This essay is part of a series on Liberalism. See the full collection here

In his recent essay appearing in the Summer 2017 issue of the Claremont Review of Books, “For God and Country,” Robert Reilly takes Michael Hanby and me to task for our distinct but not unrelated critiques of the liberal philosophy that informed the thought of main figures who crafted America’s founding documents and launched the American republic. While he devotes considerable space to questions about the accuracy of our specific claims, his main aim and inspiration is not simply to correct the scholarly record. His is not the stance of a disinterested scholar motivated by the ideal of correct interpretation; rather, he is forthright at the end of his long essay regarding what is at stake in advancing our critical conclusions about the American founding:

To the extent to which it [i.e., Deneen and Hanby’s conclusion about the nature of the Founding] is accepted, their misdiagnosis demoralizes our youth and disarms us in the face of our enemies, who are further empowered by their disavowal of the founding. . . .  Students feel they no longer have a country they can love and should wish to serve.

It is a suicidal blunder to denigrate the founding in this way. Those who do so automatically exclude themselves from the public arena by conceding it to their opponents, thereby accelerating the very decline they decry.

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According to Reilly, by stating a forthright and public critique of liberalism—America’s dominant political philosophy—Hanby and I threaten to bring about the demise of the political order that might otherwise be energetically defended by a rising cadre of young people properly educated and motivated to defend the Founding and beat back the progressive tide. It’s not just that we’re wrong—we’re dangerous. Along with Rod Dreher—who is mentioned at the outset of Reilly’s essay—we are purported to preach a form of political resignation, an attitude of “there’s nothing to be done when the only weapon in reach will kill us.”

Beyond scholarly disagreements, I stand accused of “corrupting the youth.” Reilly concludes his essay with the claim that “this school of thought has penetrated higher education. Courses on American political thought at Catholic universities are often imbued with it, with real, deleterious consequences.” If Reilly is to be believed, Hanby and I are merely two officers in an army of educators who are corrupting the youth. We are, apparently, especially prevalent on Catholic campuses, where, it is implied, we are at the very least demoralizing the young, if not actively encouraging them to abandon or even hate their country.

It would have been enlightening for Reilly to name some additional names and describe in detail some of these “real deleterious effects.” Who are members of this cadre of anti-American political theorists who are “penetrating” political science departments—especially at Catholic institutions? I can’t think of one (aside, I suppose, from myself). I’m aware of many, many colleagues throughout the country who teach the American founding much as Reilly would endorse, including several at my own Catholic institution. I can name multiple programs, institutes, think-tanks, well-funded summer seminars for undergraduates, graduate students, and young professors that promote his understanding of the Founding. I can think of post-docs and visiting fellowships sponsored by conservative campus programs—many embedded in political science departments—that do the same. I can think of journals—such as The Claremont Review of Books—promoting Reilly’s preferred take on the American founding. And yet, apparently I am singlehandedly undermining the American republic without the benefit of any of this extensive infrastructure promoting the unquestioned valorization of the American founding (Hanby is perhaps grateful to be excluded from this indictment, since he does not teach American political thought and is not a political theorist). As in Meletus’s charge against Socrates, I’m accused of being the only person in America corrupting the youth.

Since I am so accused, it is perhaps understandable that Reilly considers it his duty to use any weapon at his disposal to remove the threat—much like Meletus. I’m afraid, however, that he shoots rather wide of the mark, but not before attempting a bit of character assassination.

Misplaced Quotation Marks Do Not Constitute Willful Deception

The heart of Reilly’s critique of my arguments rests on the claim that I have willfully, dishonestly, and with intent and foresight manufactured inaccurate quotes attributed to James Madison, thus twisting his actual words and meaning to arrive at a dishonest and self-serving conclusion. Reilly claims that in my recent book Conserving America? “Deneen repeatedly cites James Madison in Federalist 10 as evidence that America is based upon a notion of radical individual autonomy.” He then goes on to show that I misquote Madison in order to arrive at a conclusion that is not borne out by the actual text. It amounts to a serious dismissal of my claims as well as a charge of academic dishonesty.

