A review of Challenges to the American Founding: Slavery, Historicism, and Progressivism in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Ronald J. Pestritto and Thomas G. West
The essays in this volume, the second in a planned trilogy, survey the principal currents of 19th-century American political thought. The book is divided into two main parts: those ideas emanating from proslavery thinkers before the Civil War and those from progressive and positivist thinkers after the war. The slavery advocates emphasize historically conditioned social hierarchy as a central element of their romantic rejection of egalitarian political principles. The post-war intellectuals emphasize radical egalitarianism based in historical contingency and personal idiosyncrasy. But the two points of view share the same intellectual pedigree: the historicist rejection of the American Founding's natural right principles. By highlighting the emergence of this rejection so early in American history, the authors in this volume remind us of the great distance between the founders' political thought and the reigning historicismand its attendant relativism, atheism, and nihilismof our own day.
Richard J. Dougherty's essay on the political thought of Andrew Jackson serves as a prologue. Here, Jackson represents the continuance of the founders' principles despite the emerging historicism. Although John Quincy Adams is perhaps the best representative of those principles among the early 19th century's major political figures, the choice of Jackson is understandable. Because he was a Southerner and a slave owner, as well as the preeminent politician of the time, the juxtaposition of his thought with that of the proslavery thinkers is instructive. For Dougherty, Jackson's distinction was his commitment to the "radical principle of freedom" enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.
In contrast to Jackson, John C. Calhoun embodies perhaps the most powerful objection to the founding principles in the pre-Civil War period. Following Harry Jaffa's analysis, Thomas Krannawitter shows the philosophical roots of Calhoun's rejection of those principles, manifest in his embrace of both the positive good theory of slavery and the doctrine of nullification. Much like Hegel and Marx, Calhoun saw in the end of history something like a secular analogue of the Christian absolute, the resolution of all human problems, but one which would provide, he hoped, undeniable ground for his political claims. Krannawitter remarks that, "in Calhoun, as in the thought of all historicists, the ought and the is come together; the is becomes the ought. There is no ground upon which one can objectively criticize the status quo as wrong." For the founders, the capacity for reason and freedom under the natural moral law was the defining characteristic of humanity. For Calhoun, on the other hand, subjection to the necessity of the absolute moment, with its attendant degradation of both reason and freedom, defined away any questions as such.
Jefferson Davis reflects the specifically romantic thrust of Southern thought in the 19th century, and Will Morrisey shows that Davis was moved by a "thumotic" impulse of religious and political righteousness, which however political its intention might have been, nevertheless threatened the social contract basis of the American regime. Unlike Calhoun, Davis embraced the Declaration's principles as his own, but he narrowly interpreted the cause of liberty as a spirited struggle for recognition between prideful men. In Davis's hands, the Declaration's principles are not so much rational principles of political right as they are ground for the assertion of one's particular claims and defense of one's personal honor. This emphasis on the personal confuses the public and private in a manner contrary to the founding's natural law principles.
The difference between the political and the personal, between natural right and history, largely formed the basis of the debate over secession which lead to the Civil War. That debate prompts Herman Belz to ask whether the meaning of America is "exhausted by, or reducible to, pure historical contingency as an indeterminate, socially constructed thing." The argument for a constitutional right of secession ultimately assumed such contingency. In the founders' view, there is a "transcendent moral reality" that is "constitutive of the people and the nation." Despite their manifestation in time and basis in individual freedom, the American Revolution and the founding obtained meaning from that morality. The secessionist argument, in contrast, denied the moral reality that made both revolutionary action and constitutional founding the ground for the affirmation, rather than the denial, of the political.
The philosophical difference between the founders and the slavery advocates is exhibited in the confusion in antebellum jurisprudence regarding the privileges and immunities of citizenship. David R. Upham shows that, according to the founders, the privileges of citizenship are the natural rights of human beings, but when enjoyed in an "enlarged way" in particular political societies. It is therefore wrong to read the constitutional protections of privileges and immunities as requiring recognition of the property rights in slaves of slave owners traveling in free states. Upham shows that the development of the doctrine of "nondiscrimination" in privileges and immunities jurisprudence after the Civil War followed directly from the inability to understand, or the desire to avoid understanding, the privileges of citizenship according to natural right. Upham's analysis indicates that, even though slavery was finally abolished in America, the failure of proslavery thinkers was more apparent than real.
In the most penetrating essay of the collection, John Marini explains the historicism's final victory, in principle, through the transformation of American higher education, especially in the social sciences. "Although the social scientists condemned the practice of slavery," he writes, "they denied that there could be a philosophic defense of natural right, equality, or liberty." Under the influence of the new thinking, the universities would abandon their longstanding role as teachers of the founders' natural right principles. To paraphrase Leo Strauss, although the South may have been "annihilated as a political being," it nevertheless "deprived its conquerors of the most sublime fruit of victory by imposing on them the yoke of its own thought."
The transformation of the universities struck at the very heart of the founders' regime of civil and religious liberty. It was of immense importance that the universities, even though often affiliated with the Christian churches, traditionally had taught the natural, nonsectarian principles of the social compact, particularly as those principles were understood to require the separation of church and state. In this way, the Christian churches helped resolve the theological-political problem that had emerged with Christianity itself centuries before. That problem centered upon the confusion of political obligation caused by the appearance of cosmopolitan religion. "The intellectual triumph of Christianity," Marini notes, "with the belief in a single universal God, destroyed the political authority of the ancient city, and undermined the secular authority of every particular regime." As Harry Jaffa has argued, the social compact theory resolved this problem by basing political obligation on individual consent under the natural law, but in a manner compatible with the divine authority intelligible to Christian Americans.
