No, Paleoconservatives Are Not Helping the Left

Michael Anton raises several good points in his brief against Brion McClanahan’s assault on the 1776 Commission and that commission’s yoking of universal equality with the American founding. Anton is perfectly correct that state declarations of the rights of citizens drafted during or after the American Revolution incorporate the natural right phraseology of the Declaration of Independence. Thus, the attempt by members of the Old Right, including Willmoore Kendall (whom I usually follow in these matters), to downplay natural rights language in the American Founding is open to question. 

Anton is also right that at least several of America’s founders opposed slavery in principle, even if such a theoretical opponent as Thomas Jefferson only freed a small number of his slaves. It is of course also true that Jefferson in Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) wished to send the emancipated slaves out of his state because of what he thought were intractable differences between the races. Like the signers of the Declaration who went along with what the Claremont Institute understands as the authoritative passage in that document (and not all members of the Continental Congress approved of that wording), we are supposed to assume that all human beings have inalienable rights to life and liberty.

But that did not mean that for the founders “all men” were equally entitled to citizenship or that all human beings were equally fit to exercise that right. Certainly, Jefferson, even as a critic of slavery, did not believe that blacks were able to do so in the foreseeable future; and I doubt that many members of the Continental Congress were ready to extend the vote to women. The reason is not that the founders were not as enlightened as Michael Anton and the 1776 Commission. They simply understood the right to life and liberty as stopping with that right and not requiring the full panoply of civil and other rights that our modern political and educational leaders attach to the notion of equality.

In Novus Ordo Seclorum, Forrest McDonald offers a detailed analysis of what educated 18th-century Americans understood by equality. Looking at five general usages of that term, several of which were derived from the politics and epistemology of John Locke, McDonald concludes that equality for most of the founders “did not necessarily imply a conflict with the institution of slavery.” According to McDonald, few people of that generation went as far as Alexander Hamilton, who assumed the “blacks would prove to be intellectually and socially equal to whites,” given the proper conditions and a long enough apprenticeship. Although Jefferson “trembled” with fear of divine retribution when he contemplated the evil of slavery in 1776, “few of his countrymen trembled with him.” 

What may be argued, however, is that certain convictions held by the founders, e.g., belief in a shared moral sense and the equal dignity of all human beings before a Divine master, would have led them over time into a stronger anti-slavery stance. But this is different from ascribing to these figures an anguished preoccupation with the injustice of slavery.  Please note that Lincoln before the Civil War opposed slavery but did not wish to grant full rights of citizenship to freed blacks. Like other members of the American Colonization Society, Lincoln was hoping that the emancipated blacks could be resettled somewhere other than in the United States. The restricted concept of equality that most early American leaders accepted was not as expansive as the one that Harry Jaffa or Michal Anton would like us to accept. It was far more limited in scope.

It is therefore inappropriate for Michael Anton to tease Brion McClanahan about which groups McClanahan intends to strip of citizenship or about how he would manage to dominate “ruled castes” and get them to accept their “allegedly natural inferiority with patience and good grace.” I doubt McClanahan wrote his polemic to advocate such a plan. I would, however, like to pose a relevant question for Michael Anton, not as his enemy but as someone who shares many of his opinions about current events. How exactly does he intend to put the genie of equality back into the bottle? And here I follow Kendall closely about how Lincoln’s crusade for equality has given birth to other equally devastating crusades in the name of the same ideology, as our concept of equality is gradually and inevitably expanded, until we reach our present intersectional Left.

Surely the victory of the civil rights revolution, which the 1776 Commission celebrates, did not end the drive for greater equality in 1980, or whenever Michael Anton thinks it should have ended. The upheaval goes on because revolutions, as my friend the brilliant historian Stanley Payne reminds us, are always “incremental” and rarely end when the “moderates” would like them to.

One reason the Claremont version of the founding is so attractive to the 1776 Commission and to our present conservative establishment is that it presents a picture of America’s moving toward a point when its founding doctrine of equality is realized. The concept of equality was supposedly the raison d’être of America’s arrival on the historical stage; and although we supposedly wandered away from that sacred purpose, we returned to the Good with Lincoln’s crusade against slavery, the well-intentioned failure of Reconstruction, struggles against anti-egalitarian enemies and finally, the civil rights movement. And we’d all be acclaiming those achievements were it not for those troublemakers on the Left, who won’t recognize our egalitarian success.

In my view, there is no way of properly understanding our present politics without examining the ramifications of the civil rights revolution, its call for social engineering, its mobilization of a massive radicalized black electorate, its intrusions into the right of private association, and its call to white contrition. What happened in the 18th century did not cause this situation; the appeal made by some of the founders to natural right was exceedingly circumscribed; and in any case, there were other themes and beliefs that played roles in the founding of America as an Anglo-Protestant republic. 

Anton and the 1776 Commission offer a judgment that seems generally true but may be overstated, namely that “despite the presence of slavery at the time of the founding, nearly all the founders—including many slaveholders—knew that slavery was unjust but didn’t know how to end it, at least not immediately.” By the 1780s many slaveholders would have been delighted to turn their slaves into wage-earners, as happened in my state of Pennsylvania.

What is less likely is that, with few exceptions, they perpetually agonized over an “injustice,” that then existed across the globe and which was far more onerous everywhere else than it was on these shores. We may question if most of the plantation owners who signed the Declaration—say, Charles Carroll of Maryland or Carter Braxton of Virginia—shared the depth of Anton’s anti-slavery passion. The famed president of Princeton College and a distinguished Presbyterian theologian, John Witherspoon, who was an ardent republican and Declaration signer, owned slaves, and even defended his slave ownership in a pamphlet. 

Finally, we come to what Anton considers the “rhetorical disaster” in McClanahan’s polemic: He “gives aid and comfort to those on the Left who hate America, hate the Right, and want to associate both with racism and slavery. By attacking and dismissing the 1776 Commission’s defense of the founders with the claim that the latter didn’t really believe in equality . . . McClanahan plays directly into the Left’s hands.” Two questions spring to mind here. One, why does Anton believe that if McClanahan or this author gave an A grade to the 1776 Commission, the Left would like this country better? In fact, it is impossible to see how such an affirmation would change the Left’s or the Democrats’ attitudes about anything.

Two, why is McClanahan or anyone else writing for Chronicles helping the Left by rejecting the positions of the 1776 Commission? I don’t recall Marxist opponents of the American military-industrial complex wildly cheering members of the Old Right as their comrades for opposing the American war in Iraq. Although a critic of that enterprise, I was described in leftist publications as a war hawk because I was associated with some kind of generic Right. It may surprise Anton to learn that the Left never seems to notice its occasional shared stances with the traditional Right, any more than it would notice the fact that Brion McClanahan disputed Anton’s view about the American founding.

Our critic may be flattering paleoconservatives extravagantly by imagining that the Left listens to them or that they can make “things immeasurably worse” by arguing that “the real Right is anti-equality and pro-slavery.” By the way, Brion McClanahan never says anything even approaching that position. But even if he did, what exactly would be the significance? I doubt the Left would care. 


About Paul Gottfried

Paul Edward Gottfried is the editor of Chronicles. An American paleoconservative philosopher, historian, and columnist, Gottfried is a former Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, as well as a Guggenheim recipient.

Photo: Photo12/UIG/Getty Images

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