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Use & Abuse of Classical Liberalism
Neither the founders nor the views they espoused fit nicely into the secularist, libertine individualistic box the neo-reactionaries wish to place them into.
The US Constitution and the broader American founding project have increasingly come under attack from a surprising place: the Reactionary Right. According to many in this camp, the Founders were classical liberals who established a system that privileged individualism and the hedonistic pursuit of self-interest above almost all else.
The Founders were purportedly overly secular, too confident in abstract reason, overly positivistic, and utilitarian. Worst of all, they presumed (allegedly) that the state could remain neutral on the ultimate questions of the good society and the good life. The problems we face today (atomization, nihilism, extreme individualism, moral decay) are supposedly the inevitable consequence of the classical liberalism embraced by our Founders.
As a preliminary matter, the term “classical liberalism” did not exist at the time of the founding. It is a modern label attempting to describe retroactively, with limited success, a cluster of ideas that existed more than two centuries in the past. It’s debatable how much modern-day libertarians and self-styled classical liberals align with the Founders.
However, this neo-reactionary attack on the founding suffers from two much more significant problems. First, it overstates its influence and fails to recognize the way in which classical liberalism existed in competition with other ideologies at the time of the founding, especially civic republicanism. Second, it misunderstands what founding-era classical liberalism actually was and the extent to which, in the American context, it distilled centuries of Calvinist thought.
Even if Thomas Jefferson and James Madison can be fairly described as classical liberals, for the sake of argument, they had to compete and compromise with representatives of other ideologies, such as John Adams with his civic republicanism and Alexander Hamilton with his interventionist pro-industrial economic nationalism. Over the past fifty years, historians have thoroughly documented these tensions. Yet, somehow, this research has not made it into the conversation outside of academia.
Especially in New England, a major impetus for revolution was the fear that Parliament was attempting to use supposedly minor economic imposition to accustom the colonists to tyranny. Samuel Adams, in particular, feared that economic tyranny would soften up colonists for spiritual tyranny.
His cousin, John Adams, saw a much more active role for the government than did his counterparts in Virginia and believed in a more important role for public virtue. Adams believed, “There must be a positive Passion for the public good, the public Interest, Honour, Power and Glory, established in the Minds of the People, or there can be no Republican Government, nor any real liberty.” Adams envisioned New England as a Christian Sparta.
Adams also saw religion as playing an important role in public life, more so than Madison or Jefferson. According to legal historian John Witte, Adams looked to his Puritan forebears as exemplars, representing “a happy blending of religious liberty and a moderate governmental promotion of religion.” Adams foresaw that it was inevitable for someone’s morality to fill any vacuum. As Witte paraphrases him, “Absent a commonly adopted set of values and beliefs, politicians would invariably hold out their private convictions as public ones.”
A number of states continued to maintain established churches for decades after ratification of the Constitution, and it wasn’t until the mid-Twentieth Century that the Supreme Court held that the Establishment Clause even applied to the states and not just the federal government. When the final few states disestablished their churches, it was by no means a diminution of the importance of religion but rather a concern over the perceived corruption and laziness of government-subsidized clerics. Even after the disestablishment of state churches, there was a broad understanding that state laws would broadly reflect the shared religious values of the community.
While Adams signed on to the endorsement in the Declaration of Independence of the “pursuit of happiness,” his and other Founders’ understanding of “happiness” was not merely about seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. It prioritized a well-ordered life, finding one’s calling, and finding one’s unique role in the community. Adams believed that in order to promote the “happiness of the people,” for example, it was necessary to police against frivolous consumerism through the imposition of sumptuary laws.
Adams' views on the importance of virtue were widespread in New England. Fellow New Englander Noah Webster said at the time, “[I]t is needless to discuss questions of natural rights as distinct from a social state, for all rights are social, and subordinate to the supreme will of the whole society.” One congregational minister said in 1775, “[E]ach individual gives up all private interest that is not consistent with the general good … and every individual is to seek and find his happiness in the welfare of the whole.” The emphasis on the need for self-sacrifice was not entirely limited to New England. Historian Barry Alan Shain characterizes the attitude across Revolutionary America, from North to South, as one in which “the common or public good enjoyed preeminence over the immediate interests of individuals.”
James Madison had a very different view from Adams on the appropriate role for religion in public life. For example, in 1785, a powerful coalition of Virginians, including George Washington, George Mason, Patrick Henry, John Marshall, and others who would become prominent Founders, suggested that the state require each citizen to pay to support a church, but allow each citizen to choose which church would receive those funds.
James Madison opposed the bill, arguing, “It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.”
Adams and Madison worked from differing strands of Calvinist thought. Adams worked from a Calvinist emphasis on the need for civic authority to supervise the public good and decent order. Madison, in contrast, adopted a line of thought developed by Calvinist political theologians such as John Knox, John Ponet, Johannes Althusius, Theodore Beza, and Christopher Goodman, who had argued that believers’ ultimate duty to obey God may trump any duty to obey secular authority under certain circumstances. Although John Calvin was a theocrat and far from a classical liberal, Madison’s formulation is ultimately derivative of Calvin’s idea that “We obtain liberty in order that we may more promptly and more readily obey God in all things.”
