I am not now, nor have I ever been, a liberal.
Most Americans would not be surprised to hear this, not because they know anything about me or my politics, but because most Americans do not consider themselves liberal, either. Only 25 percent identify as liberal, according to Gallup, compared to 36 percent who describe themselves as conservative.
Despite this, among educated Americans there is today an almost universal belief that the United States is an essentially liberal country.
In 1955 the Harvard professor of government Louis Hartz gave classic expression to this contention with The Liberal Tradition in America. But the claim is older than that, and it had already begun to acquire respectability at least 20 years earlier.
Before that, the “new” progressive liberals of the early 20th century saw the U.S. Constitution as the product of a reactionary tendency: it curbed the already quite limited radicalism of the American Revolution, gave too much advantage to the wealthy, and was simply unscientific and out of date—an artifact of a less enlightened time.
In the 19th century, liberals had still other views of America’s relationship to liberalism. A young Lord Acton believed that the United States would cease to be an exemplar of liberty if the North defeated the South in the Civil War. For him, political decentralization, not slavery or civic equality, was the overriding concern.
Liberalism in all its forms is closely connected with notions of science and progress. So perhaps it is not surprising that liberals today do not let the inconsistency of earlier liberals’ views of America give them pause in declaring that the latest opinions are absolutely true.
The opinion of liberals today is that the American Revolution was liberal, the Constitution was liberal, and America is in fact more or less synonymous with the idea of liberalism itself—that this is a proposition nation, and the proposition is liberalism.
But if this is true, how does one account for the 36 percent of the public that thinks of itself as conservative?
Marxists long ago faced a similar problem—if theirs was the ideology of the working class, how could it be that workers remained so religious, so nationalistic, so conservative? The answer was that the working class suffered from “false consciousness.”
The liberal explanation for the curious deficiency of self-identified liberals in America is that self-described conservatives are not really conservatives. Since liberalism is America’s only political tradition, what so-called conservatives actually seek to conserve must be an earlier form of liberalism.
Within the American mainstream, there is only room for liberals, but they can be either progressive liberals or conservative liberals. Progressive liberals successfully laid claim to the simple label “liberal” decades ago, but conservatives are liberals too.
By this reasoning, actual, non-liberal conservative conservatives are un-American. Real conservatism—as defined by liberals—is a defense of feudal institutions, of the throne-and-altar ancien regime of Continental Europe. Because the conditions for this conservatism have never existed in our country, there are no true-blue American conservatives, only a relict of yesterday’s liberals inhabiting today’s politics.
Yet many self-described conservatives today seem to have as little in common with the liberals of the past as they do with liberals now. Populists, “Christian nationalists,” and explicit “postliberals” represent evident alternatives to liberalism. This means they cannot be good citizens, for they deny the very idea that defines America.
In adopting this view, liberals appear oblivious to the parallel between their assumptions and those of their opponents. A liberal would immediately recognize as a bigot someone who insisted that only Christians could be good people or good citizens. The bigot’s defense that sound reasoning (from Biblical premises) or the historic Christian character of the country elevated his claims to the level of objective truths would be dismissed.
But liberals, by insisting that theirs and only theirs is the tradition of our country, and theirs and only theirs is the true philosophy (operating from premises that seem obviously correct to the liberal but appear arbitrary to outsiders), adopt a position that is functionally identical to an old-fashioned bigot’s.
The important thing here is not hypocrisy but the vulnerability of liberalism itself to the same critique that liberalism deploys against religion. If religious tests are damaging to civility and ultimately to domestic tranquility because they exclude too many obviously good and patriotic but not correctly religious persons, ideological tests for conformity to liberalism are objectionable on the same grounds.
And the objections can’t be overcome by moving from dogma—whether religious or ideological—to conduct. For a liberal to say that everyone who conducts himself in a civil manner is ipso facto a liberal is like a Christian saying that everyone who behaves decently must really be a Christian, whatever beliefs they actually profess.
The philosopher Antony Flew called the flipside of this the “No true Scotsman” fallacy. American liberals, however, have at times openly claimed that hard-working, God-fearing illegal immigrants or the foreign beneficiaries (if that’s the right word) of America’s wars to export democracy are truer Americans than citizens who reject open borders and democratic imperialism. What for Flew was a fallacy is for liberal true believers an article of faith.
