Can there be an American conservatism?

This is a dilemma I’ve often seen posed on the internet, particularly at center-right sites.  The United States is a fundamentally liberal country.  It was founded by deist freemasons–in an act of rebellion against their legitimate monarch–deliberately for the purpose of creating a Lockean republic.  All our traditions are liberal.  Since the purpose of conservatives is to preserve tradition, in America, the job of conservatives is to preserve liberalism.  Thus traditionalism in an American context is shown to be logically impossible.

Needless to say, I disagree with this conclusion, but it does raise an interesting issue.  What exactly are American conservatives trying to conserve?  The standard right-liberal, Republican answer is that we’re trying to preserve freedom, which is a sort of American essence.  But is it true that freedom is all there is to the American nation?  Is there nothing more to our heritage than the right to do as we please, so long as we don’t get in each other’s way?  To a conservative, the answer is known a priori.  America is not constructed on a social contract based on nothing but individual rights because we are sure that no society could be thus constituted.  Americans pay lip service to freedom, but freedom is not, and cannot be, the principle that orgainizes our common life.  Nor is the proposition that “all men are created equal.”  No, the reality of American common life is not freedom, but authority.

People in other nations may be as free as we are, but an American is someone who is subject to a particular set of authorities.  The first of these is the government, whose sovereignty is divided into its federal, state, and city incarnations.  Americans use Lockean theories to justify their subjection to their State, but this is just sophistry.  Americans are morally bound to obey their federal, state, and local governments not because they have consented to it, even implicitly–for to withhold consent would be an immoral act–but because they recognize these authorities as legitimate.  This acknowledgment of legitimacy is what makes an American an American, and it is a primary goal of conservatives to establish this sense of legitimacy on its true basis.

It’s these sort of unspoken, unchosen, compulsary “givens” that American conservatives try to identify and defend.  So, for example, another taken-for-granted fact is citizenship:  some people are Americans, and other people aren’t.  A foreigner can only become an American if the state chooses to grant him citizenship.  Americans vocally espouse the principle of treating all people equally, but our unwritten constitution endorses the principle of particular loyalty.  Another given is the judiciary.  America’s laws don’t just reflect the will of the current legislature, but reflect a legal tradition developed over centuries.  Through precedent, this tradition is another legitimate authority to Americans.  A final accepted authority is that of parents over their children.  This is so taken for granted that we never mention it in discussing America’s constitution.  Yet, when a child runs away from home, the police will forcibly return the child to his parents, and nobody asks how to reconcile this with our creed of “freedom” and “equality”.  Wisdom makes us hypocrites, because if we were to take freedom and equality seriously–as the liberals wish us to do–it would destroy our society.

The Founders were liberals who hated tradition and piety, but since their deaths, the natural instict of a people to revere its founders has siezed upon them and created the memory of the Founding Fathers.  From this word “Father”, one can see that the attitude assumed by the population is one of piety.  Piety is an important part of any community, and so the conservative endorses these sentiments, but his reasons are subtle and far different from those given publicly.  The public reason for revering the Founders is that they fought tyranny and established freedom and equality.  These are not reasons that will recommend themselves to conservatives; nor are they the real reason the populace reveres the Founders.  A true believer in freedom and equality despises piety; at most he may agree with some of the Founders’ beliefs and approve some of their actions.  No, a conservative knows that piety is ultimately a religious sentiment.  We feel awe for our parents and ancestors because they are the source of our being, the channel through which we were created.  Every act of creation confronts us with the mystery of Being; creation is where God touches the universe, and those beings that God uses as his instruments of creation become icons of Him.  What the Founders succeeded in doing was to establish a legitimate authority.  In doing so, they created a principle of order in the minds of their subjects.  Symbolically, they repeated God’s act of ordering the universe in the first chapter of Genesis.  Americans feel awe for the Founding because the moment that the nation was created and ordered is for us an iconic event.  One notices that the act that receives the most reverence in the minds of Americans is not some practical decision the Founders made or some brilliant idea they had, but a purely ritual event they performed.  I refer to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, an event painted and eulogized countless times.  These freethinkers certainly didn’t see themselves as ritualistic men, but to found a nation, they performed a ritual.  Writing names on a piece of paper is something that has purely symbolic effect, but it’s that symbolic effect that was the most important thing for American piety.

