The status of conservative thought II: overcoming Founderolatry

In some ways, conservative thought in America has been advancing steadily for a century.  This is what we should expect.  When a community of scholars functions properly, knowledge is cummulative, and we should be able to build on the wisdom of our predecessors.

As American thought matures, the attention it gives to America’s Founding Fathers wanes.  Half a century ago, Russell Kirk made John Adams a key conservative hero (giving him a chapter in The Conservative Mind) and the Constitution a great conservative victory.  The Declaration of Independence was a propaganda document designed for French consumption, he assured us, and not something to be taken seriously.  Meanwhile, the Southern Agrarians were still straining to tease out conservative insights from Jefferson.  In contrast, in a 21st century book-length statement of conservative belief, Jim Kalb’s The Tyranny of Liberalism, reference to the Founders is limited to one quote from The Federalist Papers.  On the Right blogosphere, the only major site I can think of where harkening to the “wisdom of the Founders” is still a major theme is ISI’s First Principles.  Even those conservative bloggers who admire the Founders and approve of their rebellion show their respect by mentioning them little.

This is a positive development, because focusing on the beliefs of the Founding generation has always been a pointless exercise for those who want a more substantial vision of social order than eighteenth-century Whiggery.  Equally futile are arguments over which faction of this generation–Anti-Federalists, Federalists, or Republicans–represented our side.  None of them did.  They were all Lockeans; whatever conservatism they had was unexamined prejudice.  I suspect that, as American conservatives continue to become more clear-headed, our view of the Founders’ insurrection against their sovereign will grow dimmer as well.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that American conservatives are about to start agitating for the US to rejoin the British Empire.  They will still be loyal to the American order and its unwritten constitution.  They will still encourage piety towards our ancestors, including the Founders who are the partial–but only partial–authors of the American order.  With de Maistre, we regard God as the true author of nations and their constitutions, not necessarily in the sense that He works miracles for their establishment, but in the sense that all authorities rest on a vision of sacred order, something bigger than the conscious construction of any group of men.  As for the “wisdom of the Founders”, let us regard it as a pious exaggeration, or a noble lie at the very worst.  We will no more try to disabuse our countrymen of it than we would argue with a child who insists that his father is the best father in the world.  Both the child’s statement and the patriot’s are more likely expressions of love than statements of fact.  Let us put the Founders in a mental box, call it a shrine, and set it aside.

15 Responses

  1. This is a very wonderful post about wordpress. I surely love seeing and learning something new about it. Just subscribed and looking forward to read some more articles of yours. Good luck and I hope we can connect in one of these days.

  2. Very good post. I’ve long thought that one of the main problems we face in the U.S. is the founder-worship, constitution-worship so prevalent on the establishment Right. It fails to recognize just how unconservative much of that material really is — it only appears conservative today due to the passage of time. And I suppose that’s one of the main maladies of American conservatism — the tendency to associate conservative all too much with “what has come before” in an uncritical sense. Of course traditionalism also is often “past-oriented”, but not in an uncritical sense. In the context of the United States, many things that have occurred in our national past are in no way conservative, merely because they took place in eras prior to our own time. Yet by tending to identify conservatism a bit too uncritically with our own national past, conservatism risks (and, in my view, succumbs to this risk) becoming the party of “slowing down”. That is, the dynamic appears to be this: “progressive” liberals come into power and enact, if they can, a large piece of progressive statist legislation, typically over the protestations of the “conservatives”. Move the tape forward 30-40 years, and you’ll typically find a good number at least, and in many cases most, of the conservatives now defending the new “status quo” by implicitly endorsing the “gains” made by the progressive left in its last main legislative thrust. So the conservatives object, temporize, try to slow down, but eventually the progressive train rules the day, and the conservatives simply fall back, move the trenches back 100 yards, concede that part of the field to the progressives, and turn to defending the “new” status quo — because at some point that which was objected to by prior generations of conservatives becomes something worth defending as a part of the “established order”, since it comes from the past, regardless of the reality of what the legislation does, and what its overall philosophy reflects.

    We see this now happening on social issues in the Republican camp, to take one example. For many years, pro-life, pro-traditional-marriage and so on were central tenets of the conservative position. But as Roe has become entrenched as law, the emphasis on that issue has waned considerably, and will continue to do so as younger generations of conservatives accept that as a part of the new status quo. The same is happening, already, with pseudo-conservatives like Meghan McCain and Steve Schmidt when it comes to marriage issues, and I expect that within 15 years the establishment conservatives in the US will have done their darndest to downplay any emphasis on these “divisive social issues” — and, in effect, will have thereby fallen back, moved the trenches back another 100 yards, and conceded more of the field to the progressives. Viewed in this way, establishment conservatism really acts primarily as a foil for progressive liberalism — it occasionally provides some right-liberal periods, but for the most part the broader stream of political history indicates a progressive direction, with the establishment conservatives merely slowing this down or sometimes redirecting it for a time.

    A related issue, I think, is the influence of Protestanism and its values on American political thought. I do not think that this should be underestimated. Protestantism is deeply and profoundly unconservative in many of its core ideas about authority and so forth, and, in my view, led directly to the Enlightenment and the “progressive liberalism” we see today (something which was, unsurprisingly, favored by substantial numbers of “progressive” mainline American Protestants). This also colors the ability of establishment conservatism in the US to function as a true conservatism worthy of the name.

  3. “Founderolatry” is an apt word. I think the first time I realized I really was a psychotic reactionary came when during college I visited Washington, DC, and was appalled at the sight of a grand temple dedicated to Thomas Jefferson.

