Conservative Liberalism, Liberal Despotism: Part 1

An oddity about our current debates over liberalism and America is that both sides view the American Founding, and thus America, as fundamentally influenced by classical liberal ideology. They only disagree over whether classical liberalism is good or bad. But the historical record shows that liberal ideology was one influence among many, not that it was the definitive one.

American conservatives seem stuck with liberalism. We are citizens of the original liberal democracy, so it seems we must be liberal if we wish to preserve our patrimony. But what sort of liberalism constitutes our heritage? Is it that of liberal practices and institutions such as representative government, habeas corpus, and trial by jury? Or that of liberal ideology as it has been variously formulated by John Locke, John Stuart Mill, John Rawls, and others?

The American Right is divided on this question. Last year’s debates between David French and Sohrab Ahmari illuminated the divide between those who defend the merits of the United States as a classically liberal nation, and those who reject liberal theory, even if they support many liberal practices. For instance, National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry urged a conservative understanding of liberalism not as a rigid ideology, but rather as a “set of practices that we have learned, through many centuries of trial and error, are pretty good at promoting human flourishing.” This perspective is mostly compatible with the emerging project of Ahmari and his allies. The task for American conservatism is to protect this heritage of liberal practices, the roots of which go deeper than Enlightenment liberal theorizing, which we should keep at arm’s length.

But others on the Right will have none of this. They insist that we are a creedal nation, devoted to the Lockean liberal principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence. For example, here at Public Discourse, Allen Guelzo recently argued, contra Lowry and his allies, that we are defined by liberalism to the point where, “our creed is our culture.” To be a real American is to be really committed to the right kind of ideological liberalism.

The chief apostle of this creedal view was the late Claremont professor Harry Jaffa, whom National Review labeled as perhaps “the most important conservative political theorist of his generation.” Jaffa is not a household name even among conservatives, but his ideas nonetheless permeate right-wing thought. He saw the United States as a revolutionary nation dedicated to liberal ideology, and argued that our constitutional government was established upon the Enlightenment principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence. American conservatism, therefore, has the task of protecting, promoting, and perfecting the application of the Enlightenment ideals of our Founding. The influence of these views, most notably propounded in Jaffa’s Lincoln studies Crisis of the House Divided and A New Birth of Freedom, reached a high-water mark during the George W. Bush administration. They still have many evangelists on the American Right, from pundits to think-tankers to academics such as Hillsdale College president Larry Arnn, whose book The Founder’s Key is largely a summary of Jaffa’s views. The Claremont Institute in particular had carried on Jaffa’s legacy, and it will be interesting to see how this comports with the efforts of many Claremontists to influence and defend the Trump administration.

Salvos between Jaffa’s followers (a tribe generally known as West Coast Straussians) and their critics are sometimes entertaining and enlightening, and sometimes given over to esoteric obscurity. Nor do these disputes always track well onto current arguments. For instance, in an otherwise perceptive piece, Hadley Arkes identified Jaffa with Ahmari’s side of the debate, even though Jaffa was perhaps the preeminent advocate for America as an expression of the classical liberalism that David French promotes.

The crucial point is that Jaffa and his followers believe that our nation was established upon liberal, Enlightenment principles, and that this was a great achievement. The first premise of this claim is shared by some critics of liberalism, such as Patrick Deneen, who seem to accept that the American founding was dedicated to the liberal principles of the Enlightenment, and they therefore criticize America as having been built on a philosophical foundation of sand. This would seem to leave American conservatives who are critical of liberalism as a reactionary Tory remnant, strangers in their own land.

But conservatives need not disdain our American patrimony as irredeemably bound to liberal ideology. We may instead follow Russell Kirk and others who have observed that the American colonists rebelled primarily to preserve their traditional rights and practices of self-government, rather than on behalf of Enlightenment ideology. This view aligns with that articulated by Lowry and Ponnuru, and it is more supportable historically than interpreting the Founding as a pure expression of liberalism. As Ofir Haivry demonstrates in an excellent recent piece in American Affairs, it was also the view of Edmund Burke. Conservatives should study and affirm the practical liberalism of our nation while rejecting the views of “conservative” liberal ideologues who would hijack our patrimony for their own ideological ends.

Consequently, conservatives who do not subscribe to liberal ideology must grapple with Jaffa, who offered the quintessential presentation of American conservatism as dedicated to the preservation of liberal theory. It is imperative for us to show that this interpretation of the American Founding is historically inaccurate and that it also implants an imperial armed doctrine in our nation’s heart. Examining Jaffa’s work illuminates these dangerous dual errors by which the Founding is misunderstood and then misapplied.

Jaffa on America

Jaffa read the Declaration of Independence as a product of Lockean liberalism and the essential statement of American principles. He acknowledged that other elements were present in the thought of the Founding, but insisted that “the primary appeals to principles in the Revolution are Lockean.” And to him, principles were what mattered. In this view, the borrowed phrases of Jefferson’s opening, not the long indictment of the King and his ministers that followed, were the basis for the colonists’ case for independence. Jaffa focused on Jefferson—a philosophical outlier even among the colonial elite—and asserted that “Jefferson’s doctrine . . . is the American doctrine in its purest form.” By this account, the American nation was conceived as an embodiment of universal, timeless philosophical truths, founded on a philosophy that owed “nothing of its intrinsic character to ‘the rights of Englishmen.’” Therefore, the United States is fundamentally revolutionary, and the task of American conservatism is to continue the mission of working out a purer liberalism based on the Enlightenment principles of the Declaration.

