April 10, 2021
MY CORNER by Boyd Cathey
Equality is Not America’s Founding Principle
Our “conservative” punditry go forth daily in what seems increasingly to be an already lost battle against the agenda of the left and its progressivist minions in and outside the Biden administration. That agenda enjoys overwhelming support in hysterically “woke” academia and counts on unwavering backing from cheerleaders and mouthpieces in the establishment media, entertainment, and the sports industry. Increasingly, corporate America—major international conglomerates and the all-but-invincible tech monopolies—use their power to staunch and disauthorise and ban any dissent. And when corporate America speaks, so-called “conservative opposition” to what is happening tends to melt away in retreat. Real jail time or at a minimum police harassment may await anyone accused of “misusing” (e.g., disagreeing with the Left), even in the most discrete manner, platforms such as Twitter or Facebook. That has in California to Ryan Wentz who mildly criticized Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter.
Watching just a few minutes of “Tucker Carlson Tonight” will disabuse any curious viewer of the belief that somehow this nation, at least as we have known it, is not spiraling rapidly towards extinction.
We are told that the only hope we have is to continue to support the current Republican Party establishment and its array of spokesmen who show up periodically on Fox News or Newsmax. But those so-called forces of opposition have been in constant and ignominious retreat for decades, indeed I would argue for more than a century.
Explanations for this “conservative rout” (to use a phrase once used by the late Dr. Russell Kirk) vary. To listen to a Dinesh D’Souza or Brian Kilmeade on Fox, a Dennis Prager, or to the Neoconservative followers of the late Dr. Leo Strauss, all we must do to recapture the initiative—the high ground—is get our message out there to the hungry minds of 20-somethings, to those besotted by the poison administered by academia and by the dominant American culture, who are eager to hear the truth.
The problem is that by and large the intellectual weapons presented for recovery are like the muzzle-loading muskets with limited ammunition distributed to the forlorn British auxiliary regiments at the Battle of Isandlwana (January 1879)—the single greatest defeat for the British Army at the hands of a native (Zulu) army: they are almost useless against the arms of the Left. (Recall the superb 1979 film, “Zulu Dawn,” with Peter O’Toole.)
Without a clear understanding of the American Founding, of American history and the intentions of those in the late 18th century who cobbled together the confederation of independent former colonies which would become the United States of America—without that comprehension—efforts to fend off, much less defeat, the seemingly unstoppable progressivist phalanxes will flounder and result in further disaster.
Indeed, the nostrums offered by establishment conservativism and its acolytes in the Republican Party end up only enabling and codifying the advances and success of radicalism. What was radical ten years ago—and at that time opposed by the conservative opposition—now becomes solidly conservative and acceptable. Thus, same sex marriage, once stoutly opposed by “mainstream conservatives,” is now part and parcel of the conservative ideological arsenal. Here in North Carolina as late as 2012, for example, Tar Heel voters rejected same sex marriage overwhelmingly, 61% to 39% (as did other states where it had become an issue). Many conservatives denounced it at the time…but only a few years later after the infamous 2015 Obergefell Supreme Court decision (by a 5 to 4 vote), most rushed to embrace it. And now all over Fox News the commentariat is overflowing with representatives involved in same sex arrangements, which are now considered “normative,” an extension—a “civil rights” penumbra, if you will—somehow derived mysteriously from the Constitution.
And same sex marriage is not the only instance where what my friend Paul Gottfried calls “Conservatism Inc.” has engaged in enabling progressivism to continue advancing the goalposts of what are called “equal rights.” More recently, Charlie Kirk and other luminaries in the ostensibly “conservative” youth movement, Turning Point USA, and representatives of Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire, embraced transgenderism and “drag queen” culture, or as reported in an expose’ on October 30, 2019, “yucked it up” and posed for photographs with its epigones.
No doubt the next conquest will be the normalization of polyamory, which the defines as “the practice of… with more than one partner, with the informed of all partners involved.” The Wiki continues: “Polyamory has come to be an for various forms of non-monogamous, multi-partner relationships, or non-exclusive sexual or relationships.” In other words, polygamy without the no-longer-needed window-dressing—the charade—of formalized marriage. Federally-supported NPR featured a laudatory segment on it back in March.
And lurking in the wings—and heralded in recent news—are efforts to implement programs standardizing the manipulation of gender— and the use of puberty blockers—for children as young as eight or nine. You see, every eight year old has the right to determine what gender he or she wishes to be, nature be damned.
Although criticized now by some conservative personalities (e.g., Tucker Carlson), how long before this, too, will be considered an essential principle in the mainstream conservative quiver of arrows...and we behold young sixteen year conservatives parading on Fox proudly, and thankful that surgery saved them from sexual dysphoria when they were only eight?
