The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 14, 2017

The American Experience

ISI recommends reading through the introductory essay before following the embedded hyperlinks or before working through the course itself. The essay can orient your reading and reflection so that like Caleb and Joshua you are calm and perceptive in the face of the intellectual giants you will find in this land.

Throughout American history the nature and significance of our nation’s Founding period (commonly defined by the beginning year of 1775 and an end-date of 1800) has been contentious because one’s interpretation of them is fundamental to his conception of America. In opposition to leftists such as Charles Beard, who thought the Founders were motivated to frame the Constitution purely by economic self-interest, conservatives have desired a clear understanding of what the Founding means to America. An American conservative by definition finds something to conserve in the American political tradition. There are nonetheless wide disagreements between conservatives over the nature of the Founding, divergences of opinion sometimes almost as wide as those between conservatives and their liberal and leftist opponents.

Signing the Constitution, Thomas Rossiter

In order to define what conservatives have in common on the Founding, it is easiest to say first what they firmly reject. Beginning with Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913), leftist and sometimes liberal historians have written of the Founding as a period motivated by the self-interest of, variously, white men, rich men, slaveholding men, and just plain men. One of the older incarnations of this view was in Beard based on a Marxist analysis of the Founders as bourgeois desperate to ensure their socioeconomic standing, but more modern variations on the same premise of writing off the Founders focus on factors such as race or gender to prove that modern Americans should disregard the cramped and irrelevant opinions of the Framers. The ideological character of such analysis is rejected by conservatives for its moral relativism and methodological historicism, betraying as it does the presumption that modern people are a great deal more enlightened than the Founders and can therefore reject all our fathers’ works and ways.

There is an older and deeper liberal tradition of interpretation, best articulated by Louis Hartz in the mid-twentieth century, that the American Founding was an ur-Lockean moment of free individuals coming together to form a social contract. As the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 stated, “The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals; it is a social compact by which the whole people covenants with each citizen and each citizen with the whole people that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good.” America had no established church or feudal history, and so the nature of its political tradition is defined by the free and equal individuals who came together to form the United States. Since America is therefore so beholden to Locke for her nature, there can be no such thing as a conservative or even a socialist tradition in American politics. All Americans are categorically classical liberals, so American conservatism must amount to right-wing liberalism. America’s story is one of the gradual extension of Lockean natural rights to all Americans, and the role of conservatives in that tradition is to ensure that equality of rights does not bleed into a doctrine of equality of results, i.e. that the rich man and poor man being equal as to their right to life does not become their being equal as to their right to the rich man’s money. There is nothing to conserve besides the original deposit of natural rights announced in the Declaration and secured by the Constitution.

John Locke 1632-1704

The objections of Straussian conservatives or libertarians to this thesis are either nonexistent or hard to understand, since the narrative of America for a Straussian such as Harry Jaffa is the gradual extension of equality to all men who by the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” are entitled to it. Libertarians such as Murray Rothbard indeed view America’s lack of an European feudal tradition as a positive good, since it ensured that free Americans would be jealous of their traditional liberties. For traditionalists, consignment to classical liberalism is more upsetting, since defining the Founding as the institution of a novus ordo seclorum effaces the connection they see between the traditional prescriptive liberties of Englishmen and the “unalienable rights” of the Declaration.  

Beginning in the late 1960’s, the liberal consensus on the Founding was challenged by a school of politically liberal historians who nonetheless dissented from the view that the Framers were orthodox Lockeans. The conservative critique of the liberal historical consensus on the Founding was aided immeasurably by this controversy among historians about the character of the American Founding. These historians, including Bernard Bailyn, John Pocock, and Gordon Wood emphasized the centrality of old Whig constitutionalism to the Founders’ way of understanding politics. The Founders drew their politics from their classical education and the lessons Whigs had learned in the struggle for constitutional liberty in Britain. This historical school itself was called the “civic republican” school to differentiate it from the Lockean interpretation of the Founding. Rather than seeing the Founding and hence American history as the promotion and extension of individual rights, the Founders (according to the civic republicans) promoted civic participation and virtue after the Roman manner for the sake of the commonwealth. They stressed a continuity between English history and American politics that detracted from the primordial nature of the Lockean Founding. Locating the Founders in history revealed that the Founding itself was deeply involved in traditions besides classical liberal political philosophy.