One can now see the ambivalence we conservatives have toward the Founders.  Seeing them as men, from the standpoint of objective history, they were traitors who deserved to be hanged.  Their ideas about the origin of government were ridiculous; their encomia to freedom were reckless.  Thomas Jefferson, for example, was a practical anarchist who endorsed permanent periodic revolutions.  If anyone were to take his ideas seriously, he would be a threat to the social order.  But people don’t take his ideas seriously.  Nor do they take Jefferson the man seriously.  In the minds of the public, the man has been replaced by the symbol, the object of patriotic piety.  Jefferson has been “digested” by the social order.  No doubt he would have regarded this as a fate worse than death.  To the conservative, however, this is all to the best.

What about the rhetoric that Americans use to justify their devotion to the Founding–all that crap about “throwing off the dead hand of tradition”, “creating the world anew”, of being a nation “concieved in liberty”, “founded on the proposition that all men are equal”, etc?  We don’t take it that seriously.  We know that ordinary Americans lack a vocabulary to express the piety they feel, so they borrow the language of liberalism to justify it.  Our ultimate goal is to give them a fuller vocabulary, so that they can express their devotion to their patria without the unnecessary ideological baggage.  In the meantime, we must be very careful in critiquing these false ideas so that we don’t harm the true sentiments hiding beneath them.

24 Responses

  1. […] 09.04.10 in Language, Politics, Translations | Tags: conservatism, founding fathers, konservatisme, usa This is a translation into Norwegian of the essay Can there be an American conservatism? […]

  2. […] I’ve addressed this issue more fully here. […]

  3. […] my essay “Can there be an American Conservatism?” I ask what about the American way of life conservatives can legitimately strive to […]

  4. I think your characterization of the founders is way too broad. Many were indeed conservative, and most were observant Christians. Many believed they were defending their ancient rights as Englishmen and were saddened to renounce their loyalty to the King. Up until the Declaration, Washington toasted the King at every meal. For most of them, separation of church and state had far more to do with protecting religious belief rather than sequestering it.

  5. Hello Dave M.

    Thanks for reading my essay (and making it all the way to the bottom). You are, I think, presenting the only reading of the Founders that would allow an intelligent conservative to endorse them. There were, indeed, many parts of their inherited culture that they didn’t discard, and for that all American conservatives should be grateful to them. That is a charming anecdote about Washington and the King; thank you for telling me about it.

    On the other hand, their innovations were all in a Whiggish direction. They may have been affiliated with real Christian denominations, but most of the Founders whose names are most familiar to us were Deist in belief. (This would be an interesting problem for someone with a bit of time: which, if any, prominant Founders believed in the Trinity?) Their hearts may have been guided by English tradition, but their public declarations embraced the Lockean social contract theory. People who go looking for great conservative insights in the writings of the Founders are, I think, not putting their time to good use. There are better places to look for things like that. Conservatives can, however, certainly admire the Founders as statesmen and cherish the polity they (wrongly) brought into existence.

  6. What do you think about Robert L. Dabney”s comment about American conservatism as “merely the shadow that follows radicalism as it moves toward perdition. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle”. ?

  7. That’s a good description of American “conservatism” as it actually exists.

  8. I take it that you mean there is a TRUE conservativism, but the one that presently calls itself such in this country is an imposter?

  9. In the Platonic sense, yes, there is a distinct, coherent political philosophy that we can identify as true conservatism. This true conservatism also exists in the material sense that there are, here and there, some genuine conservatives in America. It does not exist in this country in the sense of being an organized movement or school.