According to that liberal faith, the involvement of non-liberal conservatives in American politics is inherently subversive, and these unpatriotic conservatives deserve all the obloquy they receive. “Conservatives” (that is, conservative liberals) must join with “liberals” (that is, progressive liberals) in exorcizing these un-American, illiberal influences from politics. Questioning the patriotism of this non-liberal right is fair game. Hence populists are stooges of Vladimir Putin, Christian nationalists and postliberals are Hungary Firsters.
These liberal dismissals of non-liberal Americans also parallel older religious controversies, including one of the signature tensions in 19th and early 20th-century America: liberals then saw American Catholics, with their devotion to the foreign pope and their faith’s historic ties to Spain’s illiberal monarchy and the Inquisition, as inherently suspect citizens.
Indeed, parallels extend throughout our history. Division is a persistent feature of American politics: the Revolutionary War divided Patriots and “Tories,” the debate over ratification of the Constitution divided federalists and anti-federalists, the early republic was riven between admirers and opponents of the French Revolution.
The Federalist party and the Democratic-Republicans viewed each other not as friendly rivals but as existentially opposed camps. Each saw the other as the enemy of the very principles of the republic, which the Federalists (according to the Jeffersonians) wished to replace with a British-style monarchy and which Jefferson’s party (according to the Federalists) would replace with a French-style atheistic leveling democracy.
Years later, when the animus between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had cooled, they jointly agreed that Andrew Jackson and his supporters were a clear Caesarist threat to the Constitution.
No other division was as bloody as that between the North and South over slavery and secession, but even apart from the Civil War the politics of our country has often involved profound conflicts of principle. No one in the Adams or Jefferson administrations had yet heard of such a thing as “liberalism,” but if they had, from the perspective of Adams’s supporters Jefferson’s ideology would have been profoundly illiberal (on the extreme left), and from the Jeffersonian perspective the Adams party’s ideology would have been obviously and thoroughly illiberal (on the “feudal” right). Each side, of course, accused the other of infatuation with a preferred foreign power.
The fact that these conflicts did not destroy the infant republic owes a great deal to the magnanimity and moderation of the victors. In his first inaugural address, President Jefferson assured the country, “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”
Jefferson did not show equal favor to his own Republicans and the rival Federalists, and while he said, “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle,” he knew there were stark differences of principle between the parties, too. He nonetheless accepted the legitimacy of the opposition, and he governed more responsibly than his grandiose ideological pronouncements about the French Revolution would have suggested. (“Rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated,” he wrote to William Short in 1793.) Jefferson, and James Madison to an even greater extent, compromised his ideology to lead the country realistically.
The vitriol that rival partisan camps toss at each other is not worth complaining about—the language is extreme because passion is the only thing that can keep the game going, given the nigh impossibility of either side achieving its dreams. Winning any policy battle, no matter how important, never ends the war. In a divided and competitive system such as our own, “politics as a practice, whatever its professions” is, as Henry Adams said, “the systematic organization of hatreds.”
So conservatives call liberals (progressives) socialists, commie symps, “Blame America Firsters,” and a variety of other epithets, while progressives call conservatives fascists, racists, misogynists, theocrats, this-o-phobes, and that-o-phobes. No appeal to civility will put an end to this name-calling, though the intensity of the invective may vary.
What’s dangerous about the myth of an exclusively liberal American tradition is its disguised partisanship—disguised, in many cases, even from the partisans themselves. To the extent that liberals overlook their own bias, they become illiberal, which is not only harmful to the liberties of non-liberal citizens, it is discrediting to liberalism itself. Indeed, to the extent that non-liberals become convinced that the myth of exclusive liberalism is true, it risks encouraging them to feel alienated from America and move in ideologically radical directions. This might seem tactically advantageous to liberals, who get to see their confused rivals turn into the caricatures that liberals had long painted of them. But it deprives liberals of the necessary conservative check on liberalism’s own self-destructive tendencies.
