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Tuesday, April 30, 2024

The Founding and Its Enemies

Many posts have discussed the Founding.

Robert Kagan at WP:
Before the American Revolution no government had ever been founded on liberal principles, and the vast majority of human beings had never believed in these natural rights — certainly not the Christian church in either its Protestant or Roman Catholic versions nor Islam nor Judaism nor Hinduism nor Buddhism. People might be equal in the eyes of their god, but no government or religious institution had ever been based on the principle of equal rights. Not even the English system was based on this principle but rather on monarchy, a ruling aristocracy, and a contract between crown and subjects that was modified over the centuries but was not based on the principle of universal “natural” rights.

The Founders knew these ideas were radical, that they were inaugurating, in their own words, a novus ordo seclorum — a new order of the ages — that required a new way of thinking and acting. They knew, as well, that their own practices and those of 18th-century American society did not conform to their new revolutionary doctrines. They knew that slavery was contrary to the Declaration’s principles, though they permitted slavery to continue, hoping it would die a natural death. They knew that established churches were contrary to those principles because they impinged on that most important of rights, “freedom of conscience,” which was vital to the preservation of liberty, yet a number of states in the 18th and 19th centuries retained all kinds of religious tests for office. In short, they knew that a great many Americans did not in fact believe in the liberal principles of the Revolution. As Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, put it, “We have changed our forms of government, but it remains yet to effect a revolution in our principles, opinions and manners so as to accommodate them to the forms of government we have adopted.” They did not insist that citizens believe in those principles. One could be an American citizen whether one believed in the Declaration or not.

And a great many did not. Leaders of the slaveholding South called the Declaration “a most pernicious falsehood.” South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun called the very idea of equal rights a “false doctrine.” They believed in democracy, but only if it was an exclusively White democracy. When democracy turned against them in 1860, they rebelled and sought an exit from the system. That rebellion never ended. It has been weakened, suppressed — sometimes by force — and driven underground, but it has never gone away. Although the South was militarily defeated and deprived of its special advantages in the Constitution, its hostility to the Founders’ liberalism did not abate. As Southern writer W.J. Cash observed in 1941, if the war had “smashed the southern world,” it had nevertheless “left the essential southern mind and will … entirely unshaken” and Southerners themselves determined “to hold fast to their own, to maintain their divergences, to remain what they had been and were.” In 1956, almost a century after the Civil War, a fifth of Congress, almost all Democrats — signed the “Southern Manifesto” calling on states to refuse to obey the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision to end segregation in public schools. Nothing had changed. Are we so surprised that for many Americans, nothing has changed even today?

Nor has anti-liberalism only been about race. For more than a century after the Revolution, many if not most White Anglo-Saxon Protestants insisted that America was a Protestant nation. They did not believe Catholics possessed equal rights or should be treated as equals. The influential “second” Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s was anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish as well as anti-Black, which was why, unlike the original Klan, it flourished outside the South. Many regard today’s Christian nationalism as a fringe movement, but it has been a powerful and often dominant force throughout America’s history.