What to a Postliberal is the 4th of July?
Ultimately, we should be proud of our nation and what we have accomplished, not just simply because it is ours, but because of the good it has done.
“My subject, then, fellow-citizens, is American slavery. I shall see, this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave’s point of view. Standing, there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.”
With these words, Frederick Douglass opened his famous speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” And how relevant does the speech remain today, except instead of slavery we might substitute the varied pathologies that mark our age. The endless commitment to Pride; a two-tiered justice system based on one’s race and political commitments; a “house divided” over abortion; collapsing marriage and birth rates; the lack of family formation; pervasive inequality; opioid abuse, hollowed-out communities and “deaths of despair;” widespread use of pornography and the sexualization of all aspects of American culture.
To the attuned reader, one who “knows what time it is,” they will see that these issues emanate a common source: the liberalism that pervades the American regime. So my subject, then, fellow-citizens, is American liberalism. And on this day of memorial and celebration over our Independence and the “self-evident” truths declared that day, I have to say that it is hard to be patriotic.
Patriotism, defined as love of one’s country, is a common sentiment across time and space, and is a natural inclination of our belonging to a particular political community. Aristotle’s remark that “man is by nature a creature of the polis” means not only that we are creatures ordered towards political life, but also that we are made for a particular kind of political life, namely that of the polis, or a city. The Greek “city” was considered to be a “small-ish” community united under a system of laws, with its inhabitants existing in proximity to one another. It was small enough that everyone might know everyone else, and has the effect that qua particular community, it imprints its character on citizens in a distinct way, reflecting the local culture, customs, geography, language, religions, habits, opinions, and other idiosyncrasies of life of that people in that place. What this means for America, in short, is that we love the country simply because it is ours.
One cannot help but wonder, however, is my country loveable, not just because my very being is bound up with it as if it were my own family, but is it loveable in itself? When we venture to that question, then it is hard to be patriotic, as America today reflects a certain ugliness and coarseness that is hard to love. St. Augustine reminds us that a city is centered around a shared object of our love. Ancient Sparta loved military honor, Jerusalem loved the law and the prophets, and Renaissance Florence loved great art, sculptures, and architecture. What does America love today? The self.
To the postliberal and the Catholic, this worship of the self, called “expressive individualism” or “permissive egalitarianism,” is a false and noxious idea that severs man’s obligations to God, our fellow man, and nature for the sake of our will. Christ instructs us to “ Love each other as I have loved you.Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (Jn. 15:12-13). The modern liberal project repudiates this and seeks the triumph of the self against any and all claims of obligation or right, even a claim of right to one’s own body. Commitments are purely those which we select, but not anything to which we could be commanded.
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What does this have to do with Independence Day?
I write these words while in California at the Publius Fellowship with the Claremont Institute, so I have spent the better part of the last month reading many of the political and philosophical texts that animated the spirit of the American Founding, liberal or otherwise. But how liberal really was the Founding? The best treatment of this question is Thomas West’s The Political Theory of the American Founding, as he painstakingly details the influences of the Founding, including a treatment of Locke's large influence. While it is true that the Founding had liberal elements, there is much that postliberals can admire and build upon from within our own political tradition moving forward.
Virtue of the Founding Fathers
The Founders sought to instill morality in the people. For all the talk of “checks and balances” and “separation of powers,” they recognized that America’s “experiment” in self-government would fail without faith. Consider John Adams’ famous line, “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Or from Washington’s Inaugural Address: “So, on another, that the foundations of our National policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality.” Notice here how Washington makes a connection between the public and the private. While recognizing a distinction between the two spheres, they are not separate in Washington’s mind, which is a carry-over from classical political thought, which emphasizes the connections between the city and the soul.
Another virtue of the Founders can be found in the Declaration of Independence. To understand the truest meaning of the Declaration’s “pursuit of happiness” as a fundamental right, we must look again to Washington. As he left the political arena behind and gave counsel to a young America, he offered this prolific statement about the connections between freedom, morality, and happiness:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens?...And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” (emphasis mine)
Religion and morality are the keys to prosperity as well as the pillars of happiness. Far from the notion that “happiness is whatever you make of it,” to the Founders, happiness is an objective condition tied to moral goodness and virtue. Notice also how he ties religion and patriotism together: in order to be patriotic or a good citizen, one must support religion. Lastly, religion and morality are inextricably linked, if not in principle then for politics. A few “minds of peculiar structure” can understand morality without religion, but for most people, religious symbolism and imagery, authority, and stories from the Bible are necessary for people to understand religion. This reflects the limitations of reason in ascertaining truth and recognizes religious tradition as a positive good, one necessary for free government.
