Origins of Americanism: The Radical Whig Tradition

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Here’s an important excerpt from Robert Middlekauff’s The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789:

“In this environment conventional wisdom came to hold that plots and conspiracies always ruled political action. This had not been an original discovery of the colonists. At least fifty years before the American Revolution they had in fact begun to absorb the ideas and assumptions of the radical opposition in England, the so-called eighteenth-century commonwealth men. The name was derived from the radicals of the previous century, the Roundheads, the makers of the English Civil War and the Commonwealth. The seventeenth century writers of this ideological bent included John Milton, James Harrington, and Algernon Sidney, among others. Their political ideas received something of a revision in the exclusion crisis of 1679-81 – the attempt to bar James II from the throne – and eighteenth-century radicals continued the process, adapting the older ideology in order to make it useful in the opposition to ministerial governments.

The eighteenth-century commonwealthmen have not survived a great names – John Trenchard, Thomas Gordon, and Benjamin Hoadly, Bishop of Winchester, were the most important – but in the fashioning of revolutionary ideology in America they had an influence that surpassed Locke’s. To be sure, they drew upon Locke and others more original than themselves. Indeed, their ideas were not original, and the heart of their political theory resembled closely the great Whig consensus of the century. They praised the mixed constitution of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, and they attributed English liberty to it; and like Locke they postulated a state of nature from which rights arose within the civil polity, created by mutual consent, guaranteed; they argued that a contract formed government and that sovereignty resided in the people. These ideas were so widely shared in England as to be conventional, but the eighteenth-century radicals put them to unconventional uses. These radicals rarely got into Parliament – and never in numbers – but they formed an opposition to a succession of ministries and to the complancency of the age. While Whigs and English governments sang the praises of English institutions, English history, and English liberty, the radicals chanted hymns of mourning, dirges for the departing liberty of England and the rising corruption in English politics and society. Within all states, from ancient Rome to the present, they argued, there were attempts to enslave the people. The history of politics was nothing other than the history of the struggle between power and liberty. Trenchard and Gordon called one of Cato’s Letters: Essays on Liberty (1721) “Cautions Against the Natural Encroachments of Power”; in that essay they declared that “it is natural for Power to be striving to enlarge itself, and to be encroaching upon those that have none.” Cato’s Letters likens power to fire – “it warms, scorches, or destroys, according as it is watched, provoked, or increased. It is as dangerous as it is useful … it is apt to break its bounds.” There was in the radical ideology a profound distrust of power, then, power as force, as coercion, as aggression. What did power encroach upon? Liberty, usually defined as the use and enjoyment of one’s natural rights within the limits of law in civil society.”

The Radical Whigs were the wellspring of Americanism … it’s all there, Locke, universal natural rights derived from the social contract, individuals “exiting” the state of nature, the Roundheads, Cromwell and the Commonwealth, the Levellers, the Glorious Revolution, etc. In other words, the English radicalism of the 17th century became the American mainstream of political theory in the 18th century.

Middlekauf continues:

“The political ideas of Americans in 1760 did not take their origins from congregational democracy or revivalistic religion. Most American ideas were a part of the great tradition of the eighteenth-century common-wealthmen, the radical Whig ideology that arose from a series of upheavals in seventeenth-century England – the Civil War, the exclusion crisis of 1679-81, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 …

The American Revolution revealed that this radical Whig understanding of politics had embedded itself deeply in American minds. In Britain only the dissenting fringe accepted the Whig analysis.”

Is this the foundation on which to build a future ethnostate, one in which all individuals would have a duty to maintain its ethnic and cultural integrity as a trust for future generations, or is it a worldview that will morally collapse into extremes of universalism, egalitarianism, and individualism, which will find its political expression in liberal democracy and cycles of expanding rights claims?

26 Comments

  1. A very important question.

    One could expand it to ask why Universalist religions became popular in the Iron Age and displaced the earlier tribal religions.

    In other words, in the cycles of history , what causes the upswing of populism vs aristocratic consolidation?

    One could also speculate that both the Iron Age and the 16th Century were eras of scientific revolution relative to the millennia that preceded them and that questioning the suppositions of the established order allowed for a competitive phase in which the highest bidder for the people’s loyalty won. The Whigs and Americanism were ultimately outbid by “progressives” then socialism which was in turn out bid by welfarism – socialists actually demanded things from people whereas the welfarists demand mouth breathing and unplanned pregnancies.

