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We ought to locate the basis of American conservatism in our colonial past, at a time when the English Tory variant of the old order of Europe had a real presence in our civilization, and we ought to remember that the old Tory order survived in the American historical tradition despite the Revolution of ’76, and not because of it…

wren-buildingI must confess that my initial reaction upon seeing Professor Christopher Morrissey’s essay “The High Tory Tradition: An Alternative Future for America?” was one of selfish disappointment. I had been intending to compose a topic not only taking a similar position but with a similar title, and here I was preempted by a capable philosopher. Or was I? Fortunately for me it turns out that Professor Morrissey’s approach to this topic was so different from my own that I am able to present my own reflections as complements to his.

All too often “American history” is understood not as the history of a civilization but as the history of the political entity which has governed that civilization for approximately two-thirds of its history. Books purporting to present an overview of American history inevitably gloss over virtually everything between the founding of Jamestown and the Stamp Act. The New England Puritans and the Seven Years’ War might get a treatment which rises above the most summary of levels. Passing mention will likely be made of Maryland having been a refuge for Catholics and Pennsylvania one for Quakers. Something might even be said of the Salem Witch Trials. But the overall effect is to treat the colonial period as mere background for the era of the American Revolution, not to take the century-and-a-half of American colonial life seriously in itself but to reduce it to a small number of milestones on the road to revolution, mixed with a few historical curiosities. In accord with this distortion is the tendency to understand the American Revolution in light of its effects (the creation of the United States) rather than in light of its causes (political divisions within Britain and its empire dating back to the seventeenth century), and so to treat it as a national war of independence rather than as it was it actually was—the last of the civil wars of Britain.

To give an oversimplified but broadly accurate overview, the division between royalist and parliamentarian in the English Civil War (1643-46) transformed into that between Tory and Whig following the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. Following the overthrow of James II by the invasion of William and Mary in 1688, the Jacobite supporters of James and of his son, James III, fought to restore the exile kings in no fewer than four wars between 1689 and 1746. The Jacobite movement was to a large extent an equivalent to the hardline wing of Toryism, in its opposition to both moderate Tories and to the preponderance of the Whigs. In contrast to this, the American Revolution was carried out by the radical wing of the Whigs in opposition to both moderate Whigs and Tories. This division among radical Whig, moderate Whig, and Tory was one which existed within all social classes and within all regions of Britain and of its empire, from the peerage to the working class, and from London to America to India. In 1776, it divided those in Britain as much as it did those in the colonies, despite the fact that war broke out only in the latter.

Within the thirteen colonies not more than forty percent of the population actively supported the revolution, while at least fifteen to twenty percent of the population remained actively loyal to the British government. Prior to the beginning of war in April of 1775, the proto-revolutionary movement in the colonies found itself engaged in an opposition to the British government similar to that of radical Whig movements in Britain, such as that led by John Wilkes. Once war began, Radical Whig members of parliament ostentatiously dressed in the blue and buff colors of the Continental Army, and publicly celebrated British defeats on the grounds that such defeats weakened the Tories within Britain, while British victories strengthened them. Even among those colonists engaged in military opposition to Britain, independence only began to be seriously considered as an option nine months after Lexington and Concord; a consensus in favor of independence might never have been attained were it not for the fact that the foreign aid needed to win the war was dependent upon presenting foreign governments with an opportunity to permanently weaken Britain by detaching some of its colonies. Independence was a means towards the achievement of radical Whig government rather than an aim for which colonists went to war. For this reason the establishment of the United States constituted a philosophically-motivated change of regime in the same way that particular political philosophies motivated changes of regime during the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution (a fact which has nothing to do with the question of how similar or how different were the philosophies which motivated these three revolutions).

In the years following the American Revolution the Tory tradition became one of the major influences upon the development of traditionalist conservatism. The original division between Tory and Whig had seen the Tories as advocates of monarchal supremacy over parliament (though in most cases not monarchal absolutism), while Whigs held for a parliament at least as strong as the monarch. Moderate Whigs had shared with Tories a belief in a “divine right of government” (moderate Whigs believing in a divine right of king, lords, and commons in distinction to the Tory belief in the divine right of the king) and had further agreed that the monarch ought to have substantial power. Radical Whigs held to social contract doctrines and tended to favor a weak monarchy, if not outright republicanism. Catholics in the British Isles had long been Tories in a loose sense of the term, holding much of the Tory worldview and supporting the Tories politically (the major difference being that Tories in the strict sense of the term were High Anglicans). Looser usage of the term “Tory” gradually came to embrace the views of moderate Whigs as well, thereby encompassing all who held to a Christian-based view of politics—i.e., one that adhered to belief in a divine origin of government and a hierarchal worldview in opposition to the doctrine of egalitarianism and social contract.

