America • Americanism • Declaration of Independence • Lincoln • political philosophy • Post

Lincoln on the Independence Generation: ‘They Were Iron Men’

Abraham Lincoln delivered this address, which has come to be called “the electric cord” speech, in Chicago on July 10, 1858.

Now, it happens that we meet together once every year, sometime about the 4th of July, for some reason or other. These 4th of July gatherings I suppose have their uses. If you will indulge me, I will state what I suppose to be some of them.

We are now a mighty nation, we are thirty—or about thirty millions of people, and we own and inhabit about one-fifteenth part of the dry land of the whole earth. We run our memory back over the pages of history for about eighty-two years and we discover that we were then a very small people in point of numbers, vastly inferior to what we are now, with a vastly less extent of country,—with vastly less of everything we deem desirable among men,—we look upon the change as exceedingly advantageous to us and to our posterity, and we fix upon something that happened away back, as in some way or other being connected with this rise of prosperity. We find a race of men living in that day whom we claim as our fathers and grandfathers; they were iron men, they fought for the principle that they were contending for; and we understood that by what they then did it has followed that the degree of prosperity that we now enjoy has come to us.

We hold this annual celebration to remind ourselves of all the good done in this process of time of how it was done and who did it, and how we are historically connected with it; and we go from these meetings in better humor with ourselves—we feel more attached the one to the other, and more firmly bound to the country we inhabit. In every way we are better men in the age, and race, and country in which we live for these celebrations.

But after we have done all this we have not yet reached the whole. There is something else connected with it. We have besides these men—descended by blood from our ancestors—among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men, they are men who have come from Europe—German, Irish, French and Scandinavian—men that have come from Europe themselves, or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things.

If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, (loud and long continued applause) and so they are.

That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.

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America • Americanism • Center for American Greatness • civic culture/friendship • Declaration of Independence • Identity Politics • Lincoln • Post • race • The Culture

Reparations and Diversity Are Not the Path to Equality

The revival of reparations talk signals an opportunity for a serious discussion of the revival of republican self-government or strong citizenship. Instead, we get the blithe attitudes of Democrats and the grumbling about handouts from Republicans which signal the bipartisan lack of seriousness—a deficiency also characterizing disputes over immigration and “diversity.”

The best opportunity for a serious discussion took place at Georgetown University, which had been shocked to discover the 1838 sale of 272 slaves who were owned by its predecessor, Georgetown College. Genealogists were able to track down some current descendants of those who were sold to Southern plantations in Louisiana and elsewhere. Records remain of the contemporary debate over the sales and accounts of the dividing of families

So here was a clear case of some physical connection between a wrongful deed and a living person with some connection to it. But the key question remains, what should Jesuit-founded Georgetown University (or those who benefitted from the slave sale, including the debtors that Georgetown paid off from the slave sales) do today? It’s too easy for current students to vote for a modest student fee (often paid for by parents in any case) to benefit someone or another. A tougher question is whether there should be a surtax on current Georgetown Jesuits, the faculty, and staff. Cognizant of the ties of common faith as well as a common institution, Georgetown’s Catholics may feel particular obligations, which would appropriately have included prayers and fasting. Still, the question remains of what obligations the present has concerning past misdeeds.

Current immigrants may scoff at the notion that they are financially or morally obligated to make amends for the wickedness of slavery, an institution that was abolished 150 years ago and long before the arrival of their families. In this they follow the lead of other Americans, who make the same sensible objection: It’s not right to be generous with other people’s money and deprive people of goods in order to bestow them on others you would prefer to see prosper.

If we look to Abraham Lincoln for guidance, however, we will find both the most acute American critic of reparations and its most staunch advocate. What can this mean? Despite his hatred of slavery, his argument against the institution was rooted in constitutional doctrine—which is why he insisted that his wartime Emancipation Proclamation did not free any slaves in Union-held territory but only those in rebel-held ground. Moreover, rejecting slavery is in accord with those who defend property rights today: “this argument of [Stephen Douglas] is the same old serpent that says you work and I eat….”

Or, to put it somewhat differently, “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is not democracy.” The 13th Amendment was the fulfillment of Lincoln’s Civil War statesmanship:

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation. 

The dramatic change for America was not only in a shift in domestic law and not only in putting an end to the category of slaves, but it was also in abolishing the category of masters and as well upending the relationship between states and the federal government concerning the freemen. But the amendment also respected the separation of powers and required Congress to act—there was no special empowerment of the president or of the Supreme Court.

Thus, Lincoln’s constitutional argument also advanced a moral understanding of the Civil War, stated most succinctly in the Gettysburg Address and above all in the Second Inaugural with its astounding appeal to the conscience of the re-United States: “With malice toward none; with charity for all,” following a conflict that devastated the country and would transform the South. “Reparations,” in this sense, would need to be made to all who suffered in the war. The purpose of the war he had seen thus:

This is essentially a People’s contest. On the side of the Union, it is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men—to lift artificial weights from all shoulders—to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all—to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life. Yielding to partial, and temporary departures, from necessity, this is the leading object of the government for whose existence we contend.

Joining a nation is not like buying a club membership. The bonds are stronger. Its debts become those of the member’s. Each assumes the glory and the folly of the nation’s past.

In all this, the protection of the rights to property, as James Madison had emphasized at the founding, would be more important than ever. But property could no longer be held in slaves. A sensible Reconstruction policy would have assured the protection of the natural rights of freedmen and the abolition of the master class in the South. Neither took place.

Lincoln’s statesmanship was missing, and though President Grant strived to expand property rights protections for all, he was thwarted in his noble effort. The nation did not fulfill James Madison’s founding premiseas a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.” Without proper protection of property rights in their full and comprehensive sense, republican self-government is illusory. The party of “you work, I eat” remained in power, though morphing to cope with new political realities and to appeal to those it once argued should be enslaved, eventually becoming the administrative state that now rules the country.

That party in its early and later Progressive forms would then recruit immigrants into their cause. The immigrants came for work, but they stayed for more, often expressing gratitude for their new home. The ethnic diversity of immigrants, in country of origin, mores, and religion, reflected the Declaration’s equality of natural rights. But there was also a disturbing lack of concern for the suitability of immigrants for republican government, given immigrants’ past under old-world tyrannies. Nonetheless, the earlier, patriotic Progressivism along with the practical effects of time for assimilation led to their recruitment into its framework.

Today, the anti-American Progressivism of the administrative state has fostered the notion of privilege for an expanded array of allegedly oppressed groups—racial and ethnic, feminist, and now sexual. The Claremont Institute has recently published symposia on multiculturalism in its Claremont Review of Books and American Mind online magazine.

David Azerrad succinctly argues “Identity politics should be rejected not because it demands justice for those who have been unjustly treated, but because it poses a threat to republican self-government by corroding patriotic ties, fostering hatred, promoting cultural separatism, and demanding special treatment rather than equality under the law.” This is not healthy pride but aristocratic arrogance.

While each of these new identity groups needs to be understood in its particular demands on American republicanism, they all need to be distinguished from connection to the tyranny of slavery and the contemporary denunciations of “white privilege.” Briefly, the American descendants of slaves should be confident in their equality of rights and not remain in debt. Any gratitude they feel should be to the founders and to those who would perpetuate the constitutional order that finally recognized—even at the cost of some 600,000 American deaths—its obligations to them as fellow citizens.  

Alexis de Tocqueville has a useful insight here about Americans being Good Samaritans, though obviously limited in the amount of aid they will offer (Democracy in America, Volume II, Part3, chapter 4). Such limitations are not based on stinginess, however, but instead on the assumption that help given without limitation would be a sign of disrespect for the unfortunate’s ability to live freely and independently.. We today lack the restraint of Tocqueville’s earlier Americans who lived out an ethic of equality that recognized the equal human dignity of the poor and others suffering misfortune demanded treating them as persons capable of living independently.

Thus, the privilege talk, with its reminder of aristocracy, rankles our republican spirit. What the American Republic faces is that “old serpent,” in a new form, oligarchy, a form of personal privilege bestowed on oneself based on one’s origins.

For the study of multiculturalism, one should add to the Claremont Institute publications the “Symposium on American National Character” in the latest issue of Perspectives on Political Science. William B. Allen offers a refreshing bon mot, “a people who cannot lift their own heads cannot lift up their nation.” Or, as a recent president put it, “through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.”

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America • Americanism • Hillary Clinton • Lincoln • Post • The Culture

Time to Embrace the ‘American’s Creed’

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America today is an enormously divided nation, both politically and culturally. We should hope this situation soon will change in a manner that, among other things, embodies and puts into practice the very special words of the “American’s Creed.” In order for this to happen, many currently serving politicians—at all levels of government—will first need to learn what the “American’s Creed” says and then learn to use its words as guidance for actions and decisions.

Last year marked the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the “American’s Creed” by the U.S. House of Representatives. In April 1918, Congress accepted the words composed in 1917 by William Tyler Page during World War I as the official “American’s Creed.

Referring to the creed, Page said: “It is the summary of the fundamental principles of the American political faith as set forth in its greatest documents, its worthiest traditions, and its greatest leaders.” His wording of the creed used passages and phrases from the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and Daniel Webster’s reply to Robert Y. Hayne in the Senate in 1830. The creed reads as follows:

I believe in the United States of America as a Government of the people, by the people, for the people; whose just powers are derived from the consent of the governed; a democracy in a Republic; a sovereign Nation of many sovereign States; a perfect Union, one and inseparable; established upon those principles of freedom, equality, justice, and humanity for which American patriots sacrificed their lives and fortunes. I therefore believe it is my duty to my Country to love it; to support its Constitution; to obey its laws; to respect its flag; and to defend it against all enemies.

If today’s politicians, at all levels of government but especially members of the United States Congress, strongly embraced and let the “American’s Creed” guide their daily actions and decisions, it would certainly be in the best interests of America. Such a “lifestyle” should help overcome, one hopes in a major way, the terribly bitter and divisive political environment that presently exists in America.

For the benefit of the nation as a whole, Americans serving in high political offices need to join with their patriotic ancestors in supporting and living out the very special words of the “American’s Creed.”

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Administrative State • America • Americanism • Center for American Greatness • civic culture/friendship • Declaration of Independence • Democrats • Elections • GOPe • Harry Jaffa • History • Lincoln • Post • Republicans • self-government

The Crisis of the Republicans Divided

To understand the Republican Party today, in all its cluelessness, one needs to know what it was when it was founded. One needs to know what went into the making of “the party of Lincoln”—less the details of the history than the great crisis of America that was involved.

I would argue that the Slave Power that Lincoln confronted in the 1850s and ’60s bears frightening similarity to the slave power we see today in the administrative state and its manifestations among those in academia, the media, and the corporate and political elite, where political correctness reigns.

Fortunately, a striking opportunity to rediscover this America is a marvelous recent history of republicanism in America, From Oligarchy to Republicanism: The Great Task of Reconstruction, by an emerging scholar, Forrest Nabors. Nabors views America from the time of the Founding through the Civil War and Reconstruction not only in terms of slavery, race, and section but in actual political terms—oligarchy (the rule of the few) and republicanism (democratic self-government). He carefully notes the difference between Northern and Southern lives illustrated by such measures as education, political representation, and land ownership. In this endeavor he supplements the principles supplied by his and my teacher, the preeminent Lincoln scholar Harry V. Jaffa (1918-2015).

The data lead him to the inevitable conclusion that both blacks and working class whites were under the rule of slave-holding oligarchs. Thus, the institution of slavery defined not just the despotic relationship between white master and black slaves but rather the whole society where the few ruled the many. Keep in mind that in 1860 no one in a Southern, slave-holding state could vote for Lincoln; his name did not appear on their ballots.

In responding to my friendly critique of his argument, Nabors presented a brief summary of leading themes of his book. But to be of maximum benefit to his readers, which I hope are many, his essay needs some correction, in the form of how his thesis relates to today’s political crisis.

In sum, Nabors’s response overemphasizes majority rule as the crucial principle of American republicanism. He is completely silent on its bedrock principle of natural rights. Majority rule is derivative from the central truth of natural rights, as we know from Jefferson as well as The Federalist Papers. Attempting to advocate majority rule without natural rights is the error for which Jaffa excoriated conservative legal stars such as Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Scalia.

Fortunately, Nabors’ book is not silent on natural rights. For example, he points out that the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution of the Kansas Territory declared slavery to be established by “the law of nature.” But that’s not the natural right teaching of the Founders. (Recall that Lincoln and Charles Darwin shared the same birthdate, February 12, 1809.)

In Crisis of the House Divided (1959) Jaffa attacked liberal historians in the name of Lincolnian equality, while in A New Birth of Freedom (2000) he attacked former friends, neoconservative and conservative academics and pundits in the name of the social contract. In both books he sought to destroy the credibility of both types of elites, who ignored or misunderstood the natural rights at the heart of the Declaration of Independence. Jaffa advocated natural right in its forms over the historical progress or evolution (historicism) of his opponents. While government by historical evolution is unlimited, the government by natural rights is limited to protecting individual freedoms and human happiness.

But natural right is also ever the cause of revolution and civil war. Therefore, its critics advocated historical evolution as a scientifically grounded theory. The historically advancing consensus John C. Calhoun offered in his political theory (originally as a protection of slavery), returned as a replacement for natural rights. Recall that Calhoun denounced the Declaration of Independence for its “self-evident lie” of human equality.

Calhoun and Woodrow Wilson, despite their differing defamation of the Founders, are on the side of historical progress. (FDR tried to steal the Declaration too, by embracing it and falsely interpreting it.) Liberals and their intellectual establishment embrace the departure from the Founding, easing the way to the odious Howard Zinn and his America-hating history and the rule of political correctness. Nabors himself seems not to object to the banishment of Confederate monuments, a policy that scarcely advances the Founders’ advocacy of natural rights and undermines the public appreciation of martial virtues of ancestors.

So how do Americans restore natural right today, when it becomes scandalous to point out the natural differences between boys and girls? Are we not on the verge of another civil war over natural right? Or might there be another birth of freedom?

Harry V. Jaffa, in some of these collected essays, defended nature in his denunciation of deference to “gay rights.” But he declined to pursue this angle in his later writing.

One step involves the taming of the Darwinian conception of nature, in favor of one that allows for the rationality of final causes, that is, a hierarchy of purposes in human life, as part of the science of man. This science does not necessarily involve a Creator or God, though it would not only not rule one out, it would make that possibility a core of its endeavor.

The next, related step might be to rehabilitate the American founders’ conception of property rights as natural rights, or derivative from natural rights. As Madison contended, “as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.”

I am delighted to report that both steps, as well as others, toward a “scholarship of the politics of freedom” are being taken by students of Harry V. Jaffa.

Center for American Greatness • Democrats • History • Identity Politics • Lincoln • Post • Progressivism • statesmanship • The Declaration • the family

Are We Facing a New Civil War or Just Continuing the Old One?

The passing of George H. W. Bush might be a cause to reflect more deeply on his famous civility and its relation to the coming of a new civil war with which we are threatened today. Was his own “thousand points of light” and his son, W’s, “compassionate conservatism” the best response to the threats posed by the Clintons, John Kerry, and their allies in Congress and the bureaucracy? Or were those merely dodges serving to paper over the inevitable struggle with the worst and the most powerful yearnings of the 60s? (I credit that philosopher of the administrative state, John Marini, with this provocation.)