    If you champion the turning away part of the cycle of history, it would be important to also see how and why it happened.

  2. The latter, “a worldview that will morally collapse into extremes of universalism, egalitarianism, and individualism, which will find its political expression in liberal democracy and cycles of expanding rights claims?”

    Democracy of any type is fundamentally flawed. American patriots need to stop treating the Constitution as the 67th book of scripture and admit it has its serious flaws. No doubt it was a high point in the political culture of the 18th century but society has changed and it has proven to be not up to the task.

  3. The definitive work on this theme is Kevin Phillip’s The Cousin’s Wars which describes how the political consequences of of the Anglo-Scots Enlightenment were the predominant causes driving the English Civil War, the American Revolution, and The War Between The States. It is right up there with David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed in explaining the roots of our present predicament.

  4. I continue to point out that culture is what matters. Not form of government. Culture creates government. With an authoritarian system, one egalitarian dictator and the whole thing goes down overnight unless there is a coup, and then who knows what’s coming next. Society needs to be persuaded to self-enforce monoculture and homogeneous communities. If nobody agrees with you, you’re not going to get your way.

  5. Democracy of any type is fundamentally flawed. American patriots need to stop treating the Constitution as the 67th book of scripture and admit it has its serious flaws.

    Much like the “book of scripture” that has more than its fair share of whoppers of untruth, lies and serious flaws?

    Everything in existence is fundamentally flawed when fundamentals are changed on a whim and in direct contrast to the consent of the masses. Aristocracy is a study in a fundamentally flawed concept when you take the time to analyze how opposition to it can grow so quickly and so violently. The only thing that really holds it all together is a malicious attempt to keep an underclass as ignorant and subservient as possible. Everything hinges on there being slavish devotion to the idea of Hereditary Rights and that a very tiny fraction of people, who are usually born into power, always know what is best and will always do what is best. Once the “wrong path” is chosen by an arrogant elite — coupled with the human condition known as vanity — there is very little for a populace to do other than commit itself to violent revolution.

    Saying Democracy of any type is fundamentally flawed is sheer ignorance to the fact that no society in modern times is actually living in a Democracy. We don’t have a real democratic process either — it’s a circular/closed system of approved choices. We aren’t even living in a true Republic. The reality is that we already have an aristocratic style of government that is leading society by giving people false choices through disinformation and lies. Ask the average well-informed citizen(those who get news and info from sources other than mainstream media) about what direction this country should go in and you will generally get a majority of responses that contradict the direction the West has been going in. What we live in today is a perfect example of how a citizen population can make better choices than the “elites” if they were actually given facts and the chance to make choices based on facts.

    The biggest mistake The Founders made was not enshrining some kind of racialist quota system or threshold into their documents. Amendment I should have been reserved for that purpose. Other than that, I still see their contributions as some of the most important ever made in human history. Africans, Asians, Amerindians, Middle Easterners, etc. were incapable of progressing a society in such a manner that simultaneously increased education levels for all citizens and gave them large amounts of freedom and prosperity. This phenomenon was happening nowhere else in the world. Unfortunately, thanks to the lovely remnants of a slave underclass being a Divine Right of aristocratic elites, all of the progress and prosperity we’ve achieved has been squandered and now reversing itself.

    • Might a culture that is based on the God-given, inalienable, universal, natural, equal rights of mankind run into difficulty trying to oppress, exclude, or discriminate against other groups like Jew and blacks? Could such a culture be successfully accused of betraying its founding principles?

  6. American history is one long series of indictments – one long “Selma” or Ferguson – of refusing to live up to the Founder’s equal rights doctrine. In each case, those making the indictment have pressed their case and won.

  7. The Founders were influenced by the Greco-Roman classics i.e. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle etc. etc. Those societies that produced those classics had various forms of class stratification including various forms of slavery, serfdom etc.

    I’ve read most everything Kevin Philips has written, and he will not touch Jewish influence with a 10 foot pole. It’s one of his great failings as an author, and as a political pollster.

    • Jews used equal rights as their ticket to the top of America’s social pyramid. Once there and safely ensconced in power, they changed the rules and pulled the ladder up behind them.

