Our Temeperate Forebears

Many, if not most, of the Founding Fathers were Burkean conservatives. A brief inquiry into how their conservatism manifested itself might go some way toward explaining the success of the American Revolution.

We must begin with a disclaimer. In this context, ‘Burkean conservatism’ denotes a political temperament rather than subscription to a codified philosophy. This must be the case chronologically. Though Edmund Burke was active in Parliament as a colonial agent for New York during the 1770s, his Reflections on the Revolution in France, an epistolary manifesto championing the restraint of England’s unwritten constitution over against the excesses of the French revolutionaries, was published in 1790, almost a decade after America had achieved its independence.

One can acknowledge that the term is applied retrospectively to the Framers of the Constitution (to say nothing of ancient statesmen like Sulla and Cicero). Yet the characteristics are unmistakable. Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate (Basic Books, 2014), an exposition of Burke’s thought and its interaction with the classical liberalism of Thomas Paine, offers a concise synopsis of the ideas contained within the Irishman’s work. For our purposes, Camil Ungureanu’s Introduction to the Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading edition of Reflections will suffice.

Appearing immediately below the title page are the two quotes, both culled from the Reflections, that embody the evolutionary nature of Burkean conservatism:

‘But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tradition or restraint.’

‘A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.’ (vii)

Burke, Ungureanu tells us, ‘grants centrality to the practical rationality of existing socio-political traditions and institutions, criticizes radical changes at all costs, and advocates gradual political reforms’ (viii). He recoiles from the impracticality and novelty of abstract political ideals with no basis in tradition: ‘For Burke, the utopian philosophy of the French revolutionaries created a form of intransigent perfectionism based on the radical rejection of past institutions and traditions in the name of the ideal of perfect and pure democracy’ (ix). The act of applying such philosophical theorizing, devoid of restraint, to the practical science of government leads irrevocably to violence and anarchy, ultimately issuing in despotism. In this prediction, Burke was eerily clairvoyant: Robespierre’s Reign of Terror would give way to a Committee of Five and, eventually, sole rule by an ambitious and highly intelligent Corsican artillery commander.

Lest he be misinterpreted as arguing in favor of a demoralized acquiescence to stability of the sort advocated by Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan, Burke makes clear that he conceives of the past as a constructive basis from which to innovate rather than a yoke with which to maintain existing arrangements of power. One must look at the past as the proverbial lamp unto our feet of which Psalm 119 speaks: ‘traditions are ways of doing things that include viable and tested solutions to social and political problems,’ says Ungureanu (x).

Displaying his formidable skill with the English language, Burke himself distills this observation into a commercial metaphor:

‘We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that his stock in each man is small and that individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages.’ (xi)

It is a fallacy to take this as a disavowal of all change. Such is the mindset of a reactionary, not of a conservative. Note that Burke begins his treatise with a defense of the Glorious Revolution, arguing not only that it was necessary in order to protect English liberties from Stuart absolutism, but that in so doing it also reaffirmed those liberties’ origin in the continuity of English history. ‘The Glorious Revolution,’ Burke insists in the face of revisionist historians who see in the accession of William and Mary little more than Protestant bigotry, ‘was made to preserve our ancient laws and liberties, and that ancient constitution of government which is our only security for law and liberty.’ (xi)

Burke asks only that we avail ourselves of the wisdom of the past in coming to moderate its shortcomings. He distills all these observations into a pithy criterion by which his disciples might evaluate a politician: ‘A disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman’ (xi). (One is reminded of a redoubtable Dowager Countess beside her son Robert, reconciling herself to the marriage of Sibyl Crawley to an Irish chauffeur; aristocracies survive by adapting. The inability to detect this institutional nuance is a central failing of 21st-century liberals eager to eradicate oppression wherever it may exist.)

Such an outlook describes Alexander Hamilton and John Adams precisely.