It was these three elements of the Tory tradition in the loose sense of the term that were ultimately secularized (if I may use the word) as traditionalist conservatism. Traditionalist conservatism has often being favorable to religion, and many traditionalist conservatives have themselves been devout. But whereas the Tory tradition advocated its political theories on the basis of a supposition that one or another form of Christianity is authentically God’s revelation, the traditionalist conservative defends Christianity as valuable for our individual, social, and political lives. The two approaches are not incompatible with each other, but they are distinct. The traditionalist conservative shares the old Tory belief in social hierarchy as natural and good, though may not advocate monarchal rule or a hereditary peerage. Belief in a transcendent origin of government is maintained by traditionalist conservatives, who base it in such sources as human nature and prescriptive tradition (which allows for but does not necessitate belief in an ultimate divine origin).

The majority of American loyalists remained in the new United States after the Treaty of Paris, few of them having been Tories in the original strict sense of the term, but many of them Tories in the broader sense. By and large they came to support the Federalist Party, not because its concerns and policies were as a general rule more compatible with Tory positions than were those of Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans. But between the passing of the loyalist generation and the mid-twentieth century there was no significant presence within American politics of those influenced primarily by the Tory tradition. It was only following the Second World War that one can find a movement of traditionalist conservatives in the United States. These men were adept at discovering elements of the political tradition of the United States which were compatible with the doctrines of traditionalist conservatism. Most notably, the extensive research of Russell Kirk found ways in which figures as disparate as Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Randolph of Roanoke, John Quincy Adams, John C. Calhoun, and Abraham Lincoln were influenced by traditionalist conservatism or held views in accord with traditionalist conservatism on any number of particular issues.

The problem was that no political party or movement in the United States between the loyalists and the mid-twentieth century traditionalists had based itself primarily upon Tory or traditionalist conservative beliefs. All in fact claimed to represent a break with the Tory old order. The supporters of John Quincy Adams condemned Andrew Jackson’s manner of exercising the presidency as similar to a traditional monarch and held their own position to be in opposition to such vestiges of the old order, making it possible to view them more as a “progressive elite” than as a traditional aristocracy. The Jacksonians defended Jackson’s manner of exercising the presidency as necessary for the victory of populist egalitarianism over traditional aristocracy. During the first half of the twentieth century, the American “right” prioritized libertarian concerns while the American “left” prioritized egalitarian ones—but both were unified in their opposition to the old order.

This same divide has remained predominant in American politics after the rise of the traditionalist conservatives to prominence. Despite the eminence of a number of American traditionalist thinkers their influence has been largely limited to a small minority of the more intellectual and more cultured within the United States. While the label of “conservative” has been widely embraced and while certain elements of conservative thinking have been incorporated into the view of the American right, it remains the case that the American right remains dominated by classical liberals, libertarians, and the pre-1960s style progressives known as a “neo-conservatives.”

The fact that many prominent individuals and movements in the history of the United States were conservative in particular ways while none were conservative in their overall philosophy has led to the “search for the American conservatives”—a process whereby conservative writers identify individuals or movements which were conservative in some ways and extrapolate from this that the same individuals or movements constituted an unambiguously conservative tradition. Attempts by traditionalists to save the tradition of the United States from itself have at time reached extreme levels. Russell Kirk rightly opposed social contract doctrine. But he then went on to claim that the presence of social contract doctrine in the Declaration of Independence was in part a consequence of Jefferson’s authorship and in part an attempt to appeal to classical liberals in France, rather than representative of views generally held among those who supported the revolution. But Dr. Kirk’s position lacks support from the most significant writings and speeches of the revolutionary movement. John Adams’s place on the committee which produced the Declaration of Independence is never convincingly reconciled with Dr. Kirk’s assertion that Adams was at least more or less a conservative, rather than merely one of the relatively more conservative of the founders of the United States.

Does this mean that the views of such scholars as Dr. Kirk on the conservative tradition in America ought to be rejected? Of course not. But we ought to use their work to locate the basis of American conservatism in our colonial past, at a time when the English Tory variant of the old order of Europe had a real, if by no means exclusive, presence in our civilization. That much of that old order survived the American Revolution is the reality which is actually proven by the evidence uncovered by Dr. Kirk and others. But it is crucial to understand that the old Tory order survived in the American historical tradition despite the Revolution of ’76, and not because of it.

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2 replies to this post
  1. How ever and by what means the conservative Idea continued and strengthened so we were fortunate. The various strands melded to a vigorous political culture and structure, and from it rose some great men and a viable as well as flexible, durable political ethos. Would that we could have maintained it.

  2. Very interesting. One of the great failures of American education is that the English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution, and the resulting political situation in Britain throughout the 18th century are usually completely ignored as having any connection with the American revolution. I suspect part of the reason the thoroughly British germination of the United States has been ignored is because it was replaced by the “nation of immigrants” narrative that has come to dominate the popular understanding of our national identity.

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