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Corrupted Along the Way?

Disparate conservatives debate the right approach to America's putative Founding.

John Burtka (left), president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, introduces (from left to right) Kevin R.C. Gutzman, MIchael Anton, Daniel McCarthy, Michael Knowles, and Stephanie Slade. (Intercollegiate Studies Institute/Twitter)

“It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way, and I don’t think it was inevitable that it turn out this way.” So says Michael Anton of the American experiment, answering his own question: “Is the reason we don’t live in [the system the Founders intended] because they got it wrong initially and this was inevitably going to happen, or did it get corrupted along the way?”

It is Thursday, and Anton, a national security official in the Trump administration and a scholar at Hillsdale College, is one of four panelists—along with Kevin R.C. Gutzman, professor of history at Western Connecticut State University; Michael Knowles, host of the Michael Knowles Show at the Daily Wire; and Stephanie Slade, managing editor of Reason magazine—discussing “how conservatives should view the American Founding” in a conversation moderated by Modern Age editor Daniel McCarthy in D.C.

Slade, a Catholic libertarian, attempts to present the old-consensus, or fusionist, interpretation of the Founding and our proper relation to it. We can have it both ways: “The Founding was both religious and secular. The purpose of government is both—” Slade begins before catching herself and changing course: “The purpose of the American experiment is both to promote virtue and the common good and sort of traditional Judeo-Christian values, and also to protect individual liberty. Freedom was a very important component of the Founding and the purpose of this experiment that we are still sort of getting to be participants in.”

She presents as “one of [her] favorite quotes” H.G. Wells’s accusation that “all Americans are, from the English point of view, Liberals of one sort or another,” and apparently takes it as a compliment. But she also cites that ubiquitous warning of John Adams—“Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”—without considering the possibility that the ascendancy of that Constitution’s liberal elements would, in itself and over time, eradicate the morality and religion of its people.

Slade describes herself as “representing the old school,” by which she means, apparently, the school that popped up in 1955 under the guidance of liberal CIA operative William F. Buckley Jr. The burden, then, is on those who think government ought to do anything other than safeguard individual liberty to convince her of that fact.

Knowles, the podcast host, offers perhaps the most compelling answer. For Knowles, a Catholic like Slade, politics exists in the realm of the real. Therefore:

I don’t think that the principles [of the Founding] or any other sort of principles are sufficient to reclaim a political order. . . . It needs to be incarnational, enfleshed, and we need to actually do things. We focus a lot on these principles, and what these principles mean, and trying to divine what James Madison might have thought of this or Thomas Jefferson might have thought of that.

But abstraction—any abstraction—is a departure from the actual business of politics: “We get very confused about what those principles are when we abstract them out of time and space and try to make sense of them.” Knowles cites the example of his own Church, which, while certainly insisting on universal morality and a universal scope, is tied to concrete, physical things and exists firmly in that realm of the real.

The reason that the Catholic Church is the only institution that survived from antiquity into modernity is because it’s a real place with real people with a real pope who has a real hat, and we have to really do things and have real sacraments. So, that perspective is not to say that we need to abolish the Constitution and submit to pontifex. Quite the opposite. I think what it’s saying is that we must really do things, and that free speech in the abstract, for instance, will not mean anything for people who don’t have anything to say.

Interestingly, this focus on the organic nature of institutions is largely shared by professor Gutzman, who may be the closest on the panel to the paleoconservative position. A historian by profession, the professor seems chiefly interested in placing the Founding in its proper historical context, and understanding the actions and theories of the Founders as quintessentially connected to that context.

Gutzman, in response to a characterization of late colonial Virginia that he sees as overly theoretical and abstract, responds simply: “Virginia was a free-standing society of its own. And that didn’t mean that it had to be philosophically justified. It just existed.”

Anton admits that everything the other panelists have said is reasonable enough, but then goes on: “Everything that I’ve heard, though, I can square—not only can I square easily with the principles of the Founding as I understand them, I think the things that I’m hearing rest more firmly on a basis if they are on those principles than if they are said to be organic or historically contingent or culture-based or whatever.”

