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Review: The Liberal Tradition In America

Thursday, March 23, 2017 21:35
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Louis Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America is the classic statement of the thesis that the United States has never had a dominant political tradition other than liberalism and that the liberal consensus is so powerful here that non-liberal ideologies are unable to flourish. In America, “liberalism” and “conservatism” are branches of the same liberal tradition. We’re all Lockeans.

First published in 1955, The Liberal Tradition in America argues that Americans are “born equal” because we have never had feudalism here. According to Hartz, socialism has failed to gain traction because of the strength of American liberalism. The same is true of Federalist conservatives, Whig conservatives and Southern reactionaries who all tried and failed to challenge liberalism.

I was sent a copy last fall by a friend who thought I would be interested in Hartz’s comments on the Southern Reactionary Enlightenment. It is a thought provoking book. I started reading it in the midst of the rise of the Alt-Right and Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election. If ever there was a time to revisit Louis Hartz’s liberal consensus, this is it.

Here are some reasons why I am skeptical of Hartz’s narrative:

1.) Generally speaking, the American colonies were founded before John Locke began to have a major impact on English political theory. Locke was born in 1632 and his Two Treatises of Government was published in 1689. In fact, Locke’s work was generally ignored in Britain for almost a century thereafter. Locke’s Second Treatise was first printed in America in Boston in 1773.

2.) The founding of the American colonies doesn’t fit the timeline of a Lockean America: Virginia (1607), Massachusetts (1620), New York (1624), New Hampshire (1629), Maryland (1632), Connecticut (1636), Rhode Island (1636), New Jersey (1664), Delaware (1664), Pennsylvania (1681), South Carolina (1670), North Carolina (1710), Georgia (1732). In the Caribbean, St. Kitts (1624), Barbados (1627), Nevis (1628), Montserrat and Antigua (1630s) and Jamaica (1655).

3.) John Locke was actually heavily involved in the founding of Carolina. He drafted the Grand Model for the Province of Carolina which included the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina. Far from becoming a model Lockean colony, the Carolinians shook off the Lords Proprietor and gained royal charters for North Carolina and South Carolina in 1719.

Under Locke’s constitution, the first planters were awarded 150 acres of land for every servant or slave brought to Carolina. By 1700, Carolina had abandoned freedom of religion, Anglicanism had become the established religion and the colony was well on its way to becoming a West Indian-style slave society. Locke himself profited from the slave trade as an investor in the Royal African Company.

4.) The history of Carolina shows that Locke’s impact was negligible. This was a place where local Indian tribes were sold into slavery in the Caribbean and where black slavery became the foundation of society. After the Stono Rebellion in 1739, the South Carolinians mounted the decapitated heads of slaves on stakes leading into Charleston. Slaves were executed by being burned at the stake in South Carolina until the 1830s when hanging became the preferred means of exection.

5.) The American colonies were founded for a variety of reasons that had nothing to do with Lockean liberalism. Massachusetts was a Puritan Errand into the Wilderness. Pennsylvania was a Holy Experiment of Quakers. Georgia was supposed to be a colony for the English poor. New York was a Dutch commercial entrepot. Virginia became a country gentleman’s paradise.

It seems to me that there is this older America which traces back to the colonial era and then there is the Whig liberalism of the American Revolution. The two have often been at odds. The rhetoric of liberal democracy has clashed with illiberal traditions inherited from the past.

The Southern Reactionary Enlightenment can be seen as the moment when abolitionists forced Southerners to wrestle with the contradiction between Jeffersonian liberalism and the South’s defense of slavery. John C. Calhoun attempted to defend slavery within the Lockean framework of states’ rights constitutionalism. After the war, Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens also penned defenses of the Confederacy on the grounds of states’ rights constitutionalism. At the same time, George Fitzhugh and several other Southern writers broke with Locke and Jeffersonianism altogether.

The Civil Rights Movement is another example of a time when Americans wrestled with the contradiction between the Lockean American Creed and the importance of whiteness in our traditional sense of national identity which we inherited from the colonial era. In that case, liberal ideology was invoked to decouple whiteness from Americanism. Shortly thereafter, the Sexual Revolution extended liberalism to women and the family. We’re dealing with the consequences in our own times.

America wasn’t always so liberal. We can look at the history of racialism, religion, slavery, segregation, Indian Removal, Manifest Destiny, eugenics, immigration restriction and patriarchy and see that the sphere of liberalism has grown over time as the doctrine has eliminated thorny contradictions. It hasn’t been three generations since liberalism invaded and shattered the family and free trade became an unquestionable dogma. Multiculturalism is an even more recent development.

Louis Hartz was certainly right that American liberalism, conservatism and libertarianism all belong to the same American liberal tradition. They are all rooted in Locke. In some ways, the Alt-Right is a break with the liberal tradition. In other ways, it is firmly grounded in America’s illiberal traditions which Hartz was quick to gloss over. In particular, he was quick to dismiss the Southern Reactionary Enlightenment which was only put down by the most destructive war in our history. If Americans were all Lockeans, how does Hartz explain the dissolution of the Union over slavery?

Liberalism has coasted along for centuries on the ballast of the non-liberal past. We once had a common racial, cultural and religious identity which for a long time kept its worst excesses in check. Now that America is nothing but liberal values, the social fabric is being torn in multiple directions. The racial and cultural tear has produced the Alt-Right which has rejected liberalism.

The Southern Reactionary Enlightenment is worth exploring in greater detail because of its parallels to our own times. Just as the abolitionists once forced antebellum Southerners to choose between their liberalism and self preservation, the progressive Left is forcing White Americans today to choose between liberal democracy and a White minority America. Romantic nationalism has filled the void created by alienation. Fire-Eaters once again confront the menace of “Black Republicanism” in its 21st century. The phrase “all men are not created equal” was the Cornerstone of the Confederacy.

Louis Hartz failed to imagine that the sweeping consequences of the Civil Rights Movement would one day lead to a revival of interest in Thomas Carlyle, George Fitzhugh and the European Reaction. Perhaps America never developed a strong reactionary movement – except for that time in the 1850s in the South – because the necessary destabilizing conditions weren’t there? Maybe abandoning any form of racial, ethnic, religious or cultural solidarity will be destabilizing enough to do the trick?


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