Subsequent revisionist historians emphasized the importance of Protestant Christianity, dissenting from civic republicanism’s view of the Founding as motivated by a classical conception of virtue. Chief among these was Barry Alan Shain whose The Myth of American Individualism posited a Reformed Protestant conception of virtue and liberty as the basis of the Founders’ thought. Although admittedly influenced by Greek and especially Roman ideas about virtue, the Founders were working with Reformed conceptions of human nature as fallen and unable to find fulfillment in the earthly city and of virtue inculcated first by the church and family. The typically congregationalist polity of this form of Protestantism exemplified the local and fiercely independent collective promotion of godliness that Shain saw as fundamental to the Founding, which was seen to stand in a tradition beginning with the original godly covenant, the Mayflower Compact. Taken together, these efforts, whatever their disagreements on the source of the Founders’ ideas, undermined the academic validity of the liberal conception of the Founding.

There are two distinguishable conservative traditions of interpretation which provide an heuristic frame for studying the Founding. On the one hand, the traditionalist interpretation of the American Founding has emphasized the Founders’ hostility to centralized power, their dedication to practical liberty, and their commitment to limited government. The sources of these three political virtues are located by traditionalists in various historical traditions, notably the long one of English constitutional liberty. On the other hand, the West Coast Straussian interpretation of the Founding era has focused on the Founders’ commitment to universal principles like natural rights and natural equality and, for some such conservatives, to an energetic government capable of defending those principles.

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.

The West Coast Straussian version of the American Founding differs in profound ways from the traditionalist conception, and is, in many ways, closer to the older liberal historical consensus. Indeed its explicit attachment to natural rights fulfills Hartz’s prediction that Americans cannot be other than classical liberals. According to the West Coast Straussian version, the American Founding was a philosophical act of faith in the concept of natural equality. There are quite a few accounts of the character of the act itself, but the most prominent among self-described conservatives are those offered by Straussian political theorists such as Harry Jaffa, Martin Diamond, and Thomas West on the one hand, and libertarian writers such as Murray Rothbard and Randy Barnett on the other. In both versions, the Founding is conceived of as the incarnation of a Lockean natural rights regime, though Jaffa and his intellectual allies posit natural equality as the central concept, while the libertarians emphasize natural liberty as the key to American political thought. For the egalitarians, Jefferson and the Federalists loom large, while, for the libertarians, Jefferson is the primary object of admiration. (Jefferson, like Whitman, was large and continues to contain multitudes.)

Thomas Jefferson, Rembrandt Peale

Harry Jaffa is the most prominent conservative to interpret the American Founding period as an unprecedented act of establishing a philosophically egalitarian government founded upon self-evident and universal principles. Unlike the traditionalists, Jaffa claims that the American Revolution formed a radically new polity and radically new way of thinking about political life. In works like How to Think About the American Revolution and American Conservatism and the American Founding, Jaffa expounds the notion that the United States was created as a creedal nation founded on philosophical principles. He has written that, “the American Revolution represented the most radical break with tradition...that the world had ever seen.” For West Coast Straussian conservatives, including American neo-conservatives, the United States is a creedal nation united not necessarily by a common history and common set of beliefs, practices, and institutions, but instead by a common philosophical commitment to the creation and sustenance of political equality.

Because of their commitment to an egalitarian reading of the Founding period, the West Coast Straussian conservatives understand the Declaration of Independence as the American civil form of the Apostles’ Creed. The Declaration is the statement of the fundamental principles on which the regime is founded. There is a special emphasis on the second paragraph in which Jefferson declares that “all men are created equal.” For the West Coast Straussian conservatives, the Declaration asserts a set of God-given natural rights which serve as the civil theology or political religion which defines the character of American citizenship and the telos of American political activity. Jaffa, among others, also offers a critique of the traditionalist reading of the Declaration, suggesting that the traditionalist reading necessarily misses the ideological power which actually motivated the revolutionaries.