Lest anyone misunderstand, let me say right away that while liberalism depends on a pre-liberal civilizational substrate which conservatives protect better than liberals do—namely, the inheritance of Christianity and the Western tradition—conservatism does not in turn depend on a liberal substrate, though many features of a humane conservatism may resemble features of liberalism: the difference being that for a conservative, they are prudential features of politics, while for the liberal, they are not prudential at all, but absolute principles: free speech, for example.
Rather than take the obvious route of examining the liberal case for America’s liberal roots, however, it may be helpful to look at the argument of a political theorist who is not so easily classified, one who is highly regarded by conservatives although he strongly endorses the idea of a thoroughly liberal American tradition.
Harvey Mansfield retired from teaching at Harvard University this year, but he continues to instruct. His books and essays are classes offered to all students forever. And at 91, he continues to write—Machiavelli’s Effectual Truth: Creating the Modern World is on its way in October, with a volume on political parties possibly to follow that.
In the spring Mansfield contributed an essay to National Affairs on liberalism and “common-good conservatism.” The work was characteristic of Mansfield’s method, which is to convey a general argument through an artful reconstruction of particular facts, rather than treating particulars in their particularity.
There are, for example, specific reasons why common-good conservatives are more friendly toward Donald Trump—of whom they hardly approve wholeheartedly—than they are toward neoconservatives. Bill Kristol wins neither wars nor elections; common-good conservatives don’t want wars in the first place and have to win elections (with suitably bold and liberalism-defying candidates) if they hope to fulfill their program.
Mansfield, however, simply writes that common-good conservatives lack the “elegance” of “a noble gentleman such as William F. Buckley Jr.” and so it is “no surprise that conservatives should begin their campaign for victory over a common opponent with an attack on potential allies.”
At the level of particulars—historical details—presenting the advocates of a highly interventionist foreign policy as “potential allies” of opponents of an interventionist foreign policy may seem puzzling, just as reference to a “common opponent” is equivocal when for neoconservatives like Kristol the opponent is Donald Trump and all who support him, while for common-good conservatives liberalism (including as it is found among Trump’s most ardent critics) is the opponent.
But according to Mansfield, conservatism itself is a form of liberalism, “understood in its generic, 17th-century sense as the doctrine of a society of individual rights.” If that’s so, then common-good conservatism, or any other “postliberal” right, is either a confused doctrine or it is not really conservative in our context and does not belong within the bounds of American politics at all. Some postliberals would agree with that.
Mansfield is not oblivious to the reasons common-good conservatives make the alliances they make. His lesson is rather that common-good conservatives shouldn’t exist: conservatives should be like Buckley in manners and should subordinate their cultural aims—really religious aims—to the political limits imposed by the logic of individual rights.
If this is frustrating to Christian conservatives, they can take solace in the success that liberal-conservatism enjoys in protecting property rights, and they may still plead their case for cultural conservatism within the language of rights: the right to life as the justification for outlawing abortion, for example.
Mansfield’s argument does more than just exclude the postliberal right from the politics of liberal democracy, however. It excludes all conservatives properly so called—that is, everyone who would side with Edmund Burke over John Locke on the question of predicating politics here and now on the ever-present possibility of appealing to rights as they are in the state of nature.
Mansfield is ever watchful for what Machiavelli calls “the effectual truth.” The effectual truth of his own teaching with regard to liberalism and conservatism, however, conduces readily to postliberalism.
Several leading postliberals are, like Mansfield himself, intellectually indebted to Leo Strauss, and some have been Mansfeld’s own students at Harvard. The connection between Straussianism and postliberalism is clear and logical. Straussians typically teach that America is a fundamentally liberal, Lockean country. Yet readers of Strauss will find in his work a rather unappealing portrait of Locke and his philosophy—a portrait entirely repulsive to faithful Christians.
Strauss’s Locke is an heir to Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes who carries forward a revolutionary project to transform politics—and along with it, science, economics, the family, and all of life—so as to end the domination of the Catholic Church, Christianity in general, and classical-scholastic philosophy over men’s minds. This is the Enlightenment project, and it is thoroughly anti-Christian.
Where does that leave any scholar who happens to be an American, a Christian, and a Straussian? His Straussianism confronts him with a choice between his country and his faith. If Locke really is as anti-Christian as Strauss seems to indicate, and if America is an indisputably Lockean country, then a good Christian cannot be a good American—not so long as the Lockean regime stands. Hence, “postliberalism.”
