Charles Kesler, in an otherwise unremarkable essay in the Claremont Review of Books (Summer 2009), argues that an effective response to the challenges of modern liberalism requires a revolution within conservatism. He says a reformation on the right must involve a “return to the principles of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution” as interpreted by President Lincoln. Like all good West Coast Straussians, Kesler follows his mentor Harry Jaffa, who boldly defied the conservative consensus that regarded Abraham Lincoln not as a conservative icon but as a consolidator of federal power at the expense of state sovereignty. Conservative calls to resist the federal encroachment on states’ rights with threats of secession are “boneheaded” because they are “un-Lincolnian.” Kesler predictably discourages invoking the Tenth Amendment because it was used to resist civil-rights legislation in the 1950’s and afterward. His preference for the preamble of the Declaration of Independence over the supposedly tainted Tenth Amendment is further evidenced by his criticism of Southern conservatives who defend a “radical view of states’ rights” against “human or natural rights.” Furthermore, he reprimands Anglo-American conservatives who try to “expunge all abstract doctrines of equality and revolution from our political life.” Ultimately, writes Kesler, “American conservatism stands or falls . . . by its allegiance to the American Revolution and Founding.” In other words, the meaning given to America’s founding by Anglo-American conservatives is false because it does not conform to Lincoln’s and Jaffa’s interpretation.
The Straussian challenge to Anglo-American conservatism has been ongoing for decades and in recent years has largely succeeded in convincing establishment Republicans to abandon conservative principles in exchange for promised electoral victories. A notable example of Kesler’s effort to remake the right by discrediting Anglo-American conservatism is the extraordinary speech he delivered in 1998 at the American Enterprise Institute, a speech that later appeared in National Review under the title “All American? Conservatism Needs to Become More Thoroughly American.” His words reflect the views of many Straussians and neoconservatives who occupy positions of prominence in Washington think tanks and in the mainstream conservative media. (We see evidence of this meeting of the minds in a 1997 Wall Street Journal essay by William Kristol and David Brooks, who asserted that what was “missing from today’s American conservatism is America.”) In the National Review article, Kesler accused such traditional conservatives as Russell Kirk of harming the Republican Party by promoting a brand of conservatism that is insufficiently American and thus alienates the electorate. Kirk’s views—presumably disseminated widely enough to influence national elections—“clash with the principles of the American Founding” because the founders he most admired were those who reflected the principles of Edmund Burke. However, as Kesler would have it, Kirk’s view “was never peculiarly American” because even John Adams and the other founders whom he preferred over Jefferson or Hamilton or Washington were not, it turns out, the Burkean Anglo-American conservatives he made them out to be. After all, writes Kesler, Adams favored republican government, and the only good things about the British constitution are its republican elements, which are based presumably on the newly discovered “unalienable or natural rights of man” championed by French philosophers.
Readers conversant with the contents of Kirk’s Conservative Mind, from which much of the evidence for Kesler’s indictment is drawn, will find this portrayal of his views misleading. Kirk believed Hamilton was a monarchist—indeed an old Tory—but one who did not live up to the Anglo-American ideal. Adams, on the other hand, opposed the “hereditary magistracy” favored by Burke. Yet Kirk saw Adams as the proper heir to Burkean conservatism, so monarchy clearly was not an essential criterion for Kirk. Until the Revolution, the Founding Fathers were British citizens: They were not rejecting the British constitution but demanding the restoration and observance of their common-law rights as Englishmen. Thus, it is not surprising that the founders shared Burke’s admiration for the political institutions he—and they—inherited. History gives testimony to this truth. Jefferson records the views of that quintessential American, our first president, on the superiority of the British constitution: “Washington had not a firm confidence in the durability of our government. Washington was influenced by the belief that we must at length end in something like a British constitution.”
In States’ Rights and the Union, Forrest McDonald retells the story of a 1791 dinner party hosted by Jefferson at which Hamilton and Adams shared their views of the British political system. “Adams spoke glowingly of the British system,” writes McDonald, recording the Vice President’s words: “Purge that constitution of its corruption, and give to its popular branch equality of representation, and it would be the most perfect constitution ever devised by the wit of man.” Hamilton, on the other hand, favored the British system just as it was, even with two hereditary branches. In other words, Hamilton tended to “clash” more with America’s founding principles—as defined by Kesler—than Adams did: “Purge it of corruption,” Hamilton remarked,
and give to its popular branch equality of representation, and it would become an impracticable government: as it stands at present, with all its supposed defects, it is the most perfect government which ever existed.
In Federalist 47, Madison records the opinion of Montesquieu: “this great political critic appears to have viewed the constitution of England as the standard, or to use his own expression, as the mirror of political liberty.” Why write this? To demonstrate the extent to which the proposed American Constitution resembled the British ideal.
The kind of leveling or equality championed by the French Jacobins was fiercely rejected by most members of the founding generation, John Adams included. The true natural rights that Burke favored are listed by Kirk: “Equality in the sight of God, equality before the law, security in what is one’s own, participation in the common activities and consolations of society . . . ” This view of rights is akin to that of Adams, who, like Burke, attacked the excesses of abstract thinking that led to the violence characteristic of the French Revolution. In his Defense of the Constitutions, Adams attacked the democratic absolutist theories of Turgot and Rousseau, and in Discourses on Davila, he challenged the ideas of human and institutional perfectibility advanced by Condorcet:
But to teach that all men are born with equal powers and faculties, to equal influence in society, to equal property and advantages through life, is as gross a fraud, as glaring an imposition on the credulity of the people, as ever was practiced by monks, by Druids, by Brahmins, by priests of the immortal Lama, or by the self-styled philosophers of the French Revolution.