In opposition to Bradford’s contention that the Founding Fathers were mostly unconcerned about slavery, Jaffa marshals quotes from the Framers themselves, as well as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, who in his “Cornerstone” speech (after Matthew 21:42) stated that the Confederacy was specifically dedicated to racial inequality, whereas the United States and the Framers had asserted the natural equality of all men. Further, according to Jaffa, historicizing the claims of the Declaration undermines the moral authority of the state and leads to the moral relativism which informs contemporary liberalism.

The framing and ratification of the Constitution is understood by West Coast Straussian conservatives not as the creation of a procedural republic but as a nationalization of the previously fragmented states in order to pursue more perfectly the political principles enunciated in the Declaration. Jaffa writes that “the principles of the Declaration are...presupposed in the Constitution.” For West Coast Straussian conservatives, the Constitution is best understood as the successful creation of a national republic with a government energetic and powerful enough to ensure political equality. Thus, these thinkers are less concerned than traditionalists with limited government and federalism, although they need not necessarily support a categorically strong central government.

Alexander Hamilton, John Trumbull

The argument over whether or not the Constitution mandates a strong or a weak national government has, however, been primarily fought between disciples of Strauss. Alexander Hamilton, who desired an “energetic” national government, and Thomas Jefferson, who did not, anticipated elements of this debate in the early years of the Republic, as did Hamilton and Madison in the famous Pacificus-Helvidius exchanges. While not all West Coast Straussians are necessarily Hamiltonian, the only conservatives who desire a Hamiltonian, strong central government adhere to the Straussians’ philosophical conception of the Founding.

A strong central government is necessary to this variant of Straussianism, often identified with neoconservatism, because the blessings of liberty cannot be secured without the wherewithal to change regimes in order to make democracy possible. Before Nazi Germany could become democratic, Hitler had to be deposed. The philosophical issue is whether or not post-World War II Germany could be democratic. Democracy is exportable if, as in some variants of West Coast Straussianism, America’s regime is the ideal form of government based on natural rights. A traditionalist who is as suspicious of central government as old Jeffersonian Republicans such as John Taylor and John Randolph and understands American liberty as peculiar to American history would not seek to reproduce the blessings of American liberty outside of America. If, however, the Founding was a recognition of the natural rights belonging to all men by virtue of their Creator’s decree, the possibility of republican democracy outside America is much greater. West Coast Straussians’ understanding of the Founding as a matter of philosophical recognition makes making “the world safe for democracy” a conceivable, if not a logically necessary, enterprise.

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.

Lesson 1: The English tradition of liberty

  1. The Magna Charta of 1215
    • According to this document, what is liberty’s source and purpose?
    • Why are people spoken of in groups (clergymen, villeins, barons, etc.)? How does a group or place hold liberties?
  2. The Petition of Right of 1628
    • When and why is taxation unjust, according to the Petition?
    • What are the legal and actual relationships between Englishmen and the king’s army? What is the gap between legality and actuality, and why does it exist?
  3. The English Bill of Rights of 1689
    • What is the relationship of religion to the English constitution?
    • Do the freeholders of 1689 differ from the barons of 1215 in their description of liberty and its source?
  4. Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England in Four Books, Chapter 1: Of the Absolute Rights of Individuals, §122-128
    • What account of the origins of man and of the law does Blackstone give? How does this color his thinking about rights?
    • How did the English come to enjoy such liberties as they have? What does this say about other, less liberal nations?

Summary question: What is the source or what are the sources of English liberty or liberties? Is the answer conditional upon the age?

