Back to the Founding

A reader wrote to comment on my essay on Traditionalism and the American Order, saying that I overstate the liberalism and understate the traditionalism of the American order. My response:

I don’t think I said that the U.S. as it has existed has been basically a product of liberalism or that it was stable because of its liberalism. I said it was a compromise between explicit liberalism and implicit traditionalism that was stable because it worked and there were various things like intellectual conformity and a preference for the practical over the speculative that kept us from pursuing the consequences of our stated principles of freedom and equality.

The original impetus for the Revolution was no doubt maintenance of what the colonists were used to against parliamentary attack. Once war and revolution got started though things didn’t stay as they were at the beginning. Hence the success of Tom Paine’s version of common sense, the novus ordo seclorum, and other indications that the colonists came to understand themselves as doing something new in human affairs based on reason.

Beyond that, what the Founding Fathers actually did had its own consequences that didn’t depend on what they thought they were doing. What they did was re-enact John Locke. That remains true regardless of whether they wanted to do just that and regardless of whether they would have liked all the consequences. They created the highest social authority for what almost amounted to an entire continent based simply on agreement and thus on human will. That authority explicitly excluded religious standards and was wholly oriented toward this-worldly goals like economic prosperity and physical security. Since it became the object of our ultimate life-and-death loyalty its goals became the highest authoritative social goods.

A basic problem with the voluntary founding of a political order, especially one that doesn’t explicitly recognize and subordinate itself to things we can’t really understand or control—as a practical matter, one that doesn’t have an explicitly religious basis—is that it necessarily focuses on particulars and takes everything else for granted. Doing something of the kind has been an Anglo-American habit, I suppose ever since the English broke with Rome and so put the fundamentals of their own social order radically in question. While I agree that Burke’s Reflections is a good start for traditionalism, it seems to me that in the long run to maintain tradition you have to have something like a pope. (I go into the issue in my long essay on Liberalism, Tradition and the Church.)

You can’t blame what American politics has become on an infection caught from Continental radicals who rejected conservative Anglo-American common sense. America and England are part of the West, and have been an inspiration for Continental liberalism. Their fate can’t be separated from that of Europe generally. We’re all part of the same civilization based on the same fundamental habits and understandings. I think it’s true that in both countries the effects of the adoption of liberal principles have been slowed by an orientation toward practice and a refusal to think theoretically. Whether those qualities are vices or virtues, I don’t think they are enough to defer the consequences of liberalism permanently. In the long run men are logical and the fundamental concepts they apply to the world around them have enormous power.

16 thoughts on “Back to the Founding”

  1. Closing of the American Mind
    When you say we “can’t blame what American politics has become on an infection caught from Continental radicals who rejected conservative Anglo-American common sense”, is this an explicit rejection of the argument of Allan Bloom? If memory serves, a large section of “Closing of the American Mind” is devoted to the bad influence of German philosophers on the United States and its universities.


    • Bloom? Bloomsbury? Leon Blum?
      I thought of Bloom but also of others who blame foreigners. The correspondent who prompted the entry was blaming the French and their revolution. There are also people who blame the Americans for what has happened to Europe. I think they’re all wrong. These problems go very deep and you can’t blame one country in particular.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

      • Not really a two-way street
        I believe you made the point, in your article about Emerson, that America for most of its existence has been pretty short on philosophers and intellectuals as compared with Europe. What we have absorbed, intellectually, from Europe since 1776 has been pretty destructive. American ideas have not been a pure good to the world, but I hardly think that it is a 50-50 proposition here.

        When conservatives trace the origin of the modern ideas that have most harmed the inherited order, the names I keep seeing are: Occam, Condorcet, Rousseau, the Romantic philosophers and authors, Darwin, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Bentham. Perhaps you could come up with some American names, especially very recent ones (e.g. Rawls), but do they really compare? By shortly after World War I, the die was pretty much cast concerning the kind of West we would see today. World War I, by the way, was not the greatest gift that the European societies could have bestowed on the world, to put it mildly.