To Adams, equality meant that all men were independent, but
a physical inequality, an intellectual inequality, of the most serious kind, is established unchangeably by the Author of nature; and society has a right to establish any other inequalities it may judge necessary for its good.
When “freedom” and “equality” become the slogans of revolutionary extremists who impose them by force, sweeping away long-established liberties, customs, and private associations and institutions, the orderly and peaceful development of civilized society is necessarily disrupted. History has repeatedly demonstrated what can happen when abstract ideology is given free rein. Anglo-American conservatives learned this from the French Revolution, and their beliefs were confirmed by observing the devastation of totalitarian violence and oppression in the 20th century. Ideological extremism, not nihilism or moral relativism, is the ever-present danger. Yet in a 2005 National Review article, Kesler asks American conservatives to thank Leo Strauss, a European émigré, for leading “a philosophical revival of the arguments for natural rights and against relativism and nihilism.” Anglo-American conservatives know something many students of Strauss do not: To advance a philosophy of abstract rights, as did the Jacobins of old, without due consideration for the inherited customs and mores of a people, is to make relativism and nihilism more likely. As Roger Scruton has observed,
The effect of revolutionary ideology is to introduce a kind of incurable nihilism into the social order, to infect all public processes with the sense that they are without justification, and to be understood merely as the passing drift of power. It therefore acts so as to negate the process of politics—the process which has the conciliation of rival interests as its meaning and its goal. By proclaiming a purely abstract “Liberty,” the Revolution facilitated the destruction of the qualified and partial liberties which come through the work of compromise. By offering abstract Right, it legitimized the destruction of law, and so made the concrete rights of citizenship impossible to claim.
Demands for abstract rights meant to bring about utopian society do not allow for political compromise but instead frequently lead to violence against those who seek to protect inherited liberties and favor gradual change. According to Kesler, however, tradition does not provide a way to determine right from wrong. What is required is “a moral standard that has a validity or goodness independent of the tradition: it requires an abstract principle.” Of course, this means that prejudice, a nonrational and partially intuitive means by which human beings make moral judgments, and prescription, customary rights that originate from the conventions of successive generations, are inadequate. What is needed are the intellectual abstractions of gnostic philosophers whose moral insights are not informed by human experience but by some divine illumination. The charge of historicism made against Burke by Strauss in Natural Right and History has been repeated by two generations of Straussians, even though that charge was discredited not long after it was uttered.
In his defense of the British constitution, Burke does not deny that it was guided by a transcendent moral order, nor does he intend it to be self-justifying. It is precisely because the constitution is part of the moral order that no one can claim the right to relieve himself of its obligations by replacing it with something new. Burke does not deny the existence of natural rights. The rights embodied in the British constitution do not come from abstract theories but from ancient custom and historic legal codes. Burke’s alternative moral argument is intended to prevent the political extremism that characterized the French Revolution.
Kirk never denied that the British political tradition contained principles that are “in accordance with human nature.” Kesler appears to believe that Kirk saw no good in a constitution built upon an accurate understanding of human nature because Burke thought prescription was the “sole authority” of the British constitution. And prescription is assumed to be an arbitrary force detached from the nature of man and from providence. However, Kirk addresses this misperception in The Conservative Mind, where he tells us why Burke thought knowledge of history was insufficient for the statesman and philosopher:
[T]hey must know nature. Burke’s “nature” is human nature, the springs of conduct common to civilized peoples. . . . Knowing history and nature, a man may humbly aspire to apprehend Providential dispensations.
What Burke opposed was the ideology of natural rights that had no basis in real life, the brainchild of ivory-tower intellectuals who sought to impose their impious and hubristic schemes of social progress without weighing the unintended and perhaps devastating consequences. Kesler does not find this warning persuasive, despite the testimony of historical precedent. He believes Strauss and his students inspired the modern conservative movement to “return to the natural-rights doctrines of the American Founders,” in part by portraying “big government as an insult to our rights” and “an offense against our equality.” The “intelligent way” to defeat big-government liberalism is on the basis of “rights” and “equality.” Yet it was precisely on these grounds that federal power expanded beyond the limits established by our Founding Fathers.
Kesler’s interpretation of the founding is flawed because his ideological presuppositions prevent him from considering evidence that could challenge the validity of his argument. Given Kesler’s wildly inaccurate reading of The Conservative Mind, no one should be surprised by his failure to comprehend the complex character of the intellectual debate conducted by the founding generation over the nature of our government. While his lack of historical comprehension can be explained by his limited study of American history, there is no excuse for his ignorance of the extensive scholarship in his own discipline establishing Burke as a natural-law thinker. However, despite all the inaccuracies they contain, Kesler’s polemical writings do offer at least one valuable insight: They confirm beyond any doubt what Anglo-American conservatives have said about the dangers of ideological thinking.