I acknowledge and regret that I did mistakenly misplace quotation marks in one quote from Madison on one occasion in that book, which is a collection of essays. Of the two times I cite the passage in question from Madison’s Federalist 10 in the book, the second time (on page 200) I placed the quotation marks around four words that should have been outside the quotation. On page 5 of my book—the only other place that I cite that passage—the quotations from Federalist 10 are accurate. That fact wasn’t mentioned by Reilly, nor is the presumption made that simple error, not willful deception, could explain the divergence.

Reilly’s main case against me rests on the claim that I “rely heavily” on a quotation that I willfully fabricate. In point of fact, I quote the passage in question twice, once accurately, once with a misplaced quotation mark in a transcription of a lecture I had delivered. I very much regret the inaccuracy, and I will ask to have the quotation mark moved over four words if there is a future printing. But Reilly claims that “Deneen cobbles together parts of two sentences and creates a new one that supports his own critique, creating a Madisonian strawman to indict the founding,” amounting to a charge of willful misquotation for dishonest purposes. His claim is deeply misleading, mixing accusations of academic dishonesty with a legitimate debate to be had about divergences of interpretation.

Protecting Diversity in the Faculties of Men

Putting aside Reilly’s baseless and scurrilous accusations of willfully fabricated citations, Reilly’s substantive point is serious and deserves response. In the passage that Reilly cites, I contend that Madison’s argument in Federalist 10 holds that “the first object of government” is protection of the “diversity in the faculties of men.” Reilly argues—correctly—that Madison is “talking about minimizing the problems of faction.” Reilly is also correct that “diversity in the faculties of men” is a problem that needs to be addressed, inasmuch as that such diversity generates distinctions among people that give rise to political factions.

Nevertheless, in spite of the danger arising from these differences, Madison goes on to argue that “protection of these faculties is the first object of government.” Reilly believes that the “protection of faculties” is somehow different from the protection of the “diversity in the faculties of men,” claiming we can distinguish “essences” from “accidents.” Madison, however, is quite clear: the “diversity” in our faculties is natural (maybe “essential,” in Reilly’s terms): “the latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man.” Madison here insists, in spite of the widespread social, political, and economic differences that emerge due to the diversity in our faculties, that the aim of government is not to reduce or eliminate those differences; rather, the first object of government is protection of our “faculties,” which are, by our nature, diverse, as are, by extension, the practical consequences of those differences. For Madison, these differences result in very different practical outcomes of life, particularly different attainments of property. Manifestations of our diverse faculties are to be protected by government, and indeed, such protection constitutes its “first object.”

In a bizarre twist, Reilly claims that Federalist 10 seeks “to foster consensus out of diversity: e pluribus unum.” He seems to forget, or overlook, that Madison is making this argument in the midst of dismissing the idea that the aim of government is to “give every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, the same interests.” Madison doesn’t speak of consensus; rather, he argues that the constitutive political challenge—factions arising from the “diversity in the faculties of men”—can’t be solved by eliminating or minimizing that diversity. Famously, he argues that one must deal with the effects of such differences (i.e., the potential for factions), rather than attempting to control its causes. If there is consensus to be sought (not a Madisonian word), it is the national belief that the American republic will seek, above all, to protect “the diversity in the faculties of mankind.” That is, America will be a liberal democracy.

Public Protection of Private Things

Madison explicitly claims that the main way the “diversity in the faculties” manifests itself is through different attainments of property. Echoing a longstanding concern in practical politics and political philosophy, Madison recognizes that inequality in wealth (and, relatedly, in status, position, reputation, standing, and so forth) has been the deepest and continuous source of political conflict in the history of the world. Yet Madison holds that government should not seek to avoid different manifestations of our faculties through an effort to equalize or minimize differences; the “first object” of government is protection of those differences in “faculties” that in turn give rise to differences and potentially politically divisive attainments of property.

