What Are the Paleoconservatives Conserving?

There is less dividing Paul Gottfried and me than I would have expected, which is good. For when the orc hordes—at Sauron’s urging—come for both of us, they aren’t going to discern, much less care about, any academic differences over this or that statement from the American founding era. They are going to see us identically as enemies to be exterminated. 

I also welcome this chance to reiterate some points that bear repeating. To those bored with the repetition, I can only say that what I learned in politics apparently applies to intellectual debates as well: if you want your message to break through, you can’t repeat it often enough. This exchange also gives me the opportunity to take a few more whacks at Cracker Jack Claremontism, which can’t be beaten often enough. 

The Claremont-Hillsdale School does indeed hold that all human beings “have inalienable rights to life and liberty.” Gottfried continues from here that this “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.” And he’s absolutely right. Only Cracker Jack Claremontism holds to that silly view. Anyone who’s actually studied the founders (and if we’ve done nothing else, we’ve certainly done that) knows that it’s false. 

A Separate and Equal Station
Among the Powers of the Earth

Let’s take these two issues separately. The first is membership in the political community. We may say that, for the American founders, their government’s exclusivity as a political community internationally mirrors the principle of freedom of association at the domestic level. Just government originates in the social compact—that is, a compact in which men freely choose to form a government for their mutual protection and benefit. At the founding of such a government, agreement on membership must be unanimous, and in both directions. That is, no one who doesn’t want to be in the compact can be forced to join, but also no one whom others don’t want to take in can be allowed to join either. The social compact is invitation only

It remains so in perpetuity for newcomers. Children born to members of the existing compact are automatically made members but may, if they later choose, renounce that membership via emigration. No one from outside the compact, however, may join it without the consent of its existing members. As Gouverneur Morris, the man who actually wrote the U.S. Constitution, put it: “every society, from a great nation down to a club, has the right of declaring the conditions on which new members shall be admitted.” 

In other words, in recognizing the universal ground of individual rights, and in choosing to rest the legitimacy of their new government thereon, the founders were not saying or implying that Americans had any obligation to extend the enjoyment of such rights to the rest of mankind. Much less were they making any attempt to do so. They were simply explaining the ground of their revolution and the basis for their new government.

The Declaration of Independence is quite clear on this point. In splitting off from Britain, the American people “assume[d] among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.” “Separate” means just that. We’re a nation. You can’t join our nation unless we, collectively, invite you. You may have, by nature, the same rights as we have, but our government secures only our own rights, not yours. 

Vindicating Natural Liberty
Requires Republican Character

As to Gottfried’s second point, he is certainly correct that the founders did not believe that all human beings were, at that time, fit for republican government. They well understood that republicanism is a rare plant. Yet a division in the founders’ thinking emerges. Some—let us call them the more optimistic or liberal—believed that progress would eventually make all or most of the peoples of the world capable of vindicating and maintaining their natural liberty. Others doubted this would ever be the case. 

With respect to foreigners, it hardly matters which side of this debate is correct. The United States in principle could go on as a natural rights republic regardless of the fate of liberty in other countries—at the very least, whether or not countries that were not free at the time of the founding ever became free. The fact of liberty’s establishment in 1774-1789—a time when republics existed almost nowhere—shows that its existence here was, and therefore likely still is, not dependent on its existence elsewhere. 

Applying this thought to fellow Americans, however, is much trickier (and touchier). My read of the founders is that Gottfried is correct to say that they believed their principles did not require the granting of full rights to everyone merely living on American soil. That is, they believed that morality requires that certain basic rights—to life and property above all—be guaranteed to all, but other rights (e.g., to vote or to petition the government) be reserved only for citizens. In other words, they believed it permissible to treat certain residents like foreigners, who as human beings deserve protection, but who as non-citizens (nonmembers of the social compact) do not have any right to participate in the government. 

We may wonder whether such an understanding is truly consistent with the founders’ broader natural rights principles. For just because they believed it doesn’t mean they were right. After all, a core paleoconservative argument is that founders didn’t really understand the full consequences of their assertion that all men are created equal. It’s possible, then, that thinking through the distinction between citizen and denizen, in the context of natural rights, would lead to the conclusion that while a natural rights republic is justified—even required—to treat foreigners as non-citizens, it may not justly do so to permanent residents of its own soil. 

Whatever the answer to that question, it seems to me as a practical matter a bad idea for a free republic to make such a distinction. Doing so divides the population, produces feelings of enmity on one side and guilt on another, and undermines national unity. Borrowing Lincoln’s famous pronouncement that as he would not be a slave, so he would not be a master, he who is not or cannot be a citizen should not be a denizen. 

