’s founding
It is jarring to see the most nationalist among the American right wing to be those most skeptical of America’s founding. While I don’t identify with the neoreactionary school (and certainly not their bastard children, the altright), I do sympathize with the older school of self styled reactionaries (Nicolás Gómez Dávila, John Lukacs and von Kuehnelt-Leddihn). The recent piece over at the Jacobite Magazine sums up my sympathy for Continental, Romantic political philosophy.
Yet as someone who holds a great fondness for my own country, I think America’s founding gets a short thrift among the European right wing. This essay seeks to defend our American genesis as compatible with traditional conservatism, not just as a form of frontier Lockean liberalism.
America: Unavoidably Whiggish
Every American traditionalist has to come to grips with the fact that America is a Whiggish place. It’s inevitable. Attend all the Latin Masses or Society of the Red Carnation meetings you please and write all the restorationist fanfic you want. It will not change that simple fact.
This is true for three basic reasons; America’s Anglo-Protestant settlement, the immigration experience and the frontier.
The demographic patterns of America dictates her politics, both past and present. While there were some Continental settlers (Germans, French, Swedes, Dutch) and a few Catholics (mainly Irish and English), these were subsumed into the Anglo-Protestant zeitgeist. David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed neatly demonstrates how America’s regional political cultures are largely the result of differing ethnic settlement patterns in early colonial America.
If America had been settled by Italian city-states, Spain, Portugal or France, no doubt they would be more amenable to a powerful central state, a national church and a “Throne and Altar” style conservatism now much beloved by modern Thermidorians. But it was not to be. English common law, the historical power of local magnates in England, the English Civil War and the ‘Glorious’ Revolution all deeply influenced how early Americans thought.
On a religious level, Americans were overwhelmingly Calvinist in thought, be they Puritans, Presbyterians, Huguenots or even Anglicans. This Protestant migration ensured that colonial America was one inoculated from absolutism by a Protestant civil theology that preached the right of resistance.
Lastly, immigration and the frontier existed as liberalizing forces. Feudal aristocracy is easy to maintain when you and your neighbors have lived in the same parish for millennia. Moving across the Atlantic, now surrounded by strange people from unfamiliar places breaks these traditional social ties. In James Leyburn’s The Scotch Irish: a social history, the Scottish settlers to Ulster became totally different people by simply moving right next door.
By releasing men from attachment to a particular locality for life [migration] had given individuals a freedom of choice as to where they would live, for whom they would work, whether they must follow the age old occupation of farming…There were, quite simply, no traditional families in the new Ulster, and consequently no ties to bind a man to lord, laird and locality.
It’s no coincidence that the most fiercely democratic people in early America were the descendants of these Scottish settlers who broke their social ties again by moving to the American frontier. The idea of the “frontier” itself was liberalizing. Hierarchy and tradition are incredibly difficult to maintain in the face of a perpetual horizon that provides social mobility and requires individualism to survive. Unlike our European cousins, America has always been, and remains, a Whiggish country by instinct, birth and experience.
This is becoming a very long introduction but, in short, traditionalism or conservatism in America will inevitably be different from the Continent. Any attempt to shoehorn a politics that is foreign to the historical development of a nation will end in disaster. If you don’t believe me ask Messrs. Bush and Bremer. Sneering at the Fourth of July and attempting to meme Tsarism into existence will go nowhere here in the United States. Traditionalism would be much better served by rebuilding an American traditionalism than tearing down the entire edifice.
Traditional Principles & Revolutionary Application
The reactionary narrative about America’s founding is quite simple. Barely better than spoiled children, when asked to shoulder some of the (fairly light) burden for their own defense, Americans instead turned to demagogues who riled up the dregs of society with egalitarian abstract philosophe Enlightenment ideals, destroying a perfectly good monarchy, killing thousands and severing America from its British tradition. From there, the American Revolution served as the inspiration for revolutionaries from Robespierre to Ho Chi Minh. In short, it was the proto-leftist revolution.
This narrative leaves much to be desired. Instead I would argue the “American Revolution” was nothing more than a local, conservative, even aristocratic revolt against innovative policies which expanded parliamentary supremacy, eroded traditional liberties and subsumed local powers. The tragic necessity of separation forced the American Founders to build a duplicate of the British system. The ideals of this separation were quite mild with antecedents going back the Middle Ages and antiquity.
What were the principles of the American Revolution? Broadly these were that a form of contract exists between the constituent parts of society, namely the governing and governed, and that a level of consent must exist for the government to posses legitimacy. After suffering “repeated injuries” the people of a polity are reasonable to withhold consent and thus revolt against the now illegitimate authority. John Adams, in a series of letters under the name “Novanglus” sums it up thus:
‘They,’ the popular leaders, ‘begin by reminding the people of the elevated rank they hold in the universe, as men; that all men by nature are equal; that kings are but the ministers of the people; that their authority is delegated to them by the people, for their good, and they have a right to resume it, and place it in other hands, or keep it themselves, whenever it is made use of to oppress them. Doubtless, there have been instances when these principles have been inculcated to obtain a redress of real grievances; but they have been much oftener perverted to the worst of purposes.’