With all the talk of a new civil war among Americans today, we would do well first to understand the original one. In the ordinary understanding, that war was about slavery. The coming conflict is over multiculturalism and the politics of identity.

Although the multiculturalists would have us believe that the saga of American slavery was a struggle over the narrow question of race from the start, the more intelligent, more profound, and more American understanding of the conflict takes it to be a manifestation of the ancient struggle between tyranny and freedom. This is why those wrapped up in identity politics cannot embrace the notion of American exceptionalism. To them, it ignores this brutality of racism that was, they claim, at America’s heart.

Fake Civility or Brutal Truth?
So which America are we: The America of liberty-loving emancipators or the America of tyrannical masters? Civility might urge the suppression of such divisive questions, even if the dodge evokes the odious visage of Stephen Douglas’s popular sovereignty. But if we answer these questions untruthfully, however artful the dodge, of what use is investigating any other questions?

Our precedent in understanding the Bushes’ lost opportunity can be seen in Franklin Roosevelt’s 1944 State of the Union Address, in which FDR made this shocking comparison:  “. . . if history were to repeat itself and we were to return to the so-called ‘normalcy’ of the 1920s—then it is certain that even though we shall have conquered our enemies on the battlefields abroad, we shall have yielded to the spirit of Fascism here at home.” The Republicans of the 1920s, FDR charged in effect, were the equivalent of Nazis.

Would it have been so difficult for the Bushes to fire back a similar charge against the Clintons and Kerry? Should not the World War II hero Bush have been justified in returning FDR’s insult against his parents and grandparents? Should he not have taught his sons about true nature of Democratic partisanship? This was a time to confront the worst generation of Americans with perhaps its greatest generation.

America has been in a civil war for generations but we have turned a blind eye to the violence it has perpetuated, not only in literal terms, but also to the truth.

The first step in coming to a more productive understanding of where we are today is to know and understand the Civil War that no one disputes already happened.

What Civil War History Can Teach
Of the more than 1,000 books published annually on the Civil War, two promise to offer guidance for the current one: Forrest Nabors’ From Oligarchy to Republicanism: The Great Task of Reconstruction and a collection of essays, The Political Thought of the Civil War, co-edited by Alan Levine, Thomas W. Merrill, and James R. Stoner, Jr. Both books present America as a republican nation, one at least intended for self-governing citizens. Moreover, they instruct us in the nobility and justice of Lincoln and of others who supported his republican principles, defying their sophisticated opponents as well as those favoring slavery or professing indifference to it.

Nabors, making the audacious claim of fulfilling the work of his teacher, Harry V. Jaffa, details the oligarchic character of the South, and not just among those who held slaves. The majority of white Southerners did not hold slaves, but the whole of Southern society felt the ill effects of the master-slave relation. As Alexis de Tocqueville illustrated in his stunning contrast between slave state, Kentucky and free state, Ohio—America was becoming a nation of two contrasting versions of republicanism, with the Slave Power dominating national politics.

Nabors illustrates the distinction on several scores: Southern indifference toward public education, vastly larger size of farms, slaveholder dominance in Southern State legislatures, and constricted conceptions of rights (recall that Lincoln was not on the ballot in most of the slave States in the election of 1860). Withholding freedom for blacks had dire consequences for whites as well. Blacks and working class whites were under the rule of slave-holding oligarchs.

The Civil War and Reconstruction amendments did not even restore black Americans to the status of free blacks at the time of the American Revolution. For example, in most Southern states blacks were not barred from voting at the time of the Revolution. Nabors is correct to acknowledge the American founding principles of natural rights, government by consent, and constitutionalism most clearly articulated in the Declaration of Independence as the touchstone for Reconstruction. We have failed our forefathers. Nabors is correct to claim he has in many regards fleshed out the work of his teacher.

The diverse essays of The Political Thought of the Civil War, many of which appeared in American University’s formidable Political Theory Institute annual lecture series, reflect the work of 14 of the leading scholars on their subject matter, as the table of contents reflects. Their topics cover a wide range, including natural rights, jurisprudence, scientific racism, Lincoln’s rhetoric and statesmanship, Frederick Douglass, Reconstruction, and the Confederate constitution and legacy. These essays will remain for some time the leading ones on their topics.

Rather than single out particular essays, I will reiterate some leading themes. Though diverse, they all point toward the centrality of the American Founding. The question of whether natural rights is a sufficient basis for just governance is a question Americans of all generations have had to face, most vividly at the Founding and during the Civil War.

The South, with the growth of slavery, delayed, rationalized, and came to protect and even honor that original flaw. Even the author of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson, was not exempt from this temptation. But wasn’t the Civil War little more than Thomas Jefferson arguing with himself? Aren’t the requirements of perpetuating the republic something above and beyond the conditions of founding? The challenge is risible in the greatest statesman of the South—its vice president, Alexander Hamilton Stephens, who declared slavery to be its “cornerstone” and claimed the authority of modern science, a science superior to that of the Declaration. (Beware those who assert science as their foundation.)

Lincoln instead read human nature as he read Shakespeare and warned Americans that their self-interest required them to acknowledge the fundamental equality of slaves with their masters, and obliged them to treat the masters with charity as well. This logic won over Frederick Douglass, among others. Lincoln’s strategy with the Emancipation Proclamation remains a model of statesmanship. While the military order freed no slaves under Union control, once it was done the need to return to the founding was clear as was the need for the 13th Amendment.

Lincolnian statesmanship, which recognized the political necessity as well as the nobility of charity, was sorely lacking during Reconstruction. Behind the book, as one of the editors noted in a panel on the volume, loomed Harry V. Jaffa, who was likewise the inspiration for Nabors’ work.

Yet both of these outstanding books fall short in different ways of Jaffa’s emphasis on Calhoun, not only as the South’s defender of slavery but as well the assailant of the Founders’ thought in his own books on political theory. In that sense, Calhoun emerges as a major inspiration for Progressivism. How someone who took pride in racial slavery and ridiculed the Declaration inspired Progressivism is a long story, but Americans today need to be reminded of it. This collection of Harry Jaffa essays, due out shortly, may help Americans to understand their duty.

The Long Game of the Civil War
The South may have lost the battles, but its leading theorist imposed “the yoke of its own thought” on this nation in the form of Progressivism. Natural rights has lost its hold on Americans. Equality is about socialism. Government is unlimited in its powers—unless used in support of traditional morality. Thus, the “reconstruction” in Nabors’ subtitle threatens to become John Dewey’s Reconstruction in Philosophy, that is, a perpetual, growing, ultimately postmodern disconnection from the American founding.

Such a “reconstruction,” changing America beyond recognition, is behind the party of the Clintons and Kerry, and much worse in today’s “fundamental transformation.” It is not enough to be anti-oligarchic; tyrants and mob rule are perfectly capable of mustering that sentiment as well, and oligarchs may come in many different flavors. To be republican is more difficult. But this is America’s often unpleasant task.

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Photo Credit: Engraving From 1881 Commemorating The Surrender Of Robert E. Lee To Ulysses S. Grant Marking The End Of The American Civil War

America • American Conservatism • Democrats • History • Lincoln • Post • Progressivism • race • The Culture

Our Slave Heritage

Every day of the week, marriage counselors work with unhappy couples whose relationships have been soured by unresolved grievances. In such cases, the counselor’s job usually involves more than simply getting one spouse to own up to his or her offenses. The aggrieved one may also have to come to terms with her or his own role in “accentuating the negative.” More often than not, the original transgression will turn out to be more complex than either party remembers.

Race relations in America are much like a troubled marriage, with one sharp difference: Divorce is out of the question. Regardless of all the imaginings of separatists both black and white, Americans are not about to go off into racially exclusive cantons. Faith, culture, geography, even biology all forbid it. For increasing numbers of us, we could no more do such a thing than divide our own flesh.

Which leaves the original grievance to be dealt with, and for white and black Americans, that grievance is slavery.

It’s common to say that much of what troubles us today is a legacy of slavery. For liberals and for many black Americans, that idea is an article of faith. Conservatives, including the black scholars Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams, argue on the contrary that most of the modern problems blamed on slavery—family breakdown, high unemployment, low test scores, drug abuse and crime—owe much more to misbegotten “revolutions” of the 1960s than to the institution that met its doom a hundred years before.

Be that as it may, we all should understand that the nursing of grudges is harmful. A grudge-bearer tends to treat his neighbors with something less than ordinary decency, while the targets of his resentment may be saddled with the feeling that they owe him something more. It’s a recipe for hatred on both sides.

And it’s so unnecessary. My ancestors came mostly from Britain, Ireland, and Germany—though a childhood photo of one of my great-grandparents leads me to believe I may have some African blood as well. (Millions of white Americans do.) In Tennessee and Texas, some of my relatives owned slaves, treating them like draft animals to be purchased and used. Some folks today may hold that against me personally. Let them consider this: Centuries earlier, the Norsemen of Scandinavia preyed on my European ancestors, treating them like game animals to be hunted and killed. Yet I don’t go around fuming about those wicked Norwegians, and it bothers me not at all to have sent my children to a school whose mascot is the Vikings. Shouldn’t that sense of comfort with reality be everyone’s goal?

Suppose we look at slavery, not as a stereotype of white-on-black villainy, but in larger terms. As with the marriage counselor, we may uncover a surprising complexity.

Being complex, of course, doesn’t make it any less horrific. Look at the painting at the top of page. François-Auguste Biard’s “Slaves on the West Coast of Africa” was displayed in Paris in 1835 and in London in 1840, when Britain was deploying the Royal Navy to stop the transatlantic slave trade. An observer said Biard had “made the slave trade, by a single picture, more infamous than it had been depicted by a score of advocates for its suppression.”

At the center of the tableau, four slave sellers haggle with a slave buyer after bringing a group of captives to the coast for barter. The purchaser crouches over a captive he is fitting with manacles as another buyer checks the victim’s teeth. At center left, a crewman puts the company’s brand on a captive woman as other captives are herded into boats to be ferried to the ship waiting offshore. Babies are left behind; one sits motherless at center foreground while to its left a mother clings to her child before being taken aboard ship. The posture of the slave trader at right may indicate fever as well as boredom—tropical diseases took their toll on the whites as well as the blacks involved in the slave trade.

Biard’s painting has stayed in my head ever since I saw it on exhibit in Cleveland four decades ago. It hangs today in Wilberforce House, Kingston Upon Hull, England.

How can something like that not inflame racial resentments among Americans today? Well, for one thing, it shows that the commerce in slaves was carried on by black sellers as well as white buyers. Black Americans today, while lamenting the way their ancestors were brought here, can at least take satisfaction in being, as Americans, much better off than the descendants of those slave sellers who never left Africa.

As for the white buyers, their having black accomplices hardly lets them off the hook. Hear the words of the English evangelical statesman William Wilberforce, speaking in Parliament in 1789:

What should we suppose must naturally be the consequence of our carrying on a slave trade with Africa? . . . Does not everyone see that a slave trade carried on around her coasts must carry violence and desolation to her very center? . . . Her kings are never compelled to war, that we can hear of, by public principles, by national glory, still less by the love of their people . . . [but rather by] personal avarice and sensuality. . . . We depend on these vices for the very maintenance of the slave trade. Does the king of Barbessin want brandy? He has only to send his troops, in the nighttime, to burn and desolate a village; the captives will serve as commodities that may be bartered with the British trader.

What a striking view of the wretched state of Africa does the tragedy of Calabar furnish! Two towns, formerly hostile, had settled their differences, and by an intermarriage among their chiefs had each pledged themselves to peace; but the trade in slaves was prejudiced by such pacifications, and it became, therefore, the policy of our traders to renew the hostilities. This, their policy, was soon put in practice, and the scene of carnage which followed was such that it is better, perhaps, to refer gentlemen to the privy council’s report than to agitate their minds by dwelling on it.

Moved by the eloquence of Wilberforce and other abolitionists, Britain went within a few decades from being the world’s foremost slave-trading maritime nation to being the primary enforcer of a worldwide ban on slave shipping.

Though it was a great step toward eventual abolition, however, this cutting of the transatlantic slave trade was of no immediate benefit to the slaves already in America. But even here, the situation was not, to coin a phrase, all black and white. How many people today know that the Old South was home, not only to thousands of free blacks (the first battle of Manassas was fought around the property of one, a man named Robinson) but also to quite a few enslaved whites?

I’m not talking about indentured servants. In The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South, historian Kenneth Stampp notes that while Southern slavery was, “in the main, Negro slavery,” it was not exclusively so. “The status of a child of mixed Negro and white ancestry depended upon the status of the mother. The offspring of a Negro slave father and a free white mother was free. The offspring of a free white father and a Negro, mulatto, quadroon or octoroon slave mother was a slave. . . . Hence some slaves were whites by any rational definition as well as by all outward appearances.” (Robert Penn Warren’s 1955 novel Band of Angels, made two years later into a movie starring Clark Gable, Yvonne De Carlo, and Sidney Poitier, dramatizes one such situation.) Not only that, Stampp writes, but

Not all southern masters were whites. In 1830, more than thirty-six hundred free Negroes or persons of mixed ancestry owned slaves. The great majority of these colored slaveowners had merely purchased husbands, wives, or children and were unable to emancipate them under existing state laws. A few were substantial planters, such as the Negro in King George County, Virginia, who owned seventy-one slaves; another in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, who owned seventy-five, and two others in Colleton District, South Carolina, who owned eighty-four apiece.

Other books by Larry Koger and by Michael P. Johnson and James L. Roark give detailed looks at these forgotten facts. Another by Barbara Krauthamer examines the adoption of the southern slave system by American Indian tribes.

In world terms, slavery has little to do with race. The word itself derives from the Slavic peoples who were long at the mercy of the Ottoman Turks, the Mongol Khans and other powerful enemies. But the fact of slavery goes back much further than that.

Slavery arose as one (and by no means the worst) of many possible fates awaiting captives taken in intertribal warfare. Here’s how The Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics puts it:

When war had become a feature of the relations of human groups, the rights and immunities which prevented the enslavement of tribesmen would not operate in favour of captives from hostile bands.

Instead, warring tribes took the attitude that “the defeated enemy is rightless, and is treated as best suits the victor’s convenience.” Under savage rules of war,

quarter may be refused altogether and the vanquished foes exterminated. Or, if prisoners are taken, they may be tortured, eaten, adopted, ransomed, exchanged, liberated, or enslaved. In the actual practice of existing tribes there are instances of all these modes of treatment.

The encyclopedia’s ethnologist, A.N. Gilbertson, was writing in the 1920s. He noted that while many pre-agricultural peoples (for example, the aborigines of Australia and the bushmen of southern Africa) have known little war and no slavery, “the more agriculture develops, the more common slavery becomes,” until at the higher stages “it exists in the great majority of tribes,” both as the spoils of war and (within tribes) as a penalty for crime or unpaid debt.

In Europe and the Arab world, slavery was carried from its tribal origins into the economies of classical, medieval and Islamic civilization and on through the Renaissance into modern times. As Stampp observed, “Probably more than half of the immigrants to the thirteen English colonies in North America came as bondsmen”—Europeans who had indentured themselves or were condemned by courts to periods of involuntary servitude.

Meanwhile, wherever Christendom and Islam met in battle, captives on each side were enslaved by the other, “and both found victims among the Negroes of Africa. Their operations were facilitated by the fact that slavery already existed among the Negro tribes and that native dealers were often willing participants in this trade in human flesh.” Take it from there, Mr. Wilberforce.