There are alternatives to this conclusion: some Christian Straussians may choose not to resolve the dilemma but rather to endure the tension between church and national creed; others may think that Locke was not quite as bad, or quite as foundational to America, as might be feared.
But no Straussian alive has greater authority than Mansfield; he is the scholiarch, honored alike by “East Coast” and “West Coast” factions, by his onetime student William Kristol and by the Claremont Institute. If there is a place for Christianity in Mansfield’s understanding of American politics—with its 17th-century Lockean horizon—that place is modest, not among things that are essential to the republic, but among causes and interests that are private.
The Lockean Dilemma
If Mansfield is correct, the dilemma facing the Christian Straussian in America is unavoidable and must lead either to a Christianity trimmed to the contours of liberalism or to a rejection of the American regime.
The number of intellectuals who must make this choice is small, though some of them are in influential positions. There are many more educated Americans, however, who are confronted by the same choice in broader terms. Some of them have non-Straussian reasons for taking a dim view of John Locke, who was seen in his own lifetime as a Socinian rather than an orthodox Christian. In the 1790s, the founding father James Wilson, generally a friend to Locke’s philosophy, noted, “it is unquestionable, that the writings of Mr. Locke have facilitated the progress, and have given strength to the effects of scepticism” toward revealed religion.
To the extent that liberalism has a Lockean pedigree, and Lockean liberalism is the founding philosophy of the American polity, religious Americans who reject Locke may find themselves tempted to reject America, too.
There is a problem with this genealogy, however. Most historians today try to avoid the anachronism of using later political terms in reference to earlier political thinkers. Curiously, liberal historians do not follow this procedure where liberalism itself is concerned. Yet John Locke died over a century before the term “liberalism” entered the English language. In what sense was he a liberal? What connects him to the 19th-century figures to whom the term “liberalism” did mean something?
“Natural rights” is the wrong answer: leading 19th century liberal intellectuals were conspicuous in their rejection of natural rights, which Jeremy Bentham memorably dismissed as “nonsense upon stilts.” In the golden age of liberalism, liberal intellectuals tended to be utilitarians like James and John Stuart Mill—or later, early 20th-century libertarians such as Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. The belief in evolutionary historical progress that was likewise characteristic of 19th-century “classical” liberals was also quite different from 18th-century notions of natural rights, though thinkers such as Lord Acton and Herbert Spencer did believe in natural rights of some kind.
At first the philosophical discontinuity between John Locke and later liberals and early libertarians is striking. But Locke’s philosophy is not entirely, or perhaps even essentially, about natural rights, and in another respect it does resemble the philosophy of later utilitarian liberals very closely indeed. Utilitarianism is a form of philosophical hedonism: “utility” is the spectrum of pleasure and pain. Locke was also a declared philosophical hedonist. As he writes in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, “Things then are good or evil only in reference to pleasure or pain.”
The bridge between Locke (and Hobbes before him) in the 17th century and liberalism properly so called in the 19th century is hedonism or utilitarianism, not natural rights. It’s notable that when early 20th century liberals such as Leonard Hobhouse considered Locke’s place in their tradition, they did not consider his natural-rights commitments to be true or still significant for the world of the present (which in the case of L.T. Hobhouse’s Liberalism was 1911).
Locke was marginal to the liberalism of the 19th century, as indicated by the fact that no new edition of Locke’s Second Treatise appeared throughout the period. The Essay was still being read; the Second Treatise, with its natural-rights philosophy, was not. Natural rights had not disappeared entirely from American and British political discourse, but the idea was overshadowed by utilitarianism, the new social sciences, and a blind belief in progressive historical evolution.
That liberalism was clearly not the philosophy of the American founding. Was the founding “liberal” at all?
There is no question that the Declaration of Independence owes a debt to Locke’s Second Treatise. But both documents owe a debt to something else that is often confused with liberalism but is in fact a distinct tradition: Whiggism.
