Historicism and the Right

Although not the major theme of Michael Anton’s recent essay, his description there of the battle being waged by Claremonters against “historicists” in the name of natural right awakened my interest. It seems that Anton and his friend R.J. Pestritto, who now heads the Philadelphia Society, are devoting themselves with special energy to combatting the “historicist” threat from the Left. Both hope to enlist the Philadelphia Society for this project. Since I don’t expect that organization to allow me to present my case at one of its gatherings, (I’ve never been invited back as a speaker after I offended a neocon donor in 1986), I am quite willing to have my say here. 

The attempt to depict the current struggle on the Right as one between the exponents of Harry Jaffa’s interpretation of John Locke and a new generation of historical relativists is reductionist. Until the rise of the West Coast Straussians, I can’t think of many self-identified conservatives who equated their conservative principles with universal, inborn individual rights. In any case that was not a predominant belief among those of this persuasion 60 years ago.

If Anton and Pestritto wish to believe differently from me about the nature of rights, I won’t take offense. But their idea about what conservatives are supposed to believe leaves me as an historian and political thinker rather uncomfortable. I am being asked to accept the implausible position (or would be if I were a member of the Philadelphia Society) that right-wing political polarities come down to a battle between those who accept and those who reject natural rights concepts. If I fail to embrace the Claremont side, I then supposedly stray into the heresy of historicism, which I am further asked to believe is the dominant position on what now calls itself the Right.

Most conservatives before the present era would probably, for want of a better term, fall into Anton’s historicist camp. Like Robert Nisbet, M.E. Bradford, Joseph de Maistre and Edmund Burke, these thinkers were struck by the inherited particularities of the cultures they observed; nor did they consider nations to be collections of universal rights-bearing individuals. These conservatives also viewed the historical past, properly understood, as a source of wisdom about politics and morality.

This is not the same as saying these figures relativized moral principles or treated what are clearly outrageous wrongs (like the once prevalent Indian practice of throwing widows on the funeral pyres of their dead husbands) with absolute equanimity. Most of them clung to a belief in moral truth but did not think that truth required the belief in certain enumerated, natural rights that were supposedly applicable to all peoples at all times. Peter Stanlis and Francis Canavan, among many other scholars, have found a natural law strain running through Burke’s orations and writings.  

In any case, we shouldn’t assume that the natural rights thinking that has periodically held sway in the Anglo-American world represents a new form of universal religion, particularly not for the traditional Right. It is a metaphysical assumption that some Americans invoke to justify particular political freedoms. For me, however, it is not at all necessary to accept Anton’s doctrine to value freedom. I am happy to defend the Second Amendment as an extension of a right to self-defense that characterizes free individuals, going back to medieval England. Like Burke, I understand a fundamental right to be “an entailed inheritance derived from our forefathers and to be transmitted to our posterity.” Although I could possibly come up with other defenses of the right to bear arms, the conservative one provided by Burke, as an historical inheritance and a cherished tradition, seems to me the most reasonable. 

Some of those who founded our country also accepted natural rights in some limited sense and included them in state constitutions as well as in the Declaration. Although I cherish the rights these men wanted to protect, I see no reason to enshrine all of the rhetorical justification they provided. Many of these individuals were also orthodox Calvinists, as Barry Shain shows in The Myth of American Individualism, and were often quite vocal about their religion even in civic affairs. While I can respect their theological convictions, I am not required to accept the doctrine of predestination to value the notion of limited constitutional government that these Calvinists defended.

Finally, I find no evidence that my characteristically conservative belief about history as a source of moral practice or my efforts to understand rights historically is now a raging obsession among conservative celebrities. Far more common among this breed, as I gather from watching Fox News, are prattling on about American exceptionalism, shilling for the GOP, and trying to come up with a concept of conservatism that will allow their audience to escape the bullying of our leftist powerbrokers. The appeal to History that Anton laments was more common among conservatives 70 years ago than it is right now. It was, in fact, from earlier generations of conservatives that I picked up my “historicism” and eventually wrote a book defending it.

Anton’s mistake is to imagine that a choice of what conservatives should believe will come down to one between Harry Jaffa’s interpretation of Locke and their hated “historicism.” At the end of the day, neither may be in the running.

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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.

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