So, if slavery was such a universal phenomenon, what is it about American slavery that people still get worked up over it today? The answer is obvious, and it isn’t just that a malignant Left finds American slavery a handy club with which to beat us over the head. It’s that alone among all the slavemasters who ever walked the earth, we Americans had the effrontery to maintain our “peculiar institution” while proclaiming—in God’s name—its antithesis.

We are the ones who declared that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with an unalienable right to liberty. By failing to abolish slavery forthwith in accordance with that noble principle, we not only made liars out of ourselves, we dishonored God. It stands to reason that God would get us for that, and get us He did.

The Lord never punished ancient Israel without first sending a prophet to preach repentance, along these lines from Isaiah 1:12-20:

When you come to appear before me, who requires of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and the calling of assemblies—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.

Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Something similar happened with us in America. The age of prophecy is long gone, and I wouldn’t go so far as to call Frederick Douglass a prophet, but listen to how that great American abolitionist echoes Isaiah in this speech:

Southern statute books are covered with enactments forbidding, under severe fines and penalties, the teaching of the slave to read or to write. When you can point to any such laws in reference to the beasts of the field, then I may consent to argue the manhood of the slave. When the dogs in your streets, when the fowls of the air, when the cattle on your hills, when the fish of the sea, and the reptiles that crawl, shall be unable to distinguish the slave from a brute, then will I argue with you that the slave is a man! . . .

Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? Is that a question for Republicans? Is it to be settled by the rules of logic and argumentation, as a matter beset with great difficulty, involving a doubtful application of the principle of justice, hard to be understood? How should I look today, in the presence of Americans, dividing and subdividing a discourse, to show that men have a natural right to freedom? . . .

What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.

Alright, so he got a little carried away at the end. Savages, as many of Douglass’s contemporaries well knew, were capable of crimes every bit as horrible as those of slave-holding America. But “Everybody does it” is no defense before God, and before long, America would be paying the price He set for our “bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy.” Listen to another distinguished voice from our past:

The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said: “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Those words from Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address are counted as among the finest in our heritage. Notice, though, how they embrace three concepts much sneered at by leftists today: That justice requires retribution, that ancient scriptures are relevant to modern problems, and that our nation, along with all others, is subject to God’s authority.

By viewing the history of slavery in its entirety, seeing that virtually all nations have had a hand in it—as slaves, as slave traders, as masters, and finally as liberators—we can receive an important benefit. We may be moved to glorify the One Whose Spirit has drawn the human race away from that ancient saga of crime and violence.

One slave trader who later turned evangelist understood this, and his words of faith have a special meaning in light of his former career. The British television miniseries “The Fight Against Slavery” tells of him, and of Wilberforce, and of many others involved in that awful yet ultimately inspiring story. Let that man, John Newton, have the last word:

Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
   That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
   Was blind, but now I see.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
   And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
   The hour I first believed!

Photo credit: François-Auguste Biard (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

America • Americanism • Declaration of Independence • Lincoln • political philosophy • Post

Lincoln on America’s Founders: “They Were Iron Men”

Abraham Lincoln delivered this address, which has come to be called “the electric cord” speech, in Chicago on July 10, 1858.

Now, it happens that we meet together once every year, sometime about the 4th of July, for some reason or other. These 4th of July gatherings I suppose have their uses. If you will indulge me, I will state what I suppose to be some of them.

We are now a mighty nation, we are thirty—or about thirty millions of people, and we own and inhabit about one-fifteenth part of the dry land of the whole earth. We run our memory back over the pages of history for about eighty-two years and we discover that we were then a very small people in point of numbers, vastly inferior to what we are now, with a vastly less extent of country,—with vastly less of everything we deem desirable among men,—we look upon the change as exceedingly advantageous to us and to our posterity, and we fix upon something that happened away back, as in some way or other being connected with this rise of prosperity. We find a race of men living in that day whom we claim as our fathers and grandfathers; they were iron men, they fought for the principle that they were contending for; and we understood that by what they then did it has followed that the degree of prosperity that we now enjoy has come to us.

We hold this annual celebration to remind ourselves of all the good done in this process of time of how it was done and who did it, and how we are historically connected with it; and we go from these meetings in better humor with ourselves—we feel more attached the one to the other, and more firmly bound to the country we inhabit. In every way we are better men in the age, and race, and country in which we live for these celebrations.

But after we have done all this we have not yet reached the whole. There is something else connected with it. We have besides these men—descended by blood from our ancestors—among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men, they are men who have come from Europe—German, Irish, French and Scandinavian—men that have come from Europe themselves, or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things.

If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, (loud and long continued applause) and so they are.

That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.



Administrative State • America • Americanism • History • Lincoln • Post • race • Republicans • The Courts

When Christianity Trumped the Constitution

Guess who spoke these words:

I believe no one can read the history of our country without realizing that the Good Book and the spirit of the Saviour have from the beginning been our guiding geniuses. …  Whether we look to the first Charter of Virginia … or to the Charter of New England … or to the Charter of Massachusetts Bay … or to the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut … the same objective is present: a Christian land governed by Christian principles. …

I believe the entire Bill of Rights came into being because of the knowledge our forefathers had of the Bible and their belief in it: freedom of belief, of expression, of assembly, of petition, the dignity of the individual, the sanctity of the home, equal justice under law, and the reservation of powers to the people. …

I like to believe we are living today in the spirit of the Christian religion. I like also to believe that as long as we do so, no great harm can come to our country.

No, it wasn’t Billy Graham. It wasn’t Ronald Reagan, either. It wasn’t Billy Sunday, Father Coughlin, or Fulton Sheen. It wasn’t Jerry Falwell or anybody associated with the dreaded Religious Right.

It was Earl Warren, chief justice of the United States. His pious sentiments were expressed in 1954 at the annual prayer breakfast of the International Council for Christian Leadership in Washington, D.C. Those in attendance included President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Vice President Richard Nixon, several members of Congress, and many other high officials and civic leaders. One after another, they read from scripture, decried “the frightening evil of Communism,” and vowed a renewed commitment to God.

Just three months later, Warren announced the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, that “separate but equal” in public education was no longer the law of the land. And it may well be that Warren’s speech in Washington, not his reasoning in Brown, holds the key to why he decided the case as he did—and, even more so, how he succeeded in getting all his colleagues and the country at large to go along with such an openly proclaimed piece of judicial activism.

Activism occurs when a judge “decides cases on the basis of his own policy preferences rather than a faithful interpretation of the law, thus abandoning the impartial judicial role and ‘legislating from the bench.’” And no set of justices before Warren was ever so frank in its disregard for a constitutional provision’s original, true, ratified meaning as the Supreme Court was in Brown. Even Chief Justice Roger Taney, in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), paid lip service to originalism, while presenting a novel interpretation of the Fifth Amendment’s “due process” clause that set the intention of its framers on its head.  

Dred Scott was the court’s first great exercise of judicial activism, and it was a complete disaster. The issue was slavery, and the danger was that a nation dedicated to freedom might not be able to deal with slavery without collapsing into fratricidal violence. When the country’s elected leadership began fumbling this question, the Supreme Court stepped in to “settle” it, once and for all.

Taney posed the question: Can a Negro slave, former slave, or descendant of slaves be an American?

We think they are not, and that they are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them.

It is not the province of the court to decide upon the justice or injustice, the policy or impolicy, of these laws. The decision of that question belonged to the political or lawmaking power, to those who formed the sovereignty and framed the Constitution. The duty of the court is to interpret the instrument they have framed with the best lights we can obtain on the subject, and to administer it as we find it, according to its true intent and meaning when it was adopted.

Then our meek, unassuming, deferential jurist got down to business.

The Missouri Compromise was void, Taney wrote, for in making a territory free it worked to deprive slaveowners of their property without “due process of law.”

Due process, the justices had discovered, did not mean what Madison, Hamilton, and the rest thought it meant—that is, that public action against an individual must follow the established procedures of the law. Due process was actually due substance, or as we are now pleased to call it, “substantive due process.” The law in question in Dred Scott struck Taney as so unreasonable that even the most scrupulous enforcement of it “could hardly be dignified with the name of due process of law.” Thus spake the court.

Dred Scott was intended to safeguard “the peace and harmony of the country,” by removing its deadliest political problem from political contention. Its effect was to accelerate the trend toward violence over slavery. When John Brown returned from “bleeding Kansas” with a plan for slave insurrection, stymied abolitionists bankrolled him; and when he was hanged, they beatified him. That drove the South to frenzy. A straight line can be drawn from Dred Scott through Harper’s Ferry to Fort Sumter. No other avoidable event bears such responsibility for the onset of civil war.  

Brown v. Board of Education doesn’t have the same bad odor that emanated from Dred Scott or even from Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 decision setting forth the concept of “separate but equal” which Brown overturned. Yet Brown was bolder in its activism than either of them. In Brown, Warren didn’t bother going through an elaborate pretense of consulting the Constitution’s original meaning, as Taney had done. He didn’t try, as Plessy had done, to reconcile the 14th Amendment’s promise of “equal protection of the laws” with the grossly discriminatory practices of those who brought that amendment into being. He simply dismissed the amendment’s original meaning from the outset.

Warren passed quickly over the historical record on whether the 14th Amendment’s framers and ratifiers intended that it require schools be racially integrated. The record, he asserted, was “inconclusive.” As for the question of equality, he acknowledged that “the Negro and white schools involved have been equalized, or are being equalized, with respect to buildings, curricula, qualifications and salaries of teachers, and other ‘tangible’ factors,” But he saw that as beside the point. “We must look instead,” he wrote, “to the effect of segregation itself on public education.”

In approaching this problem, we cannot turn the clock back to 1868, when the Amendment was adopted, or even to 1896, when Plessy v. Ferguson was written. We must consider public education in the light of its full development and its present place in American life throughout the Nation. Only in this way can it be determined if segregation in public schools deprives these plaintiffs of the equal protection of the laws.

The trouble is that the ambiguity Warren professed to find in the historical record doesn’t exist at all.

In Government by Judiciary: The Transformation of the Fourteenth Amendment, Raoul Berger maintains that the Brown decision was “simple justice,”  as historian Richard Kluger called it.  But Berger demonstrates beyond dispute that such justice is not what the framers and ratifiers of the 14th Amendment had in mind. At the time the amendment was adopted, eight northern states provided for segregated schools either statewide or as a local option, and five northern states excluded colored children from their public schools altogether. School segregation was the rule in the District of Columbia, over which Congress had direct authority. The legislative history of the 14th Amendment and of the related Civil Rights Act of 1866 shows clearly that Congress had no intention of disturbing such arrangements.  (See Berger here in the chapters on segregated schools and Brown v. Board of Education. Better yet, read his whole book. It’s right there, for free, online.)

Why was northern segregation left undisturbed? Because when northerners said, “No slavery,” what they really meant was, “No blacks.” As President Lincoln himself put it in a wartime meeting with a group of free black leaders, “There is an unwillingness on the part of our people, harsh as it may be, for you free colored people to remain with us.” As Ohio’s anti-slavery U.S. Senator John Sherman (brother of General William Tecumseh Sherman) put it to his colleagues in 1867, “We do not like Negroes. We do not conceal our dislike.” As the Radical Republican Congressman George W. Julian of Indiana told the House in 1866, “We hate the Negro.” Berger notes that such statements reflected “widespread opinion.”

Warren had to choose, therefore, between the racist sentiments that prevailed at the time of the 14th Amendment’s adoption and ratification, and “the spirit of the Christian religion” that he liked to believe had come to prevail among his countrymen in 1954. He chose the latter.

In a jurist, that choice was revolutionary and extremely problematic. But in a politician, it is exemplary, and not at all out of line with the times. Only four years before, President Harry Truman (who as commander-in-chief of the armed forces had ordered the integration of the U.S. military) based both his foreign policy (anti-Communism) and his domestic policy (civil rights) on the religious spirit Warren spoke of. In a 1950 speech at Gonzaga University, Truman spelled it out:

Men can build a good society, if they follow the will of the Lord. Our great Nation was founded on this faith. Our Constitution, and all our finest traditions, rest on a moral basis. We believe in the dignity and the rights of each individual. We believe that no person—and no group of people—has an inherent right to rule over any other person or any other group. … We are continuing to move forward every day toward greater freedom and equal opportunity for all citizens. This is a purpose each of us must strive to achieve, in his daily life, and in his own community. It is a purpose which, in some cases, requires collective action, through our elected representatives in local, State, and Federal governments. . . .

Nations can live together peacefully, working for their common welfare, just as we do in this country. If they believe in the brotherhood of man, under God, millions and millions of people, all over the world, know in their hearts we can live together. . . . The greatest obstacle to peace is a modern tyranny led by a small group who have abandoned their faith in God. These tyrants have forsaken ethical and moral beliefs. They believe that only force makes right. They are aggressively seeking to expand the area of their domination. Our effort to resist and overcome this tyranny is essentially a moral effort.

Those of us who believe in God, and who are fortunate enough to live under conditions where we can practice our faith, cannot be content to live for ourselves alone, in selfish isolation. We must work constantly to wipe out injustice and inequality, and to create a world order consistent with the faith that governs us.

A decade later, Lyndon Johnson would preach the same gospel. Let the British observer Henry Fairlie tell it:

One of the last examples of [great] oratory in America occurred before I had even come to this country. But I have heard many accounts of it from journalists who were there. During the election campaign of 1960, John Kennedy sent Lyndon Johnson into the South. Johnson was to meet the South’s angry criticisms of the Democratic Party’s platform on civil rights. . . . From small town to small town across the South, he went, on a whistle-stop tour on a train called “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” facing the sullen crowds of rednecks—“mah people,” as he later put it to me. And head-on he spoke to them, as Stewart Alsop once characterized it, “with the tongues of angels.” How would you feel, he demanded of them, if your child was sick, and you could not take him to the hospital in this town, but had to go twenty miles away? How would you feel if you were shopping and your child was thirsty, and you could not give him a cold soda at the counter in the drugstore? And again and again, he won the sullen audiences.

The Golden Rule, you see, predates the Constitution, and outranks it. From Southern rednecks to Boston Brahmins, Americans understood that. And that is why Warren was never impeached for usurpation, and why originalism was reduced by Brown v. Board of Education from a bedrock principle of the American Founders to a minority view, even a disreputable one among most constitutional scholars today.

That mustn’t be the last word, however. When he donned judicial robes, Earl Warren ceased being a politician and, in theory, accepted a much more limited role. His action in Brown is impossible to square with the understanding of the limits on judicial power expressed by Madison, Marshall, Washington, and others in America’s pantheon. And the Supreme Court’s course of action after Brown gives grim confirmation of Washington’s warning:

Let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed. The precedent must always greatly overbalance in permanent evil any partial or transient benefit which the use can at any time yield.

We’ll see in a future essay just how grim that confirmation has been, and what we may yet do to mitigate the “permanent evil” resulting therefrom.

Administrative State • America • Americanism • Center for American Greatness • China • Cultural Marxism • Defense of the West • Lincoln • political philosophy • Post • Religion and Society • Russia

Marx at 200 and the Ruling Class

The Bicentennial of Karl Marx’s birth (May 5, 1818) has come and gone without much fanfare, except in the People’s Republic of China.

It’s not that the founder of Communism is forgotten or disrespected in America (a fate that befell him in the former Soviet Union and in North Korea), but that he is old news here—not to speak of a racist embarrassment.   

