Is Progressivism a Child of the Founding? Does It Matter?

In a recent interview with James L. Buckley at Uncommon Knowledge, Peter Robinson posed the following question:

By the time I came along, the New Deal had been enacted.  But you came along beforehand.  Of course, you were a boy, but if you look back, can you, looking over the course of your life, can you sense changes— I guess what I’m asking is, did the expansion of government habituate us to an ever-expanding government, or was there some change, was there some loss of republican virtue, that made possible the expansion of government.  Which came first? 

The question tantalizes, but the answer necessarily disappoints.  The conservative narrative—the thumbnail version, anyway—wants to answer that question in the affirmative:  Yes! Big Government sapped our drive, our initiative, our republican virtue!  But as Buckley quickly observes in his response, it takes a careful examination of history to answer the question.  These kinds of big, tectonic shifts—both in the people’s expectations of government and of themselves—occur slowly over time in response to innumerable conditions.  So of course we do not have the same relationship with government, society, and the rest as the founding generation did.  Republican virtue may or may not be lost, but it is certainly changed, and we might begin by evaluating those changes—some good, some bad, some indifferent.  Certainly not all those changes are because of the size of government.  Indeed, it was the Great Depression, widely perceived to be a failing of an under-regulated economy, that triggered that growth.  And it was the industrial revolution beforehand, that began concentrating economic activity—and thus every other kind of activity—around cities and factories and banking.  Coming to an answer of when, precisely, something like “republican virtue” was lost is as elusive as answering whether the chicken came before the egg.

Still, the idea behind the question is important for conservatives because they believe the American experiment absolutely depends on republican virtue.  The presence of that virtue characterized the success of the ancient republics, and its absence characterized their decline.  “In the end, more than freedom, they wanted security,” wrote Edward Gibbon.  “They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all – security, comfort, and freedom. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again.” 

It was believed that republican virtue was alive again by the time of the Founding.  The people rededicated themselves to it during the Civil War.  But then, the narrative goes, sometime between then and now, it went missing or into hiding.  Much conservative scholarship concerns the history of ideas between Reconstruction and the New Deal, circling in on when and how, precisely, America arguably changed its mind about the founding philosophy (as conservatives understand it) and adopted a more relativistic, History-based worldview that finds the answer to so many questions of moral and civic duty in government and in powerful leaders.  My interest lies here as well. 

But what if these conservatives succeeded?  Would it matter?  That is, even if conservative thinkers succeeded in demonstrating that progressivism does indeed represent a new paradigm of thought—that it is not the American mind of the founders but something quite different—would it make a difference?  Do non-conservatives reject the premise that this republican virtue esteemed by conservatives existed, or that it had such salubrious effects as conservatives suppose? Do progressives believe they now have an answer to Gibbon?  In this, I am reminded of Michael Tomasky’s attempt in 2010, writing confidently but uncritically that

there is something deep within liberalism, from its earliest beginnings, that prevents it from degenerating into fascism, and that is its explicit recognition that the state must serve both common purposes and individual liberty. . . . [W]here that collective urge crosses the line into coercion, well, that is where liberals—I mean liberals who know something about liberalism—get off the train, and do their noncoercive best to derail it.

Or take Jonathan Chait’s rendition:  “For us [liberals], everything works on a case-by-case basis. Should government provide everybody’s education? Yes. Should government manufacture everybody’s blue jeans? No. And so on.”   As a candidate to replace the founding philosophy, the modern liberal thesis leaves something to be desired. 

You may disagree, however.  And that’s my question:  Do modern progressives much care whether their political philosophy can claim lineage to the founding or its conception of “republican virtue”?  Or is that link, though perhaps desirable politically, inconsequential to the legitimacy of the liberal/progressive project? 

Tim Kowal

Tim Kowal is a husband, father, and attorney in Orange County, California, Vice President of the Orange County Federalist Society, commissioner on the OC Human Relations Commission, and Treasurer of Huntington Beach Tomorrow. The views expressed on this blog are his own. You can follow this blog via RSS, Facebook, or Twitter. Email is welcome at timkowal at


  1. An exceptional post, TK.

    Not being a progressive, I’ll (kind of) hold back answering for them, but I suspect the answer to your question is that most progressives would trace their lineage back to the communal ideals set forth in the Constitution, and that they would have little interest in judging those on a scale of “republican virtue.”

    • Well i’d say “republican virtue” actually means “what Republicans currently believe” more than anything else so it doesn’t mean that much to me. I love history but any serious thought about history needs to be tempered with understanding the distance between here and then. It is too, too easy to project now onto the past, so much so, that it turns into a mirror more than a story.

    • I am going to concur with greginak. I will debate whether republican virtue matters when it means something more than the current talking points and policy preferences of the Republican Party.

      Right now the phrase “republican virtue” is a trick of rhetoric to rally the base and convince themselves that they are on the sides of the angels and Founders. Liberalism is just not legitimate in the United States according to this trick.

      • Given that Tim us clearly using it in a more principled sense, choosing to view it in a more easily dismissible sense sounds to me like a choice if convenience, based on a desire to not engage with his question. So I’m left wondering why either of you even bothered to respond.

