“English privileges have made it all that it is,” Edmund Burke said, “English privileges alone will make it all it can be.” Thus the founder of modern conservatism descried the United States’ fate at the outbreak of hostilities in 1775. He ascribed our “fierce spirit of liberty” not to salon philosophes and Enlightenment ideologies but to historical factors—the dissenting Puritanism of New England, our litigious character and education, the Atlantic’s interposition, our colonial legislatures, and finally an English heritage of liberty. Whether Burke correctly identified the Revolution’s origins and the cause of an especially liberty-loving character may seem like a stuffy academic question, but it bears heavily on the question of whether one can be an American Tory.
By an American Tory, I do not refer to a transplanted British Tory supportive of Throne and Altar this side of the Atlantic. Rather, I mean the sort of traditional conservative Russell Kirk was, who cherished conservative principles without succumbing to ideological slogans. Kirk gave six canons for conservatism in his seminal intellectual history The Conservative Mind. These canons amounted more to dispositions towards the “permanent things,” e.g. transcendent moral truths, ancient religious usages, traditional institutions and hierarchies, cultural customs and prescriptions, and family property, rather than propositions about the just society. A conservative will accept the absolute truths of natural law, but he will not consign to political theory what are defeasible principles of political prudence. Principles like “one man, one vote” or “no taxation without representation” may be advisable under particular circumstances and within certain traditions, but they are not unconditional laws of political morality. In line with the classical tradition, conservatives acknowledge that any constitutional order, whether monarchical, aristocratic or democratic can be just, but that the primary political question is which constitution best fits the character and faults of the particular nation. The proposal to spread democracy everywhere regardless of prudential and cultural considerations is antithetical to the Tory conservatism that I am defending, whereas the principle of the rule of law and the protection and conservation of traditional rights are central to it. My description of the American Tory is inadequate, but it will suit my purposes for showing how this elusive character can indeed exist and even thrive in a country whose very foundations are often assumed to be an undying liberalism committed to abstract natural rights, egalitarianism, and the principle of revolutionary progress.
It would not go well with the American Tory if his political principles were foreign exports and an exceedingly eccentric rationalism. He should show that his conservative disposition is native to American soil, but this apparently difficult task of historical investigation is relatively easy. What does this task entail? First, a truly Tory conservatism is not a merely accidental conservatism. An accidental conservatism would conserve the principles of the Founding Fathers as merely one historical expression of the only valid principles of just government. Such a “conservative” would support the expansion of these principles even to cultures in which they are alien. Hence, the task of a Tory American is to show not merely that the Founding Fathers presided over a social order, but that this social order was an organic development of the previous British tradition. Indeed, I need only show that the War of Independence did not end that tradition.
To begin the historical quest, it must be admitted that at their most liberal the Founding Fathers as a group were no more radical than the seventeenth century Whigs and the orchestrators of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Thus, they would be no more liberal than the Whig Edmund Burke, whose conservatism would inspire the revival of authentic conservatism by Russell Kirk and other mid-century Americans. If this is admitted and the revolution in Boston distinguished from the revolution in Paris, then the British political tradition did not die in the colonies in 1776 after all. Instead, another Glorious Revolution occurred. This time, lacking a replacement monarch and the institution of Parliament, the colonial resisters of another oppressive tyrant resorted to their traditional colonial representative institutions. This interpretation of the War of Independence would make 1776 different in some circumstances from 1688 but not different from it in principle. The Declaration of Independence made no mention of any oppression inherent in the British Constitution but instead cited particular grievances as forming the basis for a political separation; indeed, it even went so far as to assert, “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.” As Burke wrote in his Reflections about the Declaration of Right in the Glorious Revolution, it expresses “how totally adverse the wisdom of the nation was from turning a case of necessity into a rule of law.” Burke’s explanation of the causes of the American Revolution made much of the typically English emphasis of the colonists on the violation of freedom by usurping powers of taxation from the proper legislative bodies. He said, “They are therefore not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas and on English principles. Abstract liberty, like other mere abstractions, is not to be found. Liberty inheres in some sensible object; and every nation has formed to itself some favourite point, which, by way of eminence, becomes the criterion of their happiness. It happened, you know, Sir, that the great contests for freedom in this country [England] were from the earliest times chiefly upon the question of taxing.” Burke’s statements here provide the earliest conservative explanation of the Revolution but by no means the last.