  10. To defend the founders: The missing piece of the puzzle is the fact that they assumed that serious participation in politics would be limited to heads of households owning substantial property. All of them who lived long enough to see it were horrified by the mass democracy erupting in the 1820s.
    They were aiming for something rather like the Roman Republic before Caesar. Only with an explicit bill of rights and separation of powers to hold Caesar-ism at bay.
    Most of them owned slaves, afterall. George Washington constantly endeavored to channel Cinncinatus.
    For them, at heart, all men are equal = all citizens are to be treated equally. Remember that in the 19th century native peoples had no legal standing whatsover – the same as slaves, really.
    All very Roman.

  11. Rum: If the Founders were really concerned that heads of families with substantial property be the main political actors in the republic, why did they abolish the laws favoring the right of primogeniture in the states?

    As the real Bonald wrote, “The law was not made for the eldest. In the eyes of God or nature, he is no greater than his cadets, even in royal families. The law exists for the preservation and permanence of the landowning family.”

  12. My interpretation of my reading is that the founders looked west and saw an infinity of new land and saw no purpose in giving state sanction to the maintenance of the integrity of family estates. Perhaps more importantly, they wanted to discourage anything that reeked of Nobility – which primogeniture certainly did.
    More broadly, I think they simply assumed that society would continue to be ordered in America as it had been (and Britain beforehand) for centuries. The Virgina House of Burgess was the model they had in mind, I think – large landowners debating the public good – at their leisure and without much input from those with less of a stake in the existing order.
    There is hardly anything about “voting rights” in the Federal Constitution.

  13. I agree with you; the primary motivation of the founders to change the inheritance laws must have been an aversion to nobility and monarchy.

    From Wikipedia:
    “In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville argues that the abolition of the laws of primogeniture and entail in the law of inheritance of private property… result in the more rapid division of land and thus force landed people to seek wealth outside the family estate in order to maintain their previous standard of living, accelerating the death of the landed aristocracy and also quickening the shift to democracy.”

    As you say, the founders saw an “infinity of new land” to the west, so they didn’t feel the need to protect the integrity of family estates. They “simply assumed” that things would continue as they had before.

    This reveals the shortsightedness of the founders because,

    a) there actually wasn’t infinite land available in the west, and
    b) changing the laws as they did guaranteed the fragmentation of estates back home (i.e., in already settled land). The assumption that large landowners would continue to prevail in government was unwarranted.

    In this way we see that the founders pursued policies that uniformly and inevitably led to:

    a) the dissolution of families,
    b) the multiplication and shrinkage of estates,
    c) the diminishment of landed power, and
    d) the rise of popular democracy.

    To attack nobility and monarchy is to attack the family itself and ultimately, to bring it into subjection to a state governed by interests hostile to its prosperity.

    This is the story of America and the lesson it teaches about our national experiment in liberty.

  14. These are important points. It seems that if we accept that the Founders really were hostile to nobility and monarchy (and it seems hard to deny), then they really were radicals in the important, social, sense, and the rest of American history has seen the working out of the implications of their radicalism.

  15. “Our ultimate goal is to give them a fuller vocabulary, so that they can express their devotion to their patria without the unnecessary ideological baggage.”

    This reminded me of Chapter Thirteen, Conservatives’ Promise, in this review of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind.

  16. I’m afraid all this is “blowing in the wind.” The US, de facto, has been taken over by a plutocracy. We are essentially a fascist state, if by that we mean an amalgam of the corporation and the government. The legal foundations of this country have been entirely reconfigured. The government in the US exists to serve corporate interests and these are in the first place the great banking interests conjoined with the corporations that serve what Eisenhower termed the “military-industrial” complex, which has morphed monstrously into our present national security state. Wall St. and the Pentagon.

  17. Freedom is in fact what conservatives are trying to conserve. Absolute freedom is a logical and practical impossibility. Thus, authority is only a means to conserve as much freedom as possible. Authority of parents over children, citizens over foreigners, etc., are considered necessary and important for building and maintaining overall freedom. Compulsory law and subjection to authority limit freedom–conservatives adhere to and even espouse these not because of what they limit, but because those limitations on freedom create more freedom than we would otherwise have.

