Patriotism Rewind

A response to Lafayette Lee’s “Dark Age Patriotism” essay

I appreciate the heartfelt patriotism (as well as the military service) of Lafayette Lee, as discussed in his recent IM—1776 essay “Dark Age Patriotism.” In the face of the Left’s assaults on faith, freedom, and the rule of law it is essential that all of us on the Right unite to defend ourselves. But presumably, we are defending ourselves in the name of something higher and nobler for which ‘our side’ stands.

Human nature is the great obstacle to utopianism. But isn’t nature universal? A regime grounded in human nature and natural law can never be merely particular; just as no political community can ever be entirely universal.

In his essay, Lee reduces our current crisis to a simplistic dichotomy, proposing to reject “the realm of ideas” in favor of “one’s people and place.” But this doesn’t work. Political communities, as Aristotle explained long ago, combine matter and form. A healthy regime needs a moral people with good habits, traditions, and customs, and a set of intellectual principles that articulate ideas of justice and a noble human purpose.

The founders’ writings — public and private — are widely available in print and online. When we examine their letters, speeches, proclamations, and resolutions we find that in their disputes with the British king and parliament, the colonists defended their traditional privileges as Englishmen up until about 1775-1776. By that point, they had gradually come to see themselves as a separate people — Americans rather than subjects of the British empire.

Concluding that a complete separation was required to secure their liberty, and that a war of revolution would probably be necessary to achieve independence, they began to adopt more radical arguments. Drawing on modern social contract theorists, especially John Locke, and influenced by popular writers such as Thomas Paine, they turn clearly and decisively — toward emphasizing the natural equality and individual rights they possess as human beings. If they no longer consider themselves British subjects, how could they continue to appeal to their rights as Englishmen?

The leading American statesmen, as well as the people, come to reject not just the authority of King George but divine-right monarchy as such, because they see political authority as grounded in the sovereignty of the people, who establish legitimate government on the basis of consent. The chief evidence for this is the Declaration of Independence, signed on July 4, 1776 by 56 delegates to the Continental Congress representing every state. Among the signers was the famously ‘sober’ John Adams, who actually served on the drafting committee.

The Declaration — with its ringing endorsement of equal, natural rights — was immediately and thereafter understood as the founding document. Years later, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, as trustees for the University of Virginia, discussed what texts should be included as part of the school’s law curriculum. They assigned Locke’s Second Treatise and Algernon Sidney’s Discourses on Government as authoritative sources for “the general principles of liberty and the rights of man.”

They then turned to the “best guides” for “the distinctive principles of the government of our State, and of that of the United States,” the first of which was the “Declaration of Independence, as the fundamental act of union of these states.” It remains today the first of the organic laws of the United States in the U.S. Code.

George Washington had the Declaration read aloud to his troops on July 9, 1776; and the nation’s ‘birthday’ was commemorated every July 4, right from the beginning. When the mayor of Washington DC was planning a major celebration of the Declaration’s 50th anniversary in 1826, he invited the two signers still alive, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, to be the distinguished guests of honor. (Both were too old and infirm to attend.)

What about other documents? The Federalist Papers explains that legitimate government is instituted when the people “cede to it some of their natural rights,” (Federalist 2); then goes on to discuss several specific rights throughout; and in Federalist 84, opposes the proposal for a Bill of Rights by affirming that “the Constitution is itself, in every rational sense, and to every useful purpose, a Bill of Rights.” The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 secures the rights of religious liberty, habeas corpus, and trial by jury, as well as general protections for the “just preservation of rights and property.” (It also outlaws slavery as antithetical to republicanism.)

Similar language and arguments appear constantly throughout the founders’ speeches, letters, and other writings. For example:

Alexander Hamilton: “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself.” (The Farmer Refuted, 1775)

George Mason: “That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” (Virginia Declaration of Rights, 1776)

George Washington: “The foundation of our Empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition but at an Epoch when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined than at any former period.” (Circular to the States, 1783)

John Quincy Adams: “The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, are parts of one consistent whole, founded upon one and the same theory of government… expounded in the writings of Locke, but had never before been adopted by a great nation in practice. There are yet, even at this day, many speculative objections to this theory. Even in our own country, there are still philosophers who deny the principles asserted in the Declaration, as self-evident truths — who deny the natural equality and inalienable rights of man — who deny that the people are the only legitimate source of power — who deny that all just powers of government are derived from the consent of the governed. Neither your time, nor perhaps the cheerful nature of this occasion, permit me here to enter upon the examination of this anti-revolutionary theory….” (Jubilee of the Constitution, 1839)

Moreover, as demonstrated by Harry Jaffa decades ago, the state constitutions adopted during the founding era also echo these principles, using the same Lockean phrases.

