“Are classical-liberal principles sufficient for conservatives and their political action? Or are they insufficient? Do conservatives need to employ or cultivate something beyond them in politics? And what might that be? This is the heart of a debate running fitfully through the American Right. It’s a debate that we’ve had before. But it’s worth having it now, trying to depersonalize it, and moving forward.
First we have to clarify what we mean by classical liberalism. In the little series of essays, volleys, and personal attacks about the future of the American Right, there is a kind of intellectual shortcut at work. It goes something like this: The best of America’s founding principles are modern Enlightenment principles, a body of thought that could be called “liberalism.” And people who declare themselves classical liberals today, whether they be centrists who defend a “liberal world order” or libertarians and conservatives, are the true bearers of this tradition. One often hears them say that because the American Constitution is a liberal one, the work of conservatism is the preservation of a liberalism, “classically understood.”
But there are not only philosophical problems with this, but rather obvious historical ones. The Founders supported policies and institutions in the nation and in their home states that are anathema to today’s classical liberals. Those Founders cared for liberty but did not call themselves liberals. …”
I want to say that I appreciate Michael Brendan Dougherty making the point because it is a crucial misunderstanding that has major significance.
Mainstream conservatives operate on the assumption that the Founding Fathers were classical liberals because they talked about “liberty.” In reality, many of them were classical republicans, which is a different species of political theory. They were slaveowners who were trained in the classics who admired Greece and Rome. Look at the Capitol that they built for themselves in Washington, DC.
“Liberty” was meaningful to them because like the Romans their world was also based on slavery. “Equality” was meaningful to them because as gentlemen their culture was based on honor. They felt insulted that their rights as Englishmen under the British Constitution were not being recognized by Parliament. They saw themselves as the equals of their role models the British gentry.
The American Revolution took place within the context of the British Empire in the 18th century which is a world that is now completely foreign to us. The crisis that led to the American Revolution began long before anyone in the colonies had ever read John Locke whose arguments were only seized on after the Boston Tea Party to justify a rebellion against the Crown in New England that was already in progress. The Founders were Englishmen and “liberty” had been central to their sense of ethnic and cultural identity long before it was turned into a “system” in the wake of Newton’s physics.
In the 18th century, the English prided themselves on being “free” and the champions of “liberty” because their great rivals at the time – first the Spanish Habsburgs in age of Philip II and later the French in the age of Louis XIV – lived under absolutist Catholic governments that had been shaken off in England when the Stuart monarchy was overthrown during the Glorious Revolution. The world that the English were creating for themselves at the time was hardly based on universal freedom though.
As Dougherty is certainly aware, the English had created both the plantation of Ulster and the plantation of Virginia in the times of King James I. England fought a series of wars against the Dutch in the 17th century – this is how New Netherland became New York – and ultimately trade within the Empire was regulated under the Navigation Acts to crush their Dutch commercial rivals. The Royal Navy that projected British sea power around the world was created in a state led military buildup. The Royal African Company dominated in the transatlantic slave trade in the 18th century. The British also conquered India which became the British Raj. In the Caribbean, the British had created thriving slave plantations in Barbados, Jamaica and the Leeward Islands and later invaded Saint-Domingue to preserve slavery. In North America, English colonists were dispossessing the Indians from the district of Maine to Florida.
The Founding Founders created a Republic. They did not set out to create a liberal democracy with a free-market capitalist economy. Adam Smith’s ideas about laissez-faire were rejected in the United States in favor of Alexander Hamilton’s program of national economic development. While this was disputed at first by Jefferson and his followers, a consensus developed after the disaster that was the War of 1812. In the long run though, American republicanism was successfully conflated with British liberalism. The current system that we live under today wasn’t really created until the mid-20th century.
Americanism wasn’t simply ideological. It also had a clear racial, ethnic, cultural and religious core that kept it balanced until it embarked on the course of imperialism after defeating the Nazis in World War II. American citizenship wasn’t decoupled from whiteness until 1952.