To make a long story short, Brion McClanahan attacked the 1776 Commission report. I thought that was imprudent and said so. Now he’s back. So I am too.
But I’d prefer not to be fighting with paleoconservatives, above all not with Chronicles. I have many reasons not to want to. Some are self-interested: I appreciate Darrel Dow’s generous review of my book The Stakes, and I appreciate the editors’ willingness to publish it. I found my last exchange with Paul Gottfried on this website cordial and productive. I also appreciated his recent clarifying remarks on the relationship between Leo Strauss, one of my (indirect) mentors and inspirations, and neoconservatism.
On a more practical level, my school—which I recently termed the “Claremont-Hillsdale School” and is mostly coterminous with the older phrase “West-Coast Straussianism”—and the paleoconservatives all have the same enemies who make no distinctions among us. To them, we are all retrograde and evil, and richly deserve the fate they are busily planning for us. Especially because both our schools, unlike the collaborationist “Right,” are fighting the present regime’s descent into absolute despotism.
Beyond this, both my school and the paleoconservatives want the same things: justice, law and order, equal protection under law, an end to anarcho-tyranny, a border wall, strict immigration enforcement, patriotic reform of our idiotic immigration policies (i.e., the opposite of the kind of “reform” the ruling class wants), America-first trade and foreign policies, protections for free speech, use of state power to attack the tech monopolies, cleansing our school system of “Critical Race Theory,” policies that support family formation . . . I could go on for pages before reaching a single item on which we disagree, assuming there are any.
What we disagree about is the basis for these policies. This is not an unimportant disagreement, nor is it merely of theoretical interest. Though personally, I’m interested in theory and prefer to be right about the theories I hold regardless of their practical consequences.
But this one—the right basis for a good political order—by its very nature has practical consequences. And it may soon have even more of them if I’m right that the present regime is a thing that can’t go on forever, and may even be nearing the end of its appointed time. As I put it in The Stakes, “if conservatism’s professed account of human nature, of the nature of politics and society, is true, then our current ruling arrangement must eventually break against the rocks of natural limits.”
When This Regime Runs Its Course
If, or when, that comes to pass, we shall then have to rebuild. But on what basis? Tradition, while salutary and even necessary, I do not believe to be, by itself, a sufficient basis—either theoretically or in the particular circumstances in which former “Americans” will find themselves after a regime collapse. I explain all the reasons why in the second and seventh chapters of my book, so I shall not restate them here.
That is the essence of my theoretical disagreement with paleoconservatism. It is at once important, and not so important. That is to say, I don’t think we should be fighting over this stuff now when the enemy is at our collective throats. But when the next stage comes, it will be vitally important to hash out the foundation of our new regime (that is, if we are to remain together). Indeed, the basis for the new order will be the fundamental political issue. Disagreement, and debate, will be inevitable.
These are the core reasons why I responded to Brion McClanahan’s original attack on the 1776 Commission.
Why that attack? And why now? But also, if you insist on having this fight now—which, again, I don’t recommend—who’s really right?
As to the first, it bears repeating that the 1776 Commission Report is a patriotic account of America deliberately published under the auspices of the president of the United States at a time when nearly every institution in our country—governmental, economic, societal—is fanatically anti-American and anti-white. For that reason alone, it deserves our praise and support.
But the report is better than that. For all its unnecessary and (as the kids say) “cringey” concessions to modern leftist pieties, it tells essential truths about the American founding, American history and the American people, and does so precisely to rebut leftist calumnies about all three. Sometimes the logic of “the enemy of my enemy” can lead one into dead ends, but other times it’s an important rallying point. In my judgement, this is one of the latter times.
Standing against the leftist attacks on America, of which leftist attacks on the 1776 Commission are but epiphenomena, should be a necessary if not sufficient measure of worth from anyone claiming to act in the Right’s best interests. That’s not to say one is required to praise every word. But one ought to be able to find something to praise and praise that while remaining silent on the rest. If you must criticize, do so gently, without rancor or hyperbole—and certainly without implying, or leaving it easy for the Left to conclude, that you think slavery and the Confederacy were good. Even if you do think those things, have the wisdom to know which thoughts especially expose oneself and one’s “side” to danger in this climate, and the prudence to craft your rhetoric accordingly.
But if you choose not to, know full well what you are doing. Once the report has come to be seen—by friend and foe alike, rightly—as a counterattack against CRT anti-Americanism and anti-whiteness, then attacks on it will have the effect of supporting the latter. If that was McClanahan’s intent, he achieved it. To say anything, however inadvertently, that feeds the Left’s ability to paint the Right as racist, would-be slavocrats is to hand our enemies boxes of ammunition. To do that out of ignorance is foolhardy in the extreme. To do so deliberately is something else.
