Amid what looks like a return to the Harry V. Jaffa-Mel Bradford debates of the 1970s with a new cast, it may be useful to clarify my own position about what are proper conservative principles. I am expressing my views as an independent scholar but one who has obvious paleo leanings. The present debate with Michael Anton began when Chronicles magazine (of which I am editor-in-chief), published an article by Brion McClanahan critically dissecting the 1776 Commission created by President Trump as a response to the New York Times’ “1619 Project.” Since McClanahan also expressed sharp disagreement with the Claremont Institute, whose views were reflected in the commission’s work, Anton rose to the defense of his comrades in a blistering rejoinder aimed at McClanahan. Although one finds little difference between the two combatants in terms of their current political stands, there does seem to be a veritable chasm separating them philosophically. Their differences center on such matters as how they interpret the “all men are created equal” proposition in the Declaration and how they evaluate the work of the 1776 Commission. The latter, not incidentally, affirms the political theoretical position of the Claremont Institute.
If McClanahan and other paleoconservatives have not rushed to acclaim the commission’s work, it is not because they are either America-haters or bad sports. For the last 20 years or more, the paleo Right has been systematically excluded (I can’t think of a more apt description) from the conservative establishment’s conferences, publications, and televised discussions. Throughout that period, they were never invited to participate in anything of note that establishment conservatives did, and they were certainly not asked to help determine the content of the 1776 Commission. To insist these designated outsiders enthusiastically support statements that they had no role in debating or drafting is, in my opinion, an unreasonable demand.
Although there are overlaps between McClanahan’s position and my own, I may be closer to Claremont in one critical respect. I would not underestimate the importance of the process by which older understandings of American political institutions, e.g., the view of early Protestant settlers that they were building a covenanted community guided by biblical morality, yielded to the natural rights thinking present in the Virginia Bill of Rights, the Declaration, and early American state constitutions. Evidence that this natural right theme gained currency around the time of the American Revolution is too overwhelming to be denied.
Unlike Willmoore Kendall, whom I deeply respect as a political thinker, I do not view the evolution of the concept of individual rights (which are supposedly equally applicable to everyone on the planet) as something that resulted from a series of unhappy “derailments,” an interpretation that Kendall outlined in his book Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition. Nor am I persuaded that because American leaders did not always take the implications of natural rights-thinking seriously, it has not influenced us from the country’s founding onward. One could be a slave owner like George Mason, John Taylor, or Thomas Jefferson and still have contributed to the acceptance of the notion that all men are created equal and have the same inborn, individual rights.
Similarly, although John Locke invested in the slave trade and prepared a constitution for the Carolinas allowing for slavery, his social and political ideas did operate in the long run to enshrine the notion of inborn equal rights. This may owe as much to the historical circumstances in which these ideas were introduced as they do to the ideas themselves. But my grudging recognition that the concept of equality grew in importance during the founding period is not the same as an uncritical affirmation. Anton’s highest value is for me highly problematic, indeed one that must be guarded against as a threat to what were once settled social institutions and to what remains of our constitutional freedom.
We may have to challenge the statement that Lincoln (as interpreted by Harry Jaffa) taught Americans about their founding principle in its purest form, but that later misguided advocates of equality distorted that principle’s meaning. The pursuit of equality is always an unfinished project; even Lincoln through most of his life would not have pushed his ideal as far as did later egalitarians. Promoting equality with or without what are taken to be universal rights is like planting kudzu. The plant just keeps spreading until it devours entire gardens.
What has come from our public dedication to universal equality and inborn individual rights over the last century was at least implicit in Lincoln, as George Carey points out in his introduction to the paperback edition of Kendall’s Basic Symbols. Carey cites Lincoln’s response to the Dred Scott decision in 1857, in which the future president explains that the equality clause was of no “practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain.” Rather it was something that existed for “future use.”
