alien & sedition.
Sunday, February 11, 2007
  Reading Conservative History 1.1: The Shadow of the Stuarts

Cross-posted at Progressive Historians

Was the American revolution a conservative cause? The question itself is burdened with all the weight of our present-day ideological debates; it’s also fraught with anachronism. Philosophical conservatism per se is a product of the European reaction to the French revolution; in 1763 (and 1776) Burke was still a Whig, his Reflections still years in the future. In that respect, it seems to make no more sense to call the American revolution “conservative” than it does to call the English civil war Marxist.

But historians have broadly understood the revolution as conservative in a situational sense – the colonists seeking, at least at first, not to establish a radical new order, but to defend the English constitution against encroachment by prerogative power. From this general interpretation, some modern conservatives have moved toward a seamless appropriation of the revolutionary story into the narrative of American conservatism. Here, for instance, is Russell Kirk, in his influential 1953 work, The Conservative Mind:
By and large, the American Revolution was not an innovating upheaval, but a conservative restoration of colonial prerogatives. Accustomed from their beginnings to self-government, the colonials felt that by inheritance they possessed the rights of Englishmen and by prescription certain rights peculiar to themselves. When a designing king and a distant parliament presumed to extend over America powers of taxation and administration never before exercised, the colonies rose to vindicate their prescriptive freedom; and after the hour for compromise had slipped away, it was with reluctance and trepidation they declared their independence. [p. 72]
Here the term “conservative” slips almost imperceptibly from a situational understanding to an ideological one: the Founders’ defense of their “prescriptive freedoms” looks to the modern eye like an affirmation of the long Anglo-Saxon tradition, a rejection of government social engineering, a plausible argument for states’ rights, and precedent for resistance to taxation.

In The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Bernard Bailyn works from the same basic interpretation of the initial problem, but opens the door to an entirely different understanding of its legacy. As Bailyn explains, what began as a defensive reaction soon became, out of pure necessity, a process of radical transformation. As the crisis developed, the colonists “struggled to work out the implications of their beliefs” and “grasped implications only vaguely sensed before.” In so doing, they thoroughly transformed conceptions of representation, constitution, rights, sovereignty, establishment of religion, social hierarchy, and republicanism, and laid the groundwork for further upheaval over issues like slavery and federalism. Thus situational conservatism led to ideological radicalism.

But that’s for another time. I wonder whether it’s even appropriate to refer to the colonists of 1763-1776 as situationally conservative. True, they acted reluctantly at first, in order to defend a constitutional balance they saw as threatened by corruption and by the expansion of ministerial and parliamentary power. But the very fact that they saw the world this way positioned them, in the context of their time, not as conservatives, but as radicals. Begin with their understanding of the English “constitution,” as Bailyn describes it:
The colonists at the beginning of the Revolutionary controversy understood by the word “constitution” not, as we would have it, a written document or even an unwritten but deliberately contrived design of government and a specification of rights beyond the power of ordinary legislation to alter; they thought of it, rather, as the constituted – that is, existing – arrangement of governmental institutions, laws, and customs together with the principles and goals that animated them. [pp. 67-8]
This arrangement, kept in its proper balance, had as its goal “the attainment of liberty.” Liberty, as the colonists understood it, was always everywhere threatened by power and the corruption associated with power. They were obsessed with case histories of how power had destroyed liberty; a particular influence on their thought was Robert Molesworth’s An Account of Denmark, which described the collapse of a once-free people into tyranny.

The colonists’ preoccupation with the threat to liberty by corruption, and with the constitution’s true role as the balance meant to protect liberty, marked them as in the tradition of what Molesworth called “the True Whig.” More specifically, it positioned mainstream colonial opinion squarely in the tradition of English radical opposition. The works of radicals like John Trenchard, Thomas Gordon, Benjamin Hoadly, Thomas Hollis, and Paul de Rapin-Thoyras were of fundamental importance to the Americans but were marginal in England itself. The American colonists perceived an ever-present threat to liberty in general, and a crisis in the English constitution in particular, because they were positioned within this radical Whig tradition.

The conservatives of the Founders’ day were the Tories, who stood for the ultimate pre-eminence of the monarch’s prerogative power, as well as the mainstream Whigs who had developed a special genius for corrupting and manipulating Parliament in order to expand their ministerial power (thus the rise of Robert Walpole, the first “prime” minister). Powerful Whigs were themselves often derided as “Tories.” But when the radical opposition of the mid-late 18th century looked at these Tories and Tory-fied Whigs, what they saw was not just corruption in the present, but the long shadow of the greatest threat to liberty in English history.

England had escaped Denmark’s fate, but only just – and the agents of tyranny had been the Stuart kings, two Charleses and two Jameses, who had forced the English to defend themselves with a pair of revolutions. The Jacobites, together with their Tory defenders, refused to accept the principle that the power of the monarchy should be kept in balance with the power of Parliament. Charles I’s long period of prerogative rule (that is, his refusal to convene Parliament from 1629-40), was not the proximate cause of the English Civil War, but it was a critical underlying cause. And, as the conservative British historian Paul Johnson has described, it was viewed by Charles’s subjects not merely as an outrage in its own right, but as a disaster for England generally: the country’s interests in Europe and its power on the high seas were neglected; pirates raided the coasts and carried English men and women off into slavery; resistance by the Scots and revolts by the Irish were humiliating. And at home, the English were faced with an empty treasury, a corrupted judiciary, scandalous giveaways of royal favors, divisive royal manipulation of religious affairs, and a destroyed political consensus. All of this led to the widespread conclusion that such misfortune could not be attributed to incompetence alone: there must be a conspiracy to destroy England:
The impression was formed – and on the face of it there was plenty of evidence – that Charles, Strafford and Laud were engaged in a deliberate operation to destroy English liberties and the Protestant religion and install instead a Catholic absolutist monarchy of a Continental type. […]

