Sunday, March 13, 2011

Philip Hamburger on "Liberality" in the Founding Era

I spent most of the day with Philip Hamburger essay, "Liberality", on what "liberal" meant to the Founding era. [Dang, it's a PDF.]

My thanks and ours at AC to Jonathan Rowe for posting it. It's one of the best pieces I've ever read on the prevailing sentiments around the time of the Founding. I got a sense of the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times---what it felt like to be an American in those times with all those ideas flying around, so much more than the recent history/anthropology pieces whose focus is too narrowed onto a particular group or way of thinking.

"Liberalism" as used in the Founding era isn't quite what we think of today, not "progressive" or governmental or social programs in that FDR or LBJ way, so let's clear the decks of the partisanship thing first and foremost.

Hamburger also poses a serious challenge not only to the Whig Theory "republicanism" narrative of eminent historians Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood, and to their critics as well, the new generation of historians who do the race/class/gender thing.

So let's let the man speak for himself. A partial summary, and some thoughts:

Basically, young America's enthusiasm for "liberalism" was more an enthusiasm for the freedom from the old ways of Europe, both in its rigid aristocratic class system and the religious orthodoxy of the "established" Christianities, Roman Catholicism to be sure but also the Church of England [Anglicanism].

And for free trade! As we know from Adam Smith, commerce and the government [then and now] get a bit too cozy and corrupt, another encumbrance from the Old World to be shed. Nations that trade together stay together.

This "liberal" vision reminds me of nothing so much, as Francis Fukayama's "The End of History," where the world lives in peace under political, religious, and economic liberty, Western-style bourgeois liberal democracy.

Hamburger sharply notes that even GWashington falls victim to this rosy view of "historicism," that it was the old encumbrances and illiberalities of the Old World that brought about war itself, and may someday become unnecessary.

The fly in the ointment---the intruding reality---is man's nature, which is not rosy. "Eliphaz Liberalissimus" is the pseudonym of Rev. Ashbel Green, and his Important Matters, a Liberal Man's Confession of Faith [1792] is a devastating satire of the mind that's so liberal it abandons not only all tradition and belief, but common sense as well. "Liberty" indeed becomes license, and Green's satire is spot-on and prophetic about the mushy "liberalism" if not hedonism of our own age, where anything goes.

Except belief or principles, of course. Those things are "illiberal," eh?

There are limits to the wonderfulness of human nature. One of GWash's 1786 letters to John Jay, who'd become his confidant, puts it this way:

"Your sentiments, that our affairs are drawing rapidly to a crisis, accord with my own. What the event will be is also beyond the reach of my foresight. We have errors to correct. We have probably had too good an opinion of human nature in forming our confederation. Experience has taught us, that men will not adopt & carry into execution, measures the best calculated for their own good without the intervention of a coercive power. I do not conceive we can exist long as a nation, without having lodged somewhere a power which will pervade the whole Union in as energetic a manner, as the authority of the different state governments extend over the several States. To be fearful of vesting Congress, constituted as that body is, with ample authorities for national purposes, appears to me the very climax of popular absurdity and madness.


We must take human nature as we find it. Perfection falls not to the share of mortals. "

James Madison pops up now and then in Hamburger's essay: Fortunately for us and the new American republic, James Madison was quite the realist about man's darker side, and didn't fall into the rose-colored glasses "liberalism" that was all the buzz. And so he helped design the Constitution in 1787 with the "separation of powers" we still hold onto somewhat today, trusting the human beings in the new national government no more than the Articles of Confederation government of 1786.

Me, I think it's James Madison's non-rosy view of human nature that got our American republic into the record books of man's history. The American Constitution was ratified June 21, 1788. 222 years and counting...

Hamburger's essay brings one last thought to the fore: If you want to see where the "rosy" view of human nature and "republicanism" lead, just look to the French Revolution. The perfect republic will only come about when there are perfect men to rule it and populate it as citizens.

James Madison knew better:

"If men were angels, no government would be necessary."

The "liberalism" of the French Revolution was that the French were dumping their Old Order, the ancien régime of aristocracy, clericalism, and monarchy.

And they said, screw it. All bets are off. And we know how that turned out.

The American Revolution also dumped aristocracy, clericalism, and monarchy in favor of liberalism. The difference from the French version was that the American Founders weren't just forming a new government, they were forming a new nation not only to "secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves," but to "our Posterity."

All bets were on, and there you have it.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

I have been reading some articles written in the "Journal of Interdiscilinary Studies" on "Chrisitanity and Democracy; Jacques Maritain in Perspective" this past week.

Jacques Maritain is a Catholic, therefore has a certain bias (which happens to benefit "the Church" :-)). I am wondering if bias doesn't predispose one to a certain commitment and therefore, one sees within that framework, meaning that none of us are able to see without bias, as we have to have a foundation upon which we "begin" the undertaking of our "project".

Maritain argues from a commitment to a known "ought" written within the human person. His understanding is "no blank slate". He also believes in a "wall" between government and society and believed that democracy was inspired not only by the Enlightenment, but Judeo-Christian values. Human rights being granted by "the Creator".

Your suggestion that liberalism has gotten our society beyond any "value driven" goal to a hedonistic experience-oriented "state" of society. I agree.

