The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 20, 2019

Political Principle: Ordered Liberty; Chapter 5 from "The American Cause" by Russell Kirk

Foundations of American Republicanism

The United States of America is a federal republic: a federation of states governed by written constitutions. A part of the American political system is almost peculiar to the United States, particularly the checking and balancing of powers and interests by an elaborate system of enduring laws. But the political theories and customs that support our political institutions are very ancient in origin, most of them, and not peculiar to America.

Our constitution is republican—that is, designed to secure the public good through the sharing of political power among many people. The framers of our federal Constitution had in mind, as a model for American government, the ancient Roman republic, and Roman law and institutions still may be discerned in the structure of our government. And they also had in mind—so much at the back of their minds, indeed, that it formed the basis of most of their political opinions—the political experience of England, and English political philosophy. Thus our American governments had for their foundation the English common law, English constitutional practice, and English political theory; and to their English legacy the founders of our Republic added Roman features.

American Politics Not Abstract

Unlike the leaders of the French Revolution, the founders of the American Republic were not abstract theorists. (An acute German observer, Friedrich Gentz, perceived the difference between the American and French experiments at the end of the eighteenth century, and pointed out that while the American Revolution was intended to secure in a practical fashion the American institutions and rights that already existed, the French Revolution was an attempt to turn a nation upside down and create something that never before had existed.) The signers of the Declaration of Independence and the framers of the Constitution did not create a republic out of whole cloth. Liking America much as they found it, they overturned English rule chiefly so that they might simply preserve the justice and order and freedom that the American colonies had long enjoyed. They were not creating Utopia; what they aimed at was the preservation, the conservation, of the rights and benefits they had inherited from their forefathers.

Thus when we speak of the theories that underlie our constitutions here in America, we do not mean a set of abstract doctrines constructed overnight to support some brand-new political system. By American political theories, rather, we mean those assumptions, bound up with certain moral principles, that Americans believe have been tested by many centuries of civilized experience—some of that experience here in America, most of it in Europe. For the most part, American political theories were developed from the combination of the theological and moral principles discussed in preceding chapters with the practical working of the European and English and American civil social order in history. Washington and Hamilton, Adams and Morris, Jefferson and Madison, knew history thoroughly. They were aware of the intricate process by which people had learned to live together in justice and order and freedom. They knew of the many mistakes that states had made, and of old political institutions which had proved themselves beneficial. They were acquainted with the growth of common law and constitutional government in England, and with the experience of colonial Americans in free institutions. Even the more radical among the founders of American government, like Thomas Jefferson, looked steadily to the past for guidance. Realizing that politics is the art of the possible, they settled for sound security in social institutions. They were not closet-philosophers, vainly pursuing the vision of a perfect society independent of human experience.

They knew political philosophy, as well as history and law. They had read, many of them, Plato and Aristotle, Cicero and Seneca, St. Augustine and Dante, Sir Edward Coke and Richard Hooker, John Locke and Edmund Burke. They knew the writings of Kames and Blackstone and other legal theorists. But they were not bookish in the bad sense of that word: they did not divorce theory from practice. In their own careers they had united the authority of social custom with the authority of great books. They respected the wisdom of their ancestors. Especially they respected religious wisdom: nearly all of them had been brought up on the King James Version of the Bible, and most of them were intimately acquainted with the English Book of Common Prayer. Thus their political assumptions were compounded of Jewish religious doctrines, Christian teachings, classical philosophy, medieval learning, and English literature. And they were accustomed to testing these assumptions by reference to the historical experience of the ancient world, medieval society, English social development, and the American colonial experience. Out of such materials came the framework of our American Republic. We are a modern nation only in a restricted sense.

Three Cardinal Ideas of Western Politics

Now in the political beliefs of what we call “Christian civilization” or “Western civilization”—of which American civilization is a part—there are three cardinal ideas: the idea of justice, the idea of order, and the idea of freedom. These three great concepts are the cement of American society. These three ideas dominated the minds of the founders of our Republic, and they are the principles that underlie American politics nowadays. These concepts of justice and order and freedom have been derived from Jewish and classical and Christian and European thought and experience. They are not peculiarly American; but they are essential to American social existence, and they have attained a high degree of practical expression in American life. They make possible the ordered liberty that is among the chief justifications of the American cause.

“Justice” is the principle and the process by which each man is accorded the things that are his own—the things that belong to his nature. This concept the old Greeks and Romans expressed in the phrase “to each his own.”1 It is the principle and the process that protects a man's life, his property, his proven rights, his station in life, his dignity. It also is the principle and the process that metes out punishment to the evildoer, which enforces penalties against violence and fraud. The allegorical figure of Justice always holds a sword. Justice is the cornerstone of the world—divine justice and human justice. It is the first necessity of any decent society.

“Order” is the principle and the process by which the peace and harmony of society are maintained. It is the arrangement of rights and duties in a state to ensure that a people will have just leaders, loyal citizens, and public tranquility. It implies the obedience of a nation to the laws of God, and the obedience of individuals to just authority. Without order, justice rarely can be enforced, and freedom cannot be maintained.

“Freedom” is the principle and the process by which a man is made master of his own life. It implies the right of all members of adult society to make their own choices in most matters. A slave is a person whose actions, in all important respects, are directed by others; a free man is a person who has the right—and the responsibility—of deciding how he is to live with himself and his neighbors.

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