        • James- Tim used the phrase “republican virtue” in a post ending with this question: ” Do modern progressives much care whether their political philosophy can claim lineage to the founding or its conception of “republican virtue”? ” His quote from Gibbon and breezy review of US history suggest the conservative belief that R’s are true to whatever the hell “republican virtue”is and Lib’s have chosen some other path. That is fine if he wants to believe that. But it seems as if he is, as i said, using “republican virtue” to equate with current conservative values. If he wants it taken in a different way then he can define it and , i would suggest not making part of a post talking about the current R vs. Liberal divide.

          • It’s fine to argue that Republicans today don’t have republican virtue in the classical sense, but there is a real thing called republican virtue that has a historical meaning. So you don’t get to simply say, “it doesn’t mean that,” when the author is clearly referencing that history himself.

            “Your definition is wrong,” is a much less meaningful response in this case than, “you’re wrong to think modern Republicans meet that definition.”

          • Traditional American republican virtue lies in relying on one’s self rather than the government, other than asking it to catch your runaway slaves and grant you land from its native inhabitants.

  2. If one needs must say that “Republican Virtue” was lost, let it be said that it was lost by Andrew Jackson, and not a moment too soon.
    If the urge to decentralize power, via an estate tax or progressive taxation in general, comes from anywhere, it surely comes from Jefferson’s concept of an agricultural republic.

  3. Two things: Why do i have to answer Gibbon? What is so special about him that my ideas will be lacking until i do so? Are there no other possible ways to understand Athens than his? All you are doing is pulling a historical quote, giving it some truth because you believe it than saying i have to answer it. In case its not clear i’m really not buying Gibbon’s explanation for Athens fall nor do i think they have all that much to tell us about how to run a country now.

    “The people rededicated themselves to it during the Civil War.”
    This is a jaw dropper. Who dedicated themselves to what during the CW. Did the South dedicate themselves to freedom or republican virtue? There was certainly a growth in Fed gov to defeat the South and later to try to crush our very own domestic terrorists. But it was a retreat to states rights that led to Jim Crow, the end of Reconstruction and a whole lot of suffering for black folk. You are really glossing over a lot of history in a peculiar way in that one little sentence.

    • There are plenty of other ways to understand Athens. Gibbon was special because he established the model for quite a bit of later historiography and wrote an exhaustively researched and fairly lengthy book that is still very entertaining and was a path breaker for its time. Many of his ideas are debatable for sure. I’d be pretty interested in Tim’s take on Gibbon’s ideas about Christianity fostering the decline of civic virtue in the Rome for instance, since it’s often tied to American civic virtue.

      • Also, he’s pretty useful for understanding the English Enlightenment mindset of that era, which was certainly similar to that of the founders. In fact, I think the first printing of Decline and Fall was in 1776.

      • Well yeah Gibbon has his uses. But using one historical view as a starting point for a discussion about todays politics is a bit lacking. It implies that historical view has special insight or truth. But like you said there are other ways to look at Athens and the Greeks. ( Full disclosure, my fathers family come from the area around Sparta, so fish those darn Athenians.) It’s just way to easy to put our own desires onto the greeks.

        • Dude, its just a starting point. Even if a particular historical view may be particularly one-sided, it is still a starting point. Conversation has to start somewhere. Starting points are going to be flawed. Not every bloody question has to be argued to death. Hell, even in academic papers we can punt the question to some other writer who may just have been some guy with just his own perspective. I don’t think you are being fair to Tim by jumping all over him like this.

  4. I care to the extent that it places liberalism as always being present in American history and states that we are just as much “real Americans” as anyone else. It matters for the sake of culture war and not being treated or looked-down upon as second class citizens.

    Religious Freedom and Freedom of Thought is constantly present in colonial history. This includes the founding of Rhode Island by Roger Williams as a dissent from the theocratic Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Quaker founding of Pennsylvania, and the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, and George Washington’s Letter to the Touro Synagogue.. These are not ideals of Christian Evangelicalism or the Counter-Enlightenment as many revisionists dominionists on the right like to claim. These are ideals of secular-liberal Enlightenment. Jews and other religious minorities have always been present in the U.S.

    What I don’t care about is whether Madison or Washington would react in horror to universal franchise, universal healthcare, gay marriage, social security, environmental protectionism, and various safety regulations. The Founders lived in a very different and pre-Industrial world. The days of the early Republic were the days of most people being self-sufficient yeoman farmers. Also medicine was a lot more simple, cheaper (and extremely ineffective and counter-productive). Now we live in a post-Industrial society with good but expensive medicine. Most people will never be their own boss and universal heathcare is the best way to give access.

    Democratic belief in strong centralized government can be traced back to Hamiltonian Federalism (somewhat ironically, though I would argue that both the Democratic and Republican Parties cherry-pick from Jefferson and Hamilton.) Chief Justice John Marshall also had an expansive interpretation of the Commerce Clause.

    The argument that progressivism or liberalism is not part or child of the Founding is simply a reactionary argument to say that liberals are not American and do not belong here. This is immoral and wrong.

