Saturday, July 15, 2017

The conservative liberals

This post expands on the previous one about how the major parties switched their orientation. From the beginning, it has not been simple to determine whether Americans, or any particular American, was liberal or conservative.

In this discussion it is useful to stick to left/right, even though those terms did not come into use until the seting arrangements at the French National Assembly in the 1790s provided a handy discriminator. Rather than trying to tease out whether a party (or a person) is authoritarian/permissive; creditor/debtor etc., the general tendencies left/right serve well.

The draft constitution presented  to the 13 states in 1787 was novel and frightening to foreign eyes, and radical to almost all of them. But that was not how the drafters saw it.

In world terms, the U.S. Constitution was (and is) radical and liberal — notably, it is the attempt by a society to govern itself via an elected magistrate rather than an anointed king, and without a state religion — or any kind of religion at all.

There were some partial models, of which the most relevant contemporary ones were the Dutch and Venetian republics. (There were other king-less governments in Europe, as in Switzerland; and there is a myth that the American constitution was based on Indian practice, but neither in structure, philosophy nor in goals does the U.S Constitution have anything to do with the convocations of the Five [or Six] Nations.)

However, the foreign model of most importance to the Framers was the Roman Republic, something that most of them had studied in detail (and in Latin).

The models of most importance were the several state constitutions.  Every state had rewritten its constitution in the years before the Philadelphia convention, some more than once; and the convention presents a unique example of a constitution being written by men who had had long experience of writing and then trying to govern with other constitutions.

This can most easily be seen in Article VI, where religion is written out of the government. The Framers had had bad experiences with religion.

However radical the American organic law appeared elsewhere, to the men who wrote it, it was conservative.

By 1787, Europeans had been occupying the Atlantic seaboard for seven generations, and the men who wrote the Constitution were conscious that their great, great, great grandfathers had had, as Lincoln later put it, brought forth a new nation.

Though beholden to the British Crown and Parliament, distance and distaste had allowed the colonists to establish and operate local government much as they wished. King’s agents there were, but few and easy to evade.

Thus, to American sensibilities, elected magistrates, elected assemblies, a more even suffrage, relative freedom from excisemen etc. were customary, not revolutionary. The Patriots revolted to preserve what they had, not to create a new polity.

We are now 16 generations into that liberal experiment. Nearly half the electorate deems it a failure.


  1. The progressive half, which dedicated itself over the last 80 years to undermining the constitution in every way it possibly can.

  2. Civil Rights Act of 1965, Voting Rights Act

    Freedom of information Act

    The liberals have been undermining all right.

  3. Liberals voted for the Civil Rights Act. Only liberals.

  4. The No True Scotsman fallacy on parade.