Unfortunately, the positivism of Auguste Comte, grounded in the historicism of Hegel, began to undermine the metaphysical elements of the traditional theology that made the compatibility of religion and liberty possible. Marini shows how American clergymen were transformed from theologians to academics, persuaded as they were by modern science's apparently more concrete claims to knowledge. The power of science held greater promise than the power of metaphysical reason, or so it seemed. This change in intellectual orientation would result in the "transformation of religious belief from a supernatural to an earthly object." That is, the new, more secular religious outlook would bring about a heaven on earth in a way not likely under the traditional view. Indeed, over against the claims of God and nature, history would "demonstrate the self-evident superiority of the human mind, and, as a result, scientific rationality would gradually undermine the authority of religion by systematically solving human problems."
Because of its apparent ability to transform the world for the better through technical power, the new positivist form of Christianity could appear outwardly consistent with the egalitarianism of Christian charity and compassion as traditionally understood, especially when compared with racist and proslavery forms of the religion. In fact, once religious thinking was set free from metaphysical thinking, compassion could find wholly new forms. As John Alvis notes, this became particularly evident in the religiosity of Walt Whitman, which foreshadowed the radical sense of compassion, including openness to human deviancy, in the thought of contemporary liberals like Richard Rorty.
Alvis suggests that Whitman's religion is not religion proper because it is detached from the traditional Christian concerns with "doctrine, with promises of an afterlife, and with striving for the liberation of souls from their bodily limitations." It was such philosophical questions that united Christianity and social contract theory in a common intellectual tradition. But, as Rorty later emphasizes, the detachment from the old concerns may give Whitman's religion a certain pragmatic quality. Such religion, like that of the positivists and progressives generally, may be understood as an attempt to affirm what Rorty calls "solidarity." In this sense, much like the Historical School that emerged in Europe in the 19th century, the turn to historical contingency among American thinkers at the time may have been driven by the desire to affirm, however paradoxically, something like political community against the otherworldliness of Christianity and the abstractions of social contract theory.
To be sure, this appeal to history for the sake of community appears more evident in the arguments of Calhoun and Davis than it does in the later thinkers. Calhoun criticized, however wrongly, the founders' social contract theory as too individualistic, as contrary to the naturally political dimension of human life. Davis's emphasis upon pride and honor, however much confused, was motivated by a desire for political self-assertion. But the Southern argument only seemed more political because of its rhetorical emphasis upon tradition and localism. In contrast, the progressive argument for modern science and the administrative state presented a deeper challenge to the founders' thought. The persuasiveness of this argument, as R.J. Pestritto's discussion of Woodrow Wilson suggests, derives from the comprehensive philosophy of history upon which it is based. In particular, this philosophy, unlike the proto-fascist romanticism of Calhoun and Davis, was more congruent with the egalitarian character of traditional American political thought, including both its Christian and classical liberal elements.
The turn to history is problematic, of course, particularly in the ennui and cynicism that can accompany the loss of divine or natural standards of right. Charles T. Rubin explores this phenomenon in Henry Adams's critique of America's corrupt political system, which Adams saw as the founders' true legacy. Unlike Whitman, however, Adams did not see in the "shoreless ocean" of history a satisfactory alternative. But Rubin asks whether Adams's pessimism here matters:
After all, the intervening decades have brought decent people into positions of authority, and in many ways the system is less obviously corrupt than the one Adams observed. Some reforms Adams advocated, principally the elimination of the spoils system, have been implemented. One could say that all this is a good sign. For democracy to be chugging along stands in some contrast to Adams's own occasional, more apocalyptic speculations about futures involving great crashes, or fundamental alterations in the human condition.
This provocative comment suggests the rhetorical power of the progressive challenge to the founders. Contemporary America, under the guidance of modern science and the administrative state, may simply keep "chugging along" despite the relativistic and nihilistic effects of positivism and historicism. Indeed, it may have settled into a kind of Hegelian equilibrium, an amalgam of traditional and vulgar interests satisfactory to most Americans and particularly resistant to change.
Joel Schwartz's comparison of Jane Addams and Benjamin Franklin is instructive in this context. Addams opposed Franklin's rather libertarian views of economics and sex, arguing that the industrial age makes self-reliance impossible for some and that sexual permissiveness is a threat to families and the order of society. "In an odd way," Schwartz remarks, "Addams was an intellectual precursor of both late twentieth-century liberalism and late twentieth-century cultural conservatism." But this is perhaps not so odd if we understand today's liberalism and conservatism as largely compatible parts of a single progressive system of thought and practice. Schwartz suggests that Addams's emphasis upon changing economic conditions contradicts here belief in a permanent sexual morality. But her progressivism centers upon compassion for human beings who are not responsible for their misfortunes, including the misfortune of having been born with a lack of intelligence or talent. Her sympathetic and condescending view of the poor is not altogether in conflict with her contemptuous and judgmental view of the licentious. Instead, she echoes the rather Hegelian idea that history culminates in a system of mutual recognition of the dignity of each human person. It perhaps goes without saying that the founders, including Franklin, would have a rather different idea of what constitutes dignity properly understood.
Taken together, the essays in the book reveal that the romanticism of the proslavery thinkers was in some respects an undeveloped expression of the positivist and progressive ideas that took shape after the Civil War. In this way, the 19th-century opponents of the founders' principles exhibited a single pulse of relativism and nihilism, which ultimately found its culmination in the seemingly mundane left-wing egalitarianism of the progressives rather than the more volatile right-wing inegalitarianism of the slavery advocates. This is not to say that the left-wing challenge is less of a threat to the founding principles. On the contrary, it is all the more daunting because of its ease and banality, which give it a certain durability not adequately understood by many of its critics.