  8. ‘We are Tories, not only in feeling, sentiment and opinion, but Tories by blood and inheritance. Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and the Carolinas, colonized the rest of the South and Southwest, and these States were settled by Cavaliers, which was the first name that the Tories bore. …In Cromwell’s day, Virginia and Maryland, the then two Southern colonies of any note, were conservative and sided with the crown. …Outside pressure will combine with inside necessity (slavery) to make us conservative, and to perpetuate our confederacy and our State institutions. We must cling together, in order always to be prepared to resist, not only the rapacity and fanaticism of the North, but to make head if necessary against the abolition machinations of the rest of Christendom.’ -George Fitzhugh, ‘Revolutions of ’76 and ’61 Contrasted,’ Southern Literary Messenger, XXXVII (1863), 718-726

  9. Hunter Wallace says:

    ‘Jews used equal rights as their ticket to the top of America’s social pyramid. Once there and safely ensconced in power, they changed the rules and pulled the ladder up behind them.’

    So true!

  10. ‘A deep-seated apprehension transcended worries of slave revolt among slaveholders who celebrated freedom in human history. Suppose that free republics, instead of being the grand accomplishment toward which history pointed, had no future? As the sectional crisis deepened, this theoretical abstraction posed a frightening and urgent challenge.’ -Eugene and Elizabeth Genovese, The Mind of the Master Class, page 243

  11. ‘In the Border States as well as the plantation states, the conviction had grown that only the white race could sustain free government – at that, only a minority of the white race. [John C] Calhoun, speaking for the nineteenth-century proslavery entourage, insisted that it was “a great mistake in supposing all people are capable of self-government”; only a people who are advanced “to a high state of moral and intellectual excellence” could qualify.’ -Eugene and Elizabeth Genovese, The Mind of the Master Class, page 240

  12. “the Roundheads, the makers of the English Civil War and the Commonwealth.”

    Thought you might find this interesting:

    “It is from America that the new movement derives most of its force; it is one consequence of the fact that America was the sole victor in the war. The career of Puritanism has been curious. It held brief power in England in the seventeenth century, but so disgusted the mass of ordinary citizens that they have never again allowed it to control the Government. The Puritans, persecuted in England, colonized New England, and subsequently the Middle West. The American Civil War was a continuation of the English Civil War, the Southern States having been mainly colonized by opponents of the Puritans. But unlike the English Civil War, it led to a permanent victory of the Puritan Party. The result is that the greatest Power in the world is controlled by men who inherit the outlook of Cromwell’s Ironsides.”

    Bertrand Russell
    The Recrudescence of Puritanism

  13. Continued:
    “It would be unfair to point out the drawbacks of Puritanism without acknowledging its services to mankind. In England, in the seventeenth century and until modern times, it has stood for democracy against royal and aristocratic tyranny. In America, it stood for emancipation of the slaves, and did much to make America the champion of democracy throughout the world.”

  14. The jews did NOT use equal rights to climb to the top of the pyramid. They pretended to sell it as a concept, but in concrete reality their legislative lobbying was for favoritism of blacks over the white/European middle class. Think about who had ‘in’s’ in elite universities and companies. The already wealthy and privileged did, so all ‘equal rights’ did was push aside the emerging white middle class for the black one. The poor and middle class whites had no connections, yet they were the ones who were put in competition pools with blacks at a profound disadvantage.

    So blacks were given privilege, both in terms of admission/access, and financially, to upper echelons of power, while the rich whites and JEWS already had it and continued to work it, all to most whites’ disadvantage.

    Just realize that the jews weren’t peddling equal rights even for some interim period.

  15. I’ve written on this before…the western european jews who were here before their eastern european counterparts’ came in the 1880’s-1920’s lent tremendous amounts of capital to their newly arrived. A well known Princeton eastern european jewish scholar attributes the success of the jews in the US (and that of the Asians) to this unique access to capital *upon arrival.* Also, she cites eastern european jewish entrance into the garment and film industry as the other main cause, as both industries were highly profitable to take up at precisely the time the eastern european jews were arriving en masse.