This set of claims, in a compressed form, comports with the argument made by John Locke in chapter five of The Second Treatise of Government. In Locke’s view, the main reason government comes into existence is to protect the rights of “life, liberty, and estate [or property].” Inevitably this means that there will be extensive differentiation between those with the different faculties of being either (in Locke’s words) “industrious and rational” or “querulous or contentious.” Madison, like Locke, holds that such differences in faculties are “sown in the nature of man,” and the point of government is not to change these faculties, but to protect them, along with the differences in outcomes to which they lead.

Why I point to this passage as a representative expression of liberal philosophy at the time of the American founding—if but twice in the book cited by Reilly—is that it makes the first object of government the protection of private things, including opinion. The res publica ironically becomes devoted to the protection of individual difference that results in the manifestation of private distinctions.

Reilly takes me to task for suggesting that a long and winding connection between Madison’s call for government to protect different attainments in property with contemporary calls for government to protect a variety of other forms of “identity” and individual belief is unjustified, but we should not be surprised that a political order that comes into existence to protect private differences should result in positive calls for government to protect and preserve “diversity,” expressed as “identity.” Indeed, inasmuch as for Locke the first form of property is ownership of our own selves, protection of expression of selfhood is a predictable form of how our “diversity in faculties” is likely to find expression. And, as his 1792 essay on property makes clear, Madison’s understanding of property as exclusive possessions of individuals, which includes not only external wealth but also opinions and belief, is extensively the same as the Lockean view.

Reilly claims that Locke and Madison—in distinction from Hobbes and Machiavelli—are part of a continuous tradition that reaches back to ancient and Christian philosophy. However, one would be hard-pressed to find a justification of res publica from pre-modern thinkers that rests on the claim that protection of private differences is the “first object” of republican government. The classical tradition—expressed, for instance, in the writings of Aristotle or Aquinas—encouraged public-spiritedness, self-rule, concern for the common good, and cultivation of virtue as the essential elements of a polity or republic. While classical thinkers also recognized differences (and the potential for factions) as a major challenge, they commended the harmonization of differences and cultivation of virtue rather than promoting pursuit of private differences as the best avenue of avoiding political division. Indeed, the ancient Greeks reserved the word idiotes to those mainly concerned with private things. Classical thinkers encouraged the formation of small-scale regimes over large ones as more likely to promote participation in a shared common good. Aristotle argued for a limit to acquisition, believing that excess was as dangerous to civic and personal virtue as deficiency.

In calling for a large and extended republic, a relatively small political class whose ambition would promote national greatness, and a citizenry with a main focus on private pursuits, both Madison and Hamilton were cognizant that they were building a nation based on a new science of politics, as Hamilton readily acknowledges in Federalist 1 and 9.

Our Sacred Honor

Reilly’s other main critique focuses on a passage from Conserving America? in which I briefly discuss several passages from the Declaration of Independence, and in particular, the closing phrase in which its signers “pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” My discussion comes from a chapter entitled “Ordinary Virtue,” an essay based on a lecture to high school students that was delivered in 2001.

Reilly focuses on my claim that these closing words are “a bit mysterious and incomprehensible,” finding my claim to puzzlement as conclusive proof of my ongoing and deep misunderstanding of the Founders. What Reilly fails to mention is that the chapter is mainly about the vexed nature of honor. As Aristotle noted, what is honored is relative to the people who accord that honor: what one set of people will find worthy of honor, another might find abhorrent (as recent debates over Civil War statues reflect). When the signers of the Declaration pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, they were stating in the first instance their willingness to offer each of these for the cause of independence, but, by further implication, their willingness to lose each in that pursuit as well. They were aware that future generations might honor, or dishonor, their memory, depending on what was deemed to be honorable.

As I state in that chapter, we are or ought to be familiar with examples of brave people throughout history who have been willing to forfeit their lives and fortunes for the sake of a cause or belief for which they stand—from the 300 Spartans to the men who stormed the beaches at Normandy, from George Washington to Martin Luther King. We accord them honor for their sacrifice. What I claimed to find “a bit mysterious and incomprehensible” is the implied willingness of the Declaration’s signatories potentially to lose their “sacred honor.” Achilles was willing to lose his life in the siege of Troy, but not if he was dishonored by the likes of Agamemnon. Yet the signers of the Declaration were doubtless keenly aware of the possibility that failure against Great Britain would mean that their names would join those of every traitor in history—that they would occupy a position in the minds of future generations much like that today occupied by Benedict Arnold.

