Robert Lewis Dabney was an American theologian and seminary professor. He was also a philosopher who wrote extensively on cultural and political issues of the second half of the 19th century. In our own day, when there is much confusion over what defines conservative political theory, we would do well to look to the writings of this conservative stalwart.
Dabney’s writings are helpful for conservatives for two reasons. First, Dabney dealt with the early stages of the progressive movement sweeping through America in the 19th century. He was well-situated to identify the root differences between progressivism and conservatism. Second, Dabney understood the logical outcomes of progressive policies. This helped him to make insightful predictions of where progressive ideas would lead, such as the secularization of public schools and the disintegration of the family.
Dabney was a Southern Presbyterian pastor and theologian who grew up in Virginia and moved to Texas for the last 15 years of his life. He grew up in the Old South prior to the Civil War, and he witnessed firsthand the progressivism foisted upon the South during Reconstruction. While Dabney’s postbellum writings took aim at several targets, such as industrial capitalism and public education, he often focused his attention on defending biblical hierarchy in opposition to secular egalitarianism.
Dabney rejected the new egalitarian spirit that was spreading throughout America. He instead embraced the older order in which social hierarchies permeated all aspects of life. Dabney believed in equality only in the sense that all humans are equal before the law, or what he called “the equality of the golden rule.” He wrote in his 1882 essay, The New South:
This is the equality which is thoroughly consistent with that wide diversity of natural capacities, virtues, station, sex, inherited possessions, which inexorable fact discloses everywhere and by means of which social organization is possible.
Contrary to this social hierarchy was the novel view that humans are the same in almost every regard. Dabney termed this increasingly popular view “mechanical equality,” as it held that all humans should have the same roles in the home, church, and civil government. In Dabney’s judgment, this artificial equality was a serious error, and it was wrapped up in the radical Jacobin views of the French Revolution. He saw his fellow Americans confusing the Jacobin concept of equality with the Anglo-American tradition, even reinterpreting the preamble of the Declaration of Independence, especially “all men are created equal,” in this radical fashion. Continuing today, this Jacobin interpretation has been propounded even by many who claim to be on the political right, such as Leo Strauss and other neoconservatives.
In commenting on the Declaration’s preamble, Dabney affirmed a moral equality of all men. He wrote:
There is a natural moral equality between all men, in that all are generically men. All have a rational, responsible and immortal destiny, and are inalienably entitled to pursue it. All are morally related alike to God, the common Father; and all have equitable title to the protection of the laws under which divine providence places them. In this sense, as the British constitution declares, all men, peer and peasant, ‘are equal before the law.’
Yet Dabney considered the Jacobin interpretation of the phrase “all men are created equal” to be a departure from what Americans previously believed:
I assert that it is incredible the American Congress of 1776 could have meant their proposition to be taken in the Jacobin sense; for they were British Whigs. Their perpetual claim was to the principles and franchises of the British Constitution, and no other. Their politics were formed by the teachings of John Hampden, Lord Fairfax, Algernon Sidney, Lord Somers, and the revolutionists of 1688. I should be loath to suppose those great men so stupid and ignorant of the history of their own country as not to understand the British rights, which they expressly say they are claiming.
In contrast to Jacobin egalitarianism, Dabney saw hierarchy as essential to all of life, including to the familial, ecclesiastical, and civil spheres. He believed the Bible teaches that all humans are under an authority. Every child is born under the authority of his or her parents, and the husband is head of his wife in marriage. Both the Bible and the natural world teach that men and women have different roles in society, with God giving women the high calling of motherhood.
Yet, egalitarianism rejected these differing roles and advocated for women’s involvement in all spheres of life. The early feminist movement pushed for women to serve in roles traditionally reserved for men, including that of pastor. Dabney specifically attacked this practice in his essay, “The Public Preaching of Women,” writing:
[T]hese Scripture doctrines assume that there are orders of human beings naturally unequal in their inherited rights, as in their bodily and mental qualities; that God has not ordained any human being to this proud independence, but placed all in subordination under authority, the child under its mother, the mother under her husband, the husband under the ecclesiastical and civil magistrates, and these under the law, whose guardian and avenger is God himself.