Washington follows up this point with a call for education. “Promote then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.” To postliberals, this follows-up to: “we need religion in society in order to be good citizens” sounds rather disappointing; a more straightforward solution to this problem of religion and politics as he lays it out would be “religion must inform the political order for the sake of good government.” But this advice can be read in two ways: either as an Enlightenment idea of mass education so everyone can “choose for themselves” what the great mysteries of life are, or as an allusion to the connection between knowledge and the role of the informed conscience on the guiding of the moral life.
We should infer that Washington understands “general knowledge,” which would include education in classical and Christian virtue (as he makes explicit in his 1783 Circular to the States, where he again connects the centrality of “that Charity, humility, and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristics of the the Divine Author of our blessed Religion” to happiness) as necessary for self-rule and free government. Such an education is grounded in natural right, consistent with our traditions as a religious people, and universally binding on the conscience. We can make this inference based on the 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior that guided his own upbringing: “110. Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”
Conscience and Liberty
The role of conscience is important in the Founders’ understanding for creating a republican form of government. Liberty, one of the chief goals of the Founders, was predicated on a proper understanding of liberty and licentiousness. Contrary to libertarians, the Founding suffered no confusion about the rightness or wrongness of certain acts, or on the dangers of licentiousness and its obstacles to free government. Representative of many of the defenders of the Constitution at ratification, Benjamin Rush wrote:
In our opposition to monarchy, we forgot that the temple of tyranny has two doors. We bolted one of them by proper restraints; but we left the other open by neglecting to guard against the effects of our own ignorance and licentiousness. Most of the present difficulties of this country arise from the weakness and other defects of our governments.
The government in question, however, is not the Constitution, but the Articles of Confederation. On this line of argument, the Constitution was a better form of government as it had enough energy to restrain the public passions and curb licentiousness in behavior and policy. Our Founding was not fixated on “small government,” but a repudiation of such a framework, one that mixed an energetic government (especially an energetic unitary executive; see Federalist 70-72) with liberty, properly understood.
Even with the centrality that Washington and Adams thought religion played in the Founding, a question remains: Why not establish a national church? The First Amendment foreclosed this opportunity, stating, “Congress shall pass no law respecting the establishment of a religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The short answer is that virtually everyone in America at the time was a Christian, and Europe suffered many bloody wars over religious tensions, which would have been imprudent to stoke in the new Republic.
However, notice that only Congress is implicated in this prohibition; state governments were free to establish churches, and many of them did, and arguably still could (depending on one’s view on state incorporation through the Fourteenth Amendment). Moreover, other public functionaries such as schools, public squares, town halls, sporting events, etc. could make religious pronouncements or make specific references to religion. Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state,” is not only wrong but not authoritative. Rather, the intent of the amendment was that the government could not seek to interfere with religious practice. This says much more about protections of free exercise than it does about establishment. While Jefferson pontificated on the right to religious liberty and that of conscience, he says, quite accurately according to postliberal and Catholic political thought, that “he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.”
Ultimately, true faith is a free act of the will and the intellect, which recognizes and accepts God’s call to order our lives according to His precepts. In that spirit, no one can be forced to worship or believe; the intellect is bound by reason, not the sword. Accordingly, all of the states recognized that the free right of conscience was essential for allowing people to worship God freely according to the nature of the act, but with a special caveat: “provided he doth not disturb the public peace, or disturb others, in their religious worship.” False religions with barbaric and evil practices such as polygamy or child sacrifice are not protected under the right of religious liberty because they recognized that no one could claim a right to exercise their conscience in order to do something wrong. So while not creating a national church is an obstacle to celebrating the Founding, their arrangement is understandable in the context of its time, and is a plausible alternative to recognizing the right of conscience in a society full of Christians. This is not to say that the “separation” is an eternal ideal, but a prudential consideration for the time and circumstances the Founder’s lived in.