Again, I am put in mind of the justly prophetic words of the great Southern post-War Between the States divine, Robert Lewis Dabney, who fiercely opposed women’s suffrage as contrary to both nature and Holy Writ. Dabney’s arguments go beyond the suffrage issue, however, for he recognized then the inherent weakness within the conservatism that came out of the defeat of the Southern Confederacy...and is still very much with us.
Here he writes in 1871 ():
“It may be inferred again that the present movement for women’s rights will certainly prevail from the history of its only opponent, Northern conservatism. This is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is to-day one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will to-morrow be forced upon its timidity, and will be succeeded by some third revolution, to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt hath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted?
“Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth, and has no idea of being guilty of the folly of martyrdom. It always—when about to enter a protest—very blandly informs the wild beast whose path it essays to stop, that its “bark is worse than its bite,” and that it only means to save its manners by enacting its decent role of resistance. The only practical purpose which it now subserves in American politics is to give enough exercise to Radicalism to keep it “in wind,” and to prevent its becoming pursy and lazy from having nothing to whip.
“No doubt, after a few years, when women’s suffrage shall have become an accomplished fact, conservatism will tacitly admit it into its creed, and thenceforward plume itself upon its wise firmness in opposing with similar weapons the extreme of baby suffrage; and when that too shall have been won, it will be heard declaring that the integrity of the American Constitution requires at least the refusal of suffrage to asses. There it will assume, with great dignity, its final position.”
The defeat of the Confederacy was, in a very real sense, the triumph of what was and is an essentially egalitarian view of the American founding, which declared that the American nation was founded on an “idea,” or rather a “proposition,” and that proposition is that “all men are created equal.” That principle as the foundation and promise of America is false and based on a faulty and ahistorical view and reading of the Declaration of Independence as the fundamental document of our history. As Professor Barry Alan Shain of Colgate University has demonstrated convincingly in his encyclopedic study, The Declaration of Independence in Historical Context: American State Papers, Proclamations, and Letters from the Age of Revolution (Yale University Press, 2014), that is not at all what the Founders meant when they debated and then employed those words in the Declaration. But it was the vision that, with “Father Abraham” Lincoln, triumphed in trajectory in 1865. And it is the vision that informs the modern Conservative Movement….and fatally debilitates the so-called opposition to the rampant radicalism we are drowning in.
That vision informed the “Advisory 1776 Commission,” named by President Donald Trump to supposedly counter the historical fabrications of the much ballyhooed “1619 Project,” whose findings are now being frantically incorporated into every level of the American educational system. In essence, it is the same vision, with a few modifications, advanced by the 1619 progressivists.
Just recently Dr. Brion McClanahan, editor for The Abbeville Institute, penned an excellent and devastating take-down of both commissions in Chronicles magazine. I pass it on here:
Rejecting the 'Proposition Nation'
April/May 2021 CHRONICLES
The left’s ‘1619 Project’ and the conservative 1776 Commission both rely on a distorted picture of the American founding.
In January, Donald Trump’s President’s Advisory 1776 Commission released its 45-page “1776 Report,” which, according to The New York Times, is “a sweeping attack on liberal thought and activism that…defends America’s founding against charges that it was tainted by slavery and likens progressivism to fascism.” Joe Biden scrapped it the day he entered office, and the report has since been scrubbed from all government websites.
This is perhaps for the best. However noble the intentions of the Commission’s members, their document is a profoundly flawed vision of American history, one that places the Declaration of Independence and Abraham Lincoln at the center of the American experience. That Lincolnian vision is now the accepted “conservative” consensus regarding American history.
American conservatives looking for an intellectual home should avoid claptrap like the 1776 Commission and its intellectual sibling, “The 1619 Project.” They are in reality two sides of the same coin. Both rely on a fantasy about the founding that Lincoln invented at Gettysburg in 1863. Accepting the assumptions behind either view of America is tantamount to a coin toss in which the rules are heads they win, tails you lose.
Trump created the 1776 Commission in September 2020 to combat The New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which paints American history as a story of black slavery and white supremacy. However, his appointments to the Commission led its report down a predictable path.
Trump tapped Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn to head the Commission and appointed 17 other academics and politicians to serve in advisory roles. Vanderbilt University Political Science and Law Professor Carol M. Swain and Hillsdale Constitutional Government Professor Matthew Spalding served as vice-chair and executive director, respectively. Swain’s prior publications focused almost exclusively on race and the dangers of “white nationalism,” including tomes fully in accord with the credo of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Spalding penned the popular We Still Hold These Truths (2009), a book steeped in neoconservative deceit.