No one seems to pay any mind to the quaint old definition of socialism as state ownership of the major means of production. The ever-reliable PBS (Progressive BS) News Hour asked in 2017 “Is socialism in the United States having a moment?”  The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation followed up with a poll of younger Americans which found more support for socialism than capitalism, a distressing outcome albeit one rooted in their ignorance.

But the limitations of such approaches underscore the need to return to the primary source, Karl Marx. Socialism is the inevitable, to use Marxist language, conclusion of a more fundamental or, in its true sense, radical argument. It is here that the battle must be engaged.

These key points of the Marxist critique of the West and America in particular are: the mockery of religion, the denial that individual rights are central for political well-being, and the assertion that historical blinders prevent truth being knowable. These premises lead inevitably to “scientific” socialism and Marx’s subsequent strategy of appearing alternately as Mother Teresa or as Napoleon—whatever works, charity or brutality, as appeals to the simple or the savage. We are all too familiar with Marxism in practice—the former Soviet Union seems too ashamed to bring it up even to condemn it—so let us look at Marx’s theorizing, which is even more evil than those doctrines as applied.

The most appropriate text for reflecting on Marx is not the Communist Manifesto but the lesser-known “Theses on Feuerbach,” a two-page  meditation on 11 aphorisms or pithy observations written when he was in his mid-20s, around 1845. Feuerbach was an influential philosopher who speculated on the worldly origins of religious belief, even to the point of pantheism.

As with many of his other early writings, the daring “Theses” are much livelier and captivating than the notorious and ponderous Communist Manifesto (30 pages long that feels like 300) and his later writings such as the incomplete Capital.

In less than 600 words Marx makes five fundamental points for attacking all previous thinking about politics: Two involve the need to destroy the authority both of religion and of philosophy—the two major sources of transcendence of ordinary life that provide meaning and guidance. The other three are about need for the destruction of the family and the subsequent combination of negating individual rights and affirming socialism as the goal of human history.

Marx is at bottom about destruction, and the form of destruction can range from mockery to massacres, of  unenlightened thinking and of hostile people. He offers a vision of a redeemed humanity, bereft of the corruptions of capitalism (and other attributes of bourgeois civilization), especially Christianity. Heaven can be wrested away from the credulous and created by men on earth.

The most often cited thesis from the Feuerbach meditation is the last, XI: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”  A version is on the pediment of his gravestone in London, below his more famous, “Workers of all lands, unite.”  

Though it may be deceptively and rhetorically seductive, the assertion that previous philosophers have not influenced history is preposterous. John Locke, with his concept of the social contract formed by natural rights, including  the right of revolution, influenced the Declaration of Independence and thus America. Earlier, ancient Greek philosophy made science possible by distinguishing between reality and appearances of reality. The Enlightenment philosophers further transformed science. These interpretations of the human world, spread by their students, brought about revolutionary changes that lasted long after the philosophers’ lifetimes. In the Manifesto Marx would declare that “The ruling ideas of each age have always been the ideas of its ruling class.” It is a hallucination for Marx to imply he was the first thinker to bring about change, let alone change for the better.

But Marx’s initial and major focus is not against philosophy but religion, which exercises more influence over society. His first eight theses against Feuerbach radicalize that religious thinker’s insistence on the earthly origins of transcendent religion. Marx wants to preserve the striving of religion, its infinite longing, and even anti-Jewish elements he sees in Christianity (its “dirty Jewish” [schmutzig-jüdischen] attributes), but for his own socialist purposes.

Thesis III, for example, anticipates the disappearance of the “bourgeois family” in the Communist Manifesto: Thus, for instance, after the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must then itself be destroyed in theory and in practice.” Destroying the “earthly family” in “theory and in practice” could mean, for example, the brutal Chinese Communist policies toward families wanting more than one child.  

Moreover, Feuerbach ignores the power of socio-economic forces. Against a society of isolated individuals (and of course their assertion of “rights”), Marx offers this contrast in thesis X: “The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or social humanity.” Marx’s new materialism (the doctrine that reality exists in matter, not ideas, mathematics, or God) is the social or socialized humanity of the future. It comes about through the dynamics of history and a growing consciousness of the workers or proletariat. Marx wants his scientific philosophy to have the spirit of religion.

Incidentally, this perspective of “social humanity” or world-wide socialism makes reference to equality superfluous, because the only sense equality makes in political philosophy is equality of individual, natural rights. Thus Marx denounces talk about rights as bourgeois claptrap. Family, rights, religion—they all result from false consciousness. The so-called individual reflects  “the ensemble of the social relations.” The role of the leaders of society becomes more important than ever, for they shape every aspect of society: therefore, “it is essential to educate the educator himself.”

Perhaps the best education Marx, the would-be educator, might have had comes from a contemporary defender of the working class who too seldom is recognized as such: “The strongest bond of human sympathy, outside of the family relation, should be one uniting all working people, of all nations, and tongues, and kindreds.” We see in the exception of the family the key difference from Marx.

This becomes even more clear in the next sentence of this March 21, 1864 message to a New York labor union:

Nor should this lead to a war upon property, or the owners of property. Property is the fruit of labor—property is desirable—is a positive good in the world. That some should be rich, shows that others may become rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise. Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another; but let him labor diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built.

Thus wrote Abraham Lincoln, liberator of slaves and defender of not the bourgeoisie but of the natural law protecting family and property.

This fight continues. The enemies of Lincoln and the American founding keep the Marx project alive. The family comes under more insidious attack than ever,  the administrative state tramples individual rights, historical inevitability declares borders as bygone, socialism in the form of collective consciousness lords over individual freedom, and philosophy and religion meet with blinkered ignorance, at best, and more likely ridicule, horror, and disgust. If Marx’s Bicentennial birthday is ignored, his contemporary epigones know their man would realize he had to be passed over, in favor of even more radical ideas. After all, the point is to change the world.

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Administrative State • America • Congress • Education • History • Lincoln • Post • The Culture

Make Washington’s Birthday Great Again

We once celebrated the individual greatness of George Washington on his birthday, February 22. Historian James Thomas Flexner called George Washington the “indispensable man,” because he was the one individual most responsible for successfully launching the American experimenta new form of government, a democratic republic in which the people are sovereign, but their power is limited by a written constitution.

Nevertheless, this year (as every year, for the past half-century) on the third Monday of February, a travesty of a holiday called “President’s Day,” has unofficially replaced the honoring of George Washington. It is unofficial because the February holiday is still legally Washington’s birthday, although even memoranda in U.S. government agencies refer to “President’s Day.” In substituting an unofficial “President’s Day” for the official Washington’s Birthday, the administrative state and its ideological echo chamber in the cultural leviathan are telling us that the lives of Chester A. Arthur and Franklin Pierce are of equal significance with that George Washington.   

They are also telling us that individual lives don’t matter, that what matters is a person’s race, ethnicity, and gender. As a curator of the Smithsonian Institution told the Washington Post two decades ago,

“We are not a great men/great women place”—what matters most is the groups that one is born into.  

The replacement of Washington’s Birthday with “President’s Day” began in 1968 with the passage of the Monday holiday law. At the time, we were assured by the bill’s sponsors that its passage would not diminish Washington’s memory in any way. After all, the February holiday was still called Washington’s Birthday and Americans would have, in the words of sponsor Rep. Robert McClory (R-Ill.), an “extra weekend” to visit Mt. Vernon.

Several far-seeing congressmen who opposed McClory’s bill predicted the negative consequences with prescient clarity.

Rep. Joe Waggonner (D-La.) told the bill’s sponsors: “You have further commercialized and made further meaningless something that has the respect of the people of this country.”

Rep. Dan Kuykendall (R-Tenn.) saw clearly and sadly into the future. “If we do this,” he warned, “10 years from now [that would have been 1978] our school children will not know what February 22 means. They will not know or care when George Washington was born. They will know that in the middle of February they will have a three-day weekend for some reason. This will come.”

Interestingly, efforts to make the change from Washington’s Birthday to President’s Day official have always been defeated. For example, one such bill was introduced in 1998 by Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) The failed Durbin bill would have re-designated “the legal public holiday of Washington’s Birthday as President’s Day” to recognize “the contributions that Presidents have made to the development of our Nation,” besides specially noting Franklin D. Roosevelt along with Washington and Lincoln.

Pro-“President’s Day” advocates sometimes claim they want to honor Lincoln. But this is a red herring because “President’s Day,” this year or any year has never been called “Washington-Lincoln Day.”  It is called “President’s Day” and it implies that Millard Fillmore is as significant a chief executive as Washington or Lincoln, for that matter. Lincoln himself was one of Washington’s greatest admirers. He wrote in 1842 that Washington’s name was, “the mightiest name on earthlong since mightiest in the cause of civil liberty; still mightiest in moral reformation . . . In solemn awe pronounce the nameand in its naked, deathless splendor leave it shining on.”

For years now, retired Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) has carried on a campaign to restore the celebration of Washington’s Birthday. He proposed to start by making sure that federal agencies got the name of the February holiday right and stop calling it “President’s Day.” Those of us who want, in Lincoln’s words, to preserve “the mystic chords of memory” that bind our nation together must hope some member of Congress picks up the banner that Bartlett once waved.  

2016 Election • America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Center for American Greatness • civic culture/friendship • Democrats • Greatness Agenda • Lincoln • Political Parties • Post • Republicans • The Culture • The Left • The Resistance (Snicker)

Our New Secessionists

Item 1: “People now marvel how it came to pass that he should have been selected as the representative man of any party. His . . . efforts, imbecile in matter, disgusting in manner, have made us the laughing stock of the whole world.”

Item 2: “A tragedy for the American republic, a tragedy for the Constitution, and a triumph for the forces, at home and abroad, of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism.”

Item 3: “He is evidently a person of very inferior cast of character, wholly unequal to the crisis.”

Item 4: “Heartfelt keening of shame and revulsion was heard throughout the land.”

These nuggets refer, of course, to the president. But which president? Items 1 and 2 refer to . . . whom? If you said “Donald Trump,” you are only half right. Item 2 does refer to President Trump. It is from David Remnick’s hysterical threnody in The New Yorker, published in the early hours of November 9, 2016. But Item 1 refers not to Trump but to Abraham Lincoln. And it comes not from some rabid secessionist but from the Salem Advocate, a newspaper published in Lincoln’s home state of central Illinois.

Items 3 and 4 are easy. Any woke member of The Resistance will guess that the “inferior character” must be Donald Trump. But it isn’t. The great orator Edward Everett was also referring to Lincoln. Item 4 comes to us from “Annals of Resistance,” a series of skirling anti-Trump dispatches in the Huffington Post.

It is not news that Lincoln, who won the election of 1860 with only 39.8 percent of the popular vote, was deeply unpopular. His popularity was in freefall until September 3, 1864, when General Sherman telegrammed the news “Atlanta is ours and fairly won.” Military triumph earned Lincoln a narrow victory over George McClellan in the 1864 election. He remained deeply unpopular, however, until John Wilkes Booth inaugurated the process of his beatification in April 1865. [Update: a reader questions my description of the 1864 election as a “narrow” victory for Lincoln. It wasn’t narrow in terms of the electoral college, but it was in terms of the popular vote. His percentage of the vote in Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Vermont went down and he lost “in all the big cities, including a trouncing of 78,746 to 36,673 in New York. In the key states of New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio, with their 80 electoral votes, only one half a percentage point separated Lincoln and McClellan. A shift of 38,111 votes in a few selected states, less than 1 percent of the popular vote, would have elected McClellan.”]

I think of Lincoln and his contemporary unpopularity because of the secessionist mood that is still, in some fetid redoubts, rippling through the country. Most colleges and universities are gigantic petri dishes for the production of this toxin, as are many elite organs of opinion. The New York Review of Books, for example, warned that with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, “We are standing at the edge of the abyss. Our political system, our society, our country itself are in greater danger than at any time in the last century and a half.” Which is to say, since the Civil War.

Conservative commentators like James Piereson have been warning for some years about the “shattered consensus” threatening America’s political institutions. But members of “The Resistance”™ against Donald Trump embrace as a vocation the process of disintegration that Piereson anatomizes. In effect, they have declared war not just on President Trump, but on a united America.

The Civil War began not because of slavery, but because of Lincoln’s election. It was that event that precipitated the secession of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, followed shortly thereafter by Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

Today, the secessionist mood is defined not so much by geography—though there is always California to consider—but by a species of identity politics. If you went to Yale or Harvard, Swarthmore or Williams, if you work at CNN or the Washington Post, if you are a career civil servant, member of the entertainment industry, or part of the deep-state nomenklatura, it is overwhelmingly likely that you are deeply anti-Trump.

Someday, the sudden efflorescence of incontinent animus against Donald Trump will occupy an interesting section in the annals of psychopathology, furnishing, perhaps, a new chapter for Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. But for the moment, the political ergot is too freshly distributed into the metabolism of “elite” opinion to be described calmly. We can only stand by and watch, like an anthropologist at some savage ritual, while the natives rage.

As the months pass, however, and Trump’s achievements pile up the disjunction between the reality of his administration and the hysteria of his opponents becomes ever more glaring.

We long ago passed through the stage where the antics of “The Resistance”™ seemed merely comic to the stage where they are merely pathetic. What, after all are they resisting? The results of a free, open, democratic election in which their candidate lost. On the one hand, we have Trump’s judicial appointments, his attack on prosperity-sucking regulation, his emancipation of America’s energy industry, his enforcement of America’s immigration laws, his tax cuts, his strengthening of America’s military, not to mention his success in bringing unemployment down and economic growth and consumer confidence up. On the other hand, we have the repeated warnings not to “normalize” a supposedly “dictatorial,” xenophobic, racist reality-TV star.

The irony is, despite his sometimes provocative tweets and off-the-cuff remarks, Donald Trump is governing more “normally” than any president since Ronald Reagan. As his Chief of Staff John Kelly noted last fall, Trump’s agenda is to do “what’s good for America.”

In other words, he has no agenda, if by “agenda” you mean an unacknowledged script of ulterior motives.

Still, this is a dangerously unsettled moment. “The Resistance”™ may be ridiculous, but that does not make it any less malevolent or destructive. They and the permanent bureaucracy they support have essentially declared war on Trump. The astonishing and still expanding scandal that is FISA-gate was intended to consume first candidate Trump and then, when that failed, to hobble or destroy President Trump. Thanks to a dedicated band of commentators—including contributors to American Greatness—that protracted act of political sabotage seems to be unraveling before our eyes. It is difficult, still, to take its measure, but from this vantage, it appears to be shaping up as the biggest political scandal in America’s history.

To date, Donald Trump’s actions have been as patient and methodical as his rhetoric has been taunting and dismissive. He may rail against “fake news,” much to the irritation of its purveyors, but he systematically pares back regulation and, just last week, announced the biggest change to the civil service in decades, promising to “hire the best and fire the worst.” The swamp that Trump promised to drain is deep, malodorous, and self-regenerating. His new civil service initiative promises to plunge a gigantic catheter into the spongy center of the swamp in order to sluice away some of the accumulated detritus that has gathered there in fetid profusion.

The deep state has declared war on Donald Trump and a united America. Those of us hoping to make America great again should repay the favor and help the president wage war against the enemies of our excellence.

