The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 15, 2018

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The American Experience

The libertarian argument about the American Founding, which is exemplified in Murray Rothbard’s four-volume Conceived in Liberty, is similar to the West Coast Straussian conservative argument in many respects. For example, Rothbard writes that the Declaration grounded “the Revolution on the universal principles of the natural rights of man.” The primary difference is that whereas Jaffa & Co. point to the Declaration and Gettysburg Address as affirming the equality of all men as America’s purpose, libertarians believe that the purpose of the American polity is the protection of individual liberty defined primarily as freedom from state interference. Rothbard claims that the Revolution was an expression of “a libertarian ideology that stressed the conjoined rights of ‘liberty and property.’” For the libertarian, the Revolution and Declaration are viewed as radical departures from the European traditions of centralized and absolutist government, and the Constitution is understood as creating a relatively weak central government (the classically libertarian “night-watchman” state) whose purpose is the protection of the political and economic liberty of individual citizens. The libertarians differ from the Straussians primarily in the former’s sense that the Founding period was part of a larger struggle between liberty and power characteristic of all American history, beginning with the Crown’s failed attempt at mercantilism in the colonies, a state of affairs called “salutary neglect” by Burke.

The intramural conservative debate over the Founding extends from the Founding proper to those events in American history with greatest bearing on the nature of the American Constitution, and Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and its effects on our constitutional order are the loci of fiercest debate. The question centers on whether or not Lincoln thought and acted in accordance with the American political tradition, so one’s answer to that question is dependent upon what one understands by “American political tradition.”

Abraham Lincoln

For the traditionalist, America was never supposed to be founded on abstract philosophical principles, which were for Lincoln “applicable to all men and all times”; it derives its liberties from the prescriptive, accreted historical liberties of English subjects. The Founding from which we derive our political principles was thoroughly grounded in those same liberties, such that the Declaration is a litany of complaint about their violation, not a philosophical treatise on natural rights. Lincoln’s attachment to philosophical notions, especially to what Bradford has called the “heresy of equality,” makes him aberrant in our tradition. The sense of American political teleology in the famous phrase “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” is to the traditionalist’s mind a betrayal of the very fathers whom Lincoln claims were dedicated and dedicated us to said proposition. This betrayal, expressed through Lincoln’s wartime accumulation of unprecedented powers, effectively resulted in the founding of a second American republic on a basis different from the one founded by the Framers.

Conversely, the Straussian who believes that America is expressly and uniquely dedicated to equality sees Lincoln in a more hagiographic light. Far from the reckless ideologue of Bradford’s portrait, the Straussian Lincoln discovered the basic principle of the American political tradition early in his career and courageously acted in accord with and for the furtherance of that principle to his death. Since for the Straussian the Declaration’s preamble is the presumptive philosophy of the Constitution, Lincoln’s recognition of America’s dedication to the equality of all men is praiseworthy. Far from founding the Republic on different lines, Lincoln recalled the Republic to its fundamental premise of natural equality. He was a prophet calling America to repentance, not a heretic leading her far from the right path.

Intramural conservative debates about the Founding period center on the differences over what motivated the Founders to establish the tradition of ordered liberty that all conservatives agree is our worthy patrimony. The disagreements concern whether or not that patrimony is a literally historical one from colonial America’s English Protestant history or a philosophical one from the Sinai moment of the Declaration’s publication. This divergence of opinion bears many resulting differences, especially over Lincoln, but conservatives are united in their affirmation of the value of discovering what the Founders thought and why they thought so in order to preserve the goods of liberty, order, and peace that are our heritage from them.
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