Historically, this interpretation of the Founding is nonsense. There were few thoroughgoing Enlightenment liberals in the revolutionary ranks, even among the colonial leaders. Locke and other liberal thinkers such as Montesquieu influenced the Founding, but there were many other factors of equal or greater importance. As Bernard Bailyn observed in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, the Founding blended various influences, including reformed Christianity, the common law tradition, country Whig writers (Bailyn’s focus), classical republicanism, and the colonists’ extensive practice of self-government. These factors could be contradictory, and the colonists (including eminent figures) often had only a superficial knowledge of those whom they referenced as authorities and examples. The colonists were certainly not united around a shared, coherent liberal ideology. Indeed, they often cited the same thinkers, and even the same concepts and phrases, to support divergent positions.

The beliefs and lived experience of the Americans who fought for independence were not those of Lockean liberals. In The Myth of American Individualism, Barry Alan Shain explained that, “Original sin, rather than Enlightenment optimism, lies at the dark heart of late eighteenth-century American social and political thought.” He concluded that, “Rather than budding individualists, Americans were reformed-Protestant communalists.” The more one looks into the historical record—and especially at the ordinary men and women of colonial society and politics (Robert Gross’s classic The Minutemen and Their World is a good place to begin)—the more accurate Shain’s assessment seems, and the less plausible the idea of the American Founding as an exercise in applied Lockean liberalism appears. This is why Jaffa’s efforts required him to place a great deal of weight on a few phrases, often more than they could bear, as proof that our nation is dedicated to liberal political theory.

Although Jaffa’s interpretation of the American Founding is historically mistaken, it is appealing to those who seek to validate the United States, especially with regard to the sin of slavery. It was through Lincoln that Jaffa sought to redeem the Founding. In his project, the crucial point was not to show that the ideals of the Declaration were the dominant factor in the Founding, but to present them as eternal verities by which to judge the rest of the Founding and our nation’s history. The ideals of liberalism are the beacon of justice amidst the historical contingencies and compromises of the Founding. The non-liberal elements of our nation’s origins are seen as historical dross to be burned away in the purifying fires of liberalism. The beliefs and experiences of the populace at the time of the Founding did not much interest Jaffa; what mattered to him were the principles Jefferson had embedded in the Declaration, and their invocation by Lincoln.

Only these liberal principles could redeem the Constitution from the compromises it had made and the illiberal practices it protected, especially slavery. It was thanks to the Declaration that the “moral basis of the Union . . . was inextricably bound up with the denunciation of slavery.” America’s practices could not all be defended, but its principles could be. The justice and goodness of America could be asserted only because of the timeless principles that shone through the compromises and contingencies of its birth. Jaffa was therefore able to insist that “The work of the Founding Fathers was excellent and noble,” while also declaring it “incomplete.” The Founders had appealed to principles that, though they had been imperfectly realized, provided the “direction, the meaning, of all good laws in this country.”

This attempt to establish the liberalism of the American founding was not an exercise in historical scholarship but an effort at mythmaking. Jaffa knew that Lincoln’s invocations of the Founding were sometimes questionable as history, but he believed that they served a higher truth. Lincoln, in the United States’ greatest crisis, appealed to the Declaration in what Jaffa saw as a re-founding of the nation, which was baptized into a new and higher political life. The worst compromises and sins of the Founders were consumed in the fires of civil war, while their golden words and eternal principles remained. The American nation is therefore exceptional in its founding and in its mission. It was founded (and re-founded) upon philosophical propositions, rather than the contingencies of blood, soil, language, and culture. It is a creedal nation dedicated to implementing and perfecting the doctrine of equality.

Consequently, the historical developments and precedents that conservatives like Russell Kirk held dear were, to Jaffa, incidental and often detrimental to the eternal truths articulated during the Founding. At best, these contingencies enabled the apprehension and (incomplete) implementation of the timeless truths of liberalism. Even if the Founders and the people they represented were not dedicated to liberal ideology, its presence allows it to be treated as the true philosophical meaning of the Founding.

This last point gives the game away: the view that liberal ideology is the true essence of the Founding because it is right is a philosophical preference, not a historical judgment. Therefore, we need not view the ideologically liberal influences on the Founding as defining, but may instead assert that other elements should be read as tempering, altering, or effacing them. The historical record shows that liberal ideology was one influence among many, not that it was the definitive one, and the decision to treat it as such presumes what is in question—the superiority of liberal ideology.

Historical scholarship illuminates the various influences on the Founding, but it cannot decide to which of them we should give preeminence. The claim that liberal ideology was the essence of the Founding is a rhetorical sleight of hand that attempts to carry the philosophical point by obscuring the more complex historical truth of the Founding. Indeed, far from being settled at the Founding, debates over the nature and extent of our liberalism have persisted throughout our national history. There is a broad tradition of opposition to liberal ideology for American conservatives to draw on; it is a mistake for Ahmari and his allies to dismiss this tradition as irrelevant to their current project.

Far from disparaging our nation’s past, those of us who favor a practical liberalism over ideological liberalism have every right to claim the heritage of the American Founding. From economics to our understanding of rights to the nature of the common good, our patriotic patrimony is not defined by liberal dogmas, classical or otherwise. Indeed, as the second part of this series shall show, the attempt to define our nation by liberal ideology also excuses a liberal despotism in the name of equality.

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