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America • Americanism • civic culture/friendship • Conservatives • Democrats • History • Law and Order • Lincoln • military • Political Parties • political philosophy • Post • race • Republicans • self-government • statesmanship • The Constitution • The Culture • The Declaration • the Flag • Uncategorized

American Publius: Grant Reconsidered

Summing up the importance of Ulysses S. Grant is a daunting task, given his ascension to the American political scene followed the august statesmanship of Abraham Lincoln.

Review of Grant by Ron Chernow (Penguin Press, 1,104 pages, $40)

Any president who followed so closely upon the heels of our martyred 16th president was destined to appear inferior.

Ron Chernow’s new biography, Grant, seeks to defend the general from his detractors. In this, he joins Ronald C. White, who also made an attempt at a popular rehabilitation with American Ulysses in 2016. The interest in our time for a reconsideration of Grant is telling and, perhaps, necessary. The academic view of so many things has come into sharp focus and the standard view of Grant for so long has been a negative one. For more than 100 years, the elite consensus about Grant has been that he was an adequate (though not great) general and a terrible president.

Soon after the war, both Grant and Lincoln were derided in academia under the Lost Cause Thesis, which romantically lauded Southern generals as stylish heroes while the Union generals (especially Grant) were criticized for being bumbling butchers. Of Grant, Woodrow Wilson said he was a simpleton who shouldn’t have been president. (Of course, the Democrat Wilson was also a segregationist who loathed Reconstruction, but this is largely forgotten as being among the reasons to be suspect of his opinions.) Historian William F. McFeely claimed that the general had no special intellectual ability. Even today, those disposed to view Grant in a more favorable light, feel compelled to issue caveats, as a recent review of Chernow’s book at the Law and Liberty website did in claiming Grant was an able general, but a failed president.

Overcoming long-received wisdom is a formidable challenge. Chernow makes an admirable but not definitive effort to defend Grant’s legacy. His book reminds us of Grant’s accomplishments and the honorable character he displayed throughout his life.

Grant was not only the most elevated general since Washington, he was also the only president between Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson to serve two full terms. Grant, moreover, was deft in his political sensibilities. He earned the affection of his countrymen and was recognized alongside Washington and Lincoln as among the most important figures of the Republic—the former being a founder, and Lincoln and Grant were its preservers. A human being is to be counted among the blessed if in his lifetime he can point to one such example of a statesman, but between 1860 and 1878, Americans had two.

If Lincoln was the thinker and oratory expounder of the idea at the bedrock of our union, Grant, at least initially, was a man who carried the burden of doing. We forget that both men were underrated, dismissed by an intellectual elite as backward and slow. We must admit that absent Grant, Lincoln would be considered a failed president. In fact, Lincoln’s delay as a result of practical and political realities in finding the right general to prosecute the war nearly cost him a successful re-election and hence the military victory that saved the Union.  

Grant married into a pro-slavery, ardently pro-Democrat family and navigated not only his overbearing, opinionated father-in-law (whom his wife adored) but also his own familial challenges. Grant’s  father always sought to capitalize on his son’s success, even to the point of being a hindrance on the war effort. Though his upbringing was decidedly pro-Union and anti-slavery, his ability to navigate family was a testament to how he could speak prudently or be silent when necessary. He honed these skills when, duty bound, he rejoined the military after years of toil and poverty in private life. It was only because,  in his words, “traitors fired on our flag” at Fort Sumter that Grant eventually accepted a position with the Illinois infantry volunteers. His ascension in rank from there was meteoric.

While Grant piled up military victories, others who were jealous of his talents and self-interested for their own advancement, sought to destroy him. Grant was an effective soldier, and continually had to cajole his superiors to take action. In the early years of the war, Lincoln was surrounded by timid and overly cautious generals who did not pursue the enemy aggressively. Except for a few occasions, wherever he turned, he found disappointment. Grant made a name for himself by being smart and aggressive. Lincoln fixed on him.

His success drew the ire of many who wanted to minimize his accomplishments or defame his character. He had to fend off continuous and myriad charges: drunkenness, sloth, undependability, unpreparedness, inattention to detail, insubordination, and of course butchery. It should come as no shock that many journalists in his day were all too happy to parrot these lies and slanders against Grant. Fake news was just as prevalent then as it is today. These charges were so numerous that even the head of the Union army, Henry W. Halleck (who harbored many jealousies of Grant), sent someone to spy on him.

Despite these allegations, one thing stood out. Grant was more often than not a winner. He was the only one who could see the entire map of the war. Wearing down and outsmarting Robert E. Lee was one of Grant’s greatest achievements as a military commander. Early on, Lincoln noticed his talents and declared that he could not spare such a man because he was willing to take the battle to an entrenched enemy. Grant was no coward and knew better than any (with the exception of maybe Sherman and Sheridan) what needed to be done to defeat the Confederacy.

A few remarks here about Grant and his consumption and alleged abuse of alcohol. The charge dogged him all his life. No one, not even Chernow, addresses why this is supposed to be so important. There were several generals, including Halleck, who drank to excess—so why is Grant’s alleged “abuse” so intriguing? Part of the attention to his alcohol consumption at the time was because of the growing influence of the temperance movement. Part of it was also that Grant was a rising figure, and so it was an attack meant to prevent him somehow from achieving further greatness.

Chernow spends too much time on this question trying to dissect which instances were real and which were not. He even ends his book on the question of Grant’s drinking as discussed by his good friend Mark Twain. This obsession detracts from the book. In the end, who cares? He was no alcoholic and it hardly affected his performance on the battlefield or in office, even if he did imbibe. One has only to look at the bar tab for the representatives to the 1787 Constitutional Convention to realize how the drinking question is blown out of proportion. Grant certainly drank at times and may personally have struggled with the temptation for part, though not all, of his life. He was no drunkard, however. We apparently care so much about this issue because his enemies carried it with some success, and that’s a shame. Perhaps there is something of prurient even in our desire to understand history.

Even before the war ended, Grant’s name was bandied about as a potential presidential candidate. He remained loyal to Lincoln, however, and focused on defeating the enemy. His good friend William Tecumseh Sherman begged him never to run, but eventually Grant allowed his name to be placed into nomination after deftly sidestepping the demagogue Andrew Johnson from pulling him into his own political machinations. Only someone intelligent and politically savvy could navigate both the war and the post-war atmosphere.

Grant always supported Lincoln’s emancipation turn. After Lincoln’s assassination, Grant bided his time and tried to salvage Reconstruction in the face of the hostile Johnson. As president, Grant was protective of former slaves, and oversaw the application of civil rights for these newly enfranchised voters—using the coercive power of the federal government when necessary. This fact makes Grant our first civil rights president. Reconstruction’s failure was not owing to Grant or to a lack of desire on his part to implement it. Reconstruction failed because Congressional Republicans lost the will to pursue protections for blacks amid the growing violence in the South. Still, Grant did everything he could in light of such opposition to protect the lives, property, and voting rights of these newly enfranchised citizens.  

Was Grant’s administration especially corrupt? Many of his appointees took bribes and engaged in other forms of self-dealing. Then again, corruption was a characteristic of the Gilded Age not limited to Grant’s  administration. In fact, government corruption was rampant before Grant became president. As president, Grant was always surprised by such betrayals of trust. Yet he never impeded any investigation and left office untainted personally by scandal.  Chernow rightly criticizes Grant for his “poor selection of cabinet officers and how he handled their downfalls.” But it’s a testament to his character that he never tried to interfere with the law even as he vehemently denied many of his friends were guilty. When it was clear they were guilty, Grant admitted the fact and was wounded by it.

As a matter of sound administration, Grant put the government on the road to pay off its debt, secured the economy on sounder footing, oversaw the education of the former slaves, slashed taxes, and turned trade to a surplus. No one could be unhappy with such deft administration.

Politics is a clarifier, not an opaque mask, to revealing the character of men. The obstacles Grant faced were in some ways more challenging than those faced by Lincoln. The 16th president had a crisis to manage and that tends to bring interests together even as the difficulty itself may seem daunting and insurmountable. Sometimes that very difficulty is the glue that makes winning more likely. Grant presided over a victory and a peace, with the exception of the proliferating domestic terror unleashed by the Ku Klux Klan. This caused the war coalition to fray with personal self-interestedness being more nakedly pursued. Grant, like Lincoln, may have had personal flaws, but also like the Great Emancipator, he shared Lincoln’s ability for circumspection.

When it comes to Grant and the eternal struggle for political justice, we suffer from a “national amnesia.” We forget that Grant faced an oppositional force in the South after the war that never laid down its arms. We ought to be grateful for his dogged determination to protect all citizens under the banner of natural rights in spite of the growing influence of progressivism.

America • American Conservatism • Center for American Greatness • Conservatives • Declaration of Independence • Elections • Harry Jaffa • Lincoln • political philosophy • Post • Republicans

Be Better Than Evan McMullin

Making failed presidential candidate and radical NeverTrumper Evan McMullin look like the smart guy in the room is quite a trick. But commentators on one of McMullin’s recent tweets have done just that.

Defending his pal Jennifer Rubin, McMullin offered his definition of conservatism:

There is a lot to criticize here—a general imprecision in language and the promotion of principles unconnected to present realities are all fair game. But in their zeal to reject McMullin’s epic levels of pomposity and ignorance, some of his critics have gone too far.

The conservative site Twitchy pounced on McMullin’s tweet, arguing that he has mistaken America’s Founding principles with those of Revolutionary France. How so? Because McMullin mentions “equality” and “liberty,” which are supposedly alien to the American political tradition.

Here are some of the critiques:

“Liberté, égalité, fraternité” after all was the motto of Robespierre and the Jacobin revolutionaries, right?

In fact, this is a complete misreading of the American Founding. Equality and liberty and the relationship between those two principles are central to understanding America—before, during, and after the American Revolution. Rejecting these principles because some people have misunderstood or misapplied them is exactly the wrong thing to do. Why cede such noble ideas to the likes of Evan McMullin?

Just take a look at the Declaration of Independence, whose first “self-evident” truth is that “all men are created equal.” In fact, eight state constitutions at the time of the founding featured similar language on equality. It is impossible to make sense of our revolution without grappling with the importance of this idea.

The Founders understood that whatever our particular differences may be—race, talents, religion, intellectual potential—all human beings, by virtue of the fact that they are human beings, are equal in that sense of being like creatures. It is unequal to the dignity of adult human beings that they should be ruled without their consent, so their equality demands government by consent.

As Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter shortly before he died: “The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” The divine right of kings and rule by an unaccountable administrative state are both affronts to our natural equality.

Reconciling Equality and Liberty
Once we understand equality in this light, we cannot escape the importance of liberty in the philosophical and moral architecture of the American Founding. After all, the central “unalienable” natural right listed in the Declaration is “liberty.”

The Founders’ conception of liberty, as Thomas G. West has argued, was bound “within the moral limits of the law of nature”—a law that man cannot transgress without penalties that will be meted out by his Creator in the next world.

Modern sexual ethics based on a radically autonomous view of human action and the idea that we have the “freedom” to do whatever we wish as long we don’t harm anyone else—the “no harm” principle that is a cornerstone of libertarianism—are equally rejections of the Founders’ teachings. The difference between liberty and license is a difference in kind, not in degree.

Compare this to the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. While the French Declaration also deals in universal principles, in contrast to the American Declaration of Independence, those principles are largely unconnected to man as he actually lives. They are not drawn from observations about the nature of things as they are.

The French Declaration casts aside prudence (asserting that “ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man are the sole cause of public calamities and of the corruption of governments”), seeks to obliterate all of the people’s traditions, bases the authority of law on “general will” rather than seeking to draw out the enlightened consent of the governed, and rejects liberty rightly understood (“every citizen summoned or apprehended in pursuance of the law must obey immediately; he renders himself culpable by resistance”).

It’s no wonder that the American Founders were generally skeptical of the French Revolution. Even Jefferson began to have doubts as the guillotines continued to fall without any sign of stopping.

Abandoning—and Recovering—First Principles 
However much traditionalists, paleoconservatives, Southern Agrarians, and other types of conservatives continue to argue that appeals to natural rights are 
the great evil to be avoided, these principles are not the problem. They do not account for the rise of our current crisis of liberalism or for the wrong turns our nation has taken.

Instead, our problems arise from a failure to defend equality and liberty as our Founders understood them. Our problem is that we have permitted the invoking of incoherent notions of rights that make no room for prudence. In this general thoughtlessness, we come dangerously close to demanding principles that resemble those of the French Revolution.

Human beings cannot function barring appeals to universals. Think of the miracle of the common noun, for instance. What does it mean to say one is sitting in a “chair” if there is no such thing in the abstract as “chairness”? We only understand each other because of observed reality and the necessity for a universal concept of chairs upon which humans can sit. Chairs may come in many shapes and sizes and varieties of luxury, but in their essential nature, they all share the purpose for which they were created.    

The Evan McMullins of the world are not wrong on the face of it in their appeals to liberty and equality. They are wrong about what those principles are and what they mean for us today.

Supposing that a caricatured version of the 1980 Republican Party platform filtered through John Rawls’ teachings is the embodiment of these central American principles is an embarrassing failure to grapple seriously with American ideas. To toss a favorite phrase of theirs back at them, “It’s not who we are.”  It has never been.

To defend the principles of the American Founding, we must first know what they are and then connect them to policies that speak to the circumstances we are facing today. Evan McMullin decidedly does not. Sadly, neither do many of his critics. We have to be better than both.

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America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Conservatives • Declaration of Independence • Foreign Policy • Identity Politics • Lincoln • Political Parties • Republicans • self-government • The Culture • Trade • Trump White House

‘Party of Lincoln’ No More

One of the most prominent clichés that passes for wisdom among the GOP Establishment and conservative intellectual elite is that the Republican Party is the party of Abraham Lincoln. But Donald Trump, as we are told ad nauseam, is doing his best to sever the electric cord that ties the Republican Party to Lincoln’s political principles. 

Former U.S. Senator John Danforth wrote recently in the Washington Post that the Republican Party is “the party of Abraham Lincoln.” “Now comes Trump,” Danforth argued, “who is exactly what Republicans are not, who is exactly what we have opposed in our 160-year history.” Mona Charen, a contributor to National Review who now apparently enjoys echoing the Left, claims, “The Republican party under Donald Trump has regressed from the party of Lincoln to the party of Lee.”

The glaring problem with this overheated analysis is that it has been quite some time since the GOP was, in any discernable way, the party of Lincoln. And Trump had nothing whatsoever to do with it. In fact, Trump is trying to drag the party back kicking and screaming to its Lincolnian roots.

An obvious example of the modern GOP’s dismissal of Lincoln’s politics is the free trade absolutism it has embraced. While theoretically sound, in practice this slavish devotion to free trade has hollowed out the middle class and benefited hedge fund managers and other professional elites who stand unequally to gain from our knowledge-based economy.

Lincoln, by contrast, was for high protective tariffs throughout his career. For instance, after his election to Congress in 1847, Lincoln noted that the

abandonment of the protective policy by the American Government, must result in the increase of both useless labour, and idleness; and so, in proportion, must produce want and ruin among our people.

In his support of tariffs and other measures designed to help Americans citizens over those of other countries, Lincoln was well within the mainstream of the American political tradition. From Alexander Hamilton’s 1791 “Report on Manufactures,” which outlined the nation’s first industrial policy to support America’s burgeoning manufacturing sector, to Ronald Reagan’s imposition of a 100 percent tariff on certain Japanese electronics in 1987, tariffs have served as a traditional tool of American statecraft.

