The American Tradition

As Americans we owe much of what we are to the ancient, Medieval, and post-Renaissance Europeans who proceeded us.  Nonetheless, we are not simply generic Europeans.  We have our own peculiar traditions, some of which go back to Britain or even to the Anglo-Saxons, while others are more uniquely American.


Some of our conservative tendencies are the local or national expression of more general European conservative  “values.”  For example, we highly value the use of proper traditional English, much as a French or German conservative wants to preserve his own language in its classic form.  Coinciding with our commitment to the purity of our language is a respect for proper form in dress and manners.  It is no accident that men at The Rockford Institute wear jackets and ties every day or that semi-formal dress (tuxedos) is encouraged at the Randolph Club dinner.  Wanting to avoid eccentricity and pretentiousness, we do not insist upon the standards of two generations ago, but where there is still some remnant of a tradition, we do our best to maintain it.

Like other conservatives, we strongly believe in the study of our own history—that of England and America—and we are well aware that the burden of this history requires us to pay special attention to the traditional Anglo-American liberties that are asserted and defended in the Constitution of the United States.  Even if we are Catholic, we are not especially attracted to ultra-Catholic arguments, made by otherwise fine people who do not share our “Anglo-Saxon” traditions, that equate the American with the French Revolution and refuse to understand the historical circumstances to which the Constitution was a reasonable and effective response.  One might happen to prefer some other tradition, the Dual Monarchy, for example, but such sentimental preferences belong more to the realm of poetry than to politics.  Paraphrasing Popeye the Sailor, we can say, “We are what we are and that’s all what we are.”

Some conservative Catholics have seen the connection between the American federalism (particularly of the anti-federalist variety) and the older traditions going back to the Calvinist Althusius, St. Thomas, and Aristotle.  Christopher Check’s brother, now Fr. Paul Check, some years ago invited me to give a talk to the students (mostly seminarians, as I recall) at the North American College in Rome.  My theme was a detailed comparison of Jefferson’s thinking about ward-republics with the very similar understanding of Thomas and Aristotle.  I wanted to call the talk—echoing a famous piece by Ezra Pound—”Jefferson and/or St. Thomas”–but Fr. Paul spotted the allusion and politely suggested a less provocative alternative.

I am not suggesting that the Constitution is a perfect document drawn up by a council of demi-gods, quite the contrary.  It was a shrewd piece of politicking that drew upon the wisdom and learning of several Americans—including two important statesmen not present in Philadelphia (Adams and Jefferson)—who had made a serious study of political history and theory.  Our Constitution was not the exclusive product either of ideological dreamers or of political pragmatists, but relied on both types.  Nothing human is perfect, but the Constitution is worthy of respect, not only because it is ours but also because it combines the British aspirations to political liberty that grew out of their experiences in the 17th and 18 centuries with a deeper understanding of what some Catholic theologians have termed, “subsidiarity.”  This “well-known principle of subsidiarity” is the elegant insight that the power to make decisions should be left to the lowest level of the people affected.  I should note that I typically use the term federalism to mean not the centralizing tendencies in the Federalist Party of Hamilton but to politics based on the subsidiarity principle and more typical of the misnamed anti-federalists, who were in fact the truest American federalists.

Most self-described conservatives pay lip service, at least, to the Constitution, but few take the time to study what it meant either in its historical context or as the expression of long-standing English and American traditions.  Although we do not worship or even revere the Constitution, we respect it, and we try to apply its deeper principles to the conflicts and problems of America in the 21st century.

We accept neither the leftist interpretation of the organic and evolving constitution nor the static theory of original intent.  Whose intent should we respect?  Not that of the framers, certainly, though it is interesting to know what they might have really thought.  But what if Hamilton or Madison were lying in The Federalist?  It would hardly matter because we know how the people in the state conventions regarded the new document.  We also know why they supported or opposed it, all or in part.  By studying the historical context and the debates, scholars like Forrest McDonald and Clyde Wilson have shown, from quite different perspectives, what were the real issues at stake. Americans were not interested in political theory, but they were deeply suspicious of centralized government and fearful of tyranny.  This approach to the Constitution is a great deal like the Catholic and Orthodox approach to the Scriptures:  The Old Testament is interpreted in light of the New, and problems in the Gospels and Epistles are evaluated in the light of the Tradition.

Taken as a whole, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were enacted precisely to prevent the sort of centralized state tyranny we now take for granted.  This point is easy to overlook, if instead of digging into the historical context one is content to fall back on generalizations about the “American way of life,” or, worse, the absurd fiction that America is a “propositional nation,” that is, not a nation rooted in the concrete experiences of the flesh-and-blood men and women who settled the colonies and carved farms and communities out of the wilderness.

In stark contrast with neoconservatives and other ideologues, who either judge America only by what it might become in the future, or, worse still, pretend that their utopian fantasies are the reality of the American founding, principled conservatives should insist on taking an honest look at the realities of the American historical experience.  It was not always pretty–we do not pretend it was–but it was and is our history, and it is this experience that has made us who and what we are.