Further reading:

  1. William Campbell, “Blackstone’s Law and Economics”

Lesson 2: The colonial tradition of liberty

  1. The Mayflower Compact
    • Who composes the “body politick” and for what purpose does it exist?
    • What is the source of the law and constitution?
  2. The Combination of the Inhabitants upon the Piscataqua River for Government
    • How does this “body politick” relate to the laws ordained by the sovereign?
    • What precedes the institution or existence of civil government, if anything?
  3. William Penn, Preface to the Charter of Liberties and Frame of Government for the Province of Pennsylvania in America
    • Why and how is “liberty without obedience...confusion, and obedience without liberty is slavery”?
    • What is meant by the “divine right of government”? How is such right granted, and how is it discerned?
  4. William Cullen Dennis, “Puritanism as the Basis for American Conservatism”
    • Who is the covenant-maker, and with whom and for what purpose does he covenant? Answer this simultaneously in relation to theology and Anglo-American history, as the Puritans did.
    • Did the migration to America mean the creation of a society de novo, as if from a state of nature?

Summary question: What place does the Biblical concept of a covenant, which was especially prominent in English Protestant theology, have in American history? Are we a covenant people for the sake of our “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”?

Further reading:

  1. Brian Brown, “Beyond the Liberal Myth”

Lesson 3: The natural right tradition

  1. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, XIII & XVII
    • Whence comes equality, and when it exists, in what does it consist?
    • What do the terms “nature” and “laws of nature” mean for Hobbes? Are they conducive to or opposed to life in a commonwealth?
    • What is a covenant, and why is it made? What is its effect on the heretofore free individual?
  2. John Locke, Concerning Civil Government, Second Essay, I, II, & VIII
    • How is Locke’s state of nature like and unlike Hobbes’?
    • What place does the family have in the state of nature?
    • Can a majority be legitimately sovereign?
  3. Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government, chapter 1, sections 5, 9, 10, and 11
    • Does Sidney’s natural-right reasoning differ from Hobbes’ or Locke’s? If so, how? If not, why not?
    • What is the relationship of liberty to equality in a just government?
    • Is there a lordship of man over man not grounded in consent or force?

Summary question: What similarities and dissimilarities do the English and colonial American charters, compacts, and covenants bear to Hobbes’ and Locke’s political philosophies?

Further reading:

  1. Leo Strauss, “Locke as ‘Authoritarian’”
  2. Donald Devine, “John Locke: His Harmony Between Liberty and Virtue”
  3. Richard Stevens, “The Constitutional Completion of the Liberal Philosophy of Hobbes and Locke”
  4. James Keim, “Strauss and Watkins on Hobbes’ Political Philosophy: A Review”

Lesson 4: The Declaration and the Revolution

  1. The Declaration of Independence
    • Who are the “people” of the document and how did they come into existence as distinct from the British people?
    • What are the similarities and dissimilarities between the Declaration, the Magna Charta, the Petition of Right, and the Bill of Rights of 1689?
    • Is the Declaration a Lockean document?
    • Who makes up the “world,” and what is the world’s role in the Declaration?
  2. Edmund Burke, Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies, March 22, 1775
    • Is Burke’s list of six causes of America’s spirit of liberty a hierarchy? How does each cause relate to all the others?
    • Is the Declaration devoted to an abstract liberty, according to Burke’s definition, or to one “according to English ideas”?
  3. John Dickinson, Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, V & IX
    • Is the right to one’s property the fount of all other natural rights, without which no other rights can long exist?
    • Does American colonial history bear out Dickinson’s analysis of its purposes and character? Why were the various colonies settled?
  4. Joseph Galloway, The Claim of the American Loyalists, Chap. 1, “The Case of the American Loyalists briefly stated”
    • What are Galloway’s first principles, and how and why are they similar and/or dissimilar to his fellow Americans on the other side of the question?
    • Does Galloway handle the concept of natural right? Provide a philosophical or political reason for your answer, e.g. an Hobbesian would naturally speak of natural right in the political realm.

Summary question: Does the Declaration establish America as a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal?

