In “The Reactionary Imperative,” Mel Bradford calls for a return to the roots of American order. Sadly, a return to a revised form of the Articles of Confederation is all but impossible. Hope, however, lies in a revivification of the principles of the Old Republicans of Thomas Jefferson’s day.
Mel Bradford published a collection of political and literary essays in 1991 titled The Reactionary Imperative. The essays ranged over a variety of topics, but each essay supported Bradford’s central argument, when the institutions, morals, and customs of a society degenerate into dysfunction or are all together destroyed, “conservatism” must give way to reaction, for nothing is left to conserve. Bradford observed that “reaction is a necessary term in the intellectual context we inhabit… because to merely conserve is sometimes to perpetuate what is outrageous.” The reaction Bradford had in mind was a return to the principles, customs, and traditions that shaped the American political order. Bradford’s view was informed by the long culture war in American society raging since at least the 1960s. He was also keenly aware of the internecine warfare in the ranks of the conservative movement in the 1980s; he was a casualty of this warfare when his nomination to head the National Endowment of the Humanities was squashed at the insistence of various and sundry neoconservatives. Given the current pathetic state of “Conservatism, Inc.” and its never-ending drift to port, a return to the roots of American order is crucial to any restoration of American conservatism.
Describing and defining American conservatism is a slippery business. Europe’s medieval culture of deep religious belief, social orders, and divided sovereignty provided European conservatives with a fertile tradition of stability, order, and political custom and thought from which to draw inspiration. American society was born on the mainland of British North America in the early modern era when cultural, religious, political, and economic institutions and practices were in flux. Nevertheless, the dominant groups from the British Isles who settled in British North America began a process of mimesis and cultural replication of the forms of life these people knew and lived in the old country. Even the utopian Quakers and Puritans formed societies whose folkways long outlived their peculiar religious visions of social and political order. The mimetic process that played out in the thirteen colonies was influenced by the plethora of conditions present in the American wilderness, as well as the colonies’ relationship with the imperial British regime and the intellectual life of Europe. By the eve of the American war for independence, the colonies possessed a rich and complex political culture resulting from the marriage of the patrimony of the British Isles and the experience of forming new societies in a new world, covered over with a thin veneer of Enlightenment philosophy. Americans, ever the practical pioneers, tended to pick and choose among the ideas of philosophers and intellectuals; rarely, if ever, did they purchase the whole hog.
The organic interaction between mimesis and adaption over a century and a half resulted in the development of certain political principles commonly held by the thirteen colonies. These included the supremacy of the legislature to the executive branch of government, a limited judiciary, civilian control of the militia, deep suspicion of paper currencies and central banks, a limited franchise, and the avoidance of standing military alliances with foreign powers. In addition, there was a strong attachment of Americans to autonomous spheres for the smaller social orders such as the church, family, community, towns, and county. In the New England colonies these spheres were, for a time, dominated by the religious establishment of Puritan ministers. As a result, social and ideological conformity, first religious in origin, then afterwards secular, became a dynamic force in the development of these societies. The middle colonies embraced a materialistic individualism, tempered by the common religious commitments of the day, after the great experiment of the Society of Friends petered out.
In the South the attachment to autonomous spheres took the form of what Richard Weaver called “social bond individualism.” The individual was not viewed as a repository of abstract rights or claims divorced from any social responsibility. The ideal in the political order of the South was men of independent means and temperament, and therefore less apt to corruption, pursuing the common good. The school of this form of public virtue was found in the local offices, county court appointments, and militia service. It was in local, non-bureaucratized institutions that these fiercely independent political leaders learned the vital art of accommodation, that is, the pursuit of the common good within the confines of local customs, institutions, and habits. Virtuous political behavior was governed by prescription, including deference to the authority of the Christian inheritance.
Weaver took as his example par excellence of social bond individualism the Virginia statesman John Randolph of Roanoke. Randolph’s singularity, temper, eccentricities, appearance, and powerful self-will would exclude him from election in our day, no matter how diverse and tolerant contemporary society fancies itself. His intense individualism and independence were secured by a freehold from which he derived his independent existence. In brief, Randolph could not and would not be controlled, and he had a deep contempt of those who were and of those who bartered political favors to the highest bidder.
The material conditions that supported men such as Randolph were a wide dispersal of wealth in real property and a political economy where the acquisition of wealth was more apt to be the results of one’s ingenuity and efforts rather than the employment of political means. Randolph may have been the most consistent—some might say extreme and fanatical—supporter of the traditional American political order, but he was not singular in his political principles. Indeed, John Dickinson’s intervention at the Philadelphia Convention illustrates that these political principles were born of the long experience in self-government the colonies possessed, or in the cases of habeas corpus, Magna Carta, the Act of 1679, the Petition of Right, and the English Bill of Rights, from the British inheritance, and thus preceded the new federal constitution. They were all, in Dickinson’s view, “a better guide than reason.” Dickinson’s dictum expresses well the foundation of an authentic American conservatism, a conservatism capable of uniting North and South, landed and mercantile classes. The tried and true was to be trusted; the abstract and ideological must give place to it.