Rights and Obligations
The last thing worth mentioning is the Founding emphasis on rights. As aforementioned, rights and duties were seen to go together, and postliberal thought in our day seeks to firm up the importance of our duties and commitments to others and the common good, which have been sorely neglected in our day. At the Founding, however, this was not so, and the emphasis on protecting natural rights such as property was seen as a first end of government (see Federalist 10), but not a final end. The final ends of government, according to the Declaration of Independence, are “Safety and Happiness.” People have rights, and they organize governments in such a way to secure safety and happiness, which is taken to include those rights. As postliberals have been telling our right-liberal friends all along, the common good and protection of rights are not antagonistic principles, but reflect a certain ordering of rights and duties of parties within a political order. Safety and happiness as political ends, rightly understood, reflects the classical political tradition, which see human flourishing, justice, and the common good as proper ends of government.
With all that said, the Founding looks much less liberal than is commonly assumed. If the Founding were taught in this light in our schools, we would do much to improve the current status of American society by their example and desires for our society. It is true that we might make changes to what the Founder’s originally built, as they did with the passage of the Eleventh and Twelfth amendments during the early Republic, too. That said, what is reflected in our Founding sources and in the minds of its leaders is not a paean to the City of Man. Rather, it reflects, while imperfect, moral seriousness on the part of the Framers who paid attention to the defects of human beings, the foundations of a moral society, the centrality of religion, and how they could create a free society that avoided the trap of what Harry Jaffa called “crude majoritarianism,” or willfully self-interested majorities.
What must be understood is that there are limitations to any political regime. The Founder’s were quite attuned to this as well. As Benjamin Franklin said, “It’s a Republic, if you can keep it.” The framers recognized the necessity of statesmen to perpetuate the Union and its institutions. Education was an important facet of perpetuating the institutions of America’s government and the moral understanding that undergirds them. While the Founder’s spoke about the need for statesmanship, as Hamilton and Madison do throughout the Federalist, the need for statesmanship is best exemplified in what they showed with their actions. The decision to break from the Crown was the mark of prudent statesmen, those who recognized the need for independence. To undertake the move for independence, the framers were stepping outside of the existing political order to create a new union, and they “mutually pledge[d] to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor.”
They were acting according to the need for founders of a political order, which Aristotle says “is the cause of very great benefits.” (Politics I.2.1253a30–1) Likewise with the Constitutional Convention, Federalist 40 describes the justifications for moving beyond the Articles of Confederation, saying that the circumstances that led to the Convention to begin with would have to allow for the Convention to replace the Articles to fix the defects that they were convened to solve. Such an arrangement required “some patriotic and respectable citizen or number of citizens.” Indeed, the entire Federalist was an act of statesmanship, one that gave the teachings of the Convention to the Americans in the fight for ratification.
Abraham Lincoln would later make a similar point in his message to Congress in Special Session in 1861. In assuming special powers to defend the Union against secession, he wrote, “Are all the laws but one to go unexecuted, and the Government itself go to pieces lest that one be violated?” Lincoln was a constitutionalist, and prudently charted the Union cause during the course of the Civil War, which for him was about keeping a Union together against secessionists who threatened republican government. Lincoln recognized that a true statesman would see the potential need for a man to skirt the strict dictates of the Constitution for the sake of saving that Constitution; no one stuck in the paradigm of “checks and balances” would be able to see the need for such leadership in the political theory of America’s founding.
A New America?
We are deeply in trouble today. Many question whether American republicanism can survive, or whether we need an American Caesar. It is indeed a good question, one the Founders took seriously. Republicanism was a prudent judgment given the historical experience and way of life of the colonies prior to the Revolution, and fitting with the principles stated in the Declaration of Independence. That said, the Founders did not suppose that republican free government could be sustained with any populace, and our condition today might make self-government impossible.
As Douglass wrote in his speech, “the feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.” America vis a vis its treatment of slaves made it worthy, not of our love, but of “biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke.”
However, Douglass ends with hope, and with a redemption of the Founding. “Interpreted, as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document.” In his day, liberty was the need of all. Today it is something like order that is needed to restore justice to our political system. Ultimately, we should be proud of our nation and what we have accomplished, not just simply because it is ours, but because of the good it has done. It may be imperfect, but what political order has been otherwise? We should heed the advice and wisdom of our Founders to build where they fell short. So I say, on this day of remembrance and celebration of America, that the Constitution is a great document of order, one upon which the postliberal can look to for inspiration from within our tradition to do what must be done.
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