America • Americanism • First Principles • History • Post • The Declaration

The Lessons of the Declaration of Independence

The colonists’ quest for independence from the British in 1776 began with a goal: “to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.” Declaring independence meant that Americans were no longer subordinate to the British monarch nor subject to the British Parliament, but were equal, free, and independent.

The reasons for this dramatic action demanded explanation, as they noted:  “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” Therefore, the Declaration includes two parts. There are on the one hand facts about the conduct and behavior of the British toward the colonists. On the other, there are immutable truths about the human condition. These truths have guided Americans in their quest to live and to build a just and worthy nation since they were penned.

The colonists recognized a universal standard independent of man-made governments and institutions, invoking the authority of the laws of nature and of nature’s God. The coupling of God and Nature was comprehensive. It included that which is human and of this world and that which is created by God and universal.

In his 1837 speech commemorating the Declaration of Independence, John Quincy Adams coupled the laws of nature with the dictates of justice and proclaimed: “In the annals of the human race, then, for the first time, did one People announce themselves as a member of that great community of the powers of the earth, acknowledging the obligations and claiming the rights of the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God. The earth was made to bring forth in one day! A Nation was born at once!”

The now citizens of the United States of America were not just severing ties with their colonial British past, nor were they simply forming a new government. The foundation laid by the Declaration of Independence articulated truths that had never been used as the foundation of any actual government. “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.”

These rights are comprehensive in the lives of men and women, though it is important to note that the document says “among these rights,” which suggests that this list is not exhaustive. That such rights exist is a matter of self-evident truth—that is, the truth of the thing is contained within the definition of the thing. To acknowledge that there is such a thing as “man,” created by God and not himself a god, is to acknowledge his equality to every other creature that can be called “man”—and that goes for females, too. Man, as in mankind, meant that in their essential dignity and nature as beings, created by God, they are beings who are by nature also created equal.

The mere assertion that a sovereign people have inalienable rights is not sufficient, however, because government is always required to secure those rights. A right can exist without people acknowledging it. For rights to be actualized, action is required and the authors of the Declaration were very clear about what kind of action they meant.

The relationship between the citizens and the government is made clear by Adams: “by the affirmation that the principal natural rights of mankind are unalienable, it placed them beyond the reach of organized human power.” This reinforces the idea that government is meant to secure rights rather than grant them, and also the notion that the people themselves, rather than the government, are sovereign.

As Adams continues in his explanation of the text of the Declaration, “by affirming that governments are instituted to secure them, and may and ought to be abolished if they become destructive of those ends, they made all government subordinate to the moral supremacy of the People.” The rights recognized in the Declaration are inherent. The moral supremacy of the people gives a standard by which to judge: it is not force or violence, it is a moral foundation that can be discerned by reason and used as a basis for forming judgments.

How best to understand further the rights and the powers of government to secure our rights as stated in the Declaration? Thomas Jefferson, one of the principal drafters of the Declaration of Independence, expounded upon the limitations of the legislature in his Virginia Bill for Religious Freedom. Drafted in 1779, he included references to the natural rights listed in the Declaration: “And though we well know that this assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding assemblies, constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act to be irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present, or to narrow its operation, such as would be an infringement of natural right” (emphasis added). This theme is advanced as well by Frederick Douglass and Calvin Coolidge, who invoke the word “final” to describe the sentiment.

Douglass in his 1852 speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” described those who drafted the Declaration as preferring revolution over peaceful submission to bondage.

They were quiet men; but they did not shrink from agitating against oppression. They showed forbearance; but that they knew its limits. They believed in order; but not in the order of tyranny. With them, nothing was ‘settled’ that was not right. With them, justice, liberty and humanity were ‘final;’ not slavery and oppression. You may well cherish the memory of such men. They were great in their day and generation. Their solid manhood stands out the more as we contrast it with these degenerate times.

Coolidge, in his speech on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, also looked upon the Declaration as having a finality: “If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions.”

The finality that Jefferson, Douglass, and Coolidge invoke doesn’t mean that America is static or without the possibility of development or improvement. Instead, it affirms that the principles of the Declaration of Independence are ideals and markers by which to measure all conduct thereafter. The citizens have a responsibility to themselves and to fellow citizens to act in a manner consistent with the foundational principles. One need look no further than Douglass and his reference to “degenerate times.”