Further reading:

  1. M.E. Bradford, “How to Read the Declaration: Reconsidering the Kendall Thesis”
  2. Robert Heineman, “Edmund Burke and the American Nation”
  3. James Stoner, “Is There a Political Philosophy in the Declaration of Independence?”
  4. J. Michael Bordelon, “The Historical Henry”

Lesson 5: The Articles & the Constitutional Convention

  1. The Articles of Confederation
    • Are the people in the Declaration and the Articles identical? What is the purpose and relation of the states to each other in each document?
    • Are the Articles like or unlike previous colonial documents?
  2. George Washington, “To Jonathan Trumbull, Jr.” & “To James Madison”
    • What is the object of the melioration for which Washington hopes? Are the local jealousies of which he speaks mere parochialism or Burke’s “spirit of liberty”?
    • How does monarchy relate to the needful change of government?
  3. James Madison, “Vices of the Political System of the United States”
    • Were the states within their rights as sovereigns to do any or all of the acts Madison claims against them?
    • Are Madison’s complaints relevant to a small republic with a very limited government? That is, is he dissatisfied with the states under the Articles or with the Articles themselves?
  4. Lance Banning, “James Madison and the Dynamics of the Constitutional Convention”
    • What is the significance for our interpretation of the Constitution that Madison’s thinking in particular and the Convention’s in general evolved from melioration of the Confederation’s defects to wholesale renewal in the form of the Constitution?
    • What role did the turbulence of state governments and the Confederation Congress have in the Convention’s deliberation?

Summary question: For what polity were the Articles sufficient? For what purpose or purposes were they inadequate?

Further reading:

  1. Forrest McDonald, Ne Philosophos Audiamus: The Middle Delegates in the Constitutional Convention”
  2. Kevin Gutzman, “Invoking the Patrimony”
  3. Gordon Lloyd, “Let Justice Be Our Guide: A Reconsideration of ‘True Federalism’ at the Constitutional Convention”

Lesson 6: The Constitution

  1. The Constitution (only through the Bill of Rights)
    • Has the definition of “the people” changed from the Magna Charta to 1787? If so, how and why? If not, how and why not?
    • How are the powers delegated to the Congress comparable to those possessed by English and colonial legislative bodies, if existent?
    • What is the role of the individual states in affirming the document and within the text itself?
    • Why would the Bill of Rights seek to limit power, and whose power does it limit? Answer these questions in light of history rather than philosophy.
  2. The Federalist, No. 10
    • Are opinion, passion, or interest (chiefly parochial) admissible in political debate?
    • How does Publius handle the notion of equality and the distinction between a republic and a democracy?
    • Is Madison’s case for an extensive republic convincing?
  3. George Mason, “The Objections of Hon. George Mason to the proposed Federal Constitution”
    • Were Mason’s objections fully acceded to in the Bill of Rights?
    • Is there anything in which Mason is prescient? If so, why? If not, how does Mason get it wrong?
  4. William Allen, “The Constitutionalism of The Federalist Papers”
    • In what sense does Antifederalism compose a part of the American constitution?
    • Can and/or why would we speak of an American constitution not contained in the written document ratified by a majority of the states?

Summary question: Is the Constitution antithetical to the spirit of the Revolution?

Further reading:

  1. George Carey, “Conservatism, Centralization, and Constitutional Federalism”

Lesson 7: The Federalists and the Antifederalists

  1. James Wilson, Speech to the Pennsylvania Convention, November 24th, 1787
    • What kind of knowledge and reasoning from its premises predominates in Wilson’s speech? Why does this matter for how the state conventions understood the Constitution’s relation to the American body politic?
    • How and why does Wilson (along with many other Founders) see our republic as almost without precedent?
  2. Roger Sherman, “A Countryman,” The Letters: II in the New Haven Gazette, November 22, 1787
    • Why does Sherman reject the need for a federal bill of rights?
    • Why is the nature of a government essential to the preservation of liberty? Are there considerations of still greater importance to liberty’s health?
  3. Noah Webster, “A Citizen of America,” “An Examination into the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution,” October 17, 1787
    • What are the relative weights of pure reason and history’s lessons and experiences in Webster’s argument for ratification?
    • How and why is the concept of progress fundamental to Webster?
  4. Edmund Randolph, “Letter on the Federal Constitution, October 16, 1787”
    • What are the principal dangers of keeping the Articles of Confederation, according to Randolph? Were they warranted by historical experience?
    • Why, then, did he refuse to sign the Constitution? Would his fears about that document have been assuaged by the Bill of Rights?

Summary question: Did the Antifederalists “lose”? In what respects were their concerns (not) addressed or their recommendations (not) adopted?