Maryland: “[A]ll government of right originates from the people, is founded in compact only, and instituted solely for the good of the whole.”

Massachusetts: “[A]ll men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights….”

Pennsylvania: “That all men are born equally free and independent and have certain natural, inherent and inalienable rights, amongst which are, the enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

Virginia: “That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights….”

Georgia’s legislature was apparently still angry at Great Britain when drafting its state constitution in 1777, writing that the king’s actions, “repugnant to the common rights of mankind, hath obliged the Americans, as freemen, to oppose such oppressive measures, and to assert the rights and privileges they are entitled to by the laws of nature and reason.”

None of this means the founders intended to secure the natural rights of the whole human race: the American people established free government only for themselves, which is as far as their authority extended. Nor should the emphasis on rights be understood to diminish the role of moral virtue and religious faith, which is not only desirable but absolutely essential for the success of self-government.

I could (but won’t) quote many passages from the founding era expanding on Washington’s statement that “the propitious smiles of Heaven, can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained.”

Lincoln did not invent the language of equality and natural rights. Nor is he the source of contemporary neoliberal imperialism. In fact, he clearly demonstrates that the founders’ understanding of political equality (which he scrupulously followed) was the opposite of today’s egalitarian social engineering and government-imposed equity.

The founders, Lincoln explained, “did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness, in what respects they did consider all men created equal — equal in ‘certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’”

Lincoln is simply elaborating what James Madison says in the Federalist: that political equality is meant to liberate individual industry and natural excellence, and thus “the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property” is “the first object of government.” And there is not a word in Lincoln’s writings about forcibly extending this American understanding of liberty throughout the world.

So where did the problem come from? If not Lincoln and the founders, what is the source of the contemporary Left’s dogmatic obsessions?

For the first century of the United States, every leading American statesman professed allegiance to the Constitution. It was not until the late 19th century, with the introduction of Progressivism, that this changed. Woodrow Wilson was the first American president to publicly reject the founders’ Constitution, and he did so in the name of modern, specifically German, philosophy. If we are looking for a domestic villain — the progenitor of our bureaucratic ruling elites who hate traditional America — we will find a much better candidate in Wilson and his progressive allies.

Wilson saw the Constitution’s checks and balances as a “radical defect in our federal system,” which needed to be corrected on the basis of our superior modern understanding. Mankind had evolved — biologically, morally, and politically — according to the Progressives, and so they sought to overturn both the moral conditions of a free society, and what the progressive thinker John Dewey called “the rigid doctrine of natural rights,” in favor of rule by academically-trained experts. Here are the seeds of our “ideological regime,” as well as the global adventurism to spread democracy, for which Wilson is so notorious.

Any attempt to recover constitutional self-government must begin by repudiating this progressive introduction of German “state theory” into American politics. That cannot be accomplished by retreating into anti-rational nostalgia.

In objecting to the “tyranny of abstract principles, values, and ideas,” Lee’s argument puts in question the West’s entire philosophical tradition — including the philosophers of Greece and Rome — and even the intellect itself.

Here is my plea to spirited traditionalists and patriots like Lee:

Forget the anti-intellectualism. The talk indulged by young people of the New Right, about becoming pirates or the historic privileges of Anglo-Saxons isn’t helpful. Tell a plumber in Ohio that the problem with the Democrats is that Joe Biden doesn’t respect “our rights as Englishmen” and see how far that goes.

Forget the revisionism about the founding; leave that to the New York Times and the 1619 Project.

Forget right-wing Hegelianism and historical determinism which sees our fate as the inevitable result of the Enlightenment. We are free because the mind possesses reason and can discern our common human nature, which is the only basis of just government according to Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Washington, and Lincoln. The best form of traditionalism today recognizes and embraces the most fundamental ground of the great American tradition.

I’m glad to stand alongside Lafayette Lee and IM—1776 in a practical alliance to fight woke tyranny. But I would encourage them to join us and adopt the traditional American patriotism centered on the Declaration of Independence as the most authentic and most powerful expression of ‘the American mind’.

Glenn Ellmers is the author of “The Soul of Politics: Harry V. Jaffa and the Fight for America“. He is a Senior Fellow of the Claremont Institute and a visiting research scholar at Hillsdale College.


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