These are what are called revolution principles. They are the principles of Aristotle and Plato, of Livy and Cicero, and Sidney, Harrington, and Locke; the principles of nature and eternal reason; the principles on which the whole government over us now stands. It is therefore astonishing, if any thing can be so, that writers, who call themselves friends of government, should in this age and country be so inconsistent with themselves, so indiscreet, so immodest, as to insinuate a doubt concerning them.
His colleague, Thomas Jefferson, made a similar case in his A Summary View of the Rights of British America:
When the representative body have lost the confidence of their constituents, when they have notoriously made sale of their most valuable rights, when they have assumed to themselves powers which the people never put into their hands, then indeed their continuing in office becomes dangerous to the state, and calls for an exercise of the power of dissolution.
While these ideas usually are labeled as liberal, another case could be made that, in reality, these ideas are not products of the liberal Enlightenment but are principles of an older age.
Consider the linked concepts of “consent of the governed” and the “right of revolt.” These were not concocted in some 18th century cafe but are found antiquity. A full three centuries before John Adams, Roman Catholic theologian Nicholas of Cusa wrote:
Accordingly, since by nature all men are free, any authority by which subjects are prevented from doing evil and their freedom is restrained to doing good through fear from penalties, comes solely from harmony and from the consent of the subjects, whether the authority reside in written law or in the living law which is in the ruler. For if by nature men are equally strong and equally free, the true and settled power of one over the others, the ruler having equal natural power, could be set up only by the choice and consent of the others, just as a law also is set up by consent.
Indistinguishable sentiments were found in Epicurean philosophy and the School of Salamanca. Scholastic theologians like Fr. Francisco Suárez reasoned that, while God had delegated sovereignty, that this was not invested absolutely in monarchs alone (ironically Suárez had argued this most vehemently in a tract condemning English Protestantism).
The associated principle of the “right of revolt” has a similarly ancient pedigree. Feudal Europe routinely incorporated this into the legal fabric of society; from Norse political norms, the Hungarian Golden Bull of 1222 or the Magna Carta. Catholic theologians like Saint Thomas Aquinas and John of Salisbury theorized how abusive leaders could be rightfully resisted, even assassinated.
Comparatively, the “divine right of kings” have a more modern origin. In contrast to the medieval idea that society’s constituent parts have duties to each other (and redress in the event of abuse or neglect), royal absolutism was largely invented in the early modern era. Nominal Catholics like Jean Bodin or staunch Protestants like King James I were among the most prominent early divine right theorists.
The central thesis of America’s “revolutionary” logic was little more than a reiteration of a consistent development of Western, classical political thought. To libel the principles of consent and revolt as “leftist” is to be willingly ignorant of the Western political tradition.
Having defending the credentials of America’s philosophical founding, what of the actual facts on the ground? Were America’s founders just rabble rousing tax dodgers egging on their social inferiors to slander George III?
Reading the Declaration today it can be a little difficult to take the claim that the British government planned to erect “a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism.” Yet given the evidence of the secret intentions and open policy of the British Parliament, it was not an unreasonable assumption that that their localities and rights would be illegally subsumed by power they had no control over.
First it was noted by American colonists that the American Declaratory Act of 1766 (which asserted Parliamentary supremacy) was modeled on the Irish Declaratory Act of 1720, which had functionally obliterated the Dublin Parliament. It was troubling to many Americans to see imperial policy be based on how the British domineered and looted their unhappy Irish neighbor. The Quebec Act, which restored French civil law, established Roman Catholicism and had instituted direct royal control, was equally alarming. While many, such as Alexander Hamilton, stirred up anti-Catholic sentiment, most were alarmed how Parliament could functionally abolish the traditional laws and rights of a British colony without any appeal. (In fact Adams wrote prophetically that, unlike America, Ireland could only have been brought under complete parliamentary control by total conquest.)
The Patriot party rejected this approach out of hand. John Adams, in Novanglus #7
America has all along consented, still consents, and ever will consent, that parliament, being the most powerful legislature in the dominions, should regulate the trade of the dominions. This is founding the authority of parliament to regulate our trade, upon compact and consent of the colonies, not upon any principle of common or statute law; not upon any original principle of the English constitution; not upon the principle that parliament is the supreme and sovereign legislature over them in all cases whatsoever. The question is not, therefore, whether the authority of parliament extends to the colonies in any case, for it is admitted by the whigs, that it does in that of commerce; but whether it extends in all cases.