Later, Russell Kirk was one of the most unabashed defenders of the conservative interpretation of the War of Independence. As he characterized it in his history The Roots of the American Order, “What Whiggish America stood for was the long-established chartered right of the colonies to govern themselves. They looked upon George III as a monarch who intended to make a revolution, by subverting their old ways of self-government; they protested that they, in resisting Crown and Parliament, were preventing this royal revolution.” Kirk’s interpretation emphasizes the reactionary nature of the revolution; it was the king and parliament’s innovative taxes and novel interference that prompted a colonial response. The colonists were content to live under the king’s salutary neglect, but when he arrogated unaccustomed powers on the basis of legal theories popular among absolutist ideologues they felt their traditional rights and protections as chartered colonies trespassed. As Kirk wrote, “they sought to preserve that society from arbitrary political change for the worse. Their appeal was to established constitutional usage. Certainly almost none of the leading Patriots thought of himself as a social revolutionary.” Related to the question of the ideological origins of the American nation is the question of its role today and whether one can be American without accepting all of the Founding political principles.
America is not a nation founded on a creed, pace G. K. Chesterton. The Founding Father John Jay remarked in the Federalist Papers, “I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.” Even the supposedly creedal elements of this description are not political dogmas but rather “principles of government.” He emphasizes the common cultural heritage of the Founding generation rather than some shared ideology. Linguistic, religious, ancestral, and customary bonds are primary, so that one is left with the impression that the War of Independence was not so much the first act of a new nation founded on the basis of a political creed as the final assertion of an already distinct people of their political independence. Belief in the American principles of government is not a sufficient condition for being American; one must also be incorporated into its cultural traditions and mores. On the other hand, it does seem an open question whether one can doubt the Founders’ expression of political principles while remaining an authentic American through participating in its other traditions.
To conclude with history, we should note the continuity between the colonies and the states. In large part, the English tradition survived the war, and since this was the only successful violent political upheaval in American history, the Tory American has some advantages over his European counterparts. In the same time that France has had three kingdoms, five republics, two empires, and the Vichy state, America has had one republic under the same constitution. Thus, in large part the American conservative who preserves the status quo conserves America’s founding regime. Moreover, as the constitutional scholar James McClellan remarks regarding the continuity preserved throughout the war, “representative government, a tradition of well-established civil liberties, and the heritage of the common law are three important political and legal institutions of England that Americans adopted in framing their own constitutions.” For example, our term “due process” in the Fifth Amendment is a seventeenth-century rendition of the phrase “the law of the land” present in the Magna Carta; similarly, many rights in our first ten constitutional amendments are not the result of speculation so much as the English common law heritage or else responses to recent British violations such as the quartering of troops. Thus even in the realm of politics in which the most discontinuity should be found, the Founders consciously maintained their English and colonial political traditions.
If we discover that the American War of Independence was an irredeemably liberal and ideological project, then where does that leave the American Tory? Perhaps exactly where he was before. No longer can he appeal to the Founding Fathers as fellow conservatives, but insofar as their ideological schemes eventually gave rise to a new order with its own principles and mores as well as a distinctly American culture, they can be admired as the fathers of our country. Principles originally intended as universal truths can be accepted by the American Tory as maxims native and amenable to his country’s tradition. In so doing, the American Tory can relate to European conservatives without accepting their positions wholeheartedly; the American Tory must always place greater stock in ordered liberty as a part of his heritage. The American Tory must always acknowledge Burke’s words, “This fierce spirit of liberty is stronger in the English Colonies probably than in any other people of the earth.” Traditional liberties, traditional order, and ordered liberty are the three interrelated treasures dearest to the Tory heart in America.
Ben Koons is a senior from Austin, Texas, majoring in Philosophy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.