Dr. Wilson’s talk and review, and particularly his reference to the Country tradition in English political thought, got me to thinking about several things, some related to TRI’s agrarianism summer school and Caleb Stegall’s recent article on populism, others to the book I started reading a few weeks back, The Age of Federalism, 1788-1800, and still another to the odd letter to the editor that appeared in the latest issue of The American Conservative.
To start with the last first, this letter, written by one Mr. Brady, perplexed me. On the one hand, it was a common sort of gripe, and one with which I sometimes sympathise: what are all these libertarians doing in a conservative magazine anyway? Of course, I don’t entirely sympathise with this sentiment, in spite of the jabs I throw at our libertarian friends, since we few, we happy few paleos are hardly in a position of such robust strength that we can begin disowning those libertarians who have stood alongside us for many years (some of whom have been taking their stand for a lot longer than I have, and have probably done more in defending our shared principles than Mr. Brady has managed so far). Disowning longtime friends and allies is something that they do at National Review, and I don’t think anyone is suggesting we imitate that model of intellectual degeneration. What was still more perplexing about this letter was its stunning demarcation between conservative and libertarian along the strangest line, that of Federalist and Antifederalist (in addition to which was the charming anachronism of referring to The Anti-Federalist Papers). In this view, we are supposed to credit Adams, Hamilton, Jay and Madison as the only real conservatives and, presumably, everything stemming from the Federalist tradition constitutes American conservatism, whereas Henry, Jefferson and Mason, among others, supposedly represent the “libertarian” side of the coin. This is very odd, and it causes me to wonder whether Mr. Brady is at all familiar with what the relationship of American conservatism to the Country tradition and the “Jeffersonian persuasion” is.
The Country opposition finds its first definite exponent in Bolingbroke, who had inherited the ideology of resistance of the Jacobites after the ’15 rising collapsed in defeat, and who drew on the thought of Harrington to support his critiques of the Hanoverian dynasty and Whig establishment in terms of the establishment’s “corruption” (in this time the term referred specifically to the Crown’s buying of men in Parliament and more general attempts to create a network of placemen and patronage that would provide the Court with trusty lackeys). For those loyal to these ideals of widespread landownership by middling landowners, the mixed constitution of monarchy, aristocracy and republican government, and the diffusion of power, 1688 was a black year that virtually signalled the permanent exile of men with Country sentiments from positions of influence within England. This will seem counterintuitive to those used to remembering 1688, if they remember it at all, as a blow against absolutism (when it was, in fact, nothing more than the empowerment of a Whig oligarchy and the end of any possibility of Catholic revival in Britain with the abdication of James II), but there should be no doubt that the victory of William III and the party of treason simply secured the concentration of power in a different set of hands far more likely to abuse it. The colonies, for their part, were naturally predisposed to embrace the Country view, as they were as far removed from the metropole and the Court as could be and saw any greater concentration of power in London as a threat to their own rights.
First the Antifederalists and then the Jeffersonian Republicans took up the same themes in their hostility to consolidation, with the Jeffersonians particularly fearing the collusion of finance and government and the power of the “moneyed interest” during the clashes with the Federalists in the 1790s over the creation of the Bank. If we brought together the entire Country tradition under another label, my preference would be to call those who adhere to it Jeffersonian Jacobites, capturing at once a hostility to consolidation and the Whigs of the 17th and 18th centuries. There were better and worse Federalists, and Federalist skepticism of “the people” was perhaps their one concrete contribution to American political wisdom, and when the time came for Jefferson to govern some of the Federalists, such as William Plumer, discovered the virtues of the decentralism and appeals to states’ rights that the Republicans had made in the ’90s, but Federalism remained to the end a doctrine dedicated to strengthening the center, curtailing the rights of states, empowering financial and mercantile interests and allying concentrated power and concentrated wealth in the same “corrupt” manner that had taken place in England. While the Federalists themselves remained a breed apart from the later Whigs and, God help us, the Republicans, their commitment to consolidation and elitism has persisted and grown until the political strength of the American Court faction has become almost total. Understanding the Constitution as a mechanism for restraining state power, as Dr. Wilson wrote of the Populists, is one of the things that all real conservatives share–no doctrines of implication and construction for us, thank you very much. This hostility to consolidation and centralising elites has nothing to do with “libertarianism” (which has no American representatives before the 20th century and is almost entirely a transplant from central Europe) and everything to do with loyalty to family, community and the states which have been the real countries of Americans for most of our history. Separately, those who belittle the revival of this American Populism and the Country tradition in this country mark themselves out as friends of the forces of consolidation and enemies of the decentralist, agrarian and conservative traditions of this country.