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Seashore towns once played the same conservative role as American farms did, but by the end of the twentieth century, man took to coercing nature in order to protect his ocean playground…

The Atlantic and Pacific Coasts of the United States serve as a home to the Union’s great cities and to a majority of Progressive Americans. One might assume from the map that people who live near North America’s coast uniformly conform to a political type often (and sometimes unhelpfully) rendered as “left-wing” or liberal in the American political lexicon. One might easily assume with some reason that denizens of coastal cities are elite cosmopolites of decidedly progressive socio-political predilections while “Middle America” serves as the faithful home of conservative traditional America. This cartoonish construction unhelpfully concedes the seas to modernity and progressivism; it undermines the reality that ecological conservation of the planet’s oceans is an essentially conservative cause; and it implies that on some level traditionalist should concede seventy-one percent of the planet to a “liberal coastal elite” that is neither as real as its enemies might believe nor as coastal as its sympathetic purveyors offer. For thousands of years, conservatism and tradition marked human interaction with oceans, and Americans should be no different. Art, cultural pursuits of all sorts, politics, and ultimately nature create an intellectual space for conservative intellectuals to interact not only fruitfully, but transcendently, with the sea.

I confess that I have every personal cause to plead the case for what I will call an oceanic conservatism. I live in the coastal Virginia Tidewater. I am the grandson of two sailors, seaman Billy Cromer and the late Lieutenant Miles Smith Jr. I attended university in Charleston, South Carolina’s great port city. I studied abroad for a semester in the seaside town of Chiavari, Italy, nestled quietly on the Ligurian Sea. During my childhood, I regularly visited my grandparents, fine churchgoing southern Baptists, at their humble home on Oak Island in North Carolina. My love of the sea stemmed from 1) my family, 2) an affection and respect for the traditions of the United States Navy, and 3) a love for the natural beauty of the pristine Carolina seaside. Those reasons are not unique to me. They are shared by coastal conservatives everywhere. It is on those three aspects: local community and family, tradition, and nature that I will dwell.

Citizens of the United States, proudly, form what is increasingly called an “immigrant nation.” While the usefulness of that particular term may be debated, many American family stories include someone who traveled across a great sea to start life in the New World. My own family genealogy is not uncommon: Men and women from two islands in the North Sea—Great Britain and Ireland—traveled across the Atlantic and settled in parts of the English (and later British) Empire. They sailed to Jamaica, and Virginia, along routes laid out just a few years before. Richard Hakluyt, a late sixteenth-century explorer and mariner, argued that these oceanic voyages formed an essential part of what it meant to be English in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. His work, somewhat wordily titled The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation, claimed oceanic navigation and colonial enterprises for the entire English nation. A people who always relied on the sea to assist their island society increasingly became first and foremost a sea-faring people.

That same seafaring people first landed on the marshy shores of a river they named after their king: James. They brought the good and bad of their society with them; English civil liberties, and English classism. They created political institutions that actuated liberty for almost every white man in Virginia, while simultaneously importing the brutality of human bondage. All the while, the sea remained a constant. They hacked a civilization out of the wilderness and moved westward into the interior of the massive unknown continent. Still, they remained English, wedded to certain habits of ancient seafarers no matter how far they moved inland. One hundred and seventy years after the original settlers landed, seafaring Englishmen on the western shore of the Atlantic took up arms against seafaring Englishmen on the eastern side of the Atlantic. The American Revolution never rejected the importance of the oceans. Americans recognized their reliance on sea-faring. The Boston Tea Party did not happen because colonial Americans lost their taste for maritime trade. Oceanic commerce remained vitally important to British North America. The creation of the United States was not a rejection of the oceans’ call to English seafaring empire. Americans simply desired to run their oceanic empire from their side of the ocean. Russell Kirk’s The Roots of American Order persuasively argued that the newborn North American republic was not some gnostic creation consecrated to the vaporous proposition of actualizing universal rights, but instead a local expression of an English legal and political order long-practiced by a people particularly devoted to the sea. Although the American people and political order eventually subdued a continent, their roots lay in the cold waters of the Atlantic.

Americans understood that their protection lay in the sea. Even politicians who disliked the very idea of maritime commerce understood the importance of access to the sea. Even that most continentally-minded president, Thomas Jefferson, understood the importance of oceanic access. “There is on the globe,” he told the US minister to France, “one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy. It is New Orleans, through which the produce of three-eighths of our territory must pass to market.” The landward empire of liberty needed the oceans still, and Jefferson—who once accused navies of being aristocratic and monarchical—licensed the construction of six frigates to supplement the fledgling United States Navy.