The times of which Douglass spoke were among the darkest in the history of the United States. The Declaration recognized that all men are created equal and that they possessed inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but slavery was still present in the southern states. Douglass condemned the recently passed Fugitive Slave Law, which required that slaves in free states be returned to their bondage. He was a freed slave who was active in the abolitionist movement and intentionally gave his “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” speech on July 5. He pointedly included in his remarks about the Fourth of July, “it is the birthday of your National Independence.”

Douglass posed questions to his audience: “Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?” He continues, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th 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.”

Douglass was blunt. He questioned how the country could declare the self-evident truths of the Declaration, but “you hold securely, in a bondage which, according to your own Thomas Jefferson, ‘is worse than ages of that which your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose,’ a seventh part of the inhabitants of your country.” Not only were those in the south who held slaves denying them fundamental rights, they were also masters of them in direct contradiction to the principles of the Declaration.

Douglass spoke those words in 1852, but he ended his speech on a note of hope: “Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. ‘The arm of the Lord is not shortened,’ and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.”

Lincoln, with respect to the principle of equality in the Declaration, said in his speech responding to the Supreme Court’s 1857 decision in Dred Scott:

They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere. The assertion that ‘all men are created equal’ was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain; and it was placed in the Declaration, not for that, but for future use.

The eternal and universal principles used to craft an argument for severing ties with the British and laying the foundation for a new nation were successful in 1776, but their relevance did not end once America became an independent nation, as Lincoln recognized. The principles used as justification and explanation speak to all, as much today as they did 243 years ago. The Declaration is a measure that serves as a reference point, regardless of the time or of a particular set of circumstances. That we are created equal is not dependent upon our being American, or male or female, or our economic condition. It is a universal truth.

That we have inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is not dependent upon the government that is in power. That we have the right to alter our government if it becomes destructive of these rights is as true today as it was in 1776. That government is intended to secure our rights and derives its just powers from the consent of the governed reminds us that the foundation of the sovereignty of the people requires participation and vigilance. Consent is given on an ongoing basis and the judgment of whether the government is securing the rights of American citizens or thwarting them is a constant exercise. The words and themes of the Declaration have remained at the heart of American discourse because they provide a guide that is timeless.

There are great differences between the likes of John Quincy Adams, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and Calvin Coolidge, yet they all read the Declaration because it spoke to them and it spoke to the America in which they lived, but it also spoke to the America that they wanted it to become.

The Declaration of Independence speaks to us today because it initiates dialogue between the ages, with the ideas and arguments of citizens past and with those living today. When we are forced to ponder all of the assertions and truths in the Declaration, we must engage in a dialogue with our fellow citizens. To quote from another great work from the period of the Declaration, Federalist 1, we are asked to determine whether we can establish good government from “reflection and choice” or are doomed to accept that we must submit to “accident and force.”

The Declaration provides the parameters of the discussion that lead to reflection and choice. As America becomes more fragmented—the current word is tribalistic—as monuments to historical figures are being toppled, questions asked about how America’s past should be honored or erased, or whether one should stand or take a knee during the National Anthem, such parameters and the principles of the Declaration are necessary. The annual remembrance of the ideals and recitation of the words, a deliberation and reflection upon the meaning and applicability of the words must be an occurrence that goes beyond the Fourth of July.

Editor’s Note: This essay is based upon a speech delivered at the St. John’s College Graduate Institute, Santa Fe, New Mexico, “Does the Declaration of Independence Still Speak to Us Today?”

Photo Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

2016 Election • America • Book Recommendations • Book Reviews • Center for American Greatness • Conservatives • Donald Trump • Post • The Declaration

From ‘Flight 93’ to Air Force One

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Michael Anton, author of the most consequential pro-Trump article written during the 2016 campaign, “The Flight 93 Election,” returns with a short, 97-page book, After the Flight 93 Election.

Besides his original 4,300 word essay—the entirety of which Rush Limbaugh read on-air to an electrified audience shortly after it appeared in September 2016—Anton includes new material in the form of both a “pre-statement” and a “re-statement” of his original article. Those who were paying attention in 2016 will recall that Anton’s  stark presentation of the consequences of a Hillary Clinton victory—charge the cockpit or die!—and the continuing failure of Conservatism, Inc. with its succession of Bushoisie, helped to galvanize Republicans and conservatives who were uncertain about whether Trump’s unorthodox political presentation was in line with their hopes for the country. Anton showed why Trump was not just the only choice but, in fact, a sound choice.