Further reading:

  1. Daniel Dreisbach, “Founders Famous and Forgotten”
  2. M.E. Bradford, “A Teaching for Republicans: Roman History and the Nation’s First Identity”
  3. Barry Shain, “Oversights, Leaps, and Confusions”
  4. Ellis Sandoz, “Classical and Christian Dimensions of American Political Thought”

Lesson 8: The Civil War and American conservatism

  1. Abraham Lincoln, Cooper Union Address
    • How does Lincoln make the case that the prohibition by the federal government in the territories is truly the conservative policy? What kind(s) of evidence does he use?
    • Did the moral evil of slavery call for a more radical policy than is advocated by Lincoln in this address? Was John Brown justified in some sense?
  2. “The Real Abraham Lincoln: A Debate” between Harry Jaffa and Tom DiLorenzo
    • Who is Jaffa’s Lincoln? Who is DiLorenzo’s Lincoln?
    • Is secession a constitutional prerogative of the states?
    • What did Lincoln intend to do about 1) slavery and 2) tariffs when he was elected to the presidency?
  3. M.E. Bradford, “Dividing the House: The Gnosticism of Lincoln’s Political Rhetoric”
    • Compare Lincoln’s use of Scripture to both pre-Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary documents and essays on the syllabus.
    • What is “gnosticism” in political philosophy, and was Lincoln a priest of its cult?
    • In light of Lincoln’s speeches and actions before and during his presidency, does Bradford’s division of his life into two distinct stages make sense?

Summary question: Was Lincoln true to the republic’s founding principles, or did he fundamentally remake the American political order in a different image?

Further reading:

  1. Stephen Tonsor, “Political Religion”
  2. M.E. Bradford, “The Lincoln Legacy: A Long View”

Lesson 9: Conservatism and the American Founding I

  1. Mark C. Henrie, “Russell Kirk’s Unfounded America”
    • How does America have a British culture? How does it not? What is its extent?
    • How is a community without a telos not a collection of “mere will”?
    • What is the difference between Kirkean conservatism and historicism? Is there one?
  2. “Kirk’s ‘Unfounded’ or Jaffa’s ‘Founded’ America?”
    • Is culture a result of “accident and force”?
    • Does the Declaration adhere to the “pristine, Lockean form” of natural right or more to the definition Fitzgerald claims Jaffa has given it?
    • Is the good exhausted by the right?
  3. George W. Carey, “America’s Founding and Limited Government”
    • Is what Carey calls “republicanism” borne out in the writings of the Founders? Has its spirit flourished at any other times of American history?
    • Can a conservative agree with the Smith/Beard theses? Why would he, if you answered “no”?
    • Is “atomistic social freedom” part and parcel of our republic?

Summary question: Can or should we speak of an American “Founding” or, less grandiloquently, “founding period”? If so, when is it, and who are the founding fathers/Founding Fathers?


Lesson 10: Conservatism and the American Founding II

  1. M.E. Bradford, “The Heresy of Equality: Bradford Replies to Jaffa”
    • Why should the Declaration be read within the English political tradition? Why should it not be so read?
    • Is millenarianism intrinsic to American politics?
    • How and why is the Declaration still or no longer relevant?
  2. Harry Jaffa, “Equality, Justice, and the American Revolution: In Reply to Bradford’s ‘The Heresy of Equality’”
    • How does someone in disagreement with Jaffa reckon with The Federalist?
    • Why did the Founders fail to abolish slavery or even to print Jefferson’s original objection in the Declaration to it, permit state churches in New England, or deny women the vote?
    • Does an equality of rights necessitate an equality of conditions?
  3. James E. Dornan, “The Founding Fathers, Conservatism, and American Foreign Policy”
    • How can Hartz’s thesis be refuted or defended from the readings in this syllabus?
    • Is intervention in the affairs of foreign powers antithetical to American conservatism? If not, is there a specific kind of American conservatism that is categorically opposed to such intervention, and why is it so?

Summary question: Is the American political tradition necessarily and from its founding a tradition of liberalism?

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