Gottfried asks “How exactly” do I “intend to put the genie of equality back into the bottle?” I have a simple answer: I don’t. I expect the present regime—which is not the founders’ regime—to run its course. I have no illusions that I can stop it. 

My interest in pursuing this question has three sources. First is simple inquiry: I want to know the truth, for the truth’s sake. What was the founders’ understanding of political principle, natural right (and rights), equality, and all the rest? And is that understanding true? 

The second is historical. Is what I described in my last piece as “the egalitarianist catastrophe” a direct result of the founding? Or does it have another source? If so, what is it?

The third is practical and ties together the first two. If the founders’ understanding was wrong, we need to know, both for the truth’s sake and so that we may get our politics into better order. If the founders’ ideas led to the present disaster, we need to know so that we can correct and avoid them. If on the other hand the founders’ ideas were right, but were later corrupted, we need to know that in order to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

What Comes Next?

While I expect the present regime to run its course, I do not expect it to last forever. It will be succeeded by something. Unless the cause of its fall is a cataclysm of world-historical magnitude, that “something” is unlikely to be the reemergence of heroic kingship or a warrior-caste aristocracy. It will rather involve some measure of deliberation about what to do next and on what ground. 

It is not clear to me whether Gottfried believes the egalitarianist catastrophe stems directly from the founders’ ideas or from a later corruption or misinterpretation (whether deliberate or honest mistake). I repeat, for clarity, that my school (and I) believe it stems from a later corruption and, specifically, a deliberate rejection of the founding principles. 

In thinking about what might come next, I have yet to conceive of any organizing principles superior to those of the founders.’ Should the present regime one day cease to function, there will still be people alive on the North American continent who self-identify as Americans and nothing else and who profess themselves believers in Americanism. They will, perhaps in pockets, perhaps in larger groups, get together to self-organize so as to provide for their common defense and other needs. They will very likely wish to set up their new government(s) on Americanist principles–that is, not the “principles” of the present woke oligarchy but what they understand and remember of the older, better America.

It’s possible, perhaps likely, that in the early period after a crisis, people will place themselves under the protection of a strongman or some group of neo-elites. One might even say that Aristotle’s political science predicts exactly this. But one might also ask: how long could such arrangements last? And how just would they be while they did? 

A core paleoconservative tenet is that nations no less than individuals have characters. One will hear no disagreement from Claremont on this score. Indeed, one prominent member of our school wrote an entire book called The Character of Nations

Well, among the characteristics of the Americans are (or used to be) anti-authoritarianism, spiritedness, and a rebellious streak. If these (and other) traits are still present in the American nation, then I don’t think we can expect any monarchical or aristocratic interregnum to last long. 

Which brings us back around to the question: what then? If I’m around and anyone asks, I would encourage the emulation of the founders. If Gottfried has any better ideas, I will read them. 

Persuasion and Rhetoric Moving Forward

Finally, on my accusation regarding McClanahan’s rhetoric, Gottfried does not so much make a defense of the latter as insist that I shouldn’t care because no matter what any of us say, the Left will hate us all the same. 

Of course, that’s true. But it misses my point, which was: never give the Left any ammunition. There’s a reason they lavishly fund “think tanks” whose minions do nothing but scour media for the slightest misplaced word they can use to calumniate the Right: because it works. They’d cancel all of us (and worse) if they could. A piece of writing that, however elusively, makes it sound like “the Right” is really pro-slavery can and will be used against all of us. 

But the larger rhetorical problem with McClanahan’s original piece is in keeping with a problem I long ago identified in paleoconservative rhetoric; namely, an outright hostility to huge parts of American history and the American tradition that most Americans still revere. This may, in fact, be one reason why paleoconservatism, despite all its strengths and all the things it got (and gets) right, never gained a wide audience and why its archrival, Conservatism, Inc., still handily hoovers up all the donations. The latter embraces, however fatuously or falsely, the mantle of Americanism while the former appears at best ambivalent. 

It’s hard for a movement to claim to stand for tradition when it attacks so much of the tradition it purports to defend. How many “normie” Americans who know in their bones that this is no longer the country they grew up in, that woke capital and critical race theory are mortal threats, that the deep state isn’t on their side, will be inspired by attacks on, or dismissals of, the founders and the Declaration? My guess: not many.


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About Michael Anton

Michael Anton is a lecturer and research fellow at Hillsdale College, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, and a former national security official in the Trump Administration. He formerly wrote under the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus when he was a senior editor of American Greatness. He is the author most recently of The Stakes: America at the Point of No Return.

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