It was not just a class or a religion that was menaced: it was English civilization. [The Offshore Islanders, pp. 191-2]
All of this clearly parallels the attitudes and paranoias of the American colonists in the years leading up to the revolution; like the English under Charles, they saw a conspiracy to destroy the constitutional balance and the liberty it guaranteed. And they clearly interpreted this threat in light of the lessons learned from the struggle with the Stuarts and their Tory allies – not just in the civil war, but in the Exclusion Crisis, the Glorious Revolution, and the Jacobite uprisings. Thus it was that Stephen Johnson cited the Glorious Revolution as precedent for the colonists’ resistance to “encroaching tyranny,” [Bailyn, 304], that James Otis would recount how the “execrable race of the Stuarts” had forced the “formidable, violent, and bloody” confrontation between the English people and the forces of oppression [ibid, 81], and John Adams’ and Samuel Adams’ arguments were “alive with century-old Popish-Stuart-Jacobite associations” [ibid, 98].

In this interpretation, the conservatism of the Founders’ day was not a static force, but an ever-lurking menace prepared to usurp the painstakingly achieved constitutional balance. It was the constant threat to undo everything that had been accomplished since the Magna Carta. This understanding drew on experiences at the heart of the English political tradition, but it represented, in the context of the late eighteenth century (once the Levellers and Diggers and Clubmen had given way to an accommodating Whiggish compromise), a distinctly marginal radicalism.

Again, it is far too easy to fall prey to anachronism when trying to read precedents for modern ideological battles in the struggles of the revolutionary era. But maybe it’s too simplistic to assume that the rebels, because they viewed their fight as a defensive one, were in any substantive sense acting as “conservatives.” Arguably, one could only believe that such a defense was necessary if one subscribed to certain distinctly radical (in the context of the time) understandings of history and politics. And the forces the rebels opposed were the very same forces that would move in reaction to French radicalism. The same forces with whom Burke would join, when Charles Fox’s sympathies with the French revolutionaries became too much to bear, and who would before long adopt the label “conservative.” To the American founders, those forces looked distinctly familiar – they looked like the Stuart kings, like the very face of tyranny.

Next: American Tories
Previous: Is Conservatism Un-American?

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

I think the history of the Stuarts is very important, especially today.

Has conservatism really changed that much from 400 years ago? I mean the foundational principles and instincts? Was the fusionism of the past simply an abberation which is now passing?

How is the moral tradionalist, pro-executive authority conservatism that dominates the South different from that of Charles I? And despite the fact that you had the likes of Jefferson from Virginia, it was in the South where our war of indendence had the least support. It was in New England where you would have found the greatest support for it. Could it be that the basic outlook on cultural and social issues and how society should be structured has not changed in these regions over the passing of 4 centuries?

Is the fight over Bush's overreaching claims of executive authority that different from the fight over Charles I's claims? Justice Scalia himself start of rather quickly discussing cases from the time of Charles I in writing his opinion opposing similar claims of President Bush in the Hamdi case. It is not a stretch to claim that President Bush is trying to revive a notion of executive authority that was lost with the end of the Stuart kings.

As a side note, there is a reason that there is NO team in New England called the Cavaliers.
Great point about Scalia's references in Hamdi. I'll have to go back and look at it again.

Anyway, I think you're exactly right. This is why I wanted to start this geneology of the conservative movement with the Stuarts, as I think that a lot of modern conservatism is rooted in the political - and military - battles fought in that era.
Post a Comment

<< Home

"An obscure but fantastic blog." - Markus Kolic


Critical analysis of the American conservative movement from a progressive perspective. Also some stuff about the Mets.

Email Me

Favorite Posts

I Was a Mole at the Conservative Summit, Part One
Part Two
Part Three

Wars of Perception, Part One
Wars of Perception, Part Two

Conservative Futures
Reading Conservative History


I also post at:

The Daily Gotham
The Albany Project
The Right's Field

Various favorites:

Ben Weyl
Chase Martyn
Cliff Schecter
Crooked Timber
D-Day (David Dayen)
Daily Kos
Ezra Klein
Five Before Chaos
Future Majority
Glenn Greenwald
The Group News Blog
Jon Swift
Lawyers, Guns, and Money
Matt Ortega
Matthew Yglesias
My Thinking Corner
New Democratic Majority
The November Blog
The Osterley Times
A Pedestrian View
The Poor Man Institute
Progressive Historians
Skippy the Bush Kangaroo
Talking Points Memo
Think Progress
The Third Estate
Undercover Blue
Vernon Lee
wAitiNG foR doROthY

Watching the right:

Orcinus (Dave Neiwert)
Rick Perlstein
Right Wing Watch
Sadly, No!

The conservative wonkosphere: (AEI)
The American Scene
Andrew Sullivan
Cato @ Liberty
Contentions (Commentary Magazine)
Crunchy Con (Rod Dreher)
Daniel Larison
Eye on '08 (Soren Dayton)
Jim Henley
Josh Trevino
Mainstream Libertarian
National Review Online
Patrick Ruffini
Ross Douthat
Ryan Sager
The Weekly Standard

New Yorkers:

Amazin' Avenue
Chris Owens
Z. Madison


December 2006

January 2007

February 2007

March 2007

April 2007

May 2007

June 2007

July 2007

August 2007

September 2007

October 2007

November 2008

Powered by Blogger