It may be a fool’s errand to claim the same ideals as those espoused by the Left but call for one’s own interpretation of them, as the theoretical and rhetorical kudzu continues to spread.
Amid what looks like a return to the Harry V. Jaffa-Mel Bradford debates of the 1970s with a new cast, it may be useful to clarify my own position about what are proper conservative principles. I am expressing my views as an independent scholar but one who has obvious paleo leanings. The present debate with Michael Anton began when Chronicles magazine (of which I am editor-in-chief), published an article by Brion McClanahan critically dissecting the 1776 Commission created by President Trump as a response to the New York Times’ “1619 Project.” Since McClanahan also expressed sharp disagreement with the Claremont Institute, whose views were reflected in the commission’s work, Anton rose to the defense of his comrades in a blistering rejoinder aimed at McClanahan. Although one finds little difference between the two combatants in terms of their current political stands, there does seem to be a veritable chasm separating them philosophically. Their differences center on such matters as how they interpret the “all men are created equal” proposition in the Declaration and how they evaluate the work of the 1776 Commission. The latter, not incidentally, affirms the political theoretical position of the Claremont Institute.
If McClanahan and other paleoconservatives have not rushed to acclaim the commission’s work, it is not because they are either America-haters or bad sports. For the last 20 years or more, the paleo Right has been systematically excluded (I can’t think of a more apt description) from the conservative establishment’s conferences, publications, and televised discussions. Throughout that period, they were never invited to participate in anything of note that establishment conservatives did, and they were certainly not asked to help determine the content of the 1776 Commission. To insist these designated outsiders enthusiastically support statements that they had no role in debating or drafting is, in my opinion, an unreasonable demand.
Although there are overlaps between McClanahan’s position and my own, I may be closer to Claremont in one critical respect. I would not underestimate the importance of the process by which older understandings of American political institutions, e.g., the view of early Protestant settlers that they were building a covenanted community guided by biblical morality, yielded to the natural rights thinking present in the Virginia Bill of Rights, the Declaration, and early American state constitutions. Evidence that this natural right theme gained currency around the time of the American Revolution is too overwhelming to be denied.
Unlike Willmoore Kendall, whom I deeply respect as a political thinker, I do not view the evolution of the concept of individual rights (which are supposedly equally applicable to everyone on the planet) as something that resulted from a series of unhappy “derailments,” an interpretation that Kendall outlined in his book Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition. Nor am I persuaded that because American leaders did not always take the implications of natural rights-thinking seriously, it has not influenced us from the country’s founding onward. One could be a slave owner like George Mason, John Taylor, or Thomas Jefferson and still have contributed to the acceptance of the notion that all men are created equal and have the same inborn, individual rights.
Similarly, although John Locke invested in the slave trade and prepared a constitution for the Carolinas allowing for slavery, his social and political ideas did operate in the long run to enshrine the notion of inborn equal rights. This may owe as much to the historical circumstances in which these ideas were introduced as they do to the ideas themselves. But my grudging recognition that the concept of equality grew in importance during the founding period is not the same as an uncritical affirmation. Anton’s highest value is for me highly problematic, indeed one that must be guarded against as a threat to what were once settled social institutions and to what remains of our constitutional freedom.
We may have to challenge the statement that Lincoln (as interpreted by Harry Jaffa) taught Americans about their founding principle in its purest form, but that later misguided advocates of equality distorted that principle’s meaning. The pursuit of equality is always an unfinished project; even Lincoln through most of his life would not have pushed his ideal as far as did later egalitarians. Promoting equality with or without what are taken to be universal rights is like planting kudzu. The plant just keeps spreading until it devours entire gardens.
What has come from our public dedication to universal equality and inborn individual rights over the last century was at least implicit in Lincoln, as George Carey points out in his introduction to the paperback edition of Kendall’s Basic Symbols. Carey cites Lincoln’s response to the Dred Scott decision in 1857, in which the future president explains that the equality clause was of no “practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain.” Rather it was something that existed for “future use.”