For many years now, the litmus test of an American conservative has been whether he or she is committed to limited, constitutional government and to the proposition of the Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Although much maligned and often misunderstood, this tradition serves a vital purpose in our republican government: it keeps conservatives united around a set of concrete political and philosophical goals that every layman can understand.
Strange to say, then, that conservatism is increasingly under assault, not from the Left, but from within. This attack is driven by false narratives that blame the Founders’ natural-law liberalism for today’s cultural and political decay. By contrast, the life and work of Frederick Douglass can serve as an alternative model for the conservative movement—a way of upholding natural-law liberalism, and yet remaining introspective about our nation’s origins and future.
The Growing Allure of Decline Narratives
Evidence of uneasiness with the liberal tradition of the American Founding has recently crept into some conservative intellectual publications. A 2015 First Things article by “radical Catholic” scholar Michael Hanby called for conservatives of all stripes to engage in a “fundamental, ontological critique” of the principles upon which America was founded. This followed Patrick Deneen’s 2012 castigation of American conservatism for being “itself a species of [the] liberalism” destroying Western civilization. Similar claims have been made, of late, by those Neo-Calvinists with “Dominionist” or “Reconstructionist” leanings, such as Gary North and the late R.J. Rushdoony. In 1990, Richard John Neuhaus wrote that this group was disproportionately influential. Twenty-five years later, it continues to grow and spread its message that natural-law liberalism is a hopelessly outdated relic of Enlightenment thought, and must be replaced by a kind of Biblical covenantalism.
Also responsible for this sea change in conservative thought are popular writers at sites such as The American Conservative and Front Porch Republic, whose understandable emphasis on “local” solutions is often accompanied by a wholesale rejection of the modern order. Although these writers often disagree with “radical Catholics” and “Reconstructionists,” what they have in common with those groups is far more significant. All are deeply skeptical about the “self-evident truths” that America is based on. They reject the idea that governments are founded to secure natural rights. Instead, they look back to an older, supposedly more virtuous tradition than the Founding, a tradition innocent of modernity’s “conceits”—especially the conceit that church and state can be separated.
While there are many reasons for the growing appeal of “radical traditionalism” (by which I mean all those to whom modernity represents an unprecedented break from the Western tradition), the most important seems to be the Obama administration’s social extremism. When federal officials began using the language of “individual rights” and “personal freedom” to advance their agenda of sexual autonomy, conservatives balked. If the language of the Founding could be marshaled to the support of abortion, contraception mandates, and same-sex marriage, then perhaps there was something wrong with the Founders’ principles from the very beginning. Did the Constitution, grounding the American regime on “religiously neutral” ideas such as natural rights, unwittingly make today’s moral anarchy inevitable?
Problems with the Decline Narrative
This tale of a long, inevitable decline from natural-law liberalism into modern libertinism has proven extremely alluring to some, but it is deeply flawed.
Reinhold Niebuhr once observed that modern man “always imagines himself betrayed [into the defiance of nature’s laws] by some accidental corruption in his past history or by some sloth of reason. Hence he hopes for redemption, either through a program of social reorganization or by some scheme of education.” The radical traditionalist falls into this same trap. He fixates on how the serpent got into Paradise, and seeks social redemption in the revival of localism, for example, or the return to older philosophies of education. He forgets that even a perfect culture would, at last, decay; that the first decline and fall happened not in a city, but a Garden.
The decline narrative is also guilty of “presentism.” That is, instead of viewing our times in the light of history, it views history in the light of our times. Looking back over the past, it picks and chooses events that conform to a preconceived notion of “what went wrong.” History simply does not work this way. Nations are shaped by great statesmen and the force of unforeseen events as much as by the philosophical DNA of their founding. If the triumph of selfishness and unrestrained democracy were inevitable from the beginning, what are we to make of the fact that Americans voted to curtail democratic excesses in 1787? How do we account for their vote in 1860 against the selfish doctrine of popular sovereignty?
There are also factual problems with this approach to the past. In patching together a dramatic storyline, decline narratives suggest continuities where there are none. Progressivism, as it turns out, is in no way the natural outgrowth of the Founders’ liberalism. In fact, Woodrow Wilson and other Progressives of the late nineteenth century systematically confronted, and rejected, the Founders’ concepts of natural law, natural rights, and the social contract. “No doubt we are meant to have liberty,” Wilson remarked, “but each generation must form its own conception of what that liberty is.” For Wilson’s heirs, this eventually meant the exaltation of positive rights over moral duties. Officials in the Obama administration today may still speak in the language of “liberty,” “rights” and “equality,” but they are using these terms as the Progressives and their heirs understood them, not as the Founders did.