    *To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport Rhode Island.
    While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport, from all classes of Citizens.
    The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and happy people.
    The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
    It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.
    G. Washington

    • NewDealer,

      I like this response. I don’t agree with it, but it’s a good response. 😉

      Let met follow up on one point. At the end, you say

      “The argument that progressivism or liberalism is not part or child of the Founding is simply a reactionary argument to say that liberals are not American and do not belong here. This is immoral and wrong.”

      Let’s assume for the sake of argument that both the left and the right claim their ideas are consistent with the founding when in fact at least some of those ideas are not. My thesis here is that, assuming they were convinced that some of their ideas violated the founding philosophy, the right would be more likely to reevaluate those ideas than the left, and that the left is more likely to part ways with the founding if progress makes it necessary.

      I hope I’ve made it clear that I don’t mean any disparagement to the left by suggesting this, i.e., that they are guilty of impiety or sacrilege. I just wonder if invoking the founders, even if done fairly accurately and respectfully and compassionately, has the potential to be persuasive on self-identified progressives/liberals. Or if instead they were simply a politically and culturally, but not philosophically, significant bunch of leaders.

      If an example helps, Teddy Roosevelt, in my view, was an important political and cultural leader, and I happily cite him when he agrees with my views. But where he disagrees I have little problem putting distance between my views and his because, ultimately, I don’t find him terribly important philosophically. I wonder if the Left is to the Founders as Tim Kowal is to Teddy Roosevelt. L:F::TK:TR?

      • I would somewhat concur with this. At least for me personally. I am perplexed by what seems to be the conservative and libertarian need to have everything be related to “first principles” in some way.

        Chait’s description of analyzing things on a case by case basis is somewhat true to me but not completely. I don’t think everything needs to or can be studied in a white paper. But you are correct that I largely don’t care whether my policy views can get a stamp of approval from the Founders. They were of their time and their society and prejudices. They wrote some great documents, laws, and rhetoric but they could not predict what 21st Century society would look like. This is not to say we should scrap the entire Constitution, we shouldn’t but I don’t think that just because the Constitution is silent on universal healthcare makes it unconstitutional or immoral.

        • Well, there’s that whole ethics and morality study that indicates conservatives (and I would count at least some libertarians in this sense) tend to consider ‘authority’ as an axis of ethics, something liberals tend to discount to a large degree.

          The veneration of the Founding Fathers “intent” would seem to be an aspect of that.

      • Pretty much, yes. The Founders had some good ideas. They had some terrible ideas. They weren’t Philosopher God-King’s whose opinion should be asked before we pass any law. They were just largely the rich politicians who happened to be in power at the time things descended into a war.

        • “I am perplexed by what seems to be the conservative and libertarian need to have everything be related to “first principles” in some way.”

          That reminds me of this scene from Joe Dirt (which I quote frequently):

          Joe Dirt: Well, I see you got those snakes and sparklers. But where’s the good stuff man?
          Kicking Wing: Good stuff? This is the good stuff, snakes and sparklers.
          Joe Dirt: Are you nuts dude? You need stuff that’ll explode. Go *boom*!
          Kicking Wing: Why is that good?
          Joe Dirt: Well, huh, might as, might as well ask why is a tree good? Why is a sunset good? Why are boobs good?

          Certain things are simply good because it is in our nature to recognize them as such. Or they are necessary in the service of those things. First principles are such things. Asking “why are first principles good” is likely to elicit a response similar to the one above. If first principles aren’t worthy of merit, then what is?

          • I’d say it’s in most people’s nature to think the poor ought to be fed, the elderly cared for and the young educated. Are those now first principles too?

          • I take very few things on tautology or axiom and the things that I do take as being naturally good by axiom are probably things that many Republicans would disagree with me on.

          • I know some people who feel the gay secks is the absolute bomb and that hetero sex is all icky.

          • I’d say it’s in most people’s nature to think the poor ought to be fed, the elderly cared for and the young educated. Are those now first principles too?

            Perhaps, but as principles they say nothing about who ought to be doing it, so they don’t really lead to any useful conclusions.

          • I’d say it’s in most people’s nature to think the poor ought to be fed, the elderly cared for and the young educated. Are those now first principles too?

            The answer might lead to a larger discussion better left for another time, but I tend to think these are not first principles, but that first principles might compel these things. First principles might also inform the analysis of who ought to provide them and how.

            One other point on this, for first principles to be useful here, we’d want to more precisely frame these issues. “The poor” is not quite precise enough, because it’s very possible to be both poor and adequately fed. It’s also possible that those who are inadequately fed are not so because they are poor but because they misallocate their resources, perhaps wrongfully so. Thus, a more precise question might be, ought we to feed those who are hungry through no fault of their own? The answer to that is certainly yes, by all means. And as for those who are hungry because they are ill-trained, or sick, or criminal, feeding them should not be disconnected from also getting them trained, treated, or rehabilitated as the case may require.

          • James and Tim:

            Here’s the quote from Tim I’m basing that question on:

            Certain things are simply good because it is in our nature to recognize them as such. Or they are necessary in the service of those things. First principles are such things.