Lincoln understood that an American isn’t simply what the philosopher Roger Scruton has termed a homo economicus—an individual “who acts always to maximize his own utility.” Instead, Americans are members of families, churches, communities, and their nation, whose good includes but ultimately transcends economic considerations.

Lincoln also wouldn’t recognize the Republican Party’s foreign policy of the past few decades. Republicans are largely beholden to a neoconservative foreign policy whereby the United States spends its blood and treasure on making the rest of the world safe for democracy, while very often neglecting our own. In practice, this has translated into nation building abroad. To overstate for the sake of clarity, the question before GOP hawks is which countries we should invade next—not whether it is just to think in such terms in the first place.

Lincoln would have been appalled at such a foreign policy. In early 1852, he helped draft a resolution praising Lajos Kossuth and the Hungarian revolutionaries of 1848, which contained principles diametrically opposite of those the modern Republican Party has adopted.

While the resolution states the right of the people of Hungary to “throw off” their “existing form of government,” it makes it clear that “it is the duty of our government to neither foment, nor assist, such revolutions in other governments.” Yet Lincoln and the drafting committee did not see any probable violation of our “own cherished principles of non-intervention” should the United States be called upon to help fend off an intervention of any other foreign power into Hungary’s affairs, should prudence allow for such a response.

Lincoln and his compatriots held true to the “sacred principles of the laws of nature and of nations”—principles of a social compact of a free and equal people who justly may determine their own nation’s course of affairs internally and externally.

The Republican Party’s general policy of arming “moderates” in nations such as Egypt, Libya, and Syria, for example, runs exactly counter to the traditional principle of non-interference that Lincoln followed. And such policies have predictably led to disastrous consequences for the United States abroad and have weakened our nation at home as well.

Finally, the Republican Party has spurned Lincoln’s appeals to natural human equality in favor of the allure of the Rawlsian trinity of race, class, and gender—the same categories Democrats use to divide the American electorate.

Finally, the Republican Party has spurned Lincoln’s appeals to natural human equality in favor of the allure of the Rawlsian trinity of race, class, and gender—the same categories Democrats use to divide the American electorate.

After Mitt Romney’s ignominious defeat in 2012, the Republican Party issued its famed autopsy, which infamously put forward “comprehensive immigration reform” in order to win the “Hispanic” vote. The autopsy noted also that Republicans needed “to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian and gay Americans and demonstrate that we care about them, too.”

Clarence Thomas pointed out the problems inherent in this approach in a 1987 speech to the Heritage Foundation. He noted that such a pandering strategy utterly failed regarding blacks because it treated them as a priori off limits to conservatives.

“The political Right . . . concedes that blacks are monolithic, picks up a few dissidents, and wistfully shrugs at the seemingly unbreakable hold of the liberal left on black Americans,” Thomas said. “Everyone was treated as part of an interest group. Blacks just happened to represent an interest group not worth going after.”

Blacks, just as other races or groups, were being assessed solely upon the basis skin color or some other perceived distinguishing feature of victimhood, an obvious break with the colorblind principles of the American Founding. And this was during the halcyon days of the Reagan Revolution!

Lincoln, by contrast, appealed to Americans as citizens who had “the father of all moral principle in them”—namely the belief in the equality of men in their natural rights and the concomitant principle that just government can only spring forth from the consent of the governed. The principle of liberty born of equality before God—the “central idea” from which all “minor thoughts radiate” in America—is the philosophical grounding of American citizenship rather than accidents of birth such as race or ethnicity.  

Trump has harkened to Lincoln’s teachings in his appeal to American citizens who are bound together by a patriotic friendship instead of the false idol of identity politics.

“America was a land for individuals,” Ken Masugi has written, “not of, by, and for castes, whether of class or race, and thus it was a land of opportunity for those who cherished work, character, and faith.”

Lincoln’s statesmanship provides a way forward for the GOP if they are willing to listen. Donald Trump has harkened to Lincoln’s teachings in his appeal to American citizens who are bound together by a patriotic friendship instead of the false idol of identity politics. As Trump stated in his first inaugural address and again soon after the Charlottesville unrest, “When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.”

In order to become the Republican Party Lincoln would recognize, the GOP would do well to strongly condemn the scourge of identity politics, reassess its foreign policy in light of our national interests, and put forward trade policies that do not put abstractions above the common good of the American people. A party that is defined by these principles—principles that Donald Trump has championed—will once again deserve to carry the mantle of the party of Lincoln.



America • Americanism • Cultural Marxism • History • Identity Politics • Law and Order • Lincoln • self-government • The Constitution • The Culture • The Left

A Democracy Planted Thick with Laws

“Democracy dies in darkness”—so says the Washington Post, in a clever attempt at marketing to anxious readers in the Trump era. History, however, begs to differ. Experience shows that democracy typically dies in a bright blaze of passion. It is not from some intellectual darkening that democracies tend to collapse, for as a wise man observed, “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” The inherent and insidious weakness to which democracies actually tend to succumb is the breakdown of the rule of law. When the people are sovereign, they tend to feel justified when taking the law into their own hands, even though it means the destruction of the difference between law and force which is the  very basis of the legitimacy of their rule.

The American people were rightly shocked by what they saw in the South last week. We are proudly unaccustomed to seeing self-styled neo-nazis on parade in our streets, and especially unsettled when such demonstrations result in the savage death of another citizen. And we have only ever seen angry mobs tear down statues from their pedestals in far away countries formerly ruled by cruel dictators. Of course we should be repulsed by a group of people proclaiming their hatred for other people on the basis of skin color. But we should also feel disgust for those who, in proclaiming their disgust for these views, would take the law into their own hands. Both result in oppressive lawlessness.

Clearly it is time for us to do some hard thinking about how to resolve these long-standing tensions in American society. For even more important than resolving the question of what to do  about Confederate memorials is the looming question of whether Americans are going to continue to abide by the rule of law to settle our differences.

In 1838, the country was exhibiting similar symptoms of lawlessness. At just 28 years old, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech in Springfield, Illinois in which he decried “the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgement of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice.” Lincoln warned that the unchecked growth of a “mobocratic spirit” would lead people from being “lawless in spirit” to being “lawless in practice.”

These are words to keep in mind as we consider that while some white supremacists have been expressing a disgusting glee over the death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, on the other side we have people now calling for the removal of memorials to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. This “lawlessness in spirit” has already led to “lawlessness in practice” in a woman’s death and in several instances of vandalism around the country, even upon memorials to Abraham Lincoln—one tellingly emblazoned with the words “Fuck law.”

Lincoln argued that the only way to prevent the death of our democracy was to restore an “attachment of the people” to “a reverence for the constitution and laws.” He did not deny that “bad laws, if they exist, should be repealed as soon as possible,” but he declared that “while they continue in force, for the sake of example, they should be religiously observed.”

As our Constitution is the longest-living republican form of government, it is easy for us to take it for granted, but it is a mere parchment barrier in the hands of an impassioned and unrestrained people. Many citizens in this country are angry and impassioned about a cause they believe just. They want swift retribution for the horrible crime of slavery and they want to take it out on the memorials to slaveholders. Some, it is clear, would have that “justice” even if it means breaking the law to achieve it.

One thinks of the famous lines from the filmA Man for All Seasons,” about Sir Thomas More. In the film, More is attacked by William Roper, his son-in-law, for not arresting a certain man who had betrayed him, though the man had not broken any law in doing it. When More declares his fidelity to the law, even if it meant protecting the Devil himself, Roper assails him for not taking the law into his own hands.

Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!

More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you—where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast—man’s laws, not God’s—and if you cut them down—and you’re just the man to do it—d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

There is a beautiful yearning in every good-natured person for justice and a desire for God’s kingdom to reach us here on earth so that it might be “as it is in heaven.” But history teaches us that, unrestrained from the rule of law, even this holy desire can become an ugly and evil thing. Human beings, evidently, can only be truly happy when they live under laws, and it has been the desire of the imperfect people of our country since our founding to continue to strive to make those laws good.

We will never have perfect laws, and that is why politics is a perpetual human activity. But if we give up on what we have now in order to achieve justice through force outside of the law, afterward there will be nothing left to protect us from the force of those stronger than us. Let us never let our desire for justice burn out, but let us likewise never stop reasoning together and bearing with patience our imperfect condition while we enjoy the shade of a democracy planted thick with laws under the longest-living written constitution this world has yet seen.




2016 Election • Administrative State • America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Book Reviews • Center for American Greatness • Conservatives • Declaration of Independence • Democrats • Donald Trump • Hillary Clinton • Lincoln • self-government • separation of powers • The Constitution • The Leviathian State • Trump White House

Coarse Correction: The Real Significance of the 2016 Election

About a year ago, the respected Harvard political theorist, Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., wrote an op-ed about Donald Trump for the Wall Street Journal titled, “Why Donald Trump Is No Gentleman.” Mansfield made the case that the appellation “gentleman” is one used so rarely these days that we forget, even, to note its opposite.  

He also wrote:

The outstanding person in this election is Donald Trump, in that he attracts the most attention, but the outstanding fact is the voters behind him who excuse Mr. Trump for his ungentlemanly behavior….

Incapable as he is of appreciating the gentleman, Mr. Trump earns the disdain of the promoters of gender neutrality. Mr. Trump’s resistance to political correctness, however, has the coarseness of a male [this months  before the Access Hollywood tape]. Or what used to be the coarseness of a male. Now that women are practicing to swear like sailors, Mr. Trump is a reminder of male superiority in the department of vulgarity. Surely no woman would have run his campaign.

Mansfield’s essay, then, invites consideration of the coarseness of his female opponent. She was after all the embodiment of vulgar pandering to sex preference. In fact, his penetrating essay implied that Trump had a good chance of beating Hillary Clinton precisely because he was willing to be crude and in that contest, he could outmatch even her.

The subhead of Mansfield’s article tells the tale in more detail: “Like Machiavelli, [Trump] makes clear that winning dishonorably is better than losing honorably.” Can a citizen survey the field of honorable candidates, losers or near-losers, all—be his name Romney, McCain, or Bush—without revulsion and fear for the future of republican government? Could any of 2016’s supposed gentlemen candidates have beaten Clinton by flipping those Midwestern states and Pennsylvania?

Two weeks after Mansfield’s article appeared, Trump named Kellyanne Conway his campaign manager. In that sense a woman did run (and win) Trump’s campaign. It seems that the coarse candidate made the very course correction that Mansfield implied was impossible: the Machiavellian candidate’s truthfulness about political correctness needed political protection (not to speak of wisdom) in Conway’s form.

How did Trump stump the smartest campaign masterminds and conquer Lady Fortune? For one thing, he delighted more than conservative voters with his skewering of media figures and intellectuals. His keen insight was that Americans, whatever else they may think, do not like to be told what to think. And as his recent tweeting shows, the all-important proxy war with the media as the front for intellectuals continues into his presidency with Trump standing in as the unlikely champion of the people.

In this light, consider anti-Trump pundit George Will’s onetime praise of Trump who, Will then noted, “believes that excess can be a virtue” and in that belief “is as American as Manhattan’s skyline…. Brashness, zeal and elan are part of this country’s character” (quoted in The Art of the Deal, 1987). That was then. But the Will of the Trump era not only renounced Trump but the Republican Party that embraced him as well.

Mansfield narrows Trump’s attack on political correctness to questions having to do with women, but Trump included racial and ethnic identity politics as well.

Haven’t all card-carrying conservative intellectuals at some point denounced affirmative action and identity politics as corrosive of the souls of citizens and of the common good? After all, how does a judge in San Diego even get a case about a New York-based Trump University? More to the point, how did this adherent to a policy of favoring one identity group over others become a judge in the first place?  Why isn’t calling out a “Mexican judge” turnabout as fair play? It’s not as though he hit a girl.

If a candidate won’t defend his own interests, using all weapons at his command, why should the public think he will zealously defend their common interests, especially against pseudo-aristocratic racial/ethnic claims of privilege? It is scarcely egomania, let alone “white nationalism,” to defend oneself from fire coming at one from a safe space. Why are low blows and insults tolerated when they are directed at Republicans, but “unpresidential” and “beneath the dignity of the office” when they are repulsed in equal measure? In fact, Aristotle makes it clear that permitting an injustice to oneself is a vice.    

With these things in mind, I turn now to a book written by three distinguished conservative intellectuals who again combine their talents to produce what may well be the most insightful book written on the 2016 election. In Defying the Odds: The 2016 Elections and American Politics, James Ceaser (University of Virginia), Andrew Busch (Claremont McKenna), and John Pitney (Claremont McKenna) resume their quadrennial series on American presidential elections, going back to 1992 (Pitney having first joined for the previous book).

As I wrote of the 2012 edition, their latest deploys witty prose in combining “the best in political journalism with the most relevant political science scholarship—in other words, a citizen’s perspective but with statistical and empirical support and, above all, historical . . .” background.  Their focus on progressive striving to overcome natural rights and conservative gestures at defending those rights is surely unique in contemporary political science on campaigns.

Not coincidentally, a former student of the two Claremont coauthors, Heidi Cruz, emerged the most impressive spouse in the campaign.

But for all their seriousness and the seriousness with which they attempt to take Trump (and pro-Trump sources such as the Journal of American Greatness and its successor, American Greatness, “Flight 93” author Publius Decius Mus, and Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams) they end up missing Trump’s significance for American politics.  

Review of James Ceaser, Andrew Busch, and John Pitney, Jr., Defying the Odds: the 2016 Elections and American Politics (Rowman & Littlefield, 216 pages, $29.95)

Ceaser’s concluding paragraph (he stands in for all three authors) epitomizes the book’s strengths and weaknesses: “No one . . .  had been more of an outsider. No one had disrupted his own party and the conventions of politics more. No one had, in a single election, laid low the reigning dynasties of both his own party (the Bushes) and the other party (the Clintons).” Just before this, however, they write, “Although it was clear what Trump was against, it was never quite clear what he was for.”

They were unsure, for example, whether Trump would bring about a new form of identity politics, “white nationalism,” or instead call for a new emphasis on “citizenship and the nation.”

In a similar vein, Ceaser sometimes lapses into a kind of moral equivalence between Trump and Clinton—considering both anti-constitutionalist and “authoritarian.” Certainly, these authors should understand that the rise of intellectual elites (e.g., the Clintons with their Yale law degrees  and Obama as the first president with both parents holding Ph.D.s) distorted recent politics.

Trump’s ‘Political Friendship’

While Machiavelli always enlightens, Aristotle provides even better insight into the Trump campaign. Aristotle (Politics V.6) explains, “Oligarchies change most often in two most obvious ways. One occurs when they treat the multitude unjustly, for then any champion is sufficient, especially when it turns out that the leader comes from the oligarchy itself….”

Moreover, though neither Ceaser nor Trump uses this language, the America of failed promises we are now presented with is properly labelled a majority faction, which threatens individual rights and the common good, as seen in the constitutionally dubious waging of futile wars, promoting of illegal immigration, and preference for globalist policy over American interests. With the threat of yet another Bush or Clinton, prime causes of their current discontents, Americans turned as in 1860 to the unlikely candidate most likely to throw off “the slave power,” as the Decius once put it.

Thus Trump opposes identity politics, not by singling out groups, but instead by showing how an American identity is superior to all others (and especially to divisive sub-groupings of Americans). Trump’s patriotism is what Aristotle called political friendship, a kind of friendship of virtue. It is the unity of purpose, individual and national, that Lincoln described in the Gettysburg Address.

