The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

January 20, 2019

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

Order and And Classless Society

What was the nature of order, in the eyes of the men who established the American political system? Proper order, they thought, is necessary to any civilized society. And order means that there must be a recognition of different functions and abilities among the members of society. Any society has its leaders. A justly ordered society will obtain good leaders; a badly ordered society will obtain unscrupulous and incompetent leaders. The founders of the American nation were republicans, but they did not believe for a moment that all men can be leaders; in any age, it is the nature of things that the few must lead and the many follow. They endeavored to ensure that the American Republic might choose its leaders wisely; and that those leaders’ power might be hedged and bounded by wise constitutions and counter-balancing influences.

These statesmen of the early years of our country never meant to establish a “classless society.” The classless society is the dream of Karl Marx and other nineteenth-century socialists. Classes always had existed in all lands, the Republic's founders reasoned, and classes are a social product of man's nature. There were many classes in their own America, and they expected that there always would be: fishermen, farmers, manual laborers, merchants, artisans, bankers, professional people, clergymen, landed proprietors, teachers, servants, soldiers, sailors, clerks, political administrators, shopkeepers, and yet more orders in society—most of them with a useful and inescapable function, and all of them probably destined to endure, as distinct elements in the nation, to the end of time. There was nothing immoral or obsolete about the existence of class, they felt: class was as natural in society as the separate functions of the brain, the heart, and the lungs in the human body.

Meaning of Aristocracy

So they did not aspire to abolish class. What they disliked was not class, but caste: hereditary distinctions and privileges enforced by law. The granting of titles of nobility, accordingly, was forbidden expressly in the Constitution2; and this violated no man's inherited rights, for there were virtually no noblemen in America at the time of the Revolution. The founders of the Republic never aimed at the French vision of absolute equality, as preached by theorists like Condorcet. Though they could not abide caste, they heartily approved of “natural aristocracy”—the leadership of men of unusual talents and large resources. Old John Adams, in correspondence with Thomas Jefferson and John Taylor of Caroline, defined an aristocrat as any man who could influence two votes—his own and someone else's. An aristocrat, in other words, is a natural leader, qualified by intelligence, charm, strength, cleverness, industry, wealth, family, education, or some other resource to influence the opinions of his neighbors. Jefferson, in Virginia, as strongly supported the claims and rights of an aristocracy of nature as did Burke, in England. The leaders of American thought and politics knew that any society without honorable leaders must be a disorderly society. What they foresaw for the future of the Republic was not, then, the abolition of class and superior talents, but the employment of class and superior talents to the benefit of the commonwealth.

These American statesmen were neither pure aristocrats nor pure democrats. They distrusted both aristocracy and democracy, as unmodified forms of government. A satisfactorily orderly society, they argued, must consist of a mixture of aristocracy and democracy, a balancing and checking and harmonizing of the influence of wealth and private ability with the influence of numbers and popular desire. They wrote into the federal constitution and the state constitutions safeguards against both the power of wealth and the power of needy majorities, against the ambition of gifted men and the appetite of average men.

They feared the lust for power of the strong man; and they feared the lust for possessions of the poor man. They knew that some unusual and some ordinary men, in any age, will abuse what-ever powers they enjoy. So the founders of the Republic devised a system of constitutional laws—which will be more fully described in the chapter which follows—that would protect decent social order from either the autocrat or the mob, that would balance the interest and authority of one interest or class in state and nation against other interests and classes, that would provide a democratically based society with a soundly aristocratic leadership.

“Without order, there is no living together in society”: so the authors of the American political system had learned from the English political philosophers, and from their own century and a half of experience in the New World. As nations go, the American Republic has been amazingly orderly, with only one civil war in its history, no successful revolt since the Declaration of Independence, and very few violent protests against the conduct of government. Among the great states of the modern world, only Great Britain—if one excludes Ireland and the British Commonwealth and imperial possessions—has so enviable a record. Every man seeks order in his own life; he is miserable if he lacks it. And every nation that lacks order is bitterly unhappy. The American experiment in the keeping of order remains probably America's proudest just claim to high respect among the nations; it matters far more, for civilization and for American happiness, than the “American standard of living” about which we boast so frequently.

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