Part of what made the American Founding succeed where so many other revolutionary movements have failed was Madison and other Founders’ keen awareness of man’s corruptibility and the need for restraints. Although not orthodox in his views about Christianity, Madison was profoundly influenced by his instruction under Calvinist theologian John Witherspoon at what would later become Princeton University. Madison echoed his teacher’s emphasis on man’s fallen nature when he wrote in Federalist 51 that “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
George Washington was somewhere between the classical liberals and the civic republicans. He was cautious about government being overly dogmatic about what constituted the good, especially with regard to sectarian matters. Far from being a product of hyper-rationalism and overreliance on abstract principles, he was skeptical of the idea that individuals’ value commitments were purely the product of reason, and that due to men’s varying circumstances and natures, there would always be differences of opinions. He said, “Men’s minds are as variant as their faces.” The solution was not complete “neutrality” of principles, but norms and institutions that could accommodate a broad, but not unlimited, set of values.
While Washington believed in the importance of public virtue, any idealism was tempered by his experience in war. Washington despaired often at what he saw as the persistent self-interest and lack of discipline among his men. Washington, by the end of the Revolutionary War, was perhaps a civic republican mugged by reality.
Ultimately, the Founders did not govern in a value-neutral way. They endorsed and fostered values such as reverence for God, civic virtue, advancement of the arts and sciences, education, industrial growth, connection to the land, and the traditional family. There was always debate about how to best promote these values and how assertively to do so, but the idea that government must be value-neutral would have been alien to the Founders.
Critics of classical liberalism often misunderstand the thought of one of the Founders’ principal influences: John Locke. Locke, of course, emphasized the importance of individual rights and the importance of limited government; however, his individualism is often overstated. It is often overlooked that, for example, Locke taught that man “has not Liberty to destroy himself,” and that each individual had a duty to “preserve the rest of Mankind.” Locke further advised that each individual in a state of nature, in their pursuit of property has a duty not to acquire more to leave “enough, and as good” for others to acquire land. Locke also emphasized the importance of religion to the preservation of good moral order.
Locke argued that both individuals and society had a duty to help the unfortunate, both in a state of nature and after the formation of society and government. “God has given us all things richly. … But how far has he given it us? To enjoy. As much as any one can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils; so much he may by his labour fix a Property in. Whatever is beyond this, is more than his share, and belongs to others. Nothing was made by God for Man to spoil or destroy.” Moreover, “As Justice gives every Man a Title to the product of his honest Industry, and the fair Acquisitions of his Ancestors descended to him; so Charity gives every man a Title to so much out of another’s Plenty, as will keep him from extreme want.”
Locke further reasoned since “God has made men … in a state wherein they cannot subsist without society and has given them judgment to discern what is capable of preserving that society, can he but conclude that he is obliged and that God requires him to follow those rules which conduce to the preserving of society?”
For Locke, the equality of mankind was based, as legal philosopher Jeremy Waldron points out, on the reality that each individual is equally bound by God’s commandments and equally capable of obeying God’s will for them.
We should resist neo-reactionaries’ oversimplification of the Founders’ project and reject their defeatism about the founding project being bound to result in the sorry state of things today. Neo-reactionaries offer some urgently needed reminders for contemporary conservatives about the impossibility of value-neutral governance, the folly of unilaterally disarming in the face of a cultural war, the inevitable dominance of organized elites, and the need for vigilance against elites attempting to habituate the people to unthinking subservience.
However, they need to recognize that what’s needed is a deeper understanding of our founding values, not blithe dismissal of them. After all, despite the current precarious state of our society at the moment, the Founders established what would become the most powerful, wealthiest, most technologically advanced, and arguably the most charitable hegemon in world history. The Founders clearly got something right.
We should not underestimate the value of looking to the past for strength and instruction in facing modern challenges. The Founders saw themselves as restorers of the principles of the British Glorious Revolution a century prior. Likewise, the leaders of the Glorious Revolution drew upon the legacy and myths of the Anglo-Saxon past. There is hope and strength today in drawing from the successes of our forebears.
We should heed the admonition of Daniel Webster, who said, “It is in the power of every generation to make themselves, in some degree, partakers in the deeds, and in the fame of their ancestors, by adopting their principles, and studying their examples. Wherever history records the acts of men, the past has more or less influence on the present. We come to take counsel of the dead. From the tumults and passions that agitate the living world, we withdraw to the tomb, to listen to the dictates of departed wisdom.”
Nathan Brown is an immigration attorney in Fresno, CA. He received a BA in Economics and History from Brigham Young University and his Jurist Doctorate from Emory University School of Law. @nathankblbrown