From its inception, the United States Navy was more tradition-bound than the small and often corrupt US army. The first-generation American men of letters gloried in the maritime traditions associated history’s navies. Herman Melville and James Fenimore Cooper both made the navy and oceanic voyages a centerpiece of their quintessentially American fiction. A novelist even served as Secretary of the Navy. And the traditionalist leadership of the US Navy, for better or worse, vigorously opposed technological innovation. While the army often served as a tool for often-foolish politicians bent on expansionism, the US navy protected the republican order against the numerically overwhelming and invasive practices of British Royal Navy impressment. The US Navy’s dutiful fulfillment of its mission impressed American and foreign observers alike. Theodore Roosevelt, in his work on the US Navy in the War of 1812, wrote that the United States Navy “possessed a small but highly effective force,” ships well built, manned “by thoroughly trained men,” and commanded by “able and experienced officers. The deeds of our navy form a part of history over which any American can be pardoned for lingering.” Theodore Roosevelt, no conservative himself, nonetheless took pride that the US Navy fulfilled in the early nineteenth century an essentially conservative purpose: protecting the liberties and government of the American order.

Beginning at the end of the nineteenth century, imperialism corrupted the conservative purpose of the US Navy. Naval theorist like Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, wedded to a progressive understanding of human nature, argued that the Navy should be a tool of enlightenment and modernity, bringing the glories of America to benighted populations of traditional peoples. American Indians, the indigenous peoples of Africa, and island communities of Southeast Asia all stood in the way of human progress, and the US Navy would do its part to civilize them. In his The Interest of America on Sea Power, Present and Future Mahan argued that there was an “inevitableness” to the reduction of indigenous colonial peoples, Mahan argued. “The great majority of cases where civilized and highly organized peoples have trespassed upon the technical rights of possession of the previous occupants of the land—of which our own dealings with the American Indian afford another example,” brought about the inevitable extinction of native people. Mahan passingly noted that while “the inalienable rights of the individual are entitled to a respect which they unfortunately do not always get,” there was, he declared, “no inalienable right in any community to control the use of a region when it does so to the detriment of the world at large, of its neighbors in particular, or even at times of its own subjects.” Mahan and like-minded progressive imperialists claimed the divine right to judge was detrimental not only for specific peoples but for the world at large. American hubris grew in the late nineteenth century, and progressive imperialists saw the noble navy as a tool to implement their pragmatic and utopian vision of humanity.

What so motivated Mahan and his fellow officers to corrupt the navy’s purpose? A progressive mindset that saw humans as perfectible beings and the seductions of liberal capitalist empire. Cities overthrew the noble wonder with which Americans treated the great oceans. Industrialism grew cities, liberalism and capitalism unmoored people from their old respect for the ocean and its bounty. By the end of the twentieth century, nearly every small seaside village was a “beachtown,” invaded by and prostituting itself to all the tacky consumerism and licentiousness of late-twentieth-century California. Developers intent on making fast bucks threw up cheap-looking and aesthetical nightmarish high-rises filled by middle-class Americans seeking some escape from the hellish corporate nightmare American liberalism increasingly promoted. Full of sunshine, tans, ever-decreasing acreage of pristine seascapes, seaside villages became a gnostic dream of eternal youth and flawless human physicality. The sheer ridiculousness of shopkeepers using the image of palm trees and California style-coloring on Maryland and Virginia’s bayside crabbing and shrimping towns betrayed the extent to which Americans lost the sea to an idea unmoored from nature and humanity. Old men walking seashores alone gave way to locals trying to escape the lawlessness of masses of drunken coeds. Seashore towns once played the same conservative role as American farms did; by the end of the twentieth century, it was as hard to be a small-time shrimper as it was to be a farmer. Vocations that worked in harmony with nature—crabbing, fishing, shrimping and other—died. Man took to coercing nature in order to protect his ocean playground. Hurricanes reshaped the Atlantic’s coastline for a thousand years. Twentieth-century Americans arrogantly built their play-places right up to the ocean’s edge, and subsequently had the temerity to call hurricanes “natural disasters” when nature operated simply as it had for eons.

Is there any hope for the reclamation of a coastal conservatism? I believe there is. Americans, especially those sociologist term millennials, are beginning to reject the consumerism of their forbearers. More coastal communities are taking seriously their natural beauty and taking steps to protect it. Public intellectuals like Admiral James Stavridis increasingly oppose neoconservative efforts to remake the world in the image of American-style liberal democracy, in favor of policies that rely on the United States’ supporting more basic national security interests. None of these changes are panaceas, but they will restore to some degree the relationships of Americans with the magnificent oceans that bound our republic. Surely American conservatives are mariners still, but they carry too often the albatross of modernity. Imaginative conservatives understand that Nature’s God and Nature’s law prove more reliable pilots in our relationship with the great sea than anything our consumeristic society might contrive.

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2 replies to this post
  1. Interesting article! Thanks for posting. I can’t imagine though that Richard Hakluyt (the late sixteenth-century explorer) had in mind the hundreds of thousands of white, poor English slaves who were being transported at this time to the colonies. Granted, they weren’t considered people, but property. To my understanding, these English folk were treated far worse than black slaves and died at a higher rate not only during the journey across the ocean but also in the fields as well.

  2. Well stated, Prof. Smith. Your article stirs within my memory these concluding words from Belloc’s “The Cruise of the Nona”: “The sea has taken me to itself whenever I sought it and has given me relief from men. It has rendered remote the cares and the wastes of the land; for all creatures that move and breathe upon the earth we of mankind are the fullest of sorrow. But the sea shall comfort us, and perpetually show us new things and assure us. It is the common sacrament of this world. May it be to others what it has been to me.”

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