            I’m not going to really defend that my suggestions actually constitute first principles, but they do seem consistent with Tim’s characterization of what they are, yes?

      • Some of what the founders worried about is still valid in this day and age.
        I’d fight to the death anyone who wanted to change us into a Parlimentary Democracy. I think we’ve got it better, even if it does somewhat institutionalize gridlock.

        I’m not certain I believe that their views on guns are all that relevant to a nuclear (or post-nuclear) age.

        Which is damnably odd, if you understand that I’ve just compared two arguments on how to prevent tyranny, and judged one “still relevant” while the other one is “lost to the dust of the ages.”

        (Full disclosure: I’m not saying that we shouldn’t consider the founders views on gun control. Just that we’ve got a radically different world).

    • “It matters for the sake of culture war and not being treated or looked-down upon as second class citizens.”

      doesn’t that sound a little weird when you say it out loud?

    • Hogwash.
      The liberal/progressive project is of much later vintage. It’s focus is more communitarian. That they happened to choose government as the means of dispensing services is a somewhat arbitrary distinction in that regard; it was just a point in the evolution of disbursements that made that the particular incarnation.
      All things come through Pharaoh– same as it’s always been.

      Whether the thought might be traced directly back to the founders is a completely arbitrary consideration.

      • The communitarian ethos runs deep in American history. The first settlers of New England came to form religious communities governed by their own norms and accountable to eac other. They banded together as a community both because they shared religious values and because acting as a community was necessary for their survival. They were no rugged individualists. As the nation moved West, it was in groups of settlers, who not only cleared the lands and built family farms but also built churches and schools as soon as possible, and then formed voluntary organizations for the betterment of their communities.

        While I would agree that Progressivism is a later historic development that rose in response to the growth of powerful and huge corporations, the abuses of said entities, and government corruption (among other things), it’s not because the progressives were somehow more communitarian than previous generations. If anything, they were less so as they often looked for centralized solutions to perceived problems rather than to community-based ones.

  5. Just an attempt to really quickly answer the direct question – maybe I can discuss further later. And keeping in mind I am poor spokesman for progressives, as I consider myself a liberal in the broadest sense, wherein there isn’t necessarily a clear distinction between the classical liberal and the modern liberal – i.e. to whatever extent they are both liberals, that is the sense in which I am a liberal, and beyond that my views are mostly undetermined if not indeterminate.

    But my guess would be that progressives would question your whole notion of this one unified philosophy that completely characterized the idea behind the founding. They would acknowledge the importance of republican virtue to most of the men who were active in drafting the documents and making the decisions that led to independence and the new nation’s founding institutions, but they would question how that idea might apply today. Ultimately, if there wasn’t consistency between those values and theirs, they wouldn’t find this to be a reason to reform their own value sets (and I wonder what the argument would be that they should).

    I do think that progressives care that the programs they support are not contrary to what the Constitution actually allows Congress and the president to do. They have their arguments; those who believe they aren’t consistent have theirs. But ultimately, no, I’m fairly sure that if the political aims that progressives have turn out not to be consistent with the basic values that the Founders had, I don’t think they would see this as an unacceptable problem. I don’t think they concede this is the case, partly because I think they would insist that the group known as “the Founders” was an artificially restricted category of figures from the era, restricted in a way that conveniently emphasizes trends just the trends in thought that are inconsistent with progressives’ values. But if they had to, I don;t think they’d have too hard a time simply accepting the discontinuity.

    • But my guess would be that progressives would question your whole notion of this one unified philosophy that completely characterized the idea behind the founding.

      Most modern historians would seriously dispute this notion, save for a number of “re-righters” most notably associated with places like Hillsdale College, some institute at Claremont McKenna, and a number of other conservative colleges and think tanks. There’s a certain sterility to this view, which removes ideas from their contexts and downplays the amount of conflict over “first principles” among the founders.

  6. Rather than the founding (which like Mr. Drew says, was not even close to a homogenous enterprise), I’m curious where modern Progressives sit on the issue of the 2nd Bank of the United States.

    And I’m totally serious.

  7. Nice post Tim. Well thought out and well argued. Unlike the last post, tho, I’m gonna focus on a few problems that jumped right off the page at me.

    “did the expansion of government habituate us to an ever-expanding government, or was there some change, was there some loss of republican virtue, that made possible the expansion of government. Which came first?”

    I don’t understand why you’re not treating this as the false dilemma that it is. Surely there are other options between habituation and loss of virtue, yes? Especially given that Lincoln, in advance of the New Deal, expanded government at extraordinary rates and degrees. Which leads to:

    It was believed that republican virtue was alive again by the time of the Founding. The people rededicated themselves to it during the Civil War. </i?

    If the civil war is evidence of anything in this argument it strikes me as running counter to Republican virtue. The civil war was predicated as a conflict between the federal government (union) and those advocating states rights, originalism, and cultural identity while simultaneously expanding federal power at exponential degrees in defense of individual liberty and a concept of fairness. So the shorter, I suppose, is that the side that won were the liberals of their era and the side that lost were embracing republican virtue. I really don't see any way around that, in fact.