And conceiving of government and politics as organic, historically contingent, and based in culture is of course problematic. Why? Because, Anton says, it “is simply not the way the Founders understood themselves. They did understand themselves to have discovered, or, if not discovered, at least laid bare and explicated the true principles of political legitimacy that they were going to act on going forward.”

Anton then goes on immediately to qualify this, citing

the deepest stratum of [Jaffa’s] argument…[that] many things fundamentally changed from the classical to the modern world, which made the classical solution for the foundation or basis of right political action impossible to import directly. It had to be changed and modified because of the Roman conquest of the ancient world, the destruction of the polis, the death of paganism, the emergence of Christianity, the sundering of religious and civil law, the breakup of Christianity into sects, the division in the soul between allegiance to a terrestrial prince and to a supernatural God. All of these things make a new basis for political legitimacy necessary, and the Founders, building on the early moderns, come up with that.

Well, which one is it? Are the political principles of the Founders true always and everywhere, or can historical developments “make a new basis for political legitimacy necessary”?

Just after this tacit admission that these things might be organic, historically contingent, and culture-based after all, Anton changes course again. Admitting that Virginia’s own declaration of independence—adopted two months before the more famous Declaration authored by Jefferson—was a particular action taken by particular men in particular circumstances, he nonetheless contends: “The basis is not simply ‘because we want to.’ It was ‘because this is the right thing to do,’ and it’s the right thing to do because we have an understanding of human nature and eternal principle that demonstrates the justice of our actions.”

How very un-Straussian of him to take the words of others so readily at face value. It is of course entirely plausible that the Founders would have sought independence out of an instinctive and natural feeling of “we want to” and then constructed a theory of political legitimacy to justify and systematize their organic actions in particular historical circumstances. If we go beyond the surface level of any given Founding-era text, this is fairly obvious.

This insistence on reading the Founders only on their own terms and without much skepticism apparently leads Anton to the conclusion that morality simply cannot exist outside their understanding of it. “Once you ditch any principled ground, common principled ground”—by which, in context, he clearly means the rights-based political philosophy of Jefferson and co.—”you are left with either ‘might makes right’ or some conception of history, contingent history, changing, evolving standards. That’s really all there is.” There is only natural right or nihilism.

Which is why we need a regime founded consciously on natural right, because the only other option is a regime founded unconsciously on nihilism: “No regime founds itself, ostensibly or in its own self-understanding, on the basis of nothing. They all have some kind of claim to justice, whether that’s divine right and ‘God gave us the law, told us this’—and there’s a limited number of these claims to justice.”

But a conscious establishment based on a formal philosophy—whether Slade’s one-dimensional libertarianism or Anton’s more comprehensive vision—is not the modern discovery of an eternal and universal rule but a marked deviation from the norm in the vast number of historical human societies which, to borrow from Dr. Gutzman, have always just existed. (Divine right in the West, for instance—the only example Anton cites—was a late, ex post facto theorizing of social systems that had already been in place for centuries.) Regimes do not generally “found themselves.”

Which is to say that they are organic, rooted in the physical world and contingent on the history that plays out in that world. Anton’s admission that the project of the Founders has been “corrupted along the way”—that the abstract vision of a few men who lived on this land two centuries ago has not, by all appearances, been strong enough to stand against the ravages of time—is itself proof of the historical contingency and malleability of that Founding. If the spirit of ’76 is the universal basis of political legitimacy, then why has it had such a hard time surviving even into our own day?

All this may be worth keeping in mind as we recognize not only that the regime we live under is almost entirely distinct from its parent regime of 1789, but that the current regime—the actual historical result of the old one, whether or not its succession would have been inevitable in some hypothetical alternate world—is not working very well. That our government cannot even see us through a fairly mild virus imported from Asia without leaving half a million dead, swerving into tyranny, and throttling our national economy. That neither life, nor liberty, nor property is very well protected by a regime supposedly founded directly for the defense of all three. That we have, in fact, been living through a rather serious crisis—what some might call “an unequivocal experience of the inefficiency of the subsisting federal government.”

about the author

Declan Leary is associate editor of The American Conservative. He was previously an editorial intern at National Review and a frequent contributor to such publications as National Review Online and Crisis Magazine.

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