the imaginative conservative logo

foundingMost of you will be glad to know that the title of these remarks does not imply that I am about to rehearse an old debate between Russell Kirk and Harry Jaffa about whether America is “unfounded” or “founded.” That debate is interesting and to a degree even important. But I want to give instead an exhortation, to the scholars we will hear tomorrow, to the Society, to the academy in general. That exhortation is based on the conviction that we are now closer to recovering our past (or at least we have a greater opportunity) than we have been in over seven decades.

Stan Evans told me about two months ago about a conversation he had in Indianapolis with the great Richard Weaver, about 1960. Stan asked him what was most needed to keep the conservative momentum going, after the revival of ideas that Weaver was so instrumental in bringing about. Weaver said, we need “unshakable books.” Unshakable books. Books so compelling and elegant and true that they survive all challenges and the ravages of time. Weaver said this, remember, only about a decade after Lionel Trilling had pronounced the absence of conservative and reactionary ideas in America. Well, now, in 1996 there are no liberal or progressive ideas in America. They were used up in the sixties. To paraphrase Trilling, there are only “pollyannish or tyrannical mental gestures seeking to resemble ideas.”

Daniel BooneBut this doesn’t mean that it is entirely clear in which direction we are going. Daniel Boone’s biographer (1) recently told a story about the old hunter.A young interviewer asked Boone (when he was an old man) if he had ever been lost. Boone thought for a minute and said, “No, but I was once bewildered for three days.” Old Boone may well have been bewildered about the Founding. During the War for Independence he lost his son Israel in a disastrous and ill-considered attack at the battle of Blue Licks in Kentucky. He was accused of treason, although acquitted in a court-martial. Neither the Commonwealth of Virginia nor the United States Congress sympathized with his debt problems or his applications for land grants. He eventually moved to Spanish territory, pretty ambivalent for a while about the future of his country.

As things were uncertain for Boone looking ahead, they are also complicated and sometimes bewildering for us looking back. I often wish there were more honest bewilderment in my profession.

Here, we have brought together some of the ablest young scholars who are thinking about ideas, especially ideas concerning our Founding. In fact, if Mount Williamsburg were to erupt this weekend and bury the Old Capital, the prospects for recovering that Founding would be dim, indeed.

This program is a first for this increasingly venerable organization; but notice that lest we allow the kids to be home alone, the sessions are chaired by folks of my generation–that is, born after the Great Crash and before December 6, 1941. We have fought against the pagan forces of Leviathan. We have fought against New Dealers and Fair Dealers and no-dealers. We took on the Vital Center and the End of Ideology and have shown that all reports of our death were premature. We have not gone away. We have bequeathed to this new generation unshakable books and the deconstruction of deconstruction, and we charge them to “see then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise; Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” (Eph5:15-16)

You must deal with Boomer-books, and the legacy of the Left’s long march through the institutions. On one level you have a task easier than ours: how much of a problem can it be, intellectually to annihilate the Clinton generation and its pathetic offspring, multiculturalism? On the other hand you have almost invincible ignorance to combat. I have found that almost three-quarters of my Hillsdale freshmen have not read the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. What do you suppose is the percentage at Appalachian State, or even William and Mary?

As a teacher, I used to worry about this, but it is actually a bad-news, good news situation. The bad news is that they haven’t read the documents. The good news is that they haven’t read the documents–taught to them by people who think the Revolution was a multicultural event. In a way, the generation following yours is a forest of virgin timber. We have held off the clear cutters of the Left, and have destroyed or rendered obsolete most of their tools. It is your forest to harvest.

Not that it’s an easy task. Three-quarters of a century ago progressive ideas (almost all of them collectivist and relativist) about the Founding swept through the habitats of elite culture. Charles Beard was one of the apostles (An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution had come out in 1913), and he wanted us to believe that the Founding was, eventually, about greed. Walter Lippmann made a comment that could have saved us a great deal of pain: that, far from creating the Constitution to protect their property, the founders used their “class privileges” to preserve their country.(2) This was apparently too much common sense; it was a generation later that an unshakable book by Forrest McDonald finally laid the forces of neo-marxism to rest.

But, just as failed socialism in recent years has put on a new political disguise (environmentalism), progressives keep grasping at the Founding. Their headings are more likely now to be “race, class, gender” than “the Revolution considered as a social movement,” but the point is the same. “The compelling image of Revolutionary transformation”(3) is still very exciting for a whole new generation of neo-progressives. They believe the Founding was “as radical and as revolutionary as any in history.”(4)

There wasn’t much change, on the whole. I keep looking. Not long ago I discovered that the loyalist Anglican Rector of Trinity Church (which owns Wall Street), Samuel Auchmuty, was part of a notable social event. Fleeing New York, “his critics were amused to see his house immediately taken over by female camp followers of the Regulars for a place of business.”(5) That, I guess, is social change. And George Washington did try to fix wages and prices in areas controlled by the Continental Army, prompting John Witherspoon to criticize him severely on behalf of the Congress. Neither episode lasted long.