Aiding Our Common Enemies
McClanahan’s actions may be analogized to a man besieged alongside people with whom he has important theoretical differences which would seem, to all others in the foxhole, not to matter in the immediate emergency, but which appear to him as the most important thing in the world. He therefore takes it upon himself to act as an artillery spotter for the enemy. He excuses—no, extolls—this action on the basis of its alleged purity. He has not compromised his principles! Meanwhile, he along with his only conceivable allies in a desperate struggle against long odds, have all just been obliterated. But he goes to his maker with a clear conscience.
Which brings us back around to the question: what are McClanahan’s principles? As I tried to make clear in my earlier article, I could not tell from his initial attack on the Commission report, and I still cannot tell from his most recent reply.
One great strength of the 1776 Commission Report was to say unequivocally that slavery is bad but America is good, for the heart of the current woke attack on America is the allegation that America is slavery, therefore America is bad. McClanahan’s rhetoric has no defense against this attack. He nowhere says America is good and he explicitly refuses to say that slavery is bad.
Does McClanahan like America? I assume so. Otherwise why would he bother? Does he like the founding? This is much less clear, but the presumption must be “no,” otherwise why should he expend so much effort attacking a defense of it?
He definitely does not like the Declaration of Independence. Or rather, he flips back and forth between two positions: that the document is in itself unobjectionable, but only because it is unimportant; and that in later hands, especially Lincoln’s, it took on a monstrous quality.
This is all well-trod ground, even between the two of us. Suffice to say here that for Lincoln to have done what McClanahan accuses him of doing, the Great Emancipator must have had a basis; he couldn’t have simply winged it. And that basis is the literal text of the Declaration, which McClanahan endeavors to allege does not mean what it plainly says. But as I noted in my initial article (and in my book), to reject the principles of the Declaration as the founders’ political theory, one must reject not just that document but also many other declarations of rights, state constitutions, pamphlets, sermons and private letters from a wide variety of founders, all of which say more or less the same thing, often in identical language. For the Declaration to be dismissed as a one-off, it would actually have to have been a one-off, which it manifestly was not.
McClanahan quotes Jefferson twice, supposedly in support of his own views. The first is Jefferson’s letter to Henry Lee in which the former denies the novelty of the Declaration. First of all, so what? The question is not the novelty of the Declaration’s principles but their truth. As Jefferson says in that same letter, the Declaration
was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.
McClanahan elsewhere chides me with the words “context matters.” But one does not even need recourse to “context” to see that the quote he cites, indeed the entire letter, proves the case opposite to his own. Jefferson is clearly saying that the principles of the Declaration are true—and not only that, but universally shared by the Americans who mounted the Revolution.
McClanahan also quotes from the infamous Query XIV of Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia but does so incompletely and therefore misleadingly. Here is the entire passage:
The opinion, that [blacks] are inferior in the faculties of reason and imagination, must be hazarded with great diffidence. To justify a general conclusion, requires many observations, even where the subject may be submitted to the anatomical knife, to optical glasses, to analysis by fire, or by solvents. How much more then where it is a faculty, not a substance, we are examining; where it eludes the research of all the senses; where the conditions of its existence are various and variously combined; where the effects of those which are present or absent bid defiance to calculation; let me add too, as a circumstance of great tenderness, where our conclusion would degrade a whole race of men from the rank in the scale of beings which their Creator may perhaps have given them. To our reproach it must be said, that though for a century and a half we have had under our eyes the races of black and of red men, they have never yet been viewed by us as subjects of natural history. I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications. Will not a lover of natural history then, one who views the gradations in all the races of animals with the eye of philosophy, excuse an effort to keep those in the department of man as distinct as nature has formed them?
McClanahan quotes only the boldfaced words, leaving out all of Jefferson’s caveats and warnings. “Context” indeed. Even if we stick only to the one partially quoted sentence, McClanahan’s deliberate omission of the words “I advance it therefore as a suspicion only” decisively changes the meaning. Jefferson’s point was that the observable black-white gap in social development may have been caused by the forcible relocation of peoples to a foreign environment coupled with centuries of slavery. In another letter, written while he was still president, Jefferson responded to a query on this very topic, admitting that, in prevailing conditions in America,
opportunities for the development of [blacks’] genius were not favorable, and those of exercising it still less so. I expressed [my doubts] therefore with great hesitation; but whatever be their degree of talent it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others.