    Do modern progressives much care whether their political philosophy can claim lineage to the founding or its conception of “republican virtue”?

    Given the argument and the evidence, I’d say the answer is unequivocally “yes”. And even tho Chait’s theory of liberalism lacks clearly articulated guiding principles I don’t see that as a decisive, or even defining, criticism. (I mean, he’s articulating a view I’ve expressed on numerous occasions here at the League, so I might be biased…) It’s only decisive for a person who approaches these issues with a pre-determined conception of what counts as a “good theory”. But that begs all the questions, no?

    • Stillwater,

      The question quoted in the OP was interesting to me because it helps portray the conservative mind: We conservatives believe, even if merely as a disposition or mood, in republican virtue—even if we can’t quite put our finger on what that is—but whatever it is, big government is antithetical to it and saps it somehow. As a piece of autobio, I remember that being my knee-jerk reaction when the first proposals that became Obamacare were bandied about. Is it a “false dilemma”? I did acknowledge that it can’t be answered, that there are simply too many moving parts involved. The expansion of the role of the federal government under Lincoln is a part of that analysis, yes.

      There was indeed a tension between liberalism and republicanism at the founding—the former being value-neutral; the latter cultivating certain qualities of character that self-government requires, in Michael Sandel’s formulation in Democracy’s Discontent. Calhoun and Fitzhugh are prime examples of the “republican virtue” of the South. But the founding philosophy is generally regarded as some kind of combination of both liberalism and republicanism, and as Lincoln took pains to show, no meaningful form of liberalism could possibly co-exist with the South’s version of republicanism that refused to honor basic tenets of human equality. So in one way, you are correct that the Civil War was the triumph of certain tenets of liberalism over one particular form of republicanism. But not liberalism over republicanism in general.

      • How is liberalism value-neutral? It may represent different values than those you identify as part of republican virtue, but it certainly isn’t value neutral.

        • Sandel argues liberalism and its individual rights tradition are “neutral on the question of the good life,” and for that reason rejects it because a government that is neutral on such questions cannot “secure the liberty it promises, because it cannot sustain the kind of political community and civic engagement that liberty requires.” In a deeper sense, it values freedom and rights. But as to social conduct, liberalism, at least in Sandel’s formulation (and I think he’s right), is neutral. That is the sphere of republicanism.

          • That distinction seems a bit arbitrary to me. Conservatives advocate both a particular form of government as well as social conduct, whereas liberals only advocate for certain formal arrangements?

            Why is liberalism treated as a purely formal theory and conservativism not? Is the distinction based on evidence or from theoretical underpinnings? I mean, liberals believe, for example, that gays ought to be able to marry as well as advocating social conduct around the acceptance of gays in social life.

          • Hmmm. Thinking about that a bit more, I think the error is the assertion that “liberals are neutral on the question of the good life”. I don’t think liberals are, of course. Seems to me the distinction amounts to this: conservatives are very specific regarding what constitutes the good life, so specific, in fact, that people who aren’t conservatives reject their definition of it. Liberals on the other hand are more open-ended regarding what constitutes the good life, limiting their conception of it to meeting some minimal necessary conditions.

          • Keep in mind we’re talking about classical liberalism and classical republicanism. The former in particular has taken on a very different meaning today. Modern liberalism has its own conception of the good life, as you point out, and probably of what could be called “republican virtue.” But one of the main reasons I dislike the term is because it causes confusion when we talk about the philosophical and intellectual traditions of these concepts, as here.

          • Man, these discussions are hard, aren’t they? There’s so many moving parts it’s difficult to find areas to agree or disagree about. Even the terms!

  8. As a liberal my gut reaction is to rail against the suggestion that there was anything remotely resembling a homogenous “republican virtue” that animated the founding generation. There were several substantial cleavages between the Northeastern Federalists and what became the Democratic-Republicans, and these cleavages date further back into the philosophical underpinnings which separated the Tory and Whig traditions in British enlightenment thought, which later (after the fall of the Jacobites and Bolingbroke) became two strands of Whig thought which were divided into what might be called propertied conservative Whiggery of the Gibbon mold and the more urbanized Whigs that would go from Pitt the Younger to Lord Grey.

    The most substantial cleavage in this regard can be seen in the first Washington Administration between two cabinet members: Jefferson and Hamilton. Jefferson’s writings imply his strong support for an agricultural society, with property being the basis of participation and a quasi-oligarchical “republicanism” that reflected the views of Roman virtue viz. Gibbon. On the other hand, Hamilton led a faction of framers that were substantially more urbanized, convinced of the importance of industry and public morality.

    The whig tradition, founded on radical puritanism then later enlightenment philosophy is I think as much a driving factor (if expressed differently) in modern progressive thinking, as much as Jefferson’s agrarian “republican virtue” stuff is to conservatism. Whiggery has often been obscured by the fact that its heirs were taken over by northern bankers and industrialists, then later replaced by Marxian critiques in history but there’s ultimately as much there from the founding in the Whig tradition as there ever will be in the landed republicanism of Rome.