I am particularly annoyed when neo-progressives take refuge in the “touched-off” or the “made possible” theory. The Founding “touched off” the anti-slavery movement, for example, or it “made possible” the movements for women’s rights in the 19th century. Aside from the silliness of this argument–everything, it can be said, was “touched off” in the Book of Genesis–do we really need to be reminded that the United States was one of the last civilized countries to abolish slavery? And then only after a war which really was a revolution in certain undebatable ways? Or that every argument ever made by women’s rights movements was written down by Mary Wollstonecraft by 1792; who had nothing whatsoever to do with the American Founding?

In fact, most of what is really important about the American Founding lies in how a potentially harmful revolution was contained. It was not entirely averted, but it was contained and directed to the ends of limited government and the practice of liberties that had long existed in most American provinces. David Hackett Fischer tells this story:

…historian George Bancroft asked a New England townsman why he and his friends took up arms in the Revolution. Had he been inspired by the ideas of John Locke? The old soldier confessed that he had never heard of Locke. Had he been moved by Thomas Paine’s Common Sense? The honest Yankee admitted that he had never read Tom Paine. Had the Declaration of Independence made a difference? The veteran thought not. When asked to explain why he fought in his own words, he answered simply that New Englanders had always managed their own affairs, and Britain tried to stop them, and so the war began.(6)

The old Yankee’s attitude helps to explain why a potential revolution could be contained, but it doesn’t explain how that attitude was converted successfully into a relatively stable republic.We should note here that progressive historians have the same advantage as their political counterparts. In pursuit of what Forrest McDonald has called their “dogmatic, scientific, secular millenialism,” if a program doesn’t work, it hasn’t been tried ardently enough. The “touched-off” historians won’t leave their dreams of social transformation alone until they have gotten grants to study every back-country settlement, slave cabin, Iroquois longhouse, sailor’s wharf, and household kitchen in revolutionary America.

In contrast, the men and women on these panels this weekend take ideas and the public record seriously. A few liberals learn to do this from experience.Theodore White, reflecting on his confrontation with revolution in Yenan during World War II, said (many years later, in In Search of History), “In the simplest historic terms, [Mao] was not campaigning against Chiang K’aishek; he was campaigning against Confucius and two thousand years of ideas he meant to root out and replace with his own.”(7) White was unusual: an intellectually honest progressive, who eventually gave up on his visionary agenda and learned how right John Dickinson was when he said to the federal convention, “Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us.”

Dickinson’s wise counsel brings me to what I really want to say tonight–and I’ll say it briefly. In continuing to take ideas seriously, as they are held by people, and contained in the public record and in the great documents of the Founding, and in its law and literature, we are engaged in a powerful act of recovery. The “experience” to which Dickinson referred was the common experience of his (or by extension any) generation in their solemn deliberations; the tests of history and common sense. “Experience” was the “ubiquitous criterion” of the ages, the “cardinal touchstone of validity.”(8) Dickinson wrote a note to himself for one of his convention speeches: “The best Philosophy is drawn from Experiments, the best Policy from Experience.” The Founders (or most of them) knew they were doing something profound, or they would never have used the phrase, Novus Ordo Seclorum. But they knew that they were doing it in a way that was consistent with older orders, too.

Four elements of their common experience appear in all of the Founders’ debates, writings, and documents:Classical history, especially the history of the Roman Republic (often as it was filtered through Renaissance and Enlightenment authors)The Bible, which they read as history as well as theology English Common Law, which was the repository of natural law as well as of English liberties American colonial history, containing by then lessons from a century and a half of “managing their own affairs”;that so much of their discussion was conducted in this context shows that they were engaged in recovering as well as founding, of protecting liberty much more than inventing it.

They were as serious about what could be learned from the fate of the Amphictionic Council as we should be about their arguments over imitating foreign fashions. They thought that stable and secure and decent governments, devoted to the protection of liberty, must be based on truths of human nature revealed in experience.

It seems to me that our unshakable books should emulate their enterprise. John Adams once said about the American and French revolutions, “Ours was resistance to innovation; theirs was innovation itself.” A flippant comment, certainly; it nevertheless captures an important truth: insofar as it was successful, the American Founding was rooted in ancient truths, it was not attempting to “touch-off” a transfiguration of the world.