  4. Hello novaseeker,

    It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’ve been impressed by your comments at other blogs; they often outshine the posts to which they’re attached. I particularly admired your writings on patriarchy. (I’m rather a connoisseur of conservative writings on patriarchy.)

    These are all very good points. I don’t think any honest person could disagree with your historical sketch: society always moves Left, and pseudoconservatives limit themselves to defending yesterday’s liberalism. I do wonder why the latter don’t see how untenable their position is. It’s philosophically untenable, in that if one accepts liberal premises, one is eventually forced to draw liberal conclusions. It’s also historically untenable, in that today’s Republicans ask us to believe that conservatives have always and everywhere been wrong until now, when suddenly we’re right. All past liberal changes have been good and necessary, but this time they’ve gone too far! And yet, the arguments on both sides are the same this time as they were every other time. I don’t see how anyone can seriously believe it.

    I’m not sure about the relationship between Protestantism and liberalism myself. On the one hand, there’s Protestant theology–justification by faith alone, predestination, etc. On the other hand, there’s Protestant historiography–“tradition was keeping us from God so now we’re reforming!”, etc. The latter certainly bears a strong affinity to liberal historiography, but the former seems innocent in this regard. There certainly have been great Protestant conservatives.

  5. ““Founderolatry” is an apt word. I think the first time I realized I really was a psychotic reactionary came when during college I visited Washington, DC, and was appalled at the sight of a grand temple dedicated to Thomas Jefferson.”

    Ditto. I have never felt more seriously the un-due reverence given to our founders than when I did the tour – and Thomas Jefferson’s temple with his “promise to the world” inscribed round the structure was the clincher.

  6. I know the feeling. If it makes you feel any better, I’ll bet Jefferson wouldn’t have been too pleased with it himself.

  7. Dear trent13,

    Thank you for making me aware of your blog. I’ve just added you to my blogroll.

  8. Thank you, although I’m rather embarrassed that you would have stopped by it (it wasn’t my intention to make you aware of my blog, so much as I feel entirely inadequate when reading yours). 🙂 I would consider myself aspiring to intelligence and having a sincere lack of depth in philosophical comprehension, and my blog is reflective of that. But one can’t help having irrepressible thoughts which must come out, can one?

  9. ‘Equally futile are arguments over which faction of this generation–Anti-Federalists, Federalists, or Republicans–represented our side. None of them did. They were all Lockeans; whatever conservatism they had was unexamined prejudice. ‘

    I assume you’ve either written a detailed critique of Locke, or else you’ve familiarized yourself with some other scholar’s critique of Locke.

    I haven’t delved into Locke deeply, but I like what I’ve seen of his thought. I think the Anti-Federalists were on the right track, although they had (IMHO) an excessively optimistic appraisal of human nature.

    Shay’s Rebellion is a point in USA history that I consider highly pertinent to all of this, but I should split up my thoughts into two categories: 1-historical issues like Shay’s Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion and 2- whether the philosophy of Locke is demonstrably stupider than some other, more conservative philosophy.

  10. Hello zhai2nan2,

    My “detailed” study of Locke consisted in reading his Second Treatise on Government. That hardly makes me an expert, but one doesn’t have to be an expert to recognize that Locke was indeed a liberal. My main criticisms of his political writings would be 1) the social contract construct fails to capture the essence of legitimacy, since in the end it can appeal to nothing but prior choice and self-interest and 2) Locke’s “state of nature” seems to be an arbitrary construct–why, for example, should private property and trade be considered more natural than government? An example of a superior (although still imperfect) political philosophy would be Hegel’s “Philosophy of Right”.

  11. ‘reading his Second Treatise on Government. That hardly makes me an expert’

    You’re more of an expert than I am, but give me a month to delve into that and then perhaps I can figure out what’s up with that.

    ‘1) the social contract construct fails to capture the essence of legitimacy,’

    I often tend to dismiss talk of “legitimacy” because most writers can’t explain it. Is Hegel a good reference point for discussions of legitimacy? I know a few writers like Lysander Spooner, but I imagine you don’t read anarchist writers much…

    2 – ‘why, for example, should private property and trade be considered more natural than government? ‘

    I imagine that both property and government arise from customs and primitive family structures.

    One question – are there introductions to Hegel, or is it easy enough to just dive into his actual writings without a summary?

  12. With regard to Hegel, he’s incredibly opaque. I had to read the Philosophy of Right three times before I could make any sense of it. (Sometimes I still wonder if I understood it correctly.) I do think my book review of it is fairly readable.

  13. […] as the inheritors of Jefferson’s political tradition.  (Just about everybody except Bonald, that […]

  14. Hi, I’m a brazilian conservative (monarchist, catholic) and I appreciated your post. It always seemed to me that american conservatives were really 18th/19th century liberals, so it’s good to see a catholic and true conservative writing in english.

    I think the political objective of a conservative should be the restoration of the “Ancien Regime”, that is, monarchy, aristrocracy and religious order of the society.

    As the tenets of the American Revolution were republicanism, democracy and secularism, I do not symphatize with it. America is the first country in history to adopt the secular state. With it, the religion lost its authority and the State became the institution responsible for organizing the society.

    The american mainstream conservatism is intellectual incoherent, as it tries to mix some conservative principles (life, family) with the liberal ideals of the American Revolution.

  15. Hello Andre A.

    It’s a pleasure to meet you. I agree with you about mainstream American conservatives; they’re classical liberals who haven’t followed the program to its logical conclusion. Real conservatism can be found on a few blogs and, I’d like to think, as an unarticulated sentiment in the hearts of some Americans.

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