This is yet another plain statement of belief in the truth of the Declaration: universal equality of natural rights. “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.” Nothing more, nothing less.
One in any case wonders what was the point of McClanahan’s second (mis)quotation of Jefferson. Was it to assert the superiority of one demographic group over another, and therefore the former’s right to rule? If so, why then should not Asians—who, as measured by IQ tests, are “superior to others in understanding”—rule whites? If, as I assume to be the case, McClanahan finds such a suggestion abhorrent, he should reflect that the strongest barrier to racialized caste government is the natural rights philosophy of the American founders.
McClanahan asserts that the Declaration did not found the country. In one sense, that is of course true: the people who would become Americans began arriving in North America in 1607 and 1620. Their collective experience shaped what would, on July 4, 1776, formally become the American nation. McClanahan writes as if the Claremont-Hillsdale School has always vehemently denied this, when in fact the opposite is true.
The preexistence of people in America does not obviate the foundational act of the American people. McClanahan omits mention of 1775’s Declaration on the Causes of and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, also drafted by Jefferson, which pointedly stops short of declaring independence but instead insists that the colonists wish to remain loyal subjects of the crown.
Only in the first paragraph of the later, decisive Declaration do the now-Americans declare themselves to be “one people,” “dissolv[ing] the political bands which have connected them with another” and “assum[ing] among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them” (emphases added). This is the document which McClanahan insists did not found the country. I suppose that depends on the meaning of found? But the actual founders suffered no such confusion, nor have the millions since who have revered them as “founders.”
As to McClanahan’s laughable assertion that the Declaration of Independence is not an organic law of the United States, I refer him to the United States Code (i.e., the 54 Titles of federal law), in which the Declaration of Independence is named as the first of four.
A question I posed in my initial response to McClanahan was: is it possible to love a country and despise its founding? Especially in the case of America, the country that, more than any other in the history of the world, was so explicitly founded, even to the point of having a birthday? My view is: no. I still don’t know McClanahan’s, but given the inherent logic of his various opinions, I don’t see how it could be anything but: yes.
McClanahan explicitly rejects the assertion that America has a birthday—against not merely the historical record but the commonsense opinion of hundreds of millions of Americans who have celebrated the Fourth of July since 1777 and continue to do so even in the face of the propaganda onslaught of the last year-and-counting, when all elite opinion explicitly denounces the United States as fundamentally and uniquely evil. If, as McClanahan seems to want to claim, he speaks for the historic American nation as opposed to we egghead “propositionists” who elevate the Declaration all out of proportion to its real import, then he has a lot of work ahead of him in convincing the “real Americans” to stop enjoying Independence Day barbeques and fireworks, to say nothing of loving their country. This would be yet one more instance where he, not I, makes common cause with the Left.
I suppose McClanahan could wave away this point with an appeal to “traditionalism”; i.e., celebrating the Fourth is an American tradition. And so it is. But this seemingly minor point gets to the heart of our differences. Why is it a tradition, and where did that tradition come from?
For most traditions, the answers to these questions are not known, or at best known imperfectly and in part surmised. There’s nothing wrong with that. Only a fool, or an enemy, would (for instance) object to English or French traditions on the ground that their precise origin is unclear. (And both of those countries, to say nothing of ours, are today filled with many such enemies, indigenous and otherwise.)
But in America’s case the origins of many of our traditions are known—recorded by eyewitness accounts. This to a degree demystifies them. But it carries this advantage: no tradition is good simply because it is traditional. It is good (if it is good) because, whatever its origin, it comports with a natural standard outside and above itself. In America’s case, uniquely, an accurate understanding of nature helped to create our traditions, which helps explain why, until recently, our country was so spectacularly successful. Why would we give such a unique advantage away? I understand why the Left wants to. But why should the Right?
Turning to McClanahan’s attacks on Lincoln and my teacher Harry V. Jaffa, he seems to remember only the initial enthusiastic response of orthodox Straussians to Jaffa’s 1959 Crisis of the House Divided, in which Jaffa did indeed credit Lincoln with re-founding America. McClanahan apparently does not know that Jaffa revised this position over the course of decades, culminating in his final view that Lincoln had in fact changed nothing; everything Lincoln claimed to have discovered in the founding was already there. Jaffa’s final view in a sense both lowers Lincoln and elevates the founders—and America. I do not necessarily expect McClanahan to be up on this West Coast Straussian inside baseball; but I also would recommend he not write about things he doesn’t know.