Locke wrote the Second Treatise anonymously, and while it may or may not accurately reflect his own views, it certainly reflects the view of Locke’s political faction, the Whigs. Locke’s Two Treatises, historians now think, were composed as sallies in the pamphlet war surrounding the Exclusion Crisis of 1679-1681. The Whigs wished to exclude from the line of royal succession the Catholic brother (the future James II) of the King of England (Charles II). Their rivals, the Tories, denied that Parliament had the authority to change the order of succession. The Exclusion Crisis was the episode that first gave these factions their names.
Whig historians have traditionally portrayed the Tories as supporters of royal absolutism in the mold of France’s Louis XIV. Why else would they favor traditional monarchical powers over the will of Parliament? The answer, in part, lies in the experience of the English civil war and the republican Commonwealth that it led to, a would-be Parliamentary despotism that collapsed quickly into simple military dictatorship.
The Tories needed a positive case for the independence of the monarch from Parliament, however, and they found one in a pamphlet by a deceased royalist of the civil war era, Patriarcha by Sir Robert Filmer. Locke’s First Treatise was a rebuttal of Filmer, the Second Treatise was his own positive case for legislative supremacy arising from a social contract that in turn was a product of individual natural rights.
The Whigs may have counted among their ranks proto-utilitarians such as Locke. But they were an avowedly Christian party, the party of Dissenting Protestants and the low church faction within the Church of England. The Tory Patriarcha was explicitly based on Biblical arguments; Locke’s First Treatise equally used Biblical arguments to refute them. Locke’s Second Treatise went beyond the letter of the Bible in positing a state of nature in which loosely organized human beings possessed natural rights. But Locke nonetheless built his case upon distinctly Christian presumptions. Whether those were truly his presumptions or merely those of the Whig party is not important—they are present either way.
As both the Declaration of Independence and the Second Treatise make clear, natural rights are not a feature of an uncreated nature or a purely “natural” nature. They exist only insofar as nature is created by a personal Creator: by God as Christians (if not only Christians) understood Him. God creates the immortal human soul—which can hardly come about through a purely physical process—and these souls are equal in relation to God. The world is God’s creation, which according to the Bible has been given to man. Locke’s Two Treatises must be taken together for an account of how Biblical dominion informs the state of nature and man’s right to acquire property.
The “state of nature” is a concept that follows logically enough from Scripture and experience. Human beings do not occupy every inch of the earth; how, then, do they legitimately take possession of what is not already owned? The Bible provides authority for this: God has given man the earth, and because God is righteous and the legitimate original source of all things, His gift is morally just. Man rightfully takes possession of the earth: he has a God-given moral license, or right, to do so. This right has been awarded to all mankind, but Christian orthodoxy rejects the idea that this implies natural communism, the ownership of the earth by all men collectively. Such pre-Lockean premises supply the necessary context for Locke’s arguments.
Locke was not innovating in every respect. In the 13th century a dispute about natural rights in property arose between the radical “Spirituals” of the Franciscan Order and the papacy. The Spirituals argued that property was purely a human invention, and therefore Franciscans could follow Jesus and their own order’s founder in a perfect way by owning no property whatsoever. The friars still needed food and shelter, of course, but they claimed that they were simply using resources that really must belong to someone else—such as the pope. Earlier popes had gone along with this fiction, but John XXII did not. He issued a bull authoritatively teaching that even before the Fall, in the Garden of Eden (or the State of Innocence), personal property was natural and was enjoyed by Adam and Eve when, for example, they consumed food.
There were many occasions before the social contract theories of Thomas Hobbes or John Locke when Christian thinkers (and pagans before them) had to consider the origins of property in conditions where there was no already existing state. Locke offered a new variation on an old approach to Christian reasoning.
If the “liberalism” of the Declaration of Independence and the Second Treatise is tied to Locke personally, and hence to his questionable religious commitments and unquestioned philosophical hedonism, many Christians and non-hedonists will find the whole business foul. But there is more at play in both documents than just Locke and his personal beliefs: the Second Treatise also represents Whig Christianity, which in turn had continuities as well as discontinuities with older forms of Christianity. To make an effectual case for Exclusion, Locke was constrained to work within these traditions.