But the struggle that consumed us then remains today, and perhaps is more desperate than ever: the people must still repudiate a resurgent Progressive Left as well as the flabby accommodationist conservatism of Beltway denizens still pining for the days of the Bushes, Paul Ryan, John McCain, and the “gravitas” of Mitt Romney. Anton’s withering assaults on these so-called “conservatives” exposed their foreign policy of futile war, uncontrolled immigration, “free trade” dogmatism, and their meek submission to political correctness.

In the continuing civil war, the D.C. “conservatives” and their mainstream media allies snarl supercilious sneers at Anton, 49, who served 14 months on the Trump National Security staff. Nonetheless, even some on the Left cannot help but appreciate his wit. In his Flight 93 essay Anton gave the con-jobs plenty to be mad about, with his mockery of their Davoisie ways and his comparing them to the “Washington Generals” facing the “Harlem Globetrotters” of the Left, to name just two of his more cutting rebukes (because they’re true).

For a few months in the spring of 2016 Anton developed the arguments that would eventually become his “Flight 93 Election” essay in frequently hilarious posts for an online and pseudonymous blog, the Journal of American Greatness, which abruptly ceased publication as the increasing notoriety of its arguments threatened the anonymity of some of its contributors who feared professional repercussions if outed. But the work of JAG, nevertheless, was a major contributing influence to the magazine you are now reading, which was established shortly after JAG went dark.

The majority of Anton’s book consists of new material explaining the intellectual grounding of Anton’s spirited election rallying cry. In making his case for Trump, I regard his work as a spirited corrective to Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, the late professor’s best-selling 1987 attack on the soft nihilism of the modern mind on campuses.

Likewise drawing from the great books, Anton makes his case for a rational patriotism, following the model in the Declaration of Independence and Aristotle. But Anton, unlike Bloom, wants to develop an “American solution” to form a shield against violent forces abroad and misguided or hostile critics from both the Left and Right at home.

Deploying these philosophic and practical texts, Anton, with his teachers such as Claremont Institute scholars Charles Kesler, the late Harry V. Jaffa, Thomas G. West, and John Marini, produces a “political argument” outlining and then defending “the essences of conservatism, Americanism, and Western civilization.” While the struggle for the controls in the cockpit of our hijacked republic required only desperate courage (together with an Anton shake of the shoulders), the ultimate political war cannot be won without intellectual clarity. But now in place of hijackers at the controls, America has a pilot. Whether our pilot can right the plane safely and continue flying is still an open question. Hijackers are still at the door and, besides, they’ve already damaged the plane.

“The fundamental choice we face in our time,” Anton insists, “is whether to maintain the consensus in favor of self-loathing and self-destruction or return to life and the conditions of life….” This is the “American solution”—the affirmation of a life of freedom, civilization, and the common good against the clamorous claims of imperious identity groups.

Thus Anton sees in Trump a defender of constitutional government—an anti-authoritarian advocate of limited government. Trump and his supporters are really advocates of self-government. Though just as Abraham Lincoln was falsely branded a dictator by his scurrilous opponents, so too Trump bears the scars of their latter-day successors.

In what way are identity leftists and NeverTrumpers the spawn of Confederates? Because at the heart of their objection to America is the notion that their wills should be unlimited, that government by consent is a joke, that the rule of some can be justified on the grounds of credentials, race, or purity of heart. In other words, legitimate government does not rest on the principle of human equality and the consent of the governed that it demands, as the Declaration of Independence maintains. Instead, these pretenders claim to rule legitimately by virtue of their status as “chosen” elites whose superior wisdom and understanding gives them title to it. Constitutionalism and the rule of law rest on principles which refute such tyranny.

As I noted in my own reflections on 2016, following Anton’s, “FDR in his First Inaugural address compared himself to Jesus Christ and anointed himself as commander in chief, with citizens as conscripts in his personal army. In his 1944 State of the Union address, Roosevelt characterized 1920s Republicans as fascists”—see the sixth paragraph from the end. Democratic presidents since FDR have accepted his view of the presidency. Today’s leftists are simply more intemperate versions of FDR.

Both Left and Right, liberals and conservatives—and Anton would gladly escape these outmoded and conventional labels—reject the notion that equality so understood is the American principle. President Obama regarded the Declaration of Independence as a justification for laws covering everything the leftist heart desires, while Anton would urge that the Declaration produced a government energetic but limited by the principle of consent of the governed in what it could rightly do. (The opinions of Justice Clarence Thomas are often the clearest brief analysis of this principle as applied to a particular situation.)