Let me finish this exhortation with an example and a suggestion. I have tried for many years to teach the American Founding by inviting my students into the lives of its Philosopher-Statesmen, and then into the rich things they wrote. A teacher cannot do this with Big Books, however unshakable. I have written four Little Books, hoping to prepare students to read with profit the greater works of unshakable scholarship my generation has produced. I have found that even the generally conservative and often religious students at Hillsdale College are infected with what Perry Miller once called “obtuse secularism.” It is hard for them to connect liberty and religion in a way that will help effect a recovery of our past. They want either to put a wall of separation between the two, as the Supreme Court instructs them to, or to believe that the Founders were empowered by the Almighty to proclaim a Christian nation.

That Christianity (and the Bible) was at the heart of the Founding is simply undeniable. The controversy over a resident Bishop consumed at least as much ink as the Stamp Act. The constitutions of the states and the United States are nothing if not written expressions of the Christian view of human nature. In every one of the first twenty years of independent national existence governments at all levels proclaimed days of fasting, prayer, and thanksgiving. The churches (even a majority of Anglican priests) overwhelmingly supported the War for Independence. The definition of liberty preferred by Americans was Biblical: “They shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid.” (Mi4:4) John Adams said in 1818 (and by that time he was a Unitarian) that the revolution was over before the war began–it was a change in the religious sentiments of the American people. So important was the Great Awakening to later events that it is very tempting to parody Mark Twain. He said that Sir Walter Scott caused the Civil War; we might add that George Whitefield preached the American Revolution.

This does not mean that even the most enthusiastic ministers thought that the Founding created a Holy Commonwealth. But it does mean that the deism of Benjamin Rush and Tom Paine dramatically failed to become the faith of the republic, that the ambivalent Unitarian Jefferson was profoundly out of step with his countrymen religiously, and that a crucial part of our act of recovery is to show again the right relation between religion and liberty.

The Rev. Dr. John Witherspoon, President of Princeton, signer of the Declaration, member of Congress, teacher of statesmen, a principal author of the Presbyterian Constitution, has had one biography written about him in the 202 years since his death. That was in 1925. The Rev. Dr. Timothy Dwight, President of Yale, epic poet, chronicler of New England and its “second citizen” (John Adams was its first), has inspired one biography since his death in 1817. That was in 1939. I pray that someone will write these characters into unshakable books.

We don’t have to claim unreasonable things, or to insist that the American Founding was “conservative” in its essence, or that America was Christian at its core, to make our point, and to effect a recovery. There were radicals around, even French-style Jacobins, and they had their followers. There were plenty of “enlightened” deists and Unitarians willing to take Christianity to new heights of progress. But a remarkable generation of Founders–not “inventors,” but Founders–contained them all, and built, and protected institutions based on ideas about liberty and truths about human nature that are as old as God. Advance the cause of recovery.

End of exhortation.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Originally presented at The Philadelphia Society, Williamsburg Meeting (November 22, 1996)

Notes:

1. John Mack Farragher, at Hillsdale College’s Center for Constructive Alternatives Seminar, “Legends of the American West,” September, 1996.

2. Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (NY: Macmillan, 1923), p.280

3. Ronald Hoffman, in the Preface to The Transforming Hand of Revolution:Reconsidering the American Revolution as a Social Movement, ed. Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert (Charlottesville and London: United States Capitol Historical Society by the University Press of Virginia, 1996).

4. Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1992), p.5.

5. Clifford K. Shipton, New England Life in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge:The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1995), p.482.

6. David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (NY:Oxford University Press, 1989), p.827.

7. Theodore H. White, In Search of History (NY: Harper & Row, 1978), p.260.

8. Ellis Sandoz, “Philosophical and Religious Dimensions of the American Founding,” Intercollegiate Review, XXX (Spring, 1995), p.29.

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
6 replies to this post
  1. Dear John, you're always good, but you're at your best here. Frankly, though, it would be sad if we had only Jaffa or Kirk to choose in our understanding of the founding. And, of course, you know how much I think of Kirk. This post also makes me realize how wonderful the Philly Soc could actually be.

  2. I think you overplay the role that Christianity played in the founding of America.

    Consider that only one of the seven primary founding fathers was an orthodox Christian; only one attended church on a regular basis; and four in their day were considered Deists. (http://www.wallofseparation.us/founding-fathers/)

    During the early years of the American Revolution – as America was seeking political independence – Baptists were beaten, whipped, and jailed by Christian theocratic officials.

    Consider, in the larger perspective, that the leaders of theocratic colonies (Rhode Island and Pennsylvania excepted) came together and – despite their desire for a state church, and their longstanding persecution of Christian dissenters – intentionally established the world's first secular nation, constructing a "wall of separation" (a phrase first used by Baptist Roger Williams in 1644) between church and state in the First Amendment (itself directly influenced by the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom). Why did they not establish America as the Christian nation they wanted? Many historians argue that they could not agree on what expression of Christianity should be the official religion of the nation, and in their disagreement eventually abandoned their quest for a Christian nation as unfeasible.