    When it came to applying to elite universities, the jews already had alumnae status given that western european ones had established their pushy presence in Ivies, etc., and continued to both lobby for more jewish students and even give many eastern european poor ones scholarships. Recall that college loans weren’t available until the Civil Rights era, so prior to that most middle class whites didn’t go to college. Only one of my grandparents did, and I’m middle aged.

    College loans were the sugar that helped the medicine go down, as it were. While my middle class father served in Viet Nam the first generation of black AA Ivy and elite college grads were being granted easy admission and free rides into privilege. The only real inducement for the middle class whites was the access to capital that they hadn’t previously had.

    The tensions this net disadvantaging of the white middle class created were not, in my opinion, unintended.

  16. An interesting book that I would recommend for a balanced view of early American political economy would be Carl Richard’s “The Founders and the Classics”, Greece, Rome and the American Enlightenment.

  17. “But unlike the English Civil War, it led to a permanent victory of the Puritan Party. The result is that the greatest Power in the world is controlled by men who inherit the outlook of Cromwell’s Ironsides.”

    Very true. All these do gooder busybody non profits telling everyone what they should eat and what to do are the direct descendants of the puritans. I personally have little respect for the founders for 2 reasons: First they did not deport back to Africa every single black and second they purposely wrote the constitution so that the Judiciary would be supreme over the people, the President and Congress.

    The elites who wanted a country ruled by the elite settled the elected President VS
    the Supreme Court very early on Marbury VS Madison 1804 established the supremacy of unelected appointed for life Federal Judges over all of us.

    Brown vs Topeka, Kaiser vs Weber, Griggs vs Duke Power all the school busing, affirmative action, shoving black savages into White neighborhoods decisions.

  18. The implication here, is that the Revolutionaries were making North America safe for the tribe.

    So it’s hardly surprising to see the US invade Iraq, bomb Serbia, hammer Nazi Germany etc etcetera…it’s in the political DNA.

    There is NO EXIT.

  19. Celestial Time,

    You could improve the stability of an “aristocracy” by including other classes as well in less important offices, honours, etc. An aristocracy doesn’t have to be absolute and pure. You can have a balance of power too, as well as decentralisation and of course basic rights like right-to-bear-arms.

    My personal favourite concept (which might not be workable) for aristocracy is the attempt at limiting their wealth/pursuit of wealth and somehow open the group to the best of the rest of society, so that there is truly a “rule by the best” not merely the entitled or ambitious. The model would be a monastery run by monks. Usually we think of “aristocrats” as rich, but are Soros and Zuckerberg model aristocrats? (No, of course not.)

    What we live under today is an oligarchy (rule by the few) or plutocracy (rule by the rich). And this is likely always how rule by the masses results. Iron Law of Oligarchy: The few *always* rule. So the question becomes how to get the best leaders into power within a system, Jefferson’s “natural aristocracy”.

    Another concept is the “principal–agent problem”: Those in power in Iceland are more likely to care something for fellow Icelanders simply because of the smaller size and homogeneity of the polity. Our societies today are probably overlarge, though of course there is benefit in economy-of-scale and diversity of resources.

  20. Palmetto Patriot,

    I fear slavery was a mistake, in retrospect.

    It certainly worked very well, but we were held hostage by it. We couldn’t free the slaves, and we couldn’t easily “send them back” generations later and at great cost. Wolf by the ears.

    I’m also a Tory in the sense you mean though. I take pride in how we were divided over the Revolution, though the losers fled to Canada and England.

  21. Hunter Wallace,

    would it perhaps be possible to retain the American system on a smaller scale (smaller polity) but improve/reduce the voter pool?

    I say this because it might be easier to develop a movement around such rather than starting from scratch. Americans seem to revere their political traditions almost… religiously.

    If laws were passed also to protect from dangerous external Culture Wars, that might help (e.g. no Hollywood. Even if it gets through the Internet it can be somewhat limited. I know Russia and other polities ban some American entertainment, or at least limit where it may be viewed.)

  22. I’m reminded that Friedrich von Hayek, the role model of all Right liberals, was an admirer of Whigs, and, in fact, called himself a Whig and part of the Whig tradition. The best criticism that I’ve read of Friedrich von Hayek was authored by Alain de Benoist. He’s spot on that laissez-faire capitalism ultimately destroys everything that conservatives pretend to cherish.

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