To emphasize Anton’s scholarly intentions, this review cannot close without mention of the several pages Anton takes to reflect on the meaning of names—in particular the pen name he used to write his blog posts and the original Flight 93 essay, Decius, which comes from Publius Decius Mus, the name of two Roman heroes described in Machiavelli’s Discourses. A scholarly objection to his using the name permits Anton to elaborate on his understanding of Machiavelli and the new “modes and orders” he wished to institute as an innovator and patriot. Machiavelli, he argues, uses the Decii in support of his view that republics (and religions) that wish to renew themselves must ever return to their beginnings.

The argument calls to mind Anton’s first book, The Suit: A Machiavellian Approach to Men’s Style (2006). The brilliant satire about fashion, requiring its reader to compare these chapters with those of The Prince, bears as author the pen name Nicholas Antongiavanni. (Anton’s middle name is John.) Toward the end, he declares, following the original, “fashion is a harlot; and it is necessary, if one wants to protect oneself, to beat her back and spurn her enticements . . . .” In other words, “Young men, do not believe appearances!” His concluding, 26th chapter exhorts young Americans to “Seize Dress and to Free It from the Vulgarians.” For “if … American tastes have gone to hell, that only increases the glory, honor, and gratitude due to you for this marvelous deed.”

Michael Anton, defend us in battle!

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Photo Credit: Saint Michael the Archangel defeats Lucifer, 1656 Francesco Maffei 1605-1660. Oil on board. Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

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

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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.

Administrative State • America • Americanism • Congress • Deep State • Donald Trump • Economy • Energy • Environment • EU • Political Parties • Republicans • self-government • The Constitution • The Declaration • Trump White House

Self-Government Not Climate at Issue in Paris Agreement

It’s time for a serious discussion about what just happened with the Paris Climate agreement. President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. participation was not only a fulfillment of his campaign promise and utterly predictable, it was his clear legal prerogative to do it. The Paris agreement was not a treaty; it was not law. It was a personal agreement between Barack Obama and a number of other world leaders. Their agreement not only lacked hard enforcement provisions, they were not binding on the home nations of any of the signators that did not then decide to make it the law of their lands.

For our purposes here, it is less interesting to debate whether or not climate change is natural or man-made, or whether the worst-case scenarios offered about its supposed effects are realistic. Those are questions of judgment and they are not the issue at hand. Instead, we want to focus on the legitimacy of these kinds of international agreements and how they are made under the United States Constitution. In other words, who gets to make the judgments discussed above? And who decides what the United States should do in response to potential climate change?

If the Paris accord had been ratified by the Senate, it would be federal law. If it was law, then President Trump would have no power to withdraw the United States from participating in it.

For the sake of argument, let us assume that climate change is caused directly by man’s activity and that it will lead to catastrophic environmental consequences. Within the next century, coastal cities will be inundated by the oceans, widespread crop failures will lead to worldwide famines, and any number of disastrous events will be the result of our failure to enact the provisions of the Paris Agreement.

If all this is true, then it was the duty of President Obama not only to make a personal agreement with other world leaders, but to make the case for the Paris Agreement to the Senate and the American people. It is only through ratification by the Senate that any agreement made by a President of the United States becomes a treaty under U.S. law.

Article 2, section 2 of the United States Constitution reads, “He (the President) shall have power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur.” If the Paris Climate Accord was an issue of primary importance, this should have been done.

If the Paris accord had been ratified by the Senate, it would be federal law. If it was law, then President Trump would have no power to withdraw the United States from participating in it. The primary duty of the President, as stated in section 3 of Article 2 is that, “he shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” If it had been a ratified international treaty, President Trump would be obligated to carry out the Paris Agreement, barring an additional act of Congress to repeal it.

Why then was the Paris agreement not presented to the Senate for their ratification? Doubtless, many Democrats would defend then President Obama’s inaction due to the fact that there was a Republican majority in the Senate that might not have been receptive to the pact. That is hardly an acceptable excuse, and it is emblematic of a much deeper problem with President Obama’s take on governing. If the case for the Paris agreement is as clear as its advocates claim, certainly that case could have been made to the Senators and the the people that they represent.

For all their talk about “democracy” and the “people,” the simple truth is that progressives don’t have much use for democratic institutions. They do not really believe in self-government. What they believe in is government by an expert elite who deem it their fate in life to protect the people from themselves.