    Consider that American Christians from the 1790s did not consider that America had been founded as a Christian nation, and that many conservative Christians of that era were unhappy as to the nation's secular foundation. (See this sermon as an example – http://www.covenanter.org/JRWillson/princemessiah.htm)

    While theocratic Christianity dominated the colonial religious landscape prior to the Revolution, it was laid aside in order to form the world's first secular nation. And while the Bible had a tremendous influence in 18th century American culture at large, rarely did the Founding Fathers turn to the Bible in their deliberations that contributed to the founding of America.

    Bruce Gourley
    Executive Director
    Baptist History & Heritage Society
    http://www.baptisthistory.org

  3. John, this was brilliant when you gave it and I appreciate it even more now, in light of the abysmal ignorance of most of a generation of young people learning about the founding of our nation. Your insights are beautifully crafted and delivered with a powerful punch.

  4. Mr.Gourley, I wonder if living in a society strongly imbued with Christianity (unlike ours) would not have had greater influence upon America's Founders than their not citing or even reading the Bible per se.

    Living among Afghans, as I choose to do, I see their often gentle, often generous and uncomplicated version of their faith colouring almost everything that they do, and it fits so comfortably into their own ancient traditions – even those antedating Islam. Those bright and schooled Afghan minds now trying to rescue their country may cite any number and breadth of secular sources but their thoughts are inevitably and fully imbued with their own (generally) fully-integrated and mutually-compatible traditions and faith. So too among the simpler, unschooled Afghan farmers who would have immediately understood Bancroft's old soldier, liked him and invited him to stay in their village as long as he liked. The bigger of Western nations – grown so haeterodyne, complicated and, yes, multicultural in the fullest sense of the word – nowadays lack the shared context that Afghans have and Colonial America would have had as well, I suspect.

    John, we last met at Williamsburg when you delivered this tour-de-force. Thank you for publishing it, surely 'a keeper.' You know, ever increasingly I try to avoid people who traffic in political gossip or, worse yet, social name-dropping and such. No, I aspire to sit next to the person whose opening conversational gambit is "Daniel Boone's biographer recently said to me…" Hot damn! I am all ears!

    Stephen Masty

  5. This, as has already been said, is wonderful! I almost think you underplay the role Christianity played in the founding of America, to play off Mr. Gorley's comment.

    Yes, underplayed– I think the case is made even stronger of the Founding's interplay between liberty and religion. So many of the primary Founders were not orthodox in their beliefs or church-going? Four were Deists? What does this prove? They were establishing a country for their own enjoyment, but for an extended period of time. They founded this country with unshakable roots: the Christian religion with gov't protected toleration for all, a democratically-elected republican government, and a nod to natural law and England's common law traditions.

    It is sad that Baptists were so poorly treated, but I'm not sure what that adds to the argument. Catholics, for instance, couldn't vote or hold office, among other injustices.

    In the larger perspective, Dr. Willson does an excellent job illustrating the background of the Founders in their essence and commitment to the bigger picture. They themselves may not have been church-goers, but they wanted other people to have the opportunity to be so. They were not endorsing religious leaders hold public office, but they also acknowledged their voice in the public square.

    Religion is at the front of moving and shaking the world– even the quest to have a secular nation is a reaction against religion, which still calls it into conversation and consideration. America has Christianity at its heart, even today, where the contrasts are sharp and the colors smudged. I believe the Founders did live in and imagined a country much like Steve Masty's current life among the Afghans, where he sees "their often gentle, often generous and uncomplicated version of their faith colouring almost everything that they do, and it fits so comfortably into their own ancient traditions." That's beautiful, and that's still possible in America. But creating a wall to separate is not how it is done.

    Thanks again for this great piece!

  6. Julie, what I said with rank guesswork, and you said with knowledge, Barbara has said with a wealth of data. In a very concise piece now posted here, she paints a vivid picture of how Christian values permeated early America; fat and muscle, bones and marrow. Plenty good enough for me!

    It is also interesting to see how the participants on this website often finish one another's sentences, thinking on identical lines over vast differences. I am tempted to attribute this to the (as yet undiscovered) 119th element, which once I get my lab set up I will name Mecostium. I suspect that it is the only radioactive element without a half-life, creating alongside The Noble Metals and other groupings its own classification of 'Permanent Things.' Members of TIC will be invited to my Nobel Prize ceremony with champagne afterwards.

    Stephen Masty

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: