The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

May 24, 2017

SHORT COURSES
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The American Experience

The Revolution, the issuing of the Declaration of Independence, and the framing and ratification of the Constitution are the three central events of the Founding period and the traditionalists’ and Straussians’ and libertarians’ specific differences concerning these three events inform their general conception of the period.

Traditionalist conservatives such as Russell Kirk, Clyde Wilson, and M.E. Bradford claim that the founding is best understood in terms of its continuity with the colonists’ common European, specifically British, past. In works like The Conservative Mind and America’s British Culture, Kirk argues that American politics was imbued from the start with a commitment to a Burkean conception of the primacy of traditional activity. America is a nation nourished by its tradition of liberty available to Englishmen, not by creedal adherence to a philosophy of liberty available to all men. In Remembering Who We Are, A Better Guide than Reason, Original Intentions, and From Union to Empire, Bradford and Wilson emphasize the practical, prudential, limited, local, and non-ideological character of political thought in the Founding period. Their particular heroes are John Adams, John Dickinson, John Taylor, and Thomas Jefferson (although he is an ambivalent figure for them). They admire both federalists and anti-federalists and often sympathize with the anti-federalist critique of the Constitution’s centralization of governmental power, which could contravene the conservative principle of subsidiarity and predilection for localism.

Russell A. Kirk

In terms of the three great events of the Founding period, traditionalists usually claim that the American War of Independence was a conservative war of preservation, not a wholesale revolution, i.e. a novus ordo seclorum. The model for the colonists was not the creation of the New Jerusalem, which traditional Reformed Protestants would know enough not to seek on earth. Instead, and in contrast to the French Revolution, the American Revolution is understood as the defense of a settled manner of living against the unlawful innovations of King and Parliament. For example, Bradford writes that the Founders “were prescriptive Whigs who had made a revolution on the model of the Glorious Revolution—in order to continue as they were.” Thus, the Revolution is a return to what the colonists understood to be their proper and traditional government, not the ex nihilo creation of an unprecedented political order. According to traditionalists, their view is supported by the fact that the basic institutions of pre-revolutionary America persisted in post-revolutionary America.

  • The colonial and state constitutions were remarkably similar, thereby stressing the continuity of the political tradition before and after independence.
  • The union consisted of a loose confederation of states that were sovereign prior to their combination for the purposes of independence from Britain.
  • Americans retained the common law legal system. We did not establish a statutory legal code such as Napoleon promulgated.
  • Established churches and Protestant Christianity continued to play a central role in the political life of Americans. Massachusetts retained its established church until 1833, and Connecticut was officially Congregationalist into 1818.

Traditionalists tend to downplay the centrality of the Declaration of Independence as a foundational text by reading it, not as an universalist document justifying egalitarianism and permanent revolution to secure that equality, but as a lawyer’s brief justifying the secession of particular people from the tyrannical rule of the British crown. The Declaration is understood as a defense of the traditional rights of Englishmen living in the American colonies and its historical roots are traced from the Magna Charta through the documents of the Glorious Revolution. Further, traditionalists point out that most of the text consists of an indictment of the King and his unlawful actions against the colonists, and a claim that the King has abdicated his authority over the colonies by violating the colonists’ prescriptive liberties. Conservatives like Frank Meyer, Willmoore Kendall, and George Carey warned specifically against reading the abstract principles of the preamble of the Declaration into the preamble of Constitution as if the Declaration formed the eternal telos of the American polity. Instead, the Declaration is a declaration of political independence of one people or several peoples from another distinct people.

The traditionalists’ conclusions about the experience of the American Revolution also apply to their reading of the United States Constitution. For traditionalists, the Constitution is properly understood as a document which created the authorized procedures by which the government of the United States operates, not as a set of abstract principles to guide future generations toward a common goal, what modern liberals call a “living Constitution.” The Constitution is procedural, not substantive, and it is concerned with the creation and custody of the laws and institutions of a political community composed of sovereign states with specific and limited common purposes. Bradford claims that the Constitution “organizes and protects a government able to contain our multiplicity without setting out to resolve it.” The Constitution is anti-democratic, anti-majoritarian, and limits the power of central government.

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