A poll conducted by the George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication in November of 2016, cited by the Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, The Atlantic and many other legacy media outlets, makes the claim that 71% of Americans support the Paris deal, with only 13% opposed. They go on to say that even a majority of Republicans, including Trump voters, support the Paris agreement. If this is to be believed, certainly the pressure of public opinion might have been mustered to pressure the requisite number of Senators to ratify the agreement and make a treaty, right?

For all their talk about “democracy” and the “people,” the simple truth is that progressives don’t have much use for democratic institutions. They do not really believe in self-government. What they believe in is government by an expert elite who deem it their fate in life to protect the people from themselves.

This was the regular course of action during the Obama presidency. Obama did not deign to make the case through our Constitutionally-mandated system of checks and balances, but sought instead to put into place policies that did not enjoy popular support by empowering unelected bureaucrats who shared his preferences to take on roles never envisioned by the lawmakers who created the laws that empowered them. We can see this nowhere more clearly than in “environmental” policy through the overreach of the Obama EPA.

What progressives in the Democratic Party (and, sadly, many wobbly members of the Republican Party) fail to realize, is that this is what brought them the Trump presidency.

Most of the United States still believes in the Constitution, and in the republican form of self-government. The American people remain capable of governing themselves. As Ronald Reagan said in his first inaugural address,

We are a nation that has a government—not the other way around. And this makes us special among the nations of the Earth. Our Government has no power except that granted it by the people. It is time to check and reverse the growth of government which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed. We not only do not need unelected bureaucrats running our lives, we resent their attempts to do so.

This is the grassroots swell that fueled the Reagan Revolution and that elevated Donald Trump to the Republican nomination and Electoral College victory, despite the best efforts of the progressive/media establishment to preserve the old order.

If progressives want to make a counter-argument within our Constitutional framework, they are most welcome to do so. Unlike the progressive bureaucratic order, our republican system does not stymie opposing viewpoints. The system the Founders created allows us as a people to make important decisions through our representatives in Washington. If they can make the stronger argument Progressives can still win. During his brief time in office, President Trump has worked diligently to restore national sovereignty and the principles of a self-governing republic. That, not climate change, is what really frightens progressives.

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American Conservatism • Greatness Agenda • The Declaration • The Editors

Our Declaration of Independence from the Conservative Movement

american greatness declaration of independence

American Greatness aims to be the leading voice of the next generation of American Conservatism.

Divisions made evident during the 2016 Republican primaries made the need for a new journal of American conservatism undeniable. The soil of the conservative movement is exhausted. It needs fertilization, re-sowing, and diligent cultivation if it is to thrive again. And while we will always owe a debt to the giants of the movement who have gone before us, we cannot slavishly attempt to relive the politics of 40 years ago.

It is not just that other journals have become unmoored from the principles of free government or calcified in their thinking; it is that they were founded on principles that were either insufficient or in conflict with the timeless principles of the American Founding.

As time has passed the errors in their foundings have become more pronounced. They have now culminated in intellectual stagnation and a tiresome policy orthodoxy (passing mindlessly for principles) that does not permit growth within or of the movement. Today, movement conservatism offers the American people not a choice, but an echo of the Left. Because of this, American Greatness is not an alternative to movement conservatism; it is a refounding of a distinctly American conservatism based upon the self-evident principle of human equality and the rights that flow from it. Just government exists to protect and promote these rights and is therefore necessarily limited, constitutional, and republican in its form.

Again: this year’s primary fight is not the cause of conservatism’s divisions or its current crisis. Those causes preceded this political moment and have been clear to the creators of this journal for some time. No candidate or accidental turn of events promises to—or can—bring about the necessary salvation.  Any salvation or redemption that comes to American Constitutional government must come by the virtuous action of the sovereign people of the United States, not from a sophisticated band of policy experts who arrive at answers they unilaterally deem “correct.”

What American Greatness Is Not

We are not political partisans. We hold no brief for any particular  candidate or policy prescription. On electoral matters, the editors are agnostic. We do not exist to tell anyone else how to vote. We can be neither vindicated nor embarrassed by the personal successes or failures of any candidate or collection of them in this or any other election year.