        As to the central point of the blog entry, I have never found the criticism of implicit conservatism vs. explicit liberalism in the founding documents to be convincing, as we have discussed before. I believe that the modern problems of America are largely due to three sources:

        1) The Civil War, Lincoln, and the loss of federalism. I have never had much sympathy for the defenders of the old Confederacy, but the more I study of American history, the more the growth of central government keeps coming back to this brief era.

        2) The modernist intellectual influences (their protagonists are listed above) which have given our culture moral relativism, non-judgmentalism, romanticism, feminism and feminization, the triumph of emotion over reason, etc. Once federalism is dead, there is now a single national government of consequence, and it will reflect the majority culture of the country. If that majority culture is relativistic, anti-rational, etc., you will get the post-modern left-liberal government of today.

        3) The technological and industrial developments that have made our world smaller and have helped homogenize culture nationwide, and have made efficiency and other quantitative concerns trump qualitative concerns in general.

        The synergy between factor #1 and factor #3 is horrifying.

        I submit that the founding fathers could not have foreseen any of these three factors, and I doubt that any wording of the Constitution would have prevented any of them. Although, it is possible that they could have filled the Constitution with explicit, legalistic language about tariffs, systems of taxation, war-time powers not trumping the Constitution, “preserving the Union” not being an excuse for violating the Constitution, etc. Or, would more explicit language about secession have done the trick? Perhaps that was the lone major flaw.

        In any case, with the original federalism intact, I do not see that we could have anything like what we see in America today, even with all the bad intellectual influences. Should the founders have foreseen that future Americans would crassly ignore the Constitution? If so, what should they have done about it? Put some more words in it, to be also ignored?

        • America is part of a larger world
          I don’t think I say that American ideas and institutions wrecked the Western world, only that American history is not the story of good America wrecked by bad Europe.

          America is part of the Western world, which is the wreckage of Christendom, and the problems we have now were already implicit in the (so-called) Founding. So I don’t think that “Back to the Founding” is a usable reference point for us today. As to federalism, I approve of it, it incorporates a recognition that human society is complex and multi-layered, but the top level has the army and makes the decisions as to who has jurisdiction over what. Unless there’s some definite way of relativizing that top level and saying it’s part of something bigger and more authoritative, then if the arrangement holds together at all I think the top level will end up making itself absolute.

          Rem tene, verba sequentur.

          • What’s the point about Europe?
            No, it is not entirely a story of good America wrecked by bad Europe. That is only about 75% of the story. The destruction of federalism was entirely a home-grown event. Although, you might want to not put too much stock in the national government having the army, because the founders certainly did not desire a large standing army, and did desire the continuance of state militia. Only unconstitutional measures, in taxation and other matters, were able to produce a national army big enough to overwhelm those state militia.

            Perhaps (debatable) the loss of federalism was implicit in the Founding. I don’t think that you seriously meant to say that “the problems we have now” were implicit in the Founding, as if all the destructive cultural/intellectual trends I listed were implicit in the Founding. Darwin, Freud, and Marx, for example?

            The fact that the founding documents did not subordinate the national government to any higher, transcendent good is interesting. However, many European countries had state churches that were officially recognized in their national governing documents. Have those European countries avoided the modern (and post-modern) problems found in America? If not, what is your point?

          • Official recognition of a state church isn’t necessarily enough
            “many European countries had state churches that were officially recognized in their national governing documents. Have those European countries avoided the modern (and post-modern) problems found in America? If not, what is your point?” (—Clark Coleman)

            One point is that, in light of what’s going in Europe (in light of Europe’s headlong stampede over the materialist cliff), clearly it wasn’t enough to have “state churches that were officially recognized in their national governing documents” (Clark Coleman’s phrase)—clearly, officially recognizing state churches somehow didn’t amount to “a definite way of relativizing that top level and saying it’s part of something bigger and more authoritative” (Jim Kalb’s phrase). Something else or something additional was needed apparently, judging by what’s going on today. In other words, maybe the point simply is (as we’ve kinda been noticing now for some time) the writers of the U.S. Constitution got it wrong and the writers of the various European constitutions got it wrong. What our forefathers did, in most cases, in setting things up didn’t get us where we want to be but put us on the road to somewhere else we don’t want to be.