    • Yes! If you want to trace the origins of Progressivism, you have to look at the Whigs and evangelicals who led the reform movements of the 1840s, which were aimed at perfecting society in hopes of speeding up the Second Coming. The impetus to use government and voluntary institutions to “fix” society dates back at least that far.

      And yes, Jefferson’s version of “republican virtue” was rooted in a vision of a relatively homogeneous society composed primarily of yeoman farmers, where the franchise was limited to white landowners–no minorities, women, or common laborers need apply. His vision of America existed for a time. The nation was primarily agrarian until sometime in the 1920s, when the scales shifted conclusively to the cities.

    • Nob,

      I can’t speak to this impressive level of detail, though I will keep these points in mind as I continue my own study of this subject. As to the original question, can I assume that your response is no, you don’t much care whether your political philosophy can claim lineage to the founding or its conception of “republican virtue” inasfar as those concepts are so much word salad and unintelligible, in your view? A totally valid response, I’ll add. As I consider its soundness, I’d be eager to consider any sources you might recommend.

      • I would say my position is a little more complicated than calling it word salad and unintelligible.

        I would say that there’s an Anglo-American political tradition dating back at least as far as the Civil War of Roundhats and Cavaliers and moving into Tories and Whigs which later manifests in American culture as Hamilton vs. Jefferson, then as time goes on in Northeast vs. South and eventually modern liberalism vs. conservatism.

        I think it’s important that there’s a continuity because it shows the gradual evolution of politics in a relatively non-violent way. Starting with the Glorious Revolution onward. (Granted there’s bits of violence within, the Jacobite rebellions, the English Civil War, the American Revolution, Civil War, etc.)

        I care that there’s continuity, I guess what I find irritating is when some people are wrongly expropriated for one side or the other. The biggest example to me is Edmund Burke, who was a Whig but has become associated with a false temperamental conservatism.

  9. My impulse, after reading this and other posts you’ve written, is to ask whether the whole notion of ” republican virtue” has any meaning outside of small, relatively homogeneous, agrarian communities?

    • Michelle — fair question. In addition to my response to Nob, above, I do operate from an assumption that “republican virtue” does have an intelligible meaning. Both you and Nob offer important challenges to that assumption: (1) per Nob, there is at least great difficulty in ascertaining what it meant at the founding, and (2) per you, there is great difficulty transplanting that concept, which applied in the times and circumstances at the founding, into modern times and circumstances. I’ve been laboring on an essay that in large part grapples with point (2), and feel confident that these principles are objective and do apply regardless of times and circumstances—the different times and circumstances just pose a challenge of application, of discerning concepts from concretes. But like I said, it is a tough challenge, especially when the project has been abandoned for so long, as I believe it has. In other words, if our leaders had been applying our founding philosophy incrementally to new concretes over the past century instead of redefining them (as I believe they have), there wouldn’t be such a wide expanse between then and now. Instead, we see tongue-in-cheek references that originalism is essentially applying rules for agrarian times or a horse-and-buggy economy to today’s exigencies and modern economy. To repeat myself, part of the reason this is such a challenge is that the attempts to do so in the last few decades are the first in quite a long time.

  10. You’d think that “real” conservatives would have stuck with the King, instead of trying to improve everything.

  11. It was believed that republican virtue was alive again by the time of the Founding. The people rededicated themselves to it during the Civil War.

    To which people are you referring? Confederates? Because they were the ones applying the “republican virtue” rhetoric to policy, while the Union adopted more pragmatic means to ends.

    So one cannot really answer the questions you pose without a less muddled interpretation of history. One could just as easily, and with as much fairness, turn your question around to: do modern conservatives much care whether their advocacy of racism, bigotry, and elitism can claim lineage to the founding or its conception of “republican virtue”?

    • Racism, bigotry, and elitism were realities at the time, but they were inconsistent with the founding philosophy. Let me note again that I do not set out here to define or defend a conception of what the founding philosophy is or republican virtue is. I am only asking if, assuming it means something, it is regarded equally by the self-identified right and the self-identified left.

      • How meaningful can a founding philosophy be if the founders themselves did not practice it either personally or politically?

        • Um, yeah. That seems pretty skewering there. Racism, bigotry, sexism, and elitism were backed into the cake of our Founding. It’s still written — although thankfully amended out — into the document.

          “All men are created equal” sounds super awesome and against racism, bigotry, and elitism until you realize that what they meant and lived was “All white male property owners are created equal”.

          And that is the stone cold truth of the time. There might have been a Founding Father or three really ahead of the curve, but what they put into place was equality for the wealthy white male elite.

      • Have you ever read George Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945? In the post-WWII era, FDR-ish liberalism was so dominant that conservatives were told that their ideology was un-American, at best British Toryism and at worst the sort of Continental reaction we’d just defeated. A large part of the conservative project led by WFB was to try to establish that conservatism does have roots back to the Founders. To be honest, this sort of historical analysis strikes me as pointless, like all the Tobacco Institute efforts by conservative economists to prove that the New Deal caused the depression.