Similarly, American Greatness does not advocate any particular policy orthodoxy. We insist on clear distinctions between principles (permanent and enduring understandings of justice and right) and policy (objects for the realm of debate and politics to be guided by prudence as well as by principle). It is likely, however, that even in our internal discussions, we will have disagreements about where, precisely, the one ends and the other begins. We do not see that as a cause for alarm.

The best policy to advance a principle at any given time is, by its nature, changeable. These are arguments that will play out according to the politics of the moment. But we know that when people become accustomed to doing something in a certain way, even when that way is failing, it is difficult to convince them that it is possible to accomplish the same goals in some other, better way. We think lively and spirited debate about these questions, therefore, is healthy, necessary, and liberating.

Finally, although American Greatness owes an intellectual debt and its inspiration to the Journal of American Greatness (henceforth, JAG) and to some of its contributors, we are not the re-emergence of that much-admired effort.

We regret the passing of that manful but anonymous project, which sought to come to terms with the meaning of our current political moment by considering what may be called  a “Greatness Agenda” for America. (The fact that the contributors to JAG felt that anonymity was necessary speaks to the enormity of the problem of our times.) We intend to pick up where the other journal left off, recapturing some of its arguments and expanding upon them.

But our real object is more comprehensive and our methods aim to be more expansive in their reach. We believe that American conservatism has lost its way and, as a result, it has lost much of its original appeal. The once-vibrant political movement that nominated Barry Goldwater, elected Ronald Reagan, and defeated global communism has become ossified and unthinking to the point that conservative intellectuals act like priests mediating unknowable truth to the masses and administering the sacraments of conservative orthodoxy.  Regular excommunications have sapped the life and urgency from a movement once known for its intellectual vigor.  We intend to offer guidance and clarity to a spent movement by reclaiming the ideas and traditions upon which this country and our system of free government is based.

There are clues to what’s gone wrong in our past, but a slavish attachment to the ideas and policies of the past is not a way to advance or conserve our principles. Indeed, it is–precisely–the problem. We do not, in fact, seek to conserve any principles. They exist regardless of our action or inaction. We can only hope to have intelligent debate about how best to explain and defend those principles and the constitutional regime based upon them.

What American Greatness Is

We hold that America—much like movement conservatism—has lost her way. The nation has succumbed to  division and faction, infected by the insidious and  foreign virus of identity politics which has robbed Americans of our true identity as one people. We’re undermined further by an ever-growing centralized administrative state, which robs us daily of the opportunity to participate in governing our own lives as free and equal citizens under the rule of law.

Government has grown remote, unresponsive, and increasingly unaccountable. While many movement conservatives acknowledge these problems, they have failed to persuade a majority of American voters. What’s more, movement conservatives remain stubbornly unpersuaded by voters’ plain rejection of their solutions.  To their credit, the American people have, through common sense and hard experience, rejected the lie that their opinions about their interests and the laws that govern their lives are irrelevant. Likewise, most rank and file conservatives are unimpressed by the half-measures offered by a conservative movement that is more about conserving itself than conserving the people’s sovereignty.

So we do not condescend to tell our readers for or against whom they should cast their ballots  nor do we collectively contend that we are in possession of some “special expert knowledge” about their interests or some speculative good that is beyond their own poor powers to understand or to reach. We seek a higher level of conversation than that and a readership capable of coming to its own conclusions about how to use its franchise. We seek a revival of real politics.

Our editors, contributors, and writers agree that the staleness of the movement came about as a result of too much focus on the word “conservative” and not enough focus on the word “American.” Conservatives have suffered from a kind of elite insularity that pulled their focus away from broader, more American, interests and instead zeroed them in on the interests of their movement, its leaders, and its financial backers. In essence, it has become a kind of faction and has lost the ability to make an appeal to those who are not born into its concerns. It became a movement of conservative Americans instead of a movement of American conservatives.

Our object is a rediscovery of the American part of conservatism’s efforts. What, in other words, are we trying to conserve? And what are our prospects in this present political moment for conserving it?

As our name suggests, we understand the current dissatisfaction with our political institutions and the political polarization of our times to be a direct result of the failure of both political parties and the intellectual movements that direct them to advance an agenda for American greatness. Moreover, it is a failure to understand why such an agenda is so sorely needed.

A proper care and attention to the principles of America requires a serious effort to discover effective means of advancing, not just of conserving, those principles. America is a nation born in and of revolution. It is a radical appeal to a universal standard of justice and right, but it is also a limited appeal on behalf of one people who exist in this one place. As such, America’s principles have always taken the form of a proposition that needs constant affirmation and defending in every generation.