Finally, because they read America’s decline as a unique, philosophical phenomenon, rather than an inherent part of human civilization in all times and places, radical traditionalists often suffer from political myopia. Sometimes this expresses itself in romantic longing for the past—a premodern age free from capitalism and liberalism, whether a medieval monarchy, Calvinist Geneva, or some kind of agrarian commonwealth. The problem, of course, is that the modern order was born precisely because life in these societies was so intolerable to people of conscience. If we hope to avoid religious oppression, surely this is an odd way of going about it.
At other times, this myopia expresses itself in blindness to the contemporary political context. By focusing inordinately on this nation’s failings, radical traditionalism loses all sense of proportion, of political reality. Under the spell of stories about America’s fall from grace, one can easily forget that the specks in others nation’s eyes are motes, too, when viewed from within. As it turns out, Spain, France, and many European countries that have (or, until recently, had) established religions and supposedly more vibrant traditional cultures made same-sex marriage socially acceptable well before many American states. How do we account for this fact if the decline narrative is accurate?
The Conservative Alternative to Radical Traditionalism
Frederick Douglass’s life illustrates a conservative alternative to radical traditionalism—an alternative that allows us to be honest about America’s failures, without confusing every failure of practice for a failure of principle.
Although born a slave and raised in the midst of far greater persecution than any of us is likely ever to know, Douglass became a champion of the Constitution in his later years. It was for this reason that he broke with many of his abolitionist friends, including William Lloyd Garrison. In their zeal to remain unstained by slavery, these radical abolitionists had accepted the Dred Scott narrative of the Founding: the Constitution was written by slaveholders and was intended for the government of whites only. Garrison and his friends concluded from this that the only way to purge the nation of slavery was to abandon the Constitution (which Garrison called a “devil’s pact”) and its principles.
Despite the fact that he himself had suffered as a slave under the Constitution and had criticized the American Experiment for its double standard, Douglass saw through this flagrant mischaracterization of the Founding. He contended that Garrison’s strategy was self-defeating for two reasons. First, it distracted abolitionists from the true causes of slavery:
Those . . . who [deal] blows upon the Union in the belief that they are killing slavery, are . . . woefully mistaken. They are fighting a dead form instead of a living . . . reality. It is . . . not because of the peculiar character of our Constitution that we have slavery, but the wicked pride, love of power, and selfish perverseness of the American people.
Second, Douglass believed abolitionism would be left defenseless if it yielded America’s tradition of liberal constitutionalism to its foes. The solution for Americans’ “selfish perverseness,” Douglass believed, lay in upholding the inseparable principles of rule under law, equality, and God-given rights and duties, not abandoning them. In his mind, these had not been tried and found wanting, they had been found difficult and not tried:
All I ask of the American people is that they live up to the Constitution, adopt its principles . . . and enforce its provisions. When this is done, the wounds of my bleeding people will be healed . . . and liberty, the glorious birthright of our common humanity, will become the inheritance of all the inhabitants of this highly favored country.
Not the Easy Path, but the Right One
Please do not mistake my point: our nation’s origins should not be above scrutiny. One of America’s greatest strengths is that it was forged out of an intense, nationwide debate. Searching for answers to why and how this country “went wrong” is a natural reaction to our cultural crisis. As we struggle to protect our own families and communities, save the unborn and defend marriage, radical solutions become tempting. Rather than throwing ourselves back into the exhausting work of maintaining freedom, the radical traditionalist asks, why not simply begin again? But the easy path is rarely the right one. This is the paradox of radical traditionalism: In order to build, it must first destroy; seeking to cure present errors, it repeats past ones; decrying license, it destroys liberty.
Although he refused to overlook America’s failings, Douglass recognized that the philosophy and institutions of a liberalism under God, though often honored in the breach, provided the surest foundation for the eventual flourishing of his fellow slaves. He foresaw that abandoning the Constitution would not mean the end of evil—it would only mean that evil would take on a more pernicious form, free to spread without check.
We cannot afford to forsake our nation’s principles at precisely the moment our culture has most need of them. Properly understood, the principle of equality under the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” gives conservatives the perfect weapon for exposing—in language the average American understands—the inequalities inherent in abortion and the unnaturalness of same-sex marriage. It is true that the work ahead of us promises to be daunting, but this is nothing new. Free governments have always asked much of their citizens. As Daniel Webster once observed, “God grants liberty only to those who love it, and are always ready to guard and defend it.”