Other appointments included Thomas Lindsay, director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, who drafted most of “The 1776 Report,” as well as conservative historian Victor Davis Hanson. While Hanson has recently bemoaned the effects of cancel culture on American history, for years he never found a Confederate statue he did not want removed.
Consider the required reading recommendations for American students from “The 1776 Report,” which include the 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration calling for women’s suffrage, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Stanton looked to the form and substance of the Declaration of Independence in crafting the Declaration, and King asserted that the Declaration and the Constitution constituted a “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”
No contemporary of Stanton or King would have confused either for a “conservative.” Stanton sided with the Republican Party during the 1850s because she perceived it as a conduit for reform, and complained loudly of betrayal when it refused to back women’s suffrage following the Civil War. King flirted with communism, and like the academics who crafted “The 1776 Report,” viewed the Declaration’s “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal” as a foundational promise betrayed by bad actors in American history, mostly from the South.
Not to be outdone by King, the 1776 Commission blames John C. Calhoun for modern identity politics, for the distortion of the true founding principles enshrined in the Declaration, and for the deaths of the 600,000 men who perished in the Civil War. If not for Calhoun, “The 1776 Report” authors seem to suggest, the United States would today be a utopia of free-thinking nationalist egalitarians dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal.”
Can you guess who else holds similar views? To name two: leftist Civil War historian Eric Foner and Nikole Hannah-Jones, the lead journalist for “The 1619 Project.” In his book The Second Founding (2019), Foner writes:
Before the Civil War, black spokesmen, like abolitionists more generally, tended to ground their claims [to citizenship] in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence rather than the Constitution. As early as the era of the Revolution, slaves petitioning for freedom cited the Declaration’s words about liberty and equality, seeing the document as a charter of individual rights rather than an assertion of national sovereignty.
Hannah-Jones considers the United States to be a “nation founded on both an ideal and a lie.” The ideal is that “all mean are created equal” with “certain unalienable rights,” i.e., the “proposition nation.” But, unlike the [Neoconservative] Straussians, Hannah-Jones does not let Northern white men off the hook, for she sees them as as complicit as Southerners in betraying that ideal. She summarizes the core position of “The 1619 Project” as follows:
Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves—black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights.
To the Straussians who crafted “The 1776 Report” and their conservative pundit allies like Dinesh D’Souza, Glenn Beck, and the late Rush Limbaugh, not all white Americans should be blamed for the sins of the South. In their view, there were “good” white Americans—abolitionists, Northern members of the founding generation, and Lincoln—who recognized the inhumanity of slavery and tried to end it. Even Southern members of the founding generation, including Jefferson himself, but also Washington, Madison, Mason, and a host of other Virginians, thought enough of humanity to pave the way for Lincoln to revolutionize the Revolution in the Gettysburg Address.
“The 1776 Report” suggests that the founders (not excluding those who hailed from Southern states) created the mechanism to end slavery through the Constitution and cannot be blamed for the evil deeds of later pro-slavery Southerners who ignored the true founding of America. More importantly, the report’s authors believe they are free from the stain of racism because they adhere to the “correct” view of American history. In other words, “Don’t blame us. We voted for Lincoln.”
Hannah-Jones, on the other hand, does not make this distinction, nor does she differentiate between Lincoln and Calhoun. Both were guilty of America’s “original sin” of racism. Neither man held views on race that are acceptable to modern Americans, let alone “woke” social justice warriors. Hannah-Jones is as critical of Lincoln’s colonization plans as of Calhoun’s “positive good” speech. Frankly, she is at least being more consistent than the self-righteous conservatives on the 1776 Commission.
The attempt by the authors of “The 1776 Report” to beg absolution from the political left for the sin of slavery is a fatal miscalculation. The left’s game is cancel culture, and it’s a game in which conservatives will always be playing defense. You cannot play the left’s game on their field and by their rules and hope for success. Charges of racism are emotional, not intellectual, and are used—successfully—to change the narrative. Instead of focusing on the contributions antebellum Americans made to Western civilization, we are instead debating who was the least racist and bigoted among them. This is unproductive.
Conservatives cannot appease the left by regurgitating its distorted vision of the founding. Placing the lofty ideals of the Declaration at the center of the founding is a distortion of history.
Consider that Jefferson himself downplayed the importance of the Declaration’s phrase “all men are created equal,” and that, for much of the period leading up to the Civil War, Jeffersonians in both the North and South championed the principles of state sovereignty, rather than those of an egalitarian, propositional nation. To Jefferson, the last paragraph, not the second, provided the most important language of the Declaration. Most of the founding generation agreed.