My treatment of the Declaration and its signers during the brief discussion in this chapter is quite admiring, meant more as an expression of awe at all they were willing to sacrifice than as the purportedly critical or uncomprehending portrait that Reilly claims that I offer. Yes, it’s true that I find a tension between the “Lockean” first part of the Declaration and its remarkable peroration—in particular, a tension between liberalism’s foundational basis on the primary commitment to self-preservation and the need to defend that principle at times through the willingness to give one’s life in its protection—but I submit this as proof that the Founding was mixed, with actions demanded and met that were often far better than its dominant philosophy. To cite a remarkable observation of Tocqueville, while Americans are likely to justify their actions in terms of self-interest, he observed them often acting altruistically. Tocqueville concluded that “they do more honor to their philosophy than to themselves.” Today, however, too often, who we are accords with our philosophy—evinced, for instance, in the example of today’s liberals being unlikely to serve in the military.

Reilly twists five words in a lecture for high-school students, written sixteen years ago to encourage them to think about the nature of civic virtue, in order to indict me for being un- or anti-American, of threatening the very fabric of the American republic. As with his previous accusation, he scoured a book composed of disparate essays in order to support a conclusion he had already reached, imputing scholarly malfeasance and ignorance in order to “prove” that my critique of the liberalism of the founding era is without merit and therefore can be dismissed out of hand. In writing on these subjects—continuing questions raised by my teacher, Wilson Carey McWilliams—I hope to engage serious interlocutors on the pressing question of the nature and viability of American liberalism. Clearly certain quarters perceive in such questions a political threat, and are eager to squelch such discussion by any means necessary. It’s disappointing that this essay, which begins with wild and unsubstantiated accusations against two professors who purportedly are singlehandedly undermining the American republic, appeared in the pages of The Claremont Review of Books, which, whatever its political leanings, generally publishes articles of high intellectual quality.

Undermining the American Republic?

But to conclude where I began, if the critique of liberalism by Hanby and me is indeed dangerous to the American republic, then perhaps such an article is justified in spite of its speciousness and misrepresentations. Heavier artillery with more collateral damage has been used in defense of America before now.

The accusation that I am singularly responsible for “corrupting the youth” is, of course, patent nonsense. If there is a growing interest in the ideas of a very few contemporary thinkers whose work seeks to explore the question of whether the basic liberal operating system of America is a root cause for its political and social calamity, it’s because many young (and not a few older) Americans no longer can credit the story that America is basically healthy except for some bad progressive eggs. It’s not because folks like me and Michael Hanby and Rod Dreher have convinced people that things are rotten; it’s because things are rotten, and the existing narrative fostered by massive investment of time, political activism, training, and money over several generations isn’t credible. The idea that we are merely one election or Supreme Court nomination away from restoring the republic rings hollow to many, and many suspect that this not because we have failed to realize the dream of American liberalism, but because we’ve realized it all too completely. It’s a sign of panic that Reilly and his allies think there’s a vast (or tiny) right-wing conspiracy corrupting the youth. We’ve heard that accusation before, and it was intended then as well as now to distract attention from and short-circuit reflection about the shortcomings of the conspiracy theorist’s own views.

Frankly, I wish our Catholic institutions were hotbeds of debate on the question of the viability of American liberalism. Catholics have a distinctive contribution to make to America, in significant part by challenging our dominant liberal philosophy both with arguments as well as a better example. But, in most cases, our Catholic institutions and its denizens merely mirror American liberalism in its main forms, “conservative” liberal and “progressive” liberal. There is no distinctive Catholic political philosophy today, and Reilly’s call merely to man the battlements by defending classical liberalism is a further effort to short-circuit what might be a moment when a real revival of Catholic political thought in America might be possible.

The question whether American liberalism is sustainable won’t go away in light of current events, even with the aid of misleading accusations and arguments. Yet we should not be afraid to test the question, as the more dangerous course is to continue on our current path while consulting the wrong map.