McClanahan raises as allegedly devastating to my argument the fact that early Americans saw no contradiction between the principles of the Declaration and a denial of certain civic rights—but not the fundamental rights to life, liberty, and property, guaranteed by the Declaration. This is a point Gottfried already raised, with which I had already agreed. Where I disagreed, and still do, is with the practical wisdom (not the theoretical consistency) of a two-class society, of citizen and denizen, full member v. permanent resident alien. I expect McClanahan to shriek at this assertion, but the direction of his argument points to him being A-OK with that. This is yet another gift to the Left, further enabling it to paint the entire Right as racist and evil.
Beyond this, McClanahan should reflect on the Left’s current, so far successful, attempt to redefine whites as second-class citizens and ask himself “How’s that working out for us?”
Right of Revolution
McClanahan doesn’t even address the substance of my remarks on John C. Calhoun, but instead offers as an apologia that others beside Calhoun defended slavery as a positive good. This challenges the substance of what I did say . . . how? What I said was that Calhoun’s theory of “concurrent majorities” was a forerunner of today’s “group rights” that drives the woke Left and fuels contemporary anti-white opinion. I explained this much more thoroughly in my book, along with a lengthy appeal to Southerners that I bring my arguments in a spirit of peace and friendship. The fact that Calhoun’s theory is today being used for entirely different purposes than he could have imagined may be ironic, but it is nonetheless a fact. I’m not advocating that Southerners pull down Calhoun statues; only that they see that his theories are, in the present day, being used to harm them. By contrast, a return to the Declaration’s understanding of individual rights would be infinitely superior to the corrupt, harassing, unequal regime we have now.
I would note as well for those interested in “secession” (McClanahan seems to be a big fan) that the original and still most successful example of all time was the American Revolution. Except that it succeeded not on secessionist grounds per se (“I don’t like that I lost that vote, so I’m taking my ball and going home”) but on the foundation of the fundamental natural right of revolution, articulated not once but twice in the Declaration of Independence. The right of revolution is inherent to human nature. When any government becomes destructive of government’s proper end—securing rights—the right of revolution may justifiably be invoked. (The questions whether and when it may be prudently invoked are separate matters that hinge, above all, on the chances of success.)
I note (as I noted in my book) that in 1860-61, not a single seceding state invoked the right of revolution as justification for that action. The reason is obvious. The same nature that grounds the right of revolution also grounds the equality of natural rights. If there is a natural right of revolution, then those most justified in invoking it at the time would have been . . . the slaves.
My point here is only that, should things get bad enough that states (or parts of states) start thinking along such lines today, the Declaration of Independence itself offers a sounder and stronger justification for such an action than any appeal to “secession.” “What’s in a name?” you might ask. But the grounding of one’s self-justification matters. Getting that right doesn’t guarantee success, but getting it wrong strongly ups the likelihood of failure.
I lack the time, or the interest, to refute McClanahan’s many other inaccuracies, misinterpretations and irrelevant side points, but I do want to correct this one: McClanahan says that the Supreme Court’s Wong Kim Ark decision “codified birthright citizenship.” Not so. In that case, the court ruled narrowly that a child of legal, permanent residents is entitled to birthright citizenship but said nothing about the children of illegal immigrants. The court has in fact never ruled on the latter question. I take some pride in the fact that the Claremont-Hillsdale School has led the fight against the mistaken and destructive practice of birthright citizenship, almost alone—certainly without any paleocon help that I can recall.
In closing, let me say two things. First, I appreciate Chronicles’ editors not allowing the inclusion of gratuitous insults in McClanahan’s article, unlike on his Twitter feed and on his podcast, where he called me “stupid” and a “neocon” repeatedly. The former I suppose is a matter of opinion, but the latter isn’t. If McClanahan knew anything about the Claremont-Hillsdale school, he would know that we are not and have never been “neocons” and in fact some of our most important fights—beginning with Jaffa’s legendary battle with Irving Kristol at the 1976 American Political Science Association convention—have been against neocons and neoconservatism. He might also notice how much the present-day neocons vituperatively hate Hillsdale College and the Claremont Institute and how much rhetorical poison they throw our way. But it’s obvious that McClanahan doesn’t know and doesn’t care. To him, “neocon” is but a useful insult, nothing more; a little red meat for his fans.
Finally, if I thought the paleo appeal to tradition alone were sufficient to support all the policies sketched near the beginning of this article, I would submit to it cheerfully. After the fall of the present regime, when the debate is held about how to found a new one, if my side loses and the new order is built on a solely paleo foundation, I will admit that my theory had been wrong all along if theirs proves to work out after all. I don’t expect that to happen, but in matters such as this, one must admit that one never knows.