The story written during the debates over the Constitution in 1787 and 1788 provides a more robust and authentic American vision of the founding. The principles that predominated in those debates unified most Americans for decades and created a populist national base.
The founders reaffirmed their commitment to a union of states and the principles of federalism. The Constitution would not have been ratified in 1788 had the founding generation believed that the states would be consolidated into one national government.
That argument took center stage in every state ratifying convention in 1787 and 1788. Rarely was the Declaration mentioned, even in passing, and none of the founders ever referred to the line “all men are created equal” with religious reverence, contrary to what the Straussians and their leftist allies would have you believe.
For example, James Wilson of Pennsylvania made federalism a central theme of his State House Yard Speech in October 1787, just a few weeks after the Constitution had been signed in Philadelphia. Wilson mentioned the Declaration in one of his speeches before the Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention in December 1787, but only to show that the people had a right to “alter or abolish” either a state government or a central government. That was the American tradition.
Delegates to the Massachusetts Ratifying Convention in January 1788 were told that the powers of the central government would be limited to those “expressly delegated” and that the language of what would become the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution imported the same meaning as the second article of the Articles of Confederation, namely that each state retained its “sovereignty and independence.” No one mentioned Jefferson’s “all men are created equal” phrase.
Even in Virginia, the state that gave the United States the Declaration, the delegates never mentioned that document when debating the Constitution. And it was only mentioned twice during the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, in both instances by nationalists for the purpose of arguing that the Union predated the states—a position flatly rejected by most of the men in attendance.
Despite these historical facts, the authors of “The 1776 Report” insist that “The meaning and purpose of the Constitution of 1787…cannot be understood without recourse to the principles of the Declaration of Independence….” If that’s true, then the founding generation should have made that meaning explicit during the ratification debates, or at the very least in Philadelphia. But they didn’t. “States’ rights,” not the phantasm of a proposition nation, dominated the debates between the Founding Fathers.
To be fair, “The 1776 Report” admits that the founding generation never spoke of America as a proposition nation, even though its authors appear to believe that the propositional idea can be discerned in the penumbra of the founding documents. It was Lincoln, the abolitionists, and black Americans who popularized that concept (in reality, fabricated it) for political reasons.
Foner and Hannah-Jones more correctly contend that very few Americans subscribed to anything resembling a proposition nation on the eve of war in 1860. Calhoun and other Southerners who hurled verbal spears at the “all men are created equal” phrase were drawing attention to abolitionist agitators seeking to revise the founding. These men and women were almost always drummed out of Northern towns before the war, in some cases violently. Hardly anyone, North or South, wanted them around, and certainly most Americans did not subscribe to their version of American history.
Democrats held both houses of Congress and the executive branch throughout the 1850s and would have continued to hold power had the party not split in 1860. Lincoln pulled only 39 percent of the popular vote in his path to the executive mansion. In other words, most Americans would have agreed with the following plank of the Democratic Party Platform of 1852:
[T]hat all efforts of the abolitionists, or others, made to induce Congress to interfere with questions of slavery, or to take incipient steps in relation thereto, are calculated to lead to the most alarming and dangerous consequences; and that all such efforts have an inevitable tendency to diminish the happiness of the people and endanger the stability and permanency of the Union, and ought not to be countenanced by any friend of our political institutions.
Antebellum Americans rallied around core tenets of the old republican American tradition: resistance to unconstitutional powers and a proper relationship between state and general governments; strict economy in federal expenditures; opposition to corporate welfare in all its manifestations; sound money and a stable currency; peaceful neutrality and the cultivation of international trade; and more broadly the spirit of personal and political independence.
Southerners advanced most of these principles more fervently and for a longer period than their Northern neighbors, but part of the reason the Lincolnian myth of a proposition nation failed to establish a permanent hold upon the American electorate immediately after the war is because both sections believed fundamentally in an old republican vision of the American founding, as well as in an anti-federalist interpretation of the Constitution.
American conservatives today are rethinking their commitment to the Republican Party. Trump’s victory in 2016 cemented an already growing dissatisfaction with the proposition-nation wing of the GOP. In that light, perhaps Biden’s move to purge “The 1776 Report” from the public record is a blessing in disguise. If history is on the ballot, then conservatives need to tell the real story of the American founding, not some fairy tale. Let the left have the proposition nation. Conservatives can’t win that game.
Patrick Henry provided the best answer to similar distortions of the American tradition back in 1788: “I smell a rat.” We could say the same thing about “The 1619 Project” and its mirror image, the 1776 Commission.
Brion McClanahan is editor of The Abbeville Review and the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers (Regnery, 2009) and The Founding Fathers’ Guide to the Constitution (Regnery History, 2012).