The issue with Parliament’s supreme authority is that it was, as David Ammerman points out, legally dubious and totally without precedent. Like Ammerman, Eric Nelson finds that Americans, like the Tories of old, rejected parliamentary supremacy, instead contending that their loyalty was to the person of the king. Thomas Jefferson pleaded:
[I]t is now therefore the great office of his majesty to resume the exercise of his negative power, and to prevent the passage of laws by any one legislature of the empire which might bear injuriously on the rights and interests of another.
Regrettably George III refused to exercise his royal prerogative and the crisis deepened.
Parliament’s questionable legal footing was compounded by the fact that Americans obviously possessed “rights of Englishmen.” Americans claimed that a host of rights had been violated by Great Britain, most notably was the right to a trial by a judgement by one’s peers, hailing back to the Magna Carta. However the most egregious transgression was inherent in Parliament’s stance itself. By claiming the right to tax the various American polities that had no say in the rule of the realm, Parliament violated an English legal tradition that dated back to the 1200s.
It is absurd to claim that the American Revolution started over a series of relatively minor taxes. Adams answers again:
Is the threepence upon tea our only grievance? Are we not in this province deprived of the privilege of paying our governors, judges, &c.? Are not trials by jury taken from us? Are we not sent to England for trial? Is not a military government put over us? Is not our constitution demolished to the foundation? Have not the ministry shown, by the Quebec bill, that we have no security against them for our religion, any more than our property, if we once submit to the unlimited claims of parliament? This is so gross an attempt to impose on the most ignorant of the people, that it is a shame to answer it.
Obsta principiis, nip the shoots of arbitrary power in the bud, is the only maxim which can ever preserve the liberties of any people
Americans were not petulant. They saw a government practicing the abolition of local powers and rights only to implement these policies in their own homes. Parliament insisted they had the right to abolish any English right that had been theirs for over 150 years. After repeatedly petitioning to their monarch, George III hired foreign mercenaries to kill them. The Revolution was not inevitable but British conduct made it so. Anglo-Irish parliamentarian Edmund Burke remarked:
Reflect how you are to govern a people who think they ought to be free, and think they are not. Your scheme yields no revenue; it yields nothing but discontent, disorder, disobedience; and such is the state of America, that after wading up to your eyes in blood, you could only end just where you begun; that is, to tax where no revenue is to be found.
In response to these repeated injuries, America’s natural leaders, the gentry and colonial elites, agitated for independence. German author Herman von Borch wrote it was the elites who, “… developed the powers and the ideas which made the colonies independent of England and gave them a free, if conservative, domestic regime.”
While the American Revolution is blamed for Europe’s troubles, the Continent read whatever they chose into the Revolution. While the philosophes praised supposed American egalitarianism, the Polish aristocracy celebrated America’s elective monarchy and Belgian nobility applauded America’s system of decentralization. At home there were little social changes and the new political structure focused on custom and tranquility. Alan Watson explains:
The American Revolution resulted in changes, of course. Principal among them was independence, but overall the tenor was restrained. Institutional life required no basic alterations. Colonials sought to retain their English legal rights, which explains the current attachment in the United States to British traditions such as trial by jury, due process, right of petition, and narrow definition of treason. The product of circumstances and limited objectives, the American Revolution, so initially successful, failed to lead to a revolutionary tradition as in France. Although they became ‘symbols of a world revolution, the Americans were not in truth world revolutionaries,’ claimed historian Louis Hartz. The American Revolution was a conservative revolution.
After victory was won, there was little of the retaliation that followed Europe’s travails (and certainly less of the retribution in store if the British had won). There were no mass confiscations and no guillotines erected. While there was the bitterness that follows the end of the civil war, Prussian diplomat Friedrich von Gentz noted, “But what are all these single instances of injustice, compared with the universal flood of misery and ruin,” of the European revolutions.
Instead of an egalitarian world revolution, the American experience was a local affair, rooted in our British context. Kirk called it, “…a preventive movement, intended to preserve an old constitutional structure for the most part. Its limited objectives attained, order was restored.” As Kirk says, it was a revolution made but one prevented.
For various & sundry related to the topic;
America’s Whiggish Origins
- The Origins of English Individualism: The Family, Propety and Social Transition by Alan Macfarlane
- The Frontier Thesis in American History by Frederick Jackson Turner
- The American Enlightenment, 1750–1820 by Robert A. Ferguson
- From Geneva to Yorktown: Did Calvinist resistance theory influence the American Revolution? by Joseph S. Laughon (Yes in an act of supreme self importance, I linked my own paper I wrote as an undergraduate. It could be better but it links to a lot of folks who make my point for me. Read those people.)
America’s Conservative Founding
- The Origins and Principles of the American Revolution, Compared with the Origin and Principles of the French Revolution by Friedrich von Gentz, trans. by John Quincy Adams
- A Summary View of the Rights of British America by Thomas Jefferson.
- The Novanglus Essays by John Adams.
- Origins of the American Revolution by John C. Miller
- The Impact of the American Revolution Abroad by R. R. Palmer