Thus Trump opposes identity politics, not by singling out groups, but instead by showing how an American identity is superior to all others (and especially to divisive sub-groupings of Americans). Trump’s patriotism is what Aristotle called political friendship, a kind of friendship of virtue. 

Far from being its enemy, such a “populism” becomes essential to preserve constitutional government, just as clearly as identity politics destroys it. It promotes a higher identity that unites rather than divisive sub-identities that set us against each other. And this is why the political correctness of identity politics is a necessary step to build that enduring faction known as the administrative state. That kind of authoritarianism and anti-constitutionalism is wholly assumed by Clinton. Quite the opposite with Trump.

Ceaser’s characterization of Trump as “post-ideological” misses that Trump is in fact pre-ideological—he thinks in terms of the whole American nation, not in terms of the groups that comprise it. Trump is more like Lincoln at Gettysburg than Madison in Federalist 10.

In a similar way, Trump was clearly the strongest candidate of a weak (not strong, as the conventional wisdom held) Republican field. His serious opponents were pretty much either parochial governors, callow senators, or yet another Bush. The man with “New York values” was, ironically, the only national candidate.

With this Trump in mind, I make my own observations about 2016, including a few major differences with Ceaser:

  • Their comparison of 1992 and 2016 doesn’t work, because George H.W. Bush ran away from Reagan, and Pat Buchanan despises Lincoln.
  • Modifying  the charge that 2016 was “perhaps the most uncivil, vulgar, scandal-flecked campaign in living memory” one should recall the impeachment and trial of Bill Clinton, the political attacks in the anti-Goldwater campaign of 1964, and the Truman campaign of 1948.  
  • A Clinton television ad featured young kids in front of a TV watching Trump at various campaign moments. That played two ways.  I saw the way liberals treat their kids: Dump them in front of a TV without adult supervision.
  • Trump proved himself the best Catholic in attendance at the Cardinal Dolan-hosted Al Smith dinner, speaking truth to power by launching an impolitic attack on Hillary Clinton for her support of abortion rights, to the boos of the assembled audience. Trump won the Catholic vote.
  • Choosing Mormon Evan McMullin as a possible anti-Trump spoiler in Utah was itself a form of low identity politics, showing how corrupted and anti-American their partisan opposition to Trump had become.
  • Making America great again requires a stronger military, so no one should have been surprised by his cabinet and National Security Council adviser picks.
  • Besides demolishing the leading members of party establishments, Trump would redefine the Republican Party as the workers’ party, and welcome back black men as Republican voters (they cast 13 percent of their votes for Trump).
  • Finally, there is the matter of FBI Director James Comey’s various interventions or non-interventions, which continue to reverberate. Our authors write,

If third parties, FBI directors, Russians, and racists are not really satisfactory explanations for Trump’s win, can anything else be offered to help understand this surprising election? An alternative story might be built around world trends, rioters, a weak president, and rampaging progressives.

While there is much in that, the real alternative story of 2016 is Comey as a representative of the administrative state, which Nixon had made his concern. We still don’t know the extent of Comey’s attempts to go well beyond his investigatory obligations to exercise political influence.

Just as the left makes every attack on the administrative state an attack on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, so every Republican Administration becomes for the media and Democrats a replay of Nixon and Watergate. Nixon tried to rollback the Democrats’ successor to the New Deal, the Great Society.  Republicans still haven’t learned the meaning of Watergate, which was far more a political crisis engineered by partisan Democrats than a constitutional crisis brought about by Nixon. Republicans have yet to recognize that their Machiavellian enemies in the bureaucracy, media, and politics brought about Nixon’s demise. Trump has seen that crisis early on in his presidency, embodied in James Comey, and is gamely fighting it..

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America • Americanism • Black Lives Matter • Center for American Greatness • Cultural Marxism • History • Identity Politics • Lincoln • race • The Culture • The Left • The Resistance (Snicker)

Mitch Landrieu: Monument Man for a Lost Cause

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has made a much-heralded case for removal of four Confederate monuments he suddenly found the cause of great evils.

The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity,” he observes. But he arrogantly concludes that now we can “make straight a wrong turn we made many years ago” by making disappear in the night the statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard along with an obelisk celebrating the anti-Reconstruction insurgency. Remove the monuments, counter bad history, Orwellian means to the new enlightenment.

Landrieu, of a venerable Louisiana political family, concedes the dubiousness of this nocturnal purging from his admission that I must have passed by those monuments a million times without giving them a second thought.

Even before the current fracas, Landrieu might have sung the popular 1969 song, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” The lyrics exhibit no defense of slavery, racism or “Lost Cause” history. Rather they evoke honor, family, and above all sorrow and loss.

Like my father before me, I’m a working man

And like my brother before me, I took a rebel stand

He was just 18, proud and brave

But a Yankee laid him in his grave

I swear by the blood below my feet

You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat

The singer’s name, Virgil Caine, recalls both the ancient Roman republic and the book of Genesis. The South he sings of is rooted in ancient stories and deeds, original sins and tragedy. Are these passions not felt when one views such monuments? The sins Landrieu (who admits his own ignorance regarding the monuments) attributes to their creators and what people today understand as they see them varies considerably. No one today wants to restore slavery, and there is likely more sentiment for secession in sanctuary cities than there is in the South. As for the “Lost Cause,” yes, the South lost; that’s what the monuments underscore. They warn: When you start a war, be sure you can finish it. A lesson that recent presidents should have kept in mind.

The “original intent” of a monument or any other work of art can be superseded by the public that views it. The Vietnam Memorial, to take just one example, was clearly designed to denigrate the war and the country that permitted it. But those who loved the Vietnam veterans swarmed about it and transformed the architect’s malign purpose into one of reverence and gratitude. In the many intervening years between today and the construction of these monuments to the Confederacy, I’d argue that something similar has occurred with respect to them.

The public that views them is not looking to renew the Civil War or to glorify the evils that led to it, as Landrieu has claimed. In any event, few today are devoted to “revering a four-year brief historical aberration that was called the Confederacy,” or affirming a “fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.” Instead, they recall a tragic past and the strength of character that it took to heal from self-inflicted wounds. We are not the same people who erected those monuments. But, being their sons and daughters, perhaps we are not so dissimilar that we can’t learn something from their sorrows.

Moreover, Landrieu is either being deceptive or is woefully ignorant about the history he recounts. The enslavement and terror he speaks of existed for almost half of New Orleans’ history. It was not a matter of a mere four years. To wipe that history off the face of the city and transform it into something Landrieu finds more palatable is as impossible as it is ridiculous.

The peddler of a “fictional, sanitized” history himself, Landrieu is making his transformative goal far too easy. Cheap political theater has its costs, however. Once he starts the train of revisionist history, it’s going to be hard to stop. Remove a monument, eat a beignet.

Landrieu claims to want to create public awareness that “New Orleans was America’s largest slave market” and that he sees this as a task of a higher order. How we should understand the past requires even greater wisdom than mere awareness (and you’ll note that Landrieu earlier copped to lacking awareness about the monuments he is tearing down). On this point, Landrieu displays his own vacuity when he asks, “why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks.”

The real challenge for Landrieu and his majority black city council would have been to build such markers rather than to remove the offending ones. But that serious kind of work would not have played well into his partisan motives. Since Landrieu’s father left the office of mayor in 1978, all four of the subsequent mayors of New Orleans have been black. Landrieu, was elected twice with the black vote, but he lost to black incumbent Ray Nagin of Katrina disaster fame in his previous run. By his otherwise unpopular actions, Landrieu is desperately attempting to preserve some future for white elected Democratic politicians in Louisiana.

The otherwise divisive Landrieu spends the rest of his time attempting to unify the city by appealing to sensory pleasures, such as jazz: “Think about second lines, think about Mardi Gras, think about muffaletta, think about the Saints, gumbo, red beans and rice. By God, just think.” But the senses deceive. Relying on them alone would would teach us that human beings are not equal. Our senses deceive and only highlight differences. We need to engage reason to see more deeply.

Still, a principle of right lurks behind the enjoyment of culinary delights and the world of the senses: The spirit of slavery is simply “you work and I eat.” Lincoln went a step farther than “Laissez les bons temps rouler.”

Moreover, Lincoln possessed a great virtue missing in Landrieu’s self-righteousness: charity. “They [the slaveholders] are just what we would be in their situation,” he famously noted.

Landrieu concludes his speech by misappropriating the closing lines of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, showing no sign of acting or understanding what it is to act “With malice toward none; with charity for all…” In describing divine judgment against both North and South, Lincoln does not justify human usurpation of God’s wisdom. Indeed, Lincoln understood that when looking upon the shortcomings of our brothers we ought to pause and reflect that “there, but by the grace of God, go I.”

Finally, Landrieu lacks the magnanimity of a victor. In this he displays the blend of arrogance and spinelessness that one often sees in white Southern liberals. By contrast, Lincoln urged the playing of “Dixie,” the day after Lee’s surrender, and just five days before his assassination: “I have always thought ’Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard. Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted yesterday that we fairly captured it. I presented the question to the Attorney General, and he gave it as his legal opinion that it is our lawful prize. [Laughter and applause.] I now request the band to favor me with its performance.” In this Lincoln insisted we are one people, again as always.

Lincoln was able to be charitable, as a victorious American, as we today should be. With Lincoln we desire to be neither master nor slave, for to be a master means to be a tyrant in one’s own soul and over others. We want instead to be free men and women, equals in that one decisive respect.

Can there be a more contrary, tyrannous passion amok today than the impulse to redo history in one’s own image? Is this vain willfulness not exhibited in riotous college campuses that attack allegedly offensive speakers? That is the tyranny and these are today’s masters whom Landrieu honors by removing the Confederate monuments.

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America • American Conservatism • Editor Picks • Harry Jaffa • Leo Strauss • Lincoln

Crisis of A Strauss Divided

Steve Hayward has been a friend for more years than we’d like to count and his new book, Patriotism Is Not Enough, is a tour de force. He writes the history of one of the most important debates in post-war American conservatism in a way that is lively, readable, and intellectually satisfying even for people who know the debate and the participants well. Tod Lindberg writes an equally interesting review which begins:

“Steven F. Hayward’s Patriotism Is Not Enough is a loose intellectual portrait of the life and thought of Harry V. Jaffa and his circle of close friends and even closer enemies. Jaffa, who died two years ago at the age of 96, was a prominent student of Leo Strauss’s who held forth and shaped a generation of students of his own at Claremont McKenna College and its associated graduate school and institute in California. Jaffa was the author, most famously, of the classic study of Abraham Lincoln, Crisis of the House Divided, a book that sought to establish Lincoln not only as a statesman of the first rank but also as a profound political thinker in his own right.

Jaffa was also among the most quarrelsome men of letters ever to reside in the groves of academe, and it is this fact that gave Hayward’s book its impetus and provides its propulsion throughout. Hayward begins with a juxtaposition of Jaffa and Walter Berns, another prominent student of Strauss’s, with whom Jaffa quarreled incessantly throughout their adult lives. Jaffa and Berns, born six months apart, died on the very same day in 2015. This quirk of mortality set Hayward, a tremendous admirer of both men, on his way, and it informs the book’s personal style, which will painlessly acquaint newcomers with some pivotal moments and issues in recent intellectual history, even as it keeps those who already know the subject entertained.

Jaffa had a uniquely high regard for the American “regime” (if we may indulge the vocabulary of the Straussian school). And it was Lincoln, in Jaffa’s view, who played the pivotal role in its true establishment. The framers of the U.S. Constitution had done admirable work. But coping as they had to with a grave political problem—how to create a union of both slaveholding states and states where the practice was forbidden—they lost their grip on what Jaffa takes as the true founding document of the United States: the Declaration of Independence. In dissolving their ties with England and establishing a nation of their own, the Americans claimed they were acting in accordance with “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Lindberg’s entire review does justice to one of the best books of the year. Read the rest at Commentary.


America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Conservatives • Declaration of Independence • Donald Trump • Greatness Agenda • History • Lincoln • self-government • Trump White House

Is Trump’s Embrace of Andrew Jackson a Problem?

The arrival of a column by National Review founder William F. Buckley was almost always of some intellectual and literary significance. With his high command of the English language, Buckley would explore a vexing question of public policy or pillory an unsuspecting political opponent. He often made quick work of arguments that were logically defective and employed witty repartees with the skill of a gold medalist fencer.

The columns of the current editor of National Review, Rich Lowry, are something of a different nature. Though Lowry does see problems within the conservative movement and he seems sincerely to want to find solutions, his columns lately tend to slide into gauzy sentimentalism and thinly-veiled anti-Trumpism.

After all, the infamous “Against Trump” issue of National Review, whose only virtue was to show the world just how little pull the magazine has outside the elite conservative bubble, was Lowry’s brainchild. So it’s natural that he might feel as though he has something to prove.

Lowry’s analysis got marginally better once Trump became president, but he still offers banal but predictable assertions that fit the acceptable and conventionally respectable Beltway pundit narrative.

His post-inauguration columns typically go something like this: “Trump might be right, but—dammit—he’s Trump, so still a fool!”

In a recent column for USA Today, for example, he noted that the so-called “best and brightest” who comprised the 2016 Republican presidential candidate offerings foolishly thought that invoking Ronald Reagan endlessly would have the same effect upon Republican leaning voters that Dr. Pavlov had on his dogs when he rang a bell. As Lowry nicely put it, “The conventional Republicans in the 2016 primary race hewed to Reaganism as a creed frozen in amber circa 1981.”

But this analysis misses the significance of Trump’s political message about returning the power over government back to its rightful master: the people. Who better to appropriate in this manner than Jackson, a man who was always skeptical of internal improvement projects and other government-backed ventures which too easily became the crony capitalist schemes of his day.

But Trump, of course, couldn’t be right on the matter. His “heterodox mix of policies” are simply a “jumble” of disparate aims with no underlying principle holding them together. Oddly, Lowry then ended his column by bemoaning Republicans who “have fallen hard for something else” (i.e., Trump) and hoped that “Reaganism…will emerge again.” Why Lowry suddenly thought reviving the Reagan Mystery Cult is the needed strategy for winning a national campaign when he so eloquently bashed that very idea earlier in the same column is incomprehensible to this reader.

Lowry’s latest op-ed in Politico is no better. That column, with the unintentionally satiric title “The Party of Lincoln,” is full of bromides and asides that are better left to late-night dorm room conversations. Lowry argues that Trump is trying to revive the legacy of Andrew Jackson à la Lin-Manuel Miranda’s attempts at recovering Alexander Hamilton.

If the scale of this comparison doesn’t seem quite right, well, that’s because it isn’t.

Yes, Trump put Jackson’s picture up in the Oval Office and visited The Hermitage, Jackson’s estate in Tennessee. He also recently invoked Jackson in a thought experiment about how to keep our nation together at a time of disruption and disharmony, but our illustrious journalist class was happy to pretend that Trump was ignorant of Jackson’s death before the Civil War. Lowry, piling on and wearing his credentials well, writes as if Trump mused about Jackson randomly and with blanket approval, without giving the conversation a proper context.

Lowry then turns to his main argument, which is that by citing Jackson with approval in this way, Trump is kicking the legacy of Abraham Lincoln to the curb.

