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.