            But the final chapter obviously is not written—maybe our generation’s task will be to write it. There’s an explosing of talk about it on the internet. There are countries in Europe that are showing some some intelligence and backbone: Slovakia in a few ways, Flanders very importantly, Serbia in its own way, Estonia, Denmark to a slight extent, Norway slightly, Latvia and Lithuania each at least a little. People know something’s wrong, and it seems to be dawning on certain segments of the élite class that they’d better get cracking on fixing it.

            Long live free Flanders!

          • Puzzled by discussion
            I never said Europe got it right and we Americans messed up. Once you have the modern state a state church manifests that the state is also sovereign over God. Cuius regio eius religio. The problems have to do with the civilization of the West as a whole and not some particular thinker or national misstep.

            The point is that America didn’t get it right either. Making promotion of physical security and commercial prosperity the basis of the supreme life-and-death social loyalty was not a good idea.

            Rem tene, verba sequentur.

          • That is fine, but …
            1) For a few years I have read this summation of the flaws of the American founding, and the word American has always been in there as if we were talking about something specific to America. Now, it turns out we were never talking about something in which America was even unusual, much less unique.

            2) When criticizing action A, it is standard operating procedure to suggest that action B would have been better, else there is not too much point. What countries in the history of the world provide good examples that the American founders should have emulated (or, what countries have been founded in the meantime, for that matter, that serve as better examples)?

          • The writing and adoption of
            “the flaws of the American founding” (—Clark Coleman)

            The writing and adoption of the Constitution wasn’t the American founding any more than the advent of the Fifth Republic was the French founding, of Weimar the German founding, of Yeltsin’s government the Russian founding, or of modern Israel the Jewish founding. The American founding was Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. The adoption of the Constitution was an agreement on the details of a specific republic. That set-up was, we now know, flawed, in that it didn’t prevent usurpations of power, disastrous national detours, and other inappropriate directions that have led us to our current terminal decline (terminal for this republic, not for the American nation which can still survive if it wakes up in time and snaps out of it—which is the whole point of my objection: the death-throes of a particular republic are not the death-throes of a particular people or a particular nation properly so-called).

            Clark, can you cite anything you view as a major mistake made either by the so-called “Founders” (a term I avoid more and more, for the above reason—they didn’t found the American nation which had already been in existence more than a century-and-a-half by their time) or by early U.S. governments or the American electorate shortly after the “Founding”? Part 2 of your comment seems to suggest you don’t see a way in which things could have been done better.

            Long live free Flanders!

          • Flaws in Founding Documents
            Yes, I see ways in which things could have been better written in the Constitution. Term limits would be one example. The point I was making related to the issue of liberalism vs. traditionalism in the Constitution, not to just any criticism one might make of it. I question whether the modern problems caused by liberalism were caused by the way in which the Constitution was worded, because (1) I see the major liberal influences coming from elsewhere than the Constitution, such as numerous intellectual/cultural trends; (2) Nations with very different constitutions have the same problems today, often even worse; and (3) I have seen no credible alternative proposal for how the Constitution should have been worded.

            None of these factors would apply to a rather peripheral issue like term limits, where it is possible to say exactly what the authors should have written into the Constitution, and to plausibly say what the rather limited benefits would be today. If I claimed enormous, fundamental benefits today from term limits, then my claim would require more support. In either case, it would be wise to examine the experience of other countries with term limits before making grand claims, would it not?