Shortly after the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, a mob set upon the living quarters of Myles Cooper, president of King’s College (presently Columbia), hoping to tar and feather the clergyman for his avowed Toryism. Hamilton, then a precocious collegian who had taken up arms in a Manhattan militia regiment, met the enraged colonists on the doorstep of Cooper’s residence, exhorting them to refrain from violence. Despite his political leanings, Hamilton had studied with Cooper since his arrival at King’s, taking a room immediately next to his. Though he recognized the ultimate futility of his efforts, Hamilton’s oratory hindered the mob long enough for Cooper to escape from the quad and board a British man-o’-war. Ron Chernow, who in 2004 published perhaps the best biography on Hamilton to date, analyzes the incident thus:

‘Of all the incidents in Hamilton’s early life in America, his spontaneous defense of Myles Cooper was probably the most telling. It showed that he could separate personal honor from political convictions and presaged a recurring theme of his career: the superiority of forgiveness over revolutionary vengeance. Hamilton had shown exemplary courage. Beyond risking a terrible beating, he had taken the chance that he would sacrifice his heroic standing among the Sons of Liberty. But Hamilton always expressed himself frankly, no matter what the consequences. Most of all, the episode captured the contradictory impulses struggling inside this complex young man, a committed revolutionary with a profound dread that popular sentiment would boil over into dangerous excess. Even amid an insurrection that he supported, he fretted about the damage to constituted authority and worried about mob rule. Like other founding fathers, Hamilton would have preferred a stately revolution, enacted decorously in courtrooms and parliamentary chambers by gifted orators in powdered wigs. The American Revolution was to succeed because it was undertaken by skeptical men who knew that the same passions that toppled tyrannies could be applied to destructive ends. In a moment of acute anxiety a year earlier, John Adams had wondered what would happen if “the multitude, the vulgar, the herd, the rabble” maintained such open defiance of his authority.’ (Alexander Hamilton, Penguin Books, pp. 64-65, emphasis mine)

Writing to John Jay, a graduate of the preparatory academy Hamilton had attended prior to his matriculation at King’s, Hamilton reflected on the destruction of a Tory press by 75 members of the Connecticut Light Horse in November of 1775:

‘In times of such commotion as the present, while the passions of men are worked up to an uncommon pitch, there is great danger of fatal extremes. The same state of the passions which fits the multitude, who have not a sufficient stock of reason and knowledge to guide them, for opposition to tyranny and oppression, very naturally leads them to a contempt and disregard of all authority. The due medium is hardly to be found among the more intelligent. It is almost impossible among the unthinking populace. When the minds of these are loosened from their attachment to ancient establishments and courses they seem to grow giddy and are apt more or less to run into anarchy.’ (p. 69, emphasis mine)

The last sentence might as well have been drawn from the Reflections.

One must assume, as Chernow does, that Hamilton’s decidedly dim view of the ‘mob’ owes itself in part to his upbringing in the British West Indies. Born out of wedlock on the island of Nevis, Hamilton was exposed to the less glamorous aspects of British imperial power (Caribbean sugar plantations foremost among them) from a very young age. (N.B. that, in addition to his pessimism concerning the propensities of human nature, Hamilton also converted the brutality he witnessed as a clerk on St. Croix into unremitting opposition to slavery-surpassing even Benjamin Franklin in his abhorrence of the institution). It is surprising the Federalist #51, containing as it does the aphorism ‘If men were angels, no government would be necessary,’ originated from the pen of James Madison, who as Jefferson’s confidante would assist in the organization of the Democratic-Republican party, which juxtaposed the elitism of Hamilton’s Federalists with appeals to the populace (if nothing else, Hamilton and Adams cannot be accused of hypocrisy or inconsistency).

Contrast this with Jefferson’s cosseted upbringing on a Virginia plantation (which, Chernow reminds us, seemed ‘genteel’ in comparison to the Caribbean), and we begin to develop some understanding of the cavernous psychological gulf between Hamiltonian pragmatism and Jeffersonian idealism. As the narrator of Ken Burns’ two-part documentary on the third president takes pains to point out, Jefferson recalled in his autobiography being carried on a pillow by a slave as his first memory.

Hamilton was no anomaly among the upper echelons of American revolutionaries. Adams’ response to Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense, largely credited with galvanizing public opinion behind independence from Britain after its publication in January of 1776, foreshadowed in many ways Paine’s clash with Burke towards the end of the century. 

Writing to his wife Abigail (in the same letter in which he wryly observed that ‘Mr. Paine is much better at tearing down than building up,’ ‘building up’ being the primary quarry of Adams’ political and philosophical legacy) Adams noted, ‘I dreaded the effect so popular a pamphlet might have among the people and determined to do all in my power to counteract the effect of it’ (http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/makingrev/rebellion/text7/adamscommonsense.pdf).

