Getting Right With the Founders

People on both sides of the “Claremont-Hillsdale” versus paleoconservative divide tell me that the ongoing dialogue between our two schools is useful. Hence, while I have little doubt that some will dismiss yet another article on the subject as beating a dead horse, I’m confident that at least as many others will welcome its appearance.

In any case, Grant Havers’ latest entrant demands a response. One recognizes in his at best inaccurate, at worst dishonest (I will make good on this claim below) piece, a sort of good-cop, bad-cop routine emerging from Chronicles editors. For every sensible, conciliatory statement from Paul Gottfried (to whom, for what it’s worth, I wish a full and speedy recovery), Darrell Dow, or Pedro Gonzalez, there appears another accusing my side of historical obliviousness coupled with messianic insanity.

Such is Havers’ line. I assume, or suppose, that the editors publish both types for coalition management reasons, to which I am not unsympathetic. Since my aim is to build as many, and as sturdy, bridges as possible, I will keep engaging in good faith with those who seem to want to find common ground. But if there is to be a rapprochement, it must be built on a foundation of truth and mutual understanding of each side’s positions.

Unquestionably, there remain serious disagreements between my school and the paleos. But Havers zeroes in on none of them, preferring instead to erect and burn down strawmen. His piece culminates in a great non sequitur, supported by quotes not merely wrenched out of context but, as we shall see, that mean almost the opposite of what Havers presents them as meaning.

Before even reaching that point, Havers gets a lot wrong.

For instance, his assertion that the Claremont Institute “has never been shy about speaking for the entire conservative movement” is laughable on its face. In addition to its geographic isolation—40 miles east of downtown Los Angeles is hardly an auspicious location from which to direct the activities of the American Enterprise Institute or Heritage Foundation, much less the Republican Party—the Claremont Institute has long criticized these very institutions for their various errors, pusillanimity, thirst for elite acceptance, and failures of execution. And our standing with Conservatism, Inc., did not (to say the least) improve with our embrace of Trumpism in 2015 and afterward.

Havers is closer to the mark, but still wrong, when he writes that we “claim to be the preeminent voice of the intellectual right.” Not quite. What we claim, rightly or wrongly, is to understand the American founders, subsequent American statesmen, and their principles as they understood themselves. We further claim, having investigated the founders’ political philosophy and compared it to the alternatives available in their time as well as to subsequent critiques, that we find their claims to be true; that is to say, to meet the exigencies and necessities of the specific theologico-political circumstances in which the American Revolutionaries found themselves, and also to be superior to any alternative that is viable in the modern world (to say nothing of the unviable ones, such as various forms of aristocracy that many of the founders’ critics continue to insist would be better than what the founders bequeathed us).

Havers excoriates the Claremont Institute’s spiritual founder, Harry V. Jaffa, for his alleged commitment to “radical equality” but elsewhere admits that equality before the law is a conservative principle. In reality, Jaffa’s (and Lincoln’s, and Jefferson’s) equality extended no further than this: no natural rulers, no natural slaves; consent is a requirement of just government; all men are equal in possessing certain unalienable rights and hence equal before the law; let each man rise as high as his natural and/or cultivated talents will take him. If Havers disagrees with any of those positions, he should say so. If he can show that it was not the position of Jefferson, Lincoln, or Jaffa, he should do that. He does neither, because admitting the former is too risky and establishing the latter is impossible.

Havers further lambasts the Claremont Institute for allegedly claiming to possess “a unique understanding of the problems facing the American right.” We not only make no such claim, we have spent the better part of the past five years bolstering paleo arguments (even, in my case, admitting that we had been wrong on some of them) on immigration, trade, and foreign policy, using our familiarity with American principles and history to show that these paleo positions are entirely consistent with American theory and practice.

To those on the mainstream “Right” who insist that free trade is an inviolable conservative principle, we respond with the Tariff Act of 1789, Hamilton’s “Report on Manufactures,” and Lincoln’s (and the postbellum Republican Party’s) long support for protectionist industrial policy. Or to those who think the Right in all cases must be interventionist, we show how the Declaration of Independence’s first paragraph demands a restrained foreign policy, and how that principle is fleshed out in such documents as Federalist 11 and Washington’s Farewell Address. Or to those open-borders absolutists who seem to infest the “Right,” we counter that the founders’ social compact theory, encapsulated in the Declaration’s first and second paragraphs (to say nothing of early legislation), not only allows but requires careful immigration restriction. There are many such cases in which Claremont and the paleos make common cause against “conservative” orthodoxy.

Havers does not understand, and hence misinterprets, Jaffa’s teaching on “Athens and Jerusalem.” He alleges that Jaffa sees in the founding a “synthesis” of the two. This is true in the limited sense that the founders successfully created a space for religious belief and practice that is consistent with rationally understandable truths about human nature, the rights of man, and a justice that transcends any nation’s or tribe’s particular claim.

But Jaffa also knew, and taught, that at the highest level, no synthesis is possible. Jerusalem stands or falls by its claim to authority; Athens rejects all such claims. The founders did not even attempt to reconcile this fundamental tension. Rather, as practical men, they sought a practical solution to a particular problem: a world in which a multiplicity of sects can, and did, divide human beings into warring tribes over issues of no political relevance (Thirty Years’ War, anyone?). More to the point, they were legislating for an existing country whose many inhabitants already professed different faiths that, however similar, were far from identical and whose differences had already produced sectarian conflict in the Old World. How to end such conflict without constraining the sovereign right of each man to follow his individual conscience?