The proponents of the other vision of American history, begin with abstractions and universal propositions about human equality and natural rights by which they presume to judge Americans of the 18th and 19th centuries, and they end up promoting endless crusades to impose their very un-American way of life on every other nation, culture, and religion.  The Leftist version, propounded by Madeline Albright and Hilary Clinton, tells young Americans to risk their lives to liberate Muslim women and instill consumerism, hedonism, and socialism in Third World countries, while the so-called conservative version, as preached by Condaleeza Rice, Dick Cheney, and the neoconservatives who write their texts for them, would send the same Americans into harm’s way in order to promote consumerism, hedonism, and what they call democratic capitalism.

The proper response to democratic globalism is not isolationism or pacifism but sanity and prudence.  John O’Sullivan, when he was editor of The National Review and one of our allies, staked his claim on the “national question,” which was a commitment to policies that benefit the American national interest (our term at Chronicles).  For O’Sullivan, the key planks in the platform were control and restriction of immigration and an end to globalist policies that eroded American sovereignty.  He had considerably less enthusiasm for the two other equally necessary planks:  first, the rejection of the free trade theories that were destroying American industry and exporting jobs, and, second, the termination of imperialist policies that require an American military presence in over 100 countries around the world and have sent Americans to fight three costly and indecisive wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Inevitably, palaeoconservative pragmatism on questions of foreign policy is decried as “isolationism” or even pacifism.  Neither charge is remotely fair.  We do not oppose all wars, and we favor a vigorous involvement in international business and commercial affairs.  Many leading palaeoconservatives are polyglots who take a scholarly interest in other cultures.  Many are well travelled and maintain extensive contacts with foreign political intellectuals, writers, and editors.  So far from being isolationist or obscurantist, they respect other nation’s cultural and religious traditions, following the principle that I have termed the “Golden Rule of Nations:” Whatever rights and respect you want for your people, culture, and religion in your own country, you should accord to others, so long as they do not attack American security or vital interests.

A Very Brief Conclusion

English and American conservatives have made many excellent contributions both to political theory and to a deeper understanding of our traditions.  While they share many common principles with continental conservatives and reactionaries, the Anglo-Americans have tended to emphasize the rule of law, personal dignity and responsibility, and the sturdy integrity of citizens willing to play their part in the political life of a nation.  Some of this thought or emphasis derives from classical liberal thinkers and their precursors, even though many of their fundamental assumptions about human nature and political life are demonstrably wrong.  The mythology of natural equality, the social contract, and even individualism—as I shall explain in the next chapter—has confused conservatives and foiled most efforts to produce a coherent political philosophy.  It would, nonetheless, be a great mistake to throw out the conservative baby with the liberal bathwater.

The liberals’ celebration of individualism and responsibility, while originating in mistaken theories, nonetheless, reflects a very important aspiration toward the good life.  Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson may have been misled by false philosophers, but they were expressing the ideals of their own civilization, which used to be our civilization.  As an analogy, consider some of the defenders of monarchy or the Catholic Church’s secular authority over Europe.  The defenders typically based their arguments on myths such as the divine right of kings or Constantine’s fictional donation of imperial authority to Pope Sylvester.  It is easy to debunk the myths, but not so easy to debunk the historical reality of European monarchy or the Papal State.

We do not live either in a monarchy or in The Republic of St. Peter.  We have a different set of traditions and, if not a different moral tradition, at least a different set of emphases.  We American are less inclined to praise blind faith and strict obedience to authority than we are to respect individual responsibility and political liberty.  An important part of our conservative—and libertarian–American traditions are borrowed from the liberals, and we should honor them as worthy if not perfect ancestors.

The central problem for Anglo-American conservatives is the incoherence of this fusion of liberal ideology and conservative impulse.  Confused about the nature of society or the reality of the individual and seduced by the abstract ideology of human rights, we are hard put to defend particular cultural, moral, and religious traditions.

Decent conservatives who are disturbed by, for example, the push for same-sex marriage can be grudgingly persuaded that our American tradition insists on treating everyone the same, that the revolution of 1776, while it may have begun as a reaction to the abuse of monarchical power, is a continuing revolution to equalized opportunities or even outcomes for everyone in our society or even in the world.  Before too long, the instinctive conservative has been talked into embracing the revolution against not just the American Constitution but against human nature.

This is one very important reason why palaeoconservatives insist on digging into history and down into the foundations of human life to find the deeper principles on which all decent human societies are based.  If ordinary people can once grasp what marriage is—not an invention of government or the creation of a particular religion—but a fundamental expression of our nature, they will not so easily be misled by the leftist proponents of Gay Marriage.  And it hardly matters, on this question, whether we feel that nature is the product of Darwinian evolution, the gift of our Creator, or (as I have argued) both.  All of the bogus arguments being put forth by neoconservatives and other false conservatives will then be seen as not only false but silly and trivial.

What is true of the marriage question is true of every other moral, social, and political issue that faces Americans today and at all times.  Skeptical Palaeoconservatives are willing to sweep away the rubbish of lies and political mythology in order to clear the way for the truth.  For that reason, above all others, they are hated by the ideologues of the false right and the true left who are reducing free Americans to the level of slaves.  “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”