Writing in the early 1800s, John Adams reserved thinly disguised disdain for Paine’s arguments for an extended portion of his autobiography. He refers alternately to the publication of Common Sense as ‘a Star of Disaster’ and a ‘Disastrous Meteor.’ This from the foremost champion of independence within the Second Continental Congress, one who openly ridiculed Pennsylvanian John Dickinson’s calls for reconciliation. While he concedes that he likes Paine’s arguments for independence ‘very well,’ he reads skeptically the subsequent sections: ‘one Third of the Book was filled with Arguments from the Old Testament to prove the Unlawfulness of Monarchy. ‘ It should be remembered that Adams, alongside Hamilton, furtively worried over the framers’ unwillingness to provide for a monarch in the national charter.

Adams proceeds:

‘His Arguments from the Old Testament were ridiculous, but whether they proceeded from honest Ignorance and or foolish Superstition on the one hand, or from willful Sophistry and knavery on the other, I know not. The other third part, relative to a form of Government, I considered as flowing from simple Ignorance and a mere desire to please the democratic Party in Philadelphia’ (emphasis mine).

In response to Common Sense, Adams penned his Thoughts On Government, a hugely influential work that, when distributed to the state legislatures of, inter alia, North Carolina and New Jersey, affected in large part the promulgation of those states’ constitutions. Summarizing a conversation with Paine that ensued after his name was appended to the work, Adams notes, ‘His plan was so democratical, without any restraint or even an Attempt at any Equilibrium or Counterpoise, that it must produce Confusion and every Evil Work’ (emphasis mine, cf. first Burke quote). 

Adams’ words and actions clearly demonstrate he honored the spirit of these objections as much in practice as in the breach. The HBO miniseries depicts (accurately) the personal and professional hardships Adams undertook in order to defend the British soldiers accused of murder after the Boston ‘Massacre.’ Paul Giamatti’s peroration, beginning ‘facts are stubborn things…’ was drawn directly from Adams’ notes, which drew heavily on the works of Baccaria. He insisted above all that transient passions cannot be allowed to run roughshod over dispassionate justice. He would go on to distinguish himself from Thomas Jefferson, whose Virginia Statue for Establishing Religious Freedom and whose 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association reflected the separationist logic of the First Amendment, by calling for a state church as a keystone of public morality (Massachusetts would be the last state to disestablish its church, in 1833).

How, then, to account for those Founders who did subscribe to a Lockean, contractual basis for civil government? Indeed, the Declaration of Independence amounts to little more than a soaring reiteration of the arguments advanced Locke’s Two Treatises. If men like Hamilton and Adams erected the framework of the early American Republic, Jefferson indubitably promulgated the idiom of the Revolutionary era, in so doing establishing the civic creed espoused by a broad cross-section of Americans throughout history.

This seems to me the most satisfactory interpretation. To return to Ken Burns’ eponymous documentary, Gore Vidal has noted that Jefferson ‘said the right things at the right time, and they were never forgotten.’ Just as Parliament found their justification for deposing James II in the writings of Locke, the American revolutionaries required such a muse to ennoble their struggle against London. ‘The rights of Englishmen’ are null and void when one is appealing for diplomatic recognition and support. By contrast, Hamilton and Adams, involved as they were with the practical business of erecting American institutions (an enterprise about which Hamilton, the primary author of the Federalist and the driving force behind the Bank of the United States, knew a thing or two) had to concern themselves with how things are rather than how they ought to be. They were the archetypical Aristotelians, Jefferson the Platonist (an epigram from Hamilton that reads ‘I have thought it my duty to exhibit things as they are and not as they ought to be’ appears on the frontispiece of Cernow’s biography). All three performed their roles marvelously.

The question of which mindset predominated at the Constitutional Convention and the Continental Congresses falls within the brief of a larger work. In order to show that Hamilton and Adams were not alone in their distaste for the masses, it is sufficient to quote Gouvernour Morris, the Constitution’s chief stylist, in his justification of the Electoral College: ‘It is as prudent to subject the choice of the chief magistrate to the people as it is to submit a test of colors to a blind man.’

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