Jaffa’s deepest argument, which has only recently received the attention it deserves (in Glenn Ellmers’ soon-to-be-published intellectual biography), is that the combination of the Roman conquest of the ancient world, the destruction of the polis, the demise of republicanism, the rise of hereditary monarchy, the resulting dynastic wars, the end of paganism, the emergence of Christianity, the separation of secular from spiritual authority, the division of Christianity into sects, the plague of religious wars, and the emergence of philosophic modernity required a new solution to the political problem. The founders’ core challenge was to find a way to reinterpret and reintroduce the fundamental insight of classical political philosophy—that good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice, legitimacy and illegitimacy, exist by nature—into a modern world the contours of which differ radically from the ancient. Jaffa shows not only that, but how the founders accomplished this.

Havers expresses shock at Jaffa’s repeated appeal to the “God of Nature” without pausing to note that Jaffa gets this concept directly from the Declaration of Independence, which references the divine no fewer than four times and specifically “Nature’s God” once. Havers calls the notion “blasphemous.” If so, then the blasphemy would have to extend to Jefferson, all other 55 signatories to that document, plus the millions of Americans who cheered its issuance and stirring rhetoric at public readings.

But why is it blasphemous to suppose, as the founders did, that the natural world created by God supports a moral order intended by Him? Wouldn’t it be odd if we could deduce no moral guidance from His natural order—and odder still if that natural order somehow contradicted His commandments? The founders and Jaffa certainly thought so. Havers does not even pause to recognize this problem, much less address its substance.

Toward the end, Havers alleges that

Jaffa does not have in mind simply equality before the law, a principle that conservatives have generally accepted. What is unique, revolutionary, and troubling about Jaffa’s political message is his determination to turn this principle of equality into a rationale for a political religion that demands the unconditional adherence of all Americans.

In fact, “simple equality before the law” is exactly what Jaffa has in mind. And he didn’t coin the idea of a “political religion”; no less than Thomas Jefferson did. (Jefferson at one point even suggested building physical temples to American political principles!)

As for Havers’ shocked assertion that, for Jaffa (as for Jefferson and Lincoln), the American polity’s fundamental principle “demands the unconditional adherence of all Americans,” well, what’s the alternative? A country in which we’re divided on the most fundamental questions of right and wrong? We have that now; how’s it working out for us?

Havers’ real purpose finally comes to light in his allegation that Jaffa’s account of equality leads in a straight line to neoconservative wars for democracy. We must note, first, the preposterous unfairness of this charge. Jaffa himself warned shortly after 9/11 that any attempt to democratize the Middle East would fail. Claremont itself was divided over the so-called 9/11 wars. Some believed that decisive blows against hostile regimes would deter and even prevent future attacks. Others questioned the prudence of that judgment. But all agreed, and said, that democratization would fail, at great cost in American blood, treasure and prestige. To see this, all one need do is peruse the Claremont Review of Books from the fall of 2001 to, well, today—to say nothing of the many Claremont-affiliated or -adjacent voices who’ve been making the same arguments on this website since 2016.

This sin of omission would be bad enough, but Havers immediately compounds it with one of commission. He quotes Jaffa twice but so grotesquely out-of-context that one is forced to conclude either that he is a very inattentive reader or is being deliberately dishonest.

In [Jaffa’s] view, the Declaration, as Lincoln interpreted it, enjoins ‘upon all governments the duty to secure the unalienable rights of all people.’ In Crisis of the House Divided, Jaffa insists that America’s freedom ‘depends upon the indoctrination of people everywhere in their natural, unalienable rights.’

The first quote, whose source Havers does not identify, is from How to Think About the American Revolution (1978, p. 77) and summarizes, not Jaffa’s own view, but the view of Martin Diamond, a scholar Jaffa is criticizing!

The second, from page 326 of Crisis of the House Divided, similarly summarizes the views of another, in this case Thomas Jefferson, the most (secularly) millenarian of the founders (unless one counts Thomas Paine as a founder). Jaffa’s judgment of Jefferson was tempered. He admired Jefferson’s immense achievements and centrality to American history but also recognized the Sage of Monticello’s tendency to let his principles outrun his prudence. In the passage quoted, Jaffa is (gently) criticizing Jefferson for not seeing or admitting prudential limits to the Revolution’s underlying universalism, and contrasting Jefferson’s unchecked idealism to the more cautious and practical statesmanship of Abraham Lincoln.

For Jaffa, as for Lincoln, and for all of us who follow them, nothing in the universal basis of American political legitimacy requires or even encourages the United States to secure the liberty of others or spread democracy throughout the world. We agree, fundamentally and wholeheartedly, with John Quincy Adams that America “is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all” but “the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

It remains my hope that the common ground recently tilled by my school and the paleos will sprout healthy plants. Havers’ piece both is, and is not, helpful in that effort. Clearly, he wants to stop any rapprochement in its tracks. To the extent that anyone bought his argument, that’s a setback.

On the other hand, by getting our argument so demonstrably wrong, he opens the door for those with eyes to see and ears to hear a way toward the truth. If blatant misinterpretations such as this are all that stand in the way of Claremont and paleoconservatives making common cause, that should be easy enough to overcome.

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.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Support Free & Independent Journalism Your support helps protect our independence so that American Greatness can keep delivering top-quality, independent journalism that's free to everyone. Every contribution, however big or small, helps secure our future. If you can, please consider a recurring monthly donation.

Want news updates?

Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.

Comments are closed.