Americans are born but they must also be made. This means a diligent attention must be paid to the opinions and interests—expressed or implied—of the American people in its totality and as it actually exists.

In understanding that the American people are the rightful and sovereign rulers of their country, we cannot forget,as Lincoln reminded us, that in America “public sentiment is everything.”

“With public sentiment,” said Lincoln, “nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently he who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.” Molding the beliefs of a free people is necessarily more difficult than dictating from above. It requires education, habituation, and time. But free government cannot be sustained without a healthy public sentiment. So those who would hope to keep it healthy must, above all, actually engage with it and attempt to understand it as it exists and understands itself in reality, not just in the hopes and wishes of the would-be molders.

What is a Greatness Agenda?

When it comes to explaining what a “Greatness Agenda” might look like, we at American Greatness accept the definition of terms as laid out by our predecessors at JAG. The specifics are matters to be determined by real and actual politics that engages the consent of the sovereign people of the United States. But the issues that are paramount at this particular political moment, as we see it, are wrapped up in understanding more fully the American principle of sovereignty and what Harry V. Jaffa called the “conditions of freedom” (in other words, the things that allow us to preserve our sovereignty).  These include, especially, our fitness for liberty and our strength on the international stage.

The sense that we are in danger of losing our sovereignty as a free people is at the heart of the reason why questions of trade, immigration, and foreign policy have become so prominent. American conservatives need to pay closer attention to these issues and to respect (we do not say bow to) the will of the people on them.

Why is movement on these issues necessary? Let’s begin with trade. Conservatives have betrayed a lack of concern with the opinions and interests of significant numbers of their base and borrowed voters (think Reagan Democrats) when it comes to trade. We believe in free trade and free markets in the abstract, but the actual liberty and security of the American people cannot be sacrificed on the altar of a purely notional concept of free trade that rarely exists in the the real world.  

Free trade between free people is a principle of justice. It is why we can accept nothing less than a free market within our borders.  But truly free trade between nations, even when the two nations in question are relatively free and well-disposed toward one another, is more to be hoped for than expected. Freedom goes both ways, and should  serve American interests broadly speaking, not just economically speaking. The government should advance specifically American interests in trade deals with foreign powers. Interests sometimes change. The character of those interests is a matter for politics, not just for experts.

Immigration, too, is wrapped up in the question of the sovereignty of the people who, after all, have something to say about who their friends and neighbors should be. We hold that it is necessary to prioritize the American character of our culture. Obviously, we do not believe that it is impossible for the foreign born to become good Americans. Indeed, there are many instances where a foreign-born person has proven himself an even better, more truly American, citizen than the average native born one. This has nothing to do with ethnicity or race. It has everything to do with character, culture, understanding, and habits.

Importantly, promoting the American character  involves an implicit and cultivated understanding of what Lincoln called our “political religion” which is something we, today, in our collective shame for past sins and imperfections, refuse to understand or appreciate. We no longer effectively assimilate even highly motivated immigrants to the ideas that make freedom a condition we can preserve. Instead, we leave immigrants to adopt the elements of decay and cultural rot that make preserving liberty so much more difficult. An immigrant may come to America thinking that Washington and Lincoln are heroes, only to discover that our schools and our media teach that Washington and Lincoln were irredeemable racists and bigots. Our high levels of immigration are probably not sustainable at all, but they are certainly not sustainable with an education system that undermines the qualities necessary for self-government by encouraging strife among Americans.

Finally, while conservatives can and should be cheerful about positive democratic developments in foreign lands, we need to move away from the idea that seeking to spread democracy is a necessary objective of America’s foreign policy.

Our defense forces and vast national resources shouldn’t be deployed as political missionaries. We have legitimate national interests abroad that need defending, but the first object of any American foreign policy should be to maintain our national strength for our own sake. If, as part of that objective, democracy and good government are spread abroad, so much the better. We cheer it but do not demand or prioritize it over and against American interests.

This brief description of what we are calling the “Greatness Agenda” is not meant to be exhaustive.  It is meant only to introduce the need for debate and consideration about these matters as part of a legitimate and necessary political conversation grounded in truly American concerns for the preservation of liberty. This is exactly the kind of forum we strive to provide.  We will defend the principles of limited, constitutional government based on the consent of the governed and of the American constitutional order as the best means for securing the rights inherent to all mankind.  

—The Editors