Thinking about natural rights in terms of Whiggism and Christianity is more accurate than labeling natural rights (even as derived from Locke) as simply “liberal.” Given the disjunction between natural-rights philosophy and 19th-century liberalism, and the creationist Christian underpinnings of natural rights, only confusion can arise from calling the natural rights tradition “liberal.” It is Whig, but it shares the Christian character of 17th-century Whiggism, and it lacks the utilitarian character of 19th and 20th century liberalism.
This distinction also helps to pull into focus the importance of the specifically Whig tradition—rather than liberalism—for America and for Burkean conservatism. Edmund Burke was, of course, a Whig member of Parliament. The American revolutionaries preferred to call themselves Patriots (which itself was a term with a history among British Whigs of a particular faction), but in designating their opponents as Tories they used the traditional Whig partisan framework.
America’s own 19th-century Whig party was arguably a conservative party, an heir in several respects to the Federalists. And in America today, the people who are most likely to believe in natural rights that come from God as the Creator of man and nature are grassroots American conservatives. They’re not “really liberals” as opposed to conservatives, and they’re not Lockeans except to the extent that Locke participates in the Whig Christian tradition.
That tradition is more “conservative” than 19th-century liberalism. The scope of local police powers over morality in 18th- and 19th-century America was very broad. The project of uprooting local morality, enforced by law, with universalistic liberal arguments did not begin with John Stuart Mill in the 19th century, but he is certainly the patron saint of the endeavor. Not until the late 20th century did something like Mill’s liberalism become legally and (among elites at least) culturally dominant in the United States.
Here too, the instincts of grassroots Christian conservatives are better representative of America’s original beliefs and practices than any kind of liberalism is. The true heir to 17th- and 18th-century natural-rights philosophy is not liberalism, but Christian conservatism.
Today’s liberals do indeed cherish “rights,” but these are not the God-given rights of the Declaration or Second Treatise. Instead they derive from nontheistic presumptions about human autonomy. These rights are fully natural, deriving from an uncreated nature. And not coincidentally, these rights seem to be fully understood only by the most scientifically educated and enlightened experts—lawyers and academics who frequently discover new rights or new limitations on the old pre-liberal rights. These experts are well-trained in utilitarian calculation. The Whigs of old were imperfect, but these new liberals are the progressives with whom conservatives today do battle. They did not found the Republic.
Caveats are in order before declaring that America and American conservatism are as Whiggish as liberals claim they are liberal. Edmund Burke may have been a Whig, and he did believe in natural rights and something broadly like Locke’s account of the origin of political society in contract. Nevertheless, Burke denounced Locke, rejected appeals to natural rights in the ordinary course of politics, and effectively left the Whig party. Burkean philosophy is ultimately post-Whiggish, involving a redaction of the Whiggism that had come before, reducing its Lockean element, and opposing the turn of the Whig tradition at the end of the 18th century toward something cognate to Jacobinism. In short, Burkean conservatism is not just in continuity with an old Whiggism, it’s also in conflict with what Whiggism became.
The American political tradition, meanwhile, has always included Tory influences as well as Whig ones. The chief Tory ideologist of the 18th century, Viscount Bolingbroke (who was himself a Lockean), was of great importance to the thought of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. There is also the fact that the “Tories” against whom the American revolutionaries fought were in fact Whigs—loyalists to the Hanoverian king—while the Americans themselves were allied with the French monarchy, the very institution that the Tories were long accused of aligning with. Americans did not subscribe to a democratic theory of foreign policy during the Revolution: the comparatively democratic British were our enemy, the “absolutist” French were our friends. We chose our friends and enemies based on national interest, not adherence to liberal principle.
I’m not a Whig, and I don’t expect my countrymen to take up that archaic label. But the Whig tradition is worth reflecting upon and distinguishing from liberalism. And it is indeed foundational to our country, though it’s a foundation that points beyond itself to older and higher foundations. The Whig tradition, as a fragment of a larger Christian tradition, is honest in a way that liberalism, as a philosophy that attempts to supply its own act of creation, is not. The America in which we live today is post-Whig and perhaps post-Christian, but it cannot afford to forget its real origins, not if it is to restore whatever can be restored of the grounds upon which our order—and liberty—is built.
Daniel McCarthy is editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Quarterly.