Trump’s invocation of Jackson in this limited way is intended to allow his anti-ruling class message to resonate with voters. And why this can’t be done without coming at Lincoln’s expense is a mystery. After all, though they certainly had disagreements, Lincoln and Jackson agreed that the principle of government by consent is the keystone of just government.

But this analysis misses the significance of Trump’s political message about returning the power over government back to its rightful master: the people. Who better to appropriate in this manner than Jackson, a man who was always skeptical of internal improvement projects and other government-backed ventures which too easily became the crony capitalist schemes of his day.

Trump’s invocation of Jackson in this limited way is intended to allow his anti-ruling class message to resonate with voters. And why this can’t be done without coming at Lincoln’s expense is a mystery. After all, though they certainly had disagreements, Lincoln and Jackson agreed that the principle of government by consent is the keystone of just government.

There is no zero-sum game in honestly appropriating past politicians and statesmen who agreed on principles for political purposes after their deaths. And there is no doubt that Jackson and Lincoln both would be appalled at the current state of our regime and the lack of obvious connection between the laws that govern the lives of Americans and their consent.

Further, Lincoln himself appropriated Jackson’s legacy on certain occasions for political gain, a point not missed by Lowry in his piece and yet, somehow, still lost. In light of sectional fighting in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, Lincoln happily told an audience how “General Jackson” swiftly “put an end” to the “Calhoun Nullifying doctrine.” After the Supreme Court’s infamous ruling in the Dred Scott case, Lincoln noted Jackson’s efforts to maintain the idea that each branch has a duty to understand the Constitution independently of the Supreme Court’s interpretation.

Finally, Lowry’s contention that by using Jackson in this manner, Trump is casting off Lincoln as the standard-bearer of the modern GOP is the height of irony. This might be news to Lowry, but the Republicans did that themselves a long time ago. No help from Trump was required.

How Lincolnian is it to continually oversee the expansion of the administrative state (but, says the movement conservative, at least it’s at a slower rate!), increase the federal government’s role into affairs originally left to the states, spread “democracy” abroad thus violating the sovereignty of the people of other countries, and bow obsequiously to the idea of judicial supremacy? What would Lincoln think of a Republican Congress’s inability for years to pass an actual budget? And what would he think about Republican office holders clothing all the above in rhetoric fetishizing the Founders and himself?

Calling the modern Republican Party the Party of Lincoln is about as inapt as calling the modern day Democratic Party the Party of Jackson and Jefferson (that is, when the Democrats aren’t denouncing them as a racist deplorables). Lincoln wouldn’t recognize the Republican Party of today anymore than Jackson would the modern Democratic Party.

Living up to the standards of Lincoln is a lofty goal indeed. But by invoking Jackson, Trump is not doing damage to that legacy. In contrast, he is highlighting aspects of Jackson which Lincoln shared in order to re-orient our politics back toward the people’s interests and not those of the ruling class. Certainly, Lincoln and Jackson can both be cited and recommended for understanding this project.


America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Declaration of Independence • Defense of the West • Harry Jaffa • Leo Strauss • Lincoln • Michael Anton • political philosophy • Section 1 • The Constitution • The Culture

Rod Dreher, Meet Leo Strauss and Friends

Leo Strauss

Rod Dreher has discovered an exotic tribe known as the Straussians.

Dreher, in case you’re not aware, is a blogger at The American Conservative and is the author of several books, including his newest and much-hyped The Benedict Option. Prior to landing his own blog at TAC, he worked at National Review, was an editor and columnist at The Dallas Morning News, and then worked at the John Templeton Foundation outside of Philadelphia as its publications director.

Dreher’s discovery, and a sudden onset of severe Straussophobia, occurred after a recent talk at Benedictine College where he encountered a student of the late Harry Jaffa, Susan Traffas. (Traffas wrote her PhD dissertation under Jaffa’s tutelage, which was later published as Jerusalem and Athens: Reason and Revelation in the Works of Leo Strauss.) Professor Traffas, says Dreher, was very critical of the Benedict Option concept and described herself as “a die-hard Straussian.” Dreher copped to not “know[ing] a lot about political theory,” and to therefore being unfamiliar with Straussians. But, never fear. He did some digging. After apparently taking a whole fifteen minutes to read through an essay on a website of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute about how different groups of conservatives view the American Founding, he came up with this sweeping claim:

Assuming that this is an accurate characterization of the Straussian view, it explains in part why so many politically oriented conservatives (not only those who affirmatively identify as Straussian) react strongly against the Benedict Option. America is not a state so much as it is a religion. To give up on the liberalism that created this creedal nation is, to use New Testament language about the Church, to allow the gates of Hell to prevail against America. It would invalidate their political religion. Therefore, they cannot admit the possibility that the American experiment might be failing, or can fail.

There is so much to be said about these and so many other casual assertions that Dreher makes in this piece, I am not sure where to begin.

East vs. West Revisited

First, Dreher misses a crucial distinction apparent even in the ISI essay he claims to have studied. It is West Coast Straussians, and not necessarily Straussians in general, who tend to view the American Founding as a high achievement both politically and philosophically. But before delving into particulars, we must back up a bit to get a larger view of the Straussian genealogy.

As a quick primer, the term “Straussian” refers to students and admirers of Leo Strauss, the German émigré who revived the teaching of political philosophy in the twentieth century. Whatever their differences, Straussians see that the study of political philosophy is still possible because great questions such as “Who rules?” and “What is the purpose of a just regime?” are always relevant to political life. The lessons of the great texts of philosophy such as Aristotle’s Ethics or John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government are always available to us because the truth of an idea does not hinge upon when or where or by whom it was first articulated. This is because truth, right and wrong, just and unjust, exist by nature—which Strauss opposed to the reigning orthodoxies of his day: historicism, positivism, and nihilism (hence the title of his most famous work, Natural Right And History).

A split emerged between Strauss’s students in the 1970s specifically over how the American Founding should be viewed, which stems from a more general disagreement about how to understand the relationship between politics and philosophy. The camps were dubbed East and West since they mostly broke down geographically, with West Coasters based mainly in California and East Coasters based in metropolises like New York, Washington, D.C., and Toronto. Today, the monikers East and West are less helpful since many East Coasters reside on the West Coast and vice-versa. As Charles Kesler once remarked in National Review, the “distinction is more a state of mind than of geography.”

West Coast Straussians are students of Harry Jaffa, his students, or his students’ students and can be found at places like the Claremont Institute and Hillsdale College. To generalize for the sake of clarity, West Coasters believe that America is a high and noble regime (Jaffa argued that it was the best regime in the history of Western civilization) because it is concerned ultimately with securing the highest ends of political life, the safety and happiness of its citizens. The American Founders combined the best elements of classical and early modern philosophy, along with biblical revelation, to form a coherent political theory that served the cause of liberty. The cornerstone of the American regime for West Coasters is the Declaration of Independence—especially the principle that “all men are created equal.” Though they see the principles of the Founding as theoretically sound, the Founding in practice was incomplete until the conclusion of the Civil War because of the stain of chattel slavery, which was in clear contradiction with the principle of natural human equality.

In contrast, East Coast Straussians tend to see the American Founding as, in Leo Strauss’s words (quoting Winston Churchill), “low but solid.” Some of the more famous East Coasters are Harvey C. Mansfield, Thomas Pangle, and the late Allan Bloom. America, in their view, is a modern commercial republic that is based upon the utilitarian virtue of acquiring wealth and property rather than more noble virtues or caring for the souls of its citizens. It is a country born of the modern mind of John Locke, whose philosophy was primarily founded upon sheer self-interest and a doctrine of individual rights that lowers the importance of the duties one owes to one’s family, country, and religion. Though lower in its aims, and perhaps even in spite of them, America became a great and prosperous country. Since natural rights are a dubious foundation for the perpetuation of a republic over the span of generations, the touchstone for East Coasters is the Constitution and the institutional constraints it imposes, which act as a stabilizing force against the rights revolution the Founders helped unleash in 1776.

Thomas G. West’s essay on the West-East division, “Jaffa vs. Mansfield,” is essential reading for those interested in a more detailed examination of the fault lines between these groups.

It’s also important to note that ISI is a traditionalist conservative organization that is far more amenable to the views of the East Coasters than West Coasters. Before branding them as heretics, Dreher should check out the Claremont Institute and American Greatness (especially the essays of Michael Anton “Decius”) and get a clear understanding of how West Coast Straussians understand themselves.

Deifying the State?

Dreher intimates that “Straussians” (he means West Coast Straussians) have an “idolatrous faith in the American ideal.” “America,” in the eyes of the West Coasters supposedly, “is not a state so much as it is a religion.”

What counts as “idolatrous” in Dreher’s mind you may ask? According to the section of the ISI website he quotes, it seems to be the idea that “the Declaration is the statement of the fundamental principles on which the regime is founded.” Furthermore, it’s the “special emphasis” West Coasters put “on the second paragraph in which Jefferson declares that ‘all men are created equal.’”

But if looking favorably upon the Declaration and the principle of equality is a sin against God, then America has been corrupt in the worldly sense from the very beginning. Many Americans apart from those who inhabit the fairly small circle of West Coast Straussians have considered the Declaration and the ideas it espouses—especially that of equality—as the bedrock foundation of the American political tradition.

To get clear on terms, equality in the Founders’ sense means simply this: Unlike a colony of bees in which a queen rules her drones by nature, there are no natural rulers of men. As it is expressed in the Declaration, the principle of equality recognizes that regardless of race, sex, ethnicity, or religion, human beings are free to order their lives as they see fit.

Abraham Lincoln described the place of equality in the American mind this way:

Public opinion, on any subject, always has a “central idea,” from which all its minor thoughts radiate. That “central idea” in our political public opinion, at the beginning was, and until recently has continued to be, “the equality of men.”

In the Founding era, the importance of the Declaration and equality rightly understood is found virtually at every turn. Eight state constitutions written and ratified in the 1770s and 80s feature language that paraphrase “all men are created equal.” For example, the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which was written by future president John Adams, states in Article I, “All men are born free and equal.” Similarly, the Constitution of Virginia of 1776 contends that “all men are by nature equally free and independent.”

Jefferson, writing to George Washington in 1784, argued that “the foundation on which all [the state constitutions] are built is the natural equality of man.” In a letter to Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration who would later serve as James Madison’s Vice President, John Adams called equality “our first principle.”

Regarding the importance of the Declaration, at the top of a list of foundational core documents for the curriculum of a proposed law school, James Madison named the Declaration of Independence as among the “best guides” on the “distinctive principles of the Government of [Virginia], and that of the United States.” Frederick Douglass called the Declaration the “ring-bolt to the chain of [the] nation’s destiny” and argued that the “principles contained in that instrument are saving principles.” President Calvin Coolidge noted in his speech on the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration that it laid out “immortal truths” which would “liberate America” and “ennoble humanity.”

It’s difficult to understand how seeing the Declaration as the cornerstone of the American regime and its pronouncement of natural human equality as important to the meaning of America is somehow beyond the bounds of proper patriotism. Dreher, admittedly, isn’t too familiar with the Founders’ political theory (in his 2006 book Crunchy Cons, he butchers the Founders on religion and mangles a John Adams quote all in the span of two pages) so perhaps it’s not surprising he thinks along these lines.

Rod Dreher, Meet Decius

Dreher’s argument that West Coast Straussians would be aghast at conceding “that the American experiment might be failing, or can fail” is quite frankly absurd.

The irony in Dreher’s blind broadside against West Coasters in this instance is that West Coast-influenced places such as The Journal of American Greatness, American Greatness, and the newly established journal American Affairs all share a clear-eyed view of the current degraded state of our regime. In fact, it’s the very concern that “the American experiment might be failing” that served as the foundation of many West Coasters’ arguments for why Americans should elect Donald Trump.

If Dreher had read the writings of Michael Anton with care—especially his famous “Flight 93” essay (which I know Dreher read because he offered a critique of it)—he would know that they are replete with sober acknowledgements of how far we have descended from the Founders’ regime.

Here are some examples from Anton’s many writings that prove this point beyond a shadow of a doubt:

  • The Flight 93 Election” – “If conservatives are right about the importance of virtue, morality, religious faith, stability, character and so on in the individual; if they are right about sexual morality or what came to be termed ‘family values’; if they are right about the importance of education to inculcate good character and to teach the fundamentals that have defined knowledge in the West for millennia; if they are right about societal norms and public order; if they are right about the centrality of initiative, enterprise, industry, and thrift to a sound economy and a healthy society; if they are right about the soul-sapping effects of paternalistic Big Government and its cannibalization of civil society and religious institutions; if they are right about the necessity of a strong defense and prudent statesmanship in the international sphere—if they are right about the importance of all this to national health and even survival, then they must believe—mustn’t they?—that we are headed off a cliff.”
  • Restatement on Flight 93” – “I would also be overjoyed to be persuaded that the country into which I was born, which I have always loved instinctively, and which I was taught to love at the deepest theoretical level, is not in grave peril. Or if it is, that it can be saved even after eight more years of ‘fundamental transformation’—which means administrative state consolidation and managerial class entrenchment.”
  • Not ‘Reactionary’ But Right” – “I believe these are corrupt times and that America is on the downslope of the cycle. I don’t think the situation is yet irredeemable. But it soon may be.”
  • The Telos Crisis” – “My point here is not that we should cease to love America, our home, but simply that the sickness that has overtaken our country, a sickness that has stolen our sense of common national purpose, is quite possibly a sickness unto death.”

Actually, the last point was from a recent blog post written by none other than Rod Dreher. They sound remarkably similar, don’t they?

In fact just last September, Dreher argued that he wasn’t “remotely persuaded by [“The Flight 93 Election”] either, except in its contention that we are at a critical moment in the life of the Republic.” Why Dreher now thinks that West Coast Straussians would never admit that our country is balancing precariously on a precipice is a mystery that would take Sherlock Holmes to solve.

An Argument Between Citizens

Lastly, Dreher’s deeply immoderate rhetorical strategy seems to be to make hasty generalizations based on one-sided information and immediately hurl accusations rather than take part in reasoned reflection and dialogue. To paraphrase his arguments, “I’ve barely ever heard of Leo Strauss, and I hardly have any idea of who West Coast Straussians are, but they are committing heresy against God by deifying the state until someone proves otherwise” is probably not the best way to engage an audience who might actually sympathize with your arguments. This inquisitorial tactic is better at home with the modern approach of launching all-out rhetorical war against one’s political opponents, whereby individuals are said to be “DESTROYED” by the sniping of late night talk show hosts (yet, somehow, the individuals “annihilated” remain on earth to be targeted for future utterances that violate the ruling class’s god of political correctness).

Differences of opinion are, of course, welcome, and one need not accept the positions of West Coast Straussians in order to be counted among the learned. But, to quote Lincoln one last time, marking your opponent to be “shunned and despised” will cause him to “retreat within himself” and “close all the avenues to his head and his heart.” For not even “Herculean force and precision” will “be able to pierce him;” it would be akin to “penetrat[ing] the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.”
Instead of immediately launching accusations that wither under the most cursory of examinations, Dreher should take some time to familiarize himself with the writings of Harry Jaffa, John Marini, Charles Kesler, William Voegeli, Thomas West, Ronald Pestritto, and others from which he would benefit greatly, even if he may ultimately disagree with their arguments. His regular readers would likely find such a dialogue to be very much worth their while. And those among the Straussian orbit would certainly find his opinions more compelling.