            As an aside, while I understand that it is imprecise to use a term such as “founding” without qualification, it is incoherent to claim that the “American nation … had already been in existence more than a century-and-a-half” by the time the Constitution was drafted. There was a collection of colonies, each with its own constitution, assemblies, and/or royal charters. Each was subject to the king of England. None had any authority over the others. There was an America before 1776 or 1789, in that the various colonists recognized their common ancestry and common endeavors in coming to this land; there was no American nation. So, we should not speak of the ratification of the Constitution as the founding of America, but it is accurate to call it the founding of the American nation.

          • We have different definitions of the word “nation”
            “we should not speak of the ratification of the Constitution as the founding of America, but it is accurate to call it the founding of the American nation.” (—Clark Coleman)

            I think we can agree to disagree on that (and I admit it’s partly just a question of definition of terms—thanks for your reply). The American nation under the Constitution was the Second American Republic, the Articles of Confederation having been the First American Republic. Before them, the American nation existed in different form having a colonial character. Always underlying these different governmental set-ups was the American nation. The American nation began with the Pilgrims and the Jamestown settlers, not with the Constitution, just as the German nation, let’s say, didn’t begin with Bismark and the Second Reich but had been around for over a millennium before that, the Flemish nation didn’t begin with the creation of Belgium in 1832, and the Italian nation didn’t begin with Garibaldi. A piece of parchment isn’t a nation. Flesh and blood is.

            Long live free Flanders!

          • But what?
            (1) “Traditionalism and the American Order” deals with the relation of liberalism and tradition in America. If I did a global change of “America” to “England” or “Italy” the essay wouldn’t make sense. That doesn’t mean England and Italy don’t have their own problems and it doesn’t mean those problems can’t be instances of more general problems that also come up here. There’s no need to say everything all at once and no obligation always to write about everything in the most general terms possible.

            (2) Nor is there an obligation to provide an action plan for dealing with every situation one describes. It would not benefit medicine to tell doctors they aren’t allowed to describe a disease and how it leads to death if they don’t say what the cure is. Doctors should even be allowed to discuss old age, which eventually afflicts and kills everyone.

            (3) It does seem to me that one basic problem we have in America and the rest of the West is the modern understanding of knowledge and rationality. As a result of that understanding we try to get by in public life based on content-free abstractions like freedom and equality because anything more substantive is considered at best mere personal opinion and at worst irrational bigotry and hatred. Another problem is the modern state, which in a way seems to base itself on itself and is at once a concrete system of coercion and the highest social authority.

            (4) It seems to me that a broader understanding of knowledge and rationality that gave more scope to the authority of tradition and revelation could result in something more adequate to human life. It also seems to me that Christendom would be better than the modern state, because Christendom recognizes Christ, and also distinguishes Christ and Caesar, and so has a more comprehensible account of authority and is better able to limit politics and the demands of the secular.

            (5) I cannot point to an instance in which some other country has done away with modernity in favor of tradition and Christendom. Still, it seems to me the issues deserve discussion.

            Rem tene, verba sequentur.

          • Abstraction and Precision
            It is simply inadequate communication to talk, at great length and over many blog entries and essays over many years, about the American founding and then say that one was not necessarily implying anything about America that is not also true of lots of other countries.

            Hypothetically, let’s say that I have some sort of problem with the modern economic trend towards ordering items over the internet, because I think it is impersonal, or does not build up local communities, or whatever. If I were to express this problem by continually writing essays about the L.L. Bean company, and the terrible thing it is for people to order from their catalog, but rarely mentioned any of the numerous similar examples, wouldn’t that be odd? Would it be a good defense if I said that I did so because I live in Maine, and L.L. Bean is up here and so it is on my mind? (Note: hypothetical; I live in Virginia.)