      • I suppose the answer is that most liberals care that their policy prescriptions fit well within the long history of Western political, economic, and social thought. The founding is one important part of that lineage, which didn’t get frozen in amber when the founders died. Now, how to compare this claim of lineage to the founders’ thinking to one that attempts to slavishly replicate that thinking is for you to decide.

        • Clearly the solution is to:

          1. Develop a way-back machine

          2. Preserve the Founders in Amber as they die.

          3. Revive them Jurassic Park style whenever we have a Constitutional question and see what they think and after they have been given a full briefing by both sides.

          4. Repeat as necessary

          • And Bully for Ben (Franklin)!
            He’d have a rather unique and interesting perspective on America right now. I rather think he’d like it.
            I think Jefferson might faint from shock. Repeatedly.

          • But how long until the electric fences short out and Jefferson starts biting people’s heads off?

          • Kazzy

            that would only be a problem if we did not know the Jefferson’s weakness. just show him video of of the SuperBowl halftime show and that bugger will quiet right back down.

      • I am only asking if, assuming it means something, it is regarded equally by the self-identified right and the self-identified left.

        This comment won’t be too helpful here, but as I’m fond of saying here at the League, contemporary conservatism can be defined as opposing whatever Democrats support, updated daily (Cleek’s Law). So in at least this sense, Republican virtue is alive and well, and is not regarded equally by both sides.

        It’s also a completely empty concept.

      • I do not set out here to define or defend a conception of what the founding philosophy is or republican virtue is. I am only asking if, assuming it means something, it is regarded equally by the self-identified right and the self-identified left.

        I don’t think this works. I think before we can ask whether it’s equally regarded by left and right we actually have to have some kind of agreement on what it is. So providing a definition is a necessary first step. Otherwise we might as well ask whether liberals and conservatives both believe in sqoobleism.

        • Well, maybe I’ve formulated it like sqoobleism, but clearly we all do have some idea of what is meant by the founding philosophy and republican virtue. So it’s not totally unintelligible like sqoobleism is. I’m trying to avoid having to get very precise here, because I don’t know how to be sufficiently precise. What I’m assuming is that, an adequately precise formulation I would hope to advance would include concepts like individual liberty, freedom of conscience, and other classically liberal values, equality and democracy, natural or higher law against which even acts of duly constituted legislatures may be considered wrongful, along with acceptance of parts of the colonial experience—the English common law, periodically elected bicameral legislatures, one-man chief executives, jury trials, and Protestantism—elements that “would most effectively secure the natural rights of the citizens,” in Michael Zuckert’s formulation, as well as moral values like self-reliance, yet not detached from charity, manners, honor, and norms of expected conduct within close-knit communities.

          Still badly wanting for precision, but not exactly sqoobleism.

          • How much of this is pure and vivid propaganda?
            More to the point, how much of this is propaganda deliberately disseminated after the Founding?

          • Note: by propaganda I’m not excluding that disseminated by the founders themselves, after the Constitution was written…

          • Well, I think you aren’t nearly sqoobleistic enough, which proves you’re un-something or other, and therefore obviously a very bad person. 😉

            More seriously, I don’t feel like I have a good handle on what the republican virtues were supposed to be, because that’s one of those things I just haven’t studied (the price of being an institutionalist–I tend to think about structures, rather than personal qualities).

            Following on what you’ve tossed out here, though, I think progressivism (to the extent I understand what that is, which I also don’t have a good handle on), must have some connection to classic republican virtues. I think progressive support a lot of individual liberties (a package that overlaps with the package of liberties conservative support, but is not congruent with, as each side includes some (negative) liberties the other doesn’t), freedom of conscience (maybe even more so than conservatives), equality (again, maybe even more so than conservatives), democracy (maybe overly so, from a classical republican perspective, although a there’s also a small subset that seems to distrust democracy (but I’m not sure if they’re properly called progressive, or if that group really is more properly called socialist), certainly elected legislatures (although perhaps not necessarily bicameral, although I wonder if bicameralism really matters), indisputably jury trials (and have, in fact, worked harder than conservatives to try to ensure those trials are meaningful expressions of due process).

            One man chief executives I wonder if they think about one way or the other. Protestantism they surely don’t care much about, and I suspect that wouldn’t be as meaningful today anyway, since probably most American Catholics today are Protestant in that political sense. Self-reliance, of course, is a concept they’re very ready to argue has little real-world meaning.

            Charity, manners, and norms of conduct within communities are things they all believe in, although they may differ in what they see as the appropriate types of manners and norms of conduct. Honor….I’m sure nobody wants to cop to not caring about honor, but I suspect the left/right interpretations of that today are so disparate as to bear little relationship to each other.

            But, over all, I think using those characteristics I’d have to argue that progressives do still hold to a lot of the Republican virtues. I think probably the most obvious break point–the one that most conservatives fret about–is self-reliance.

          • “clearly we all do have some idea of what is meant by the founding philosophy and republican virtue.”

            For my part, republican virtue, yes, indeed yes independent even of gleaning from your use, Tim, what you mean it to mean; while, “the founding philosophy,” no – and not even after trying to glean from your using the term what you mean it to mean substantively, to say nothing at all of finding a sense of it in my own independent research that I think matches what you’re referring to (though again, not at all sure what that is, so I can’t be sure).

