Monday, 12 July 2010

Hardly A Conservative Model

Daniel Larison writes:

"Angle has managed to embrace the one Founding Father with a disturbing tolerance for the political violence of the French Revolution. “Rather than it should have failed,” enthused Jefferson, “I would have seen half the earth desolated.” Hardly a conservative model."
~Michael Gerson

Perhaps Gerson remembers the following words:

"So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

This is hardly a conservative idea, either, and it is even less so when Bush said later that “we have lit a fire as well as a fire in the minds of men,” which is eerily enough the same phrase Dostoevsky used to describe the destructive power of revolutionary ideas in The Possessed. A little later, Bush said, “It [the fire] warms those who feel its power; it burns those who fight its progress. And one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world.” Bush didn’t exactly say that half the earth would be desolated, but untamed fires tend to destroy everything in their path. How exactly was any of that conservative or responsible?

Of course, all of these pyrotechnics are supposed to happen elsewhere in the world. Even when constitutional liberties are infringed and undermined in the name of security, as they were repeatedly by Gerson’s former boss, we are supposed to pretend that the threats to liberty are all external and far away. Now the man who helped craft some of the most dangerous revolutionary rhetoric in recent American history wants to lecture others about an excessive fondness for the same. What’s more, Gerson wants to pose as some sort of dour, “responsible” skeptic of violent political change when he helped author many of the speeches that justified a war for regime change in Iraq! The speechwriter for the neo-Jacobins wants us to believe that he is horrified by the excesses of the Jacobins.

Jefferson’s support for the French Revolution is certainly one of the darker blots on his reputation, and it is one of the things that keeps conservatives sympathetic to the Jeffersonian persuasion from being stronger admirers of Jefferson himself. What is remarkable here is that Gerson is pretending that he is some latter-day Burke expressing revulsion at violent revolution when he happily served in an administration whose practical policy and stated goal was to try to export revolution all over the world. Perhaps the most important point to be made here is that Gerson worked alongside the people who ushered in violent political change that devastated an entire country, and they also trampled on the rights of American citizens and subjected suspects to indefinite detention and abuse. For her part, Sharron Angle has indulged in some careless and probably ultimately meaningless rhetoric about resisting tyranny at home. Angle’s rhetoric may be reckless or it may be empty, but so far she has not used her rhetoric in the service of an administration given to starting wars and violating the Constitution.

Of course, the encroachments that prompted the Founders to rebel against their government were incredibly small compared to the intrusions and violations Americans accept every day as a matter of course. What they counted as tyranny, almost all of us regard as the normal operation of a modern government, and some such as Gerson tolerate an even greater degree of government outside the rule of law. Had Gerson lived at the time of the War for Independence, he would probably have preferred remaining part of a centralizing empire, since that is clearly what he wishes for the United States today. His “responsible, governing agenda” will inevitably involve concentrating more power in the capital, expanding the reach of the state into the lives of citizens and entangling our country even more deeply in conflicts around the world for the sake of our “global commitments.” Whatever their mistakes or flaws, the people Gerson has targeted for condemnation are unlikely to do these things, and if they are sincere they will resist them most or all of the time. We had eight years of Gerson’s sort of “responsible” governance, and it was a period marked by unnecessary war, illegal surveillance, detention and torture, executive power grabs, centralization of power, and the creation of staggering unfunded liabilities. The Republican Party was a captive of Gerson’s wing for almost all of the Bush administration’s tenure, and it continues to be defined by the extremism that prevailed during that time.

See The Jefferson Bible, and what an arrogant title that is, from which that Founding Father excised all reference to Christ's miracles, Resurrection or Divinity. In Jefferson's own words:

"Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law."
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, February 10, 1814

"In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own."
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Horatio G. Spafford, March 17, 1814

"The whole history of these books [the Gospels] is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute enquiry into it: and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine. In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills."
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, January 24, 1814

Likewise, Benjamin Franklin:

"The nearest I can make it out, 'Love your Enemies' means, 'Hate your Friends'."
"I have found Christian dogma unintelligible. Early in life I absented myself from Christian assemblies."
"The way to see by Faith is to shut the eye of Reason."

And so on, through the lot of them.

As John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson, "I do not like the late resurrection of the Jesuits; shall we not have swarms of them here, in as many shapes and disguises as ever a king of gypsies himself assumed?" As Jefferson replied, "their restoration makes a retrograde step from light towards darkness."

The strange popular superstition that the Founding Fathers were devout Christians - prophets and apostles whose works, especially the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, are for all practical purposes part of the Canon of Scripture - urgently needs to be exploded. But 1776 predates 1789. The American Republic is not a product of the Revolution. Nevertheless, it sits under a radically orthodox theological critique, most obviously by reference to pre-Revolutionary traditions of Catholic and Protestant republican thought, on the Catholic side perhaps Venetian, on the Protestant side perhaps Dutch, and on both sides perhaps at cantonal level in Switzerland, where it is possible that such thought might hold sway even now.

Furthermore, Catholics, High Churchmen, Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers and others retained, long after any hope of a Stuart restoration had died, grave reservations about the Hanoverian State, its Empire, that Empire’s capitalist ideology, and the slave trade integral to it. Far more Jacobites went into exile from these islands than Huguenots sought refuge here. Very many of them ended up in North America. New York seems the most obvious place to look for them, being named after its initial proprietor as a colony, the future James VII and II. However, there were many Jacobite Congregationalists, such as Edward Roberts, the exiled James’s emissary to the anti-Williamite Dutch republics, and Edward Nosworthy, a gentleman of his Privy Council both before and after 1688.

There was that Catholic enclave, Maryland. And there was Pennsylvania: almost, if almost, all of the Quakers were at least initially Jacobites, and William Penn himself was arrested for Jacobitism four times between 1689 and 1691. Many Baptists were also Jacobites, and the name, episcopal succession and several other features of the American Episcopal Church derive, not from the Church of England, but from the staunchly Jacobite Episcopal Church in Scotland, which provided the American Colonies with a bishop, Samuel Seabury, in defiance of the Church of England and of the Hanoverian monarchy to which it was attached.

The American Republic, as such, therefore stands, in every sense radically, in the same tradition as Britain’s campaign against the slave trade, Radical Liberal action against social evils, extension of the franchise, creation of the Labour Movement, and opposition to the Boer and First World Wars: radical action for social justice and for peace derived from testing the State and its policies against theologically grounded criteria of legitimacy. It still does.

1 comment:

  1. “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”, asked Dr Johnson.

    Early Methodists were regularly accused of Jacobitism. John Wesley himself having been a High Church missionary in America, and Methodism was initially an outgrowth of pre-Tractarian, often at least sentimentally Jacobite, High Churchmanship. Wesley also supported, and corresponded with, William Wilberforce, even refusing tea because it was slave-grown. They wrote as one High Tory to another.

    Whiggery, by contrast, had produced a “free trade” even in “goods” that were human beings. The coalition against the slave trade contained no shortage of Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists or Quakers. Yet the slave trade was integral to the Whig Empire’s capitalist ideology. If slavery were wrong, then something was wrong at a far deeper level. James Edward Oglethorpe, a Jacobite, opposed slavery in Georgia. Anti-slavery Southerners during the American Civil War were called “Tories”.