But, we might disagree as to what might bring back our cultural demise. And this was also somewhat the discussion in this particular journal.

The Enlightenment believed in man's reasoning ability, while Christianity believed in man's limited abilities. Both are true, but the "devil is in the definitions"!

Govenment was viewed by some Christians as the nescessity for carrying out punishment upon the evildoers. The problem is in defining "who" and "what" defines an evildoer (sinner).

Liberality doesn't define an evildoer apart from the law. Criminal behavior is defined by the laws of a State. Christians want to define an evildoer by the "law of God".

"The law of God" is understood within the text of scripture and was what the Puritans used to build their "commonwealth". This form of government is NOT liberal, but dominating over a person's conscience.

Liberality would allow differences as to personal conscience. Choice is of value in a liberal democracy. It is not in a "Christian theocracy", because "God's will" is determinative of personal lives. God is "the Sovereign", not man (Man). Therefore, the Christian ruler has a choice about whether to allow personal liberty of value, or defend "God's honor", by legislating God's morality, as defined by their own personal conscience/understanding. The latter is too often the "Christian response", because of the Christian belief of personal accountability to God, and stewardship.

Those that are prone to believe that man is perfectable must also define what that term means. As the term must have some purpose/goal of value. These kinds might not believe that "God's image" is completely destroyed, but they also have similar problems in carrying out "God's will" upon other free moral agents, when they are in leadersthip.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

It was also pointed out that Russell Kirk's conservatism didn't allow for "Planning", as other conservative views would (Catholic)...and this is an important factor to liberty and choice, as to value in our country!

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I also have an aversion to the Catholic view on desire being "rightly ordered"! Such thinking is "controlling" of another's conscience based on some spiritual "governing" or super-intending another's choice of value. "God" is the ultimate value and all other values are idolatrous in this view. Such thinking is subversive of diverse interests, values and choices about life goals and purposes. "Pleasure" is viewd with questionable eye, because pleasure isn't to be one's focus, only some virtuous act determined by those in authority to judge such acts as virtuous. I distain it! Why? Because it is little more than controlling another's life, and judging another's submission to some "outside authority", rather than a "self-determined" rationale and focus for one's life and its purposes....

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ms. Van De Merwe, I'm gratified you're brushing up on "natural law," but its only relevance here is in modern liberalism's rejection of it.

Founding-era "liberality" isn't quite the modern version, although the seeds are there, mocked effectively [and presciently!] by Ashbel Green, that the very question of what's right and wrong will be left up to the individual. The individual's will, at that---not his intellect and right reason.

Catholic [or Aristotelian] thought certainly doesn't see the passions as "ordered": it's the mind that orders them.

The question of the "blank slate" need not be a deal breaker. It's not that we are born with the knowledge of right and wrong, it's that we can figure them out. If you want to see man in his natural state, watch one 4-yr-old club another and take his toy. But 4-yr-olds are clinically insane. Fortunately, man matures into "right reason."

Sometimes, anyway.

The "liberality" that the Founding era was proud of was a loosening of the strictures of the Old World, and this was a great thing. But as Ashbel Green saw, "liberality" can go beyond "loosening" to the total destruction of mores and manners, and the self-regulation a free society requires to avoid falling into anarchy and chaos.

As for the rest of your thoughts on religion, this isn't the time or place. And the neo-Thomist Jacques Maritain is perhaps the worst place to start with all this, since he tries to reconcile natural law and modern liberalism. [Maritain was a major contributor to the drafting of the 1948 UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights.]

What I will say is that the natural law of Aristotle, Cicero and Aquinas [and the Founders] requires only a God who created an ordered universe, and that the best way for man to live is built into and accommodates his human nature.

The 10 Commandments say "You shall not murder." However, natural law doesn't need the Bible as Divine Writ to say "murder is wrong." Murder is wrong whether there's a Bible or not, so we needn't get into our feelings about churches and scripture. However, the problem in modern philosophy---the "liberality" that Asa Green warned about---is that it has difficulty in even saying exactly why murder is wrong. It has thrown the baby [natural law] out with the bathwater [the strictures of the Old World].

Unknown said...


I have been hitting on this theme quite regualar on my real estate blog long before the revolutions of Generation Y in the Middle East. It will not end well because they are doing the same thing the French did:

Throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

History repeats itself because we do not understand it.

I have been warning of this for a while now and now we have it. It is Rebellion not Revolution and there is difference that you highlight well here.

Joe/King of Ireland

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx, Joe.

Oddly enough, and this should be radical to the Francis Fukuyama Western bourgeois liberal democrat mind, Islam could very well be the only fabric that's held the Middle East together as well as it has. [Admittedly, not all that well.]

The imposition of a Western-style bourgeois liberal democracy could well throw the baby out with the bathwater. And so, Napoleon followed the French Revolution, and the authoritarian Putin followed Yeltsin's chaotic experiment with "liberty."

We shall see how much history repeats itself, but it seems to me there are two choices over there in the near future: authoritarianism or Islam. In fact, Iran avoided chaos after the Shah by adopting both!

King of Ireland said...


Can I link this post to a post I want to do on my real estate blog that hits on this theme?

Tom Van Dyke said...

I'm flattered, King.

Anybody can link anything I post anyway, with my blessing. Philip Hamburger did the heavy lifting anywayz.