            If I want to provide insight to my audience, it might be a good idea if I am able to not only analyze and express clearly my problem with L.L. Bean, but abstract from that one example the general principles of my objections, and apply them to all similar examples. It would not be much of a defense for me to say, “The title of my essay was ‘L.L. Bean and the Loss of Community,’ so that is why I limited my remarks to this one company.” Assuming that I had free will in choosing the topic and title of my essay, nothing prevents me from being more general.

            Judging by much of your writing, it seems that the crux of the problem is the evolution of the modern nation-state. In the medieval era, governments were less powerful and more local, which left the Church in a relatively more influential position, which also means that Western societies were less secularized. There was (perhaps) nothing like the nationalism demanded of citizens of the modern nation-state, with its attendant senseless wars. There were also not the large standing armies, centralized governments, etc. Many judicial proceedings were carried out in local Church courts, with Church officials as arbitrators. There was little to compare to the modern disputes over the interpretation of a centralized, national constitution. We could go on and on listing the differences. The keys for this discussion are the relative positions of authority of church and civil government, and the relative secularization of the societies. Once you start down the path to powerful central civil governments, with various judicial matters taken away from churches and local authorities, many of the evils of modern Western nations are already in embryo and are pretty much inevitable.

            Perhaps you do not agree with the above, although I (perhaps mistakenly) must credit some of your writings on this subject for many of these ideas. My point in asking what the American founders should have done differently is to cause us to think: Were the modern problems of America inevitable, due to the trends since the invention of the Western nation-state? If so, it is pointless to keep harping about the “flaws of the American founding.” If not, we should be able to make a persuasive argument that, if only the American founding documents had contained provisions A, B, and C, America would share very little in the modern woes we see in European nations, even though it would still be a large, powerful nation-state. When someone says that the American founding documents were flawed in a certain way (by leaving traditionalism implicit while making liberalism explicit), is there not a clear implication that the authors of those documents could have phrased things in such a way as to avoid certain problems we have today? Otherwise, the word “flaws” would not be chosen, would it?

            Thus, your point #2 above might be pedantically true in general, but it is equivalent to saying that I should be “allowed” to write for years about L.L. Bean without suggesting alternatives AND without noticing that L.L. Bean is no different from a lot of other examples I could have chosen. I am allowed to do a lot of things, but not all things are helpful.

          • Each can make his own judgment
            Out of more than a thousand blog entries here at Turnabout maybe 3 or 4 deal with the American Founding. Apart from that and some email discussions where other people started the topic I can’t think of anything I’ve written about it. I did write one longer piece, for a foreign publication, on the topic of tradition and liberalism in America, but it said next to nothing about the Founding, apart from asserting it was a liberal revolution. I’ve written lots and lots about liberalism in general. So I don’t see that the amount I’ve said on the Founding in particular gives it a misleadingly high profile. If other people think I’m wrong about that that’s fine and I won’t argue the point.

            Rem tene, verba sequentur.

          • Perhaps not blog entries
            I guess I am thinking about the number of times I have seen it asserted that a major flaw in our founding documents was the fact that the liberalism was explicit and the traditionalism was implicit. I doubt that such a point has only been made 3 or 4 times, but then again, I could be conflating the number of times I have read this at View from the Right with the times I have read it here.

            At first, I thought that was a great insight into our history. As time has passed, it has seemed less and less cogent, for all the reasons I have stated above. I think that figuring out exactly how the modern Western world came to be so liberal is a pretty interesting question. Is it inevitable unless we live under a monarchy? Is it possible to have a constitutional republic, without a king, that does not drift towards modern liberalism? Is it a problem with the way that modern republics were founded, or not? These seem to be questions worth investigating, especially for traditionalists.

          • Agreed that how things got
            Agreed that how things got to be the way they are is a very interesting question. At bottom I think it had to do with (1) modern understandings of knowledge and rationality, which are oriented toward mastery of the world for human purposes, and (2) the modern state, which establishes a system of human will and force as the final social authority. The two points are evidently quite closely connected.

            Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Comments are closed.