    Law and authority are only some of the limitations on freedom conservatives espouse–they are not necessarily always the most important or most effective methods. Thus, conservatives endorse some law and some authority, and eschew others, all with the intent of building and conserving freedom.

  18. I was interested until you said The Founding Fathers are liberals that a lie portrayed by the lift wing who are changing the history books from what really happened to brainwash the younger generation and some of the impressionable older mind like yours.

    The Founding Fathers are not liberals!!! They founded it on freedom from oppression, liberalism is oppression and large Government, they what to limit government power over the people, the government belongs to the people not the other way around.

    They founded this country with a small government should they don’t become too large and start oppressing the people.

    I feel oppressed, the government only job is to pretext the people right to property, right to succeed, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom to assemble, and freedom to bare arms.

    The government is taking away our freedom, CNN makes me made because they praise a president taking away freedom, when ever I hear him speak he makes me mad he may as well say “I’ll take away your freedom by degree and the amount I take away will grow.” And his zombie followers cheers which pist me off even more, and CNN and other liberal channels say he is the best and slash at freedom loving people, Fox used to be one of them.

    When Obama started I thought he be like othetr presidents then he start doing anti-american stuff. I have to watch BBC to know what’s happening in America for almost three years until I found radio talk about him i was surprised and then when I found blogs saying Obama is not good, I found a comment they watch too many Fox.
    So I think maybe they saw him who he really is, so I give them another chance and they talk how bad a president he is all of what they are saying are what I notice, so now I watch them.

    Read the bill of rights, the constitution and the declaration of independence.

  19. They were classical liberals. Which is to say, they didn’t fully digest the egalitarian implications of their thinking. Which would make them modern “conservatives”.

    There’s something rather magnificent about the concept of a constitution, though – it smuggles in that element of authority, much like Roman republican virtue did. Keep on defending that Constitution of yours. It might well save you. But never forget that it functions much better as a symbol than as living reality.

  20. Except that nobility and monarchy both were pretty scarce on the ground in the existing colonies. The argument that the Revolution was attempting to defend an existing social order isn’t the whole story, but you’re giving it too short a shrift.

  21. […] is also a challenge to my own writings on American conservatism.  In my essay Can there be an American Conservatism?, I consider the dilemma of being a traditionalist in a country that has been liberal from its […]

  22. Nathan, you seem to have confused conservatism with classical liberalism.

  23. As I delve further and further into the conservative tradition, what a world opens up. In the same way that we are prevented from comprehending any worldview other than classical liberalism by default, we assume conservatism is synonymous with GOP Republicanism, which makes it seem empty and vapid. But when we throw away the Republican party, we emancipate conservatism.

    Real conservatism, a paleoconservatism, mind you, is a mentality. An ethic. It is a traditionalism certainly, and thus I concur with your thoughts about the Founders absolutely. These men were radicals who betrayed their king and deigned to redesign society along rational Enlightenment lines. What they did was nothing short of world shattering in their rupture. Even traditionalists/conservatives, trying mostly to denigrate the French Revolution, like to portray the American as a “legitimate secession.” On the contrary, the American Revolution was a fratricidal civil war instigated by the very same liberal/Enlightenment principles that animated the French Revolutionaries.

    Most conservatives do not get that far. For them, history begins 1776, it is the sum zero of our national existence, before which there was nothing. All they can thus do is venerate the Founders and treat the Constitution as sacred. Mainstream conservatives care about respecting authority and patriotism, they are not after Tradition. Traditionalism requires, REQUIRES repudiation of the American rebellion and the Enlightenment ideals our Founders embraced. There was no “break” after we became independent and established the Constitution: the history of America is a textbook example of Enlightenment ideals played out realistically. The fact that our government cares not at all for the Constitution or the “vision of the Founders” should not, in the final analysis, be shocking, but expected.

    I repudiate it.

    American conservatism is recognition that the Founders were wrong.

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