The determination of that “future use” devolved on the Progressives and other builders of the welfare state. Equality in practice has been far from a static principle, and particularly if the moral justification for one’s country is predicated on anything as intoxicating as the equality principle. Progressives happily quoted Lincoln and the Declaration, and they did so (as far as I can tell) far more often than they cited the German philosopher Hegel, whom some Claremonters have been lately blaming for the theoretical foundations of the American welfare state. In a famous Memorial Day address in 1919, Woodrow Wilson praised the soldiers who fought for the Union in tropes that might have come from the Claremont Institute. Because of their “moral courage,” these soldiers, according to Wilson, had brought about “the spiritual reestablishment of the Union.” Not incidentally, Wilson, Herbert Croly, and other Progressives all viewed Lincoln as a god figure.
Ideas take on lives of their own as they find expression in changing historical contexts. Why must a society dedicated to democratic equality and universal individual rights end its efforts to realize those ideals at exactly that point where West Coast Straussians decide? (The Left may have a valid point here.) The Claremont Institute, for example, declared their political morality to be at work in Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement. But that changed for Claremont when the movement’s interpretation of equality was thought to have gone too far in the direction of racial quotas. This leads to the question: Are those associated with the Claremont Institute uniquely authorized to explain when and how far the principles of equality and natural rights should be applied? Public administrators, activist judges, and the media are all competing for that power, and for the present these rivals may have the edge. It may be a fool’s errand to claim the same ideals as those espoused by the Left but call for one’s own interpretation of them, as the theoretical and rhetorical kudzu continues to spread.
If in some alternate universe, paleos had been invited to contribute to the 1776 Commission, we might have said something like this: Blacks have survived as a large visible minority in America, and many have risen over the decades and centuries out of poverty into relative affluence. Despite undeniable past discrimination, American blacks have lived in this country with more material and even political benefits than blacks just about anywhere else. And today’s black society would be far less dysfunctional were it not for the persistence of violence and anger among the black underclass and the scapegoating of whites by black celebrities and even more inexcusably, by the white Left. We paleoconservatives, if consulted, would have focused on the responsibility of black society to improve its own condition, and have pointed to Booker T. Washington, rather than King, as a model teacher for taking this step. Ethnic communities should be the key actor in dealing with their own social problems; and they should not be allowed to ascribe their failures to other Americans. That benefits neither the minority in question nor the rest of us.
Despite our festering racial problems, moreover, it’s a bad idea to conceptualize our history around a long-unfulfilled promise of equality. It is a promise that, according to the establishment conservative narrative, Americans were required to expiate partly through a devastating internecine war and then through the military occupation of the defeated South. Notwithstanding the happier ending that is attached to the 1776 Commission’s alternate text, this authorized “conservative” reading of American history incorporates elements of the 1619 Project (as McClanahan correctly tells us). Both supposedly conflicting stories stress the need for atonement for having failed to live up America’s initial promise of equality; and this expiation came through bloody tribulations, until we paid the god of equality its obligatory tribute. We have now attained some measure of redemption according to those who drafted the 1776 Commission Report, but this has still not occurred for the obsessively antiwhite Left.
It is entirely possible to extend citizenship to groups without invoking the magic ideal of equality or engaging in ritualized atonement. In fact, that is the way most societies, including the United States at least intermittently, have added citizens or expanded rights, for reasons of prudence or expedience. In the 19th century, British Tories rightly considered the effect of extending the vote to religious minorities based on whether these reforms would hurt or benefit the constitutional order. In the Reform Act of 1867 the British Tories, who then held a parliamentary majority, doubled the electorate. The reason they gave had nothing to do with natural right or an abstract equality. In proto-populist fashion, British conservatives were incorporating the working class into the British nation. They were also unmistakably trying to add workers’ votes to their coalition of Anglican clergy and landed gentry.
I must confess that I am bemused by Anton’s condescending attitude toward McClanahan’s invocation of “tradition.” What exactly is the Claremont Institute’s appeal to individual rights and equality other than homage paid to its own “tradition”? In the present escalating crisis in which the totalitarian Left is going for broke, neither of our traditions may suffice to keep the enemy at bay. We may therefore have to resist together despite our theoretical differences.