  12. “Racism, bigotry, and elitism were realities at the time, but they were inconsistent with the founding philosophy. Let me note again that I do not set out here to define or defend a conception of what the founding philosophy is or republican virtue is.”

    Mr. Kowal – I am having difficulty reconciling (or understanding) those two statements. Are you not defining the founding philosophy as being, at least, not an embodiment of racism, bigotry or elitism? And if so, are you not in part “defending” a conception of what that founding philosphy is?

    I am not being snarky and perhaps I am simply over my head, but I wonder whether unpacking those statements might go a long ways towards establishing some foundation on which answers to the question you posed might be developed. Otherwise you might be postulating a common ground that isn’t common at all.

    • It can be said, as you have here, that my statement is a form of “defining or defending” the founding philosophy. I don’t think it is—at least, not really. It doesn’t take a lot of unpacking of the founding philosophy—nothing more than recalling the more memorable lines from the Declaration of Independence—to demonstrate racism, bigotry, and elitism do not comport with it, at least in general terms. And whether you agree or disagree with that conclusion, it is, after all, only my conclusion, set out for the sake of clarity that the reader may know my basic position. The question of what the founding philosophy is would take considerably more time and space to set out, and I do not pretend to be qualified to do it. I am not yet satisfied I have a firm enough grasp to articulate it. But it is a subject I am studying and will continue to think and write about. The question I posed in the short essay here occurred to me because I wondered whether, even were I somehow able to set out and defend what the founding philosophy is, what republican virtue is, etc., could it have the tendency to form a common ground with self-identified liberals/progressives/leftists?

      Perhaps it is an not entirely fair or complete question if, as some have suggested, the founding philosophy/republican virtue contains a ratification of slavery/racism/bigotry/elitism and other nasties. So if your point is that I must at least make an offer of proof that it does not contain these things, perhaps that’s understandable. But for now, I will just leave that question with my conclusion that it does not because the basic terms of the Declaration suggest those things do not have a place in the founding philosophy. I must leave the more substantive and thorough defense of that position for another time.

  13. One other point: as a Revolution, the American one is entirely different from most of the others called that (French, Russian, Iranian, etc.) They were attempts to remake society using political means. The American one was quite happy with society as it was, and had a purely political goal, to sever ties to Great Britain. Originally, there wasn’t even the goal of forming a new government; under the Articles of Confederation, the existing state governments kept their forms and powers, with the central government being almost a cipher. That is, the goal of the Revolution was to heep things the same as much as possible while removing George III.

    To my mind, talk about the virtues of the Founders misses this point. Each Founder had a different notion of virtue from the others, and to the extent they considered it, different notion of the ideal society. There was no need for any consensus, because guiding or changing society wasn’t part of the project.

    • Yup. See On Revolution by Hannah Arendt for an in-depth look at this subject.

  14. Republican Virtue is a sort of epistemological solipsism. We all see the world as we wish to see it, applying our own standards, all the while sorta-knowing we’re applying our own biases. We might, with equal candour, speak of Republican Vice.

    I do not hold with those who claim lineage to the Founding. They’re mostly lying to themselves, picking and choosing from among the likeable aspects of those august gentlemen. If Liberals point out no ladies or negroes or native people were involved in those empyrean discussions in Philadelphia and New York, the usual response is much eye-rolling and accusations of Politickal Correctness.

    If the Founders were gods among men, they made this nation in their own image. The heavens did not open for them, choirs of angels did not sing to the shepherds of peace on earth and goodwill toward men with the signing of the Constitution. Those gods among men constructed a nation as best they could, compromising all the way, as we must compromise in our turn.

    It is our nation now and the Founders are all safely buried where they cannot continue to dither over the issues of slavery and perpetuate the inequalities they left for us to solve in our times. If slavery has been abolished and women and blacks now have the vote, Liberals and Progressives have done all the heavy lifting and the Conservative tradition in this country has done none of it.

    The Progressive tradition has never held out the promise of the good life. It offered the same goals limned into the Constitution itself: such goals as a more perfect Union , to establish Justice, the insurance of domestic Tranquility, to provide for the common defence, to promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.

    Our Posterity. We are that posterity. It is our nation now. We, no less than the Founders, have the right to make a nation in our own image, to secure the Blessings of Liberty for ourselves for we will have Posterity too. This nation must be made, again and again, in light of our posterity.

    This is not Relativism any more than the Preamble to the Constitution was relativism. They constructed this nation that we might have those liberties. They saw the world through their own eyes with the light they were given in their times. They might have done hard work (they might have done more about slavery) of creating this nation: they did so armed with the facts about the failures of previous schemes of governments of old. It is up to us to maintain and defend it.

    That maintenance and that defence will be done by the lights of these times, not theirs, guided by the historical failures and tragedies handed down to us by Founders. More men died in the Civil War than all our foreign wars combined. Our Constitution was created as an amendable document, the most progressive of all possible schemes. If we have the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, it was because some Progressive ideal was worth fighting for.

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