In Dabney’s view, hierarchy is also fundamental to the civil sphere. Everyone is born under government authority, and in the early American system, the right to vote was limited. Dabney opposed the movement pushing for women’s suffrage on the basis that wives were under the authority of their husbands. He knew women’s suffrage was just the beginning of rebellion against the old order, and he believed the movement would undermine the unity of marriage and the headship of the husband. In overthrowing Christian hierarchy and biblical gender roles, Dabney predicted that women would lose both their place of honor in society and the protection that Christianity had given them. The movement for women’s rights would be destructive towards women, the family unit, and society as a whole. “When America has had a generation of women who were politicians, instead of mothers, how fundamental must be the destruction of society, and how distant and difficult must be the remedy!”, he wrote in an 1867 book.
Though he wrote the following 133 years ago, Dabney seemed to have a nearly perfect vision of where the new egalitarian spirit was headed:
If the Jacobin theory be true, then woman must be allowed access to every male avocation, including government, and war if she wishes it, to suffrage, to every political office, to as absolute freedom from her husband in the marriage relation as she enjoyed before her union to him, and to as absolute control of her own property and earnings as that claimed by the single gentleman, as against her own husband.
Along with many Southern theologians, Dabney also embraced the hierarchical roles of master and slave, so far as the practice conformed to the Bible’s teaching. However, Dabney’s support of hierarchy went beyond the roles of husband and wife, parent and child, and slave and master. He also held that people differ in their social status and ability, seen most clearly in political leadership.
Dabney argued that hierarchy and inequality are necessary features of society, a concept best explained in his own words, in his 1871 essay, “Women’s Rights Women:”
To meet the argument of these aspiring Amazons fairly, one must teach, with Moses, the Apostle Paul, John Hampden, Washington, George Mason, John C. Calhoun, and all that contemptible rabble of ‘old fogies,’ that political society is composed of ‘superiors, inferiors, and equals’; that while all these bear an equitable moral relation to each other, they have very different natural rights and duties; that just government is not founded on the consent of the individuals governed, but on the ordinance of God, and hence a share in the ruling franchise is not a natural right at all, but a privilege to be bestowed according to a wise discretion on a limited class having qualification to use it for the good of the whole; that the integers out of which the State is constituted are not individuals, but families represented in their parental heads; that every human being is born under authority (parental and civic) instead of being born ‘free’ in the licentious sense that liberty is each one’s privilege of doing what he chooses; that subordination, and not that license, is the natural state of all men; and that without such equitable distribution of different duties and rights among the classes naturally differing in condition, and subordination of some to others, and of all to the law, society is as impossible as is the existence of a house without distinction between the foundation-stone and the cap-stones.
Dabney’s view of hierarchy begins with God having authority over all humanity. From this stems human authority structures and the roles God assigns to each person. Humans are unequal in the sense that the husband is the head of the household and government has authority over citizens. Dabney’s understanding of divine authority entailed a rejection of John Locke’s social contract theory and the Enlightenment teaching that government is founded on the consent of the governed. Instead, he held that God instituted government as one of the many forms of hierarchy in life. Everyone is under some authority, with subordination being the “natural state” of man.
Conservatives so often trend towards progressivism because they abandon their principles, leaving us to ask what exactly they are conserving. “This is a party which never conserves anything,” Dabney wrote of the political conservatives of his day. “What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is to-day one of the accepted principles of conservatism…. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition.”
Today’s conservatives should take heed of Dabney’s words. If they want to fend off the attacks of leftist progressivism, they must embrace genuine conservative principles. This starts with rejecting egalitarianism in all its forms and embracing the bedrock principle of hierarchy. We will find few defenses of hierarchy better than those contained in the writings of Robert Lewis Dabney.
Image Credit: above: portrait from The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney by Thomas Cary Johnson, 1903 (Wikimedia)