Central to the argument between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists was the extent to which the proposed constitution maintained or threatened these political principles. With respect to a standing military establishment, the proponents of the new federal structure were at pains to stress that the military establishment would be small in peace time. Alexander Hamilton, writing under the shared pseudonym “Publius” in Federalist 28, went as far as to suggest that under the Articles of Confederation all thirteen states would institute standing armies. Madison in Federalist 41 claimed that the size of the federal army was naturally limited by the two-year limit on federal appropriations. Similar arguments raged over the powers granted to the executive branch, the danger of judicial review in the federal courts especially as it might be used to overturn state court decisions, the potential for a perpetual and ever-expanding public debt, and the ability to directly tax the people. All of these innovations were viewed as threats to local and state autonomy by the Anti-Federalist side, all have come to pass in our day, and nearly all are lauded by many “conservative” voices as necessary, good, and properly conservative. Nevertheless, the Anti-Federalists who opposed these dangers have proven to be correct: The liberties, fortunes, and lives of Americans have been sacrificed on the altars of political and financial consolidation.
The current federal regime is not accountable to either the states or the American people, the very situation dreaded by the Anti-Federalists. The states have become dependent upon the federal government for vast amounts of funding; they have lost sovereign control over their organized militias, the national guard; all of the decisions of their executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government are subject to federal judiciary review. For the individual American the situation is even more grave. The first and second amendments to the Constitution are always under assault. In recent years, the fourth and fifth amendments have been considerably pared down by the following Supreme Court decisions: Kentucky v. King (2011), Florida v. Harris (2013), Salinas v. Texas (2013), Maryland v. King (2014), United States v. Westhoven (2014), and Navarette v. California (2014).
Fiscal accountability is non-existent. Catherine Austin Fitts, a former Assistant Secretary of Housing, and Mark Skidmore, a professor of economics at Michigan State University, found a total of 21 trillion dollars missing from the accounts of the Departments of Defense and Housing and Urban Development. Shortly after Dr. Skidmore’s report on the missing transactions, the inspector general at both departments took the financial accounting reports offline. In addition, the Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board allowed all government agencies to misstate and hide expenditures if these were deemed necessary for “national security” purposes. Dr. Skidmore has repeatedly been stonewalled in his requests under the Freedom of Information Act by the Department of Defense. All of this is in violation of Article 9, Section 1, Clause 7 of the United States Constitution. Apologists for the government have cited “accounting errors” for the 21 trillion in missing currency; news of widespread purges of accountants and auditors from HUD, DOD, the General Accounting Office, or the Congressional Budgeting Office have yet to materialize.
These two situations alone should have American conservatives up in arms; instead, the silence deafens. Somehow, conservatives have accepted the view that to defend the fourth and fifth amendments to the Constitution is to be “soft” on crime. For Conservative, Inc. fiscal responsibility functions as trite “meme,” laden with irony. The armed forces are above all scrutiny from certain conservatives; Dwight Eisenhower’s warnings about the dangers presented by the military industrial complex are forgotten. The old Anti-Federalists were gravely concerned with the powers of the sword and the purse ceded to the new federal government in the proposed constitution. The Federalists were at great pains to assure the state ratifying conventions that the powers of the sword and purse granted to the federal government were of a limited nature. No more can any reasonable citizen believe this to be the case. To not oppose the current attacks upon the first, second, fourth, and fifth amendments, the regime of forever war, and the fiscal piracy of government agencies, including the Department of Defense is, as Bradford asserts, “to perpetuate what is outrageous.” Sadly, a return to a revised form of the Articles of Confederation is all but impossible. Hope, however, lies in a revivification of the principles of the Old Republicans of Thomas Jefferson’s day, many of whom traced their political pedigrees to the Anti-Federalist cause. What are these principles? As Mr. Randolph once stated on the floor of the House, they are “Love of peace, hatred of offensive war; jealousy of the state governments toward the general government; a dread of standing armies; a loathing of public debt, taxes, and excises; tenderness for the liberty of the citizen; jealousy, Argus-eyed jealousy, of the patronage of the President.” Here is the remedy for the current big government, “me too,” jingoistic conservatism bent on perpetuating the outrageous. But who on what passes for the American Right will take up the cause of authentic American conservatism?
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