Rejecting the ‘Proposition Nation’

Brion McClanahan writes for Chronicles:

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.

Michael Anton responds:

Teachers, friends, and colleagues of mine from the Claremont-Hillsdale school (or “CHS,” after where most of us were trained, and many now teach) have spent years making a concerted effort to find common ground with fellow travelers on the Right who may be broadly understood as paleoconservatives.

I’m happy to say that, to a large extent, the effort has borne fruit. Many paleoconservatives have been published in the Claremont Review of Books and American Greatness, while many Claremont and Hillsdale scholars (myself included) have written for Modern Age and The American Conservative. There is more cross-pollination and friendly dealing today between the two groups than ever, with each side attending and speaking at the others’ conferences and so on. I think we’ve even learned from each other. I know I have. Exposure to paleo ideas has influenced my thinking on trade, immigration, and foreign policy, among other subjects.

My commitment, however, to the core tenets of the Claremont-Hillsdale school—which I consider to be nothing more (or less) than an attempt to understand Americanism, without any alterations or admixtures—has never shaken.

“Others . . . insist that the key to everything is to refight the Civil War until no one left alive denies that Lincoln was a tyrant and the father of all evil among us. I once asked such a person whether, with the militant Left coming for both our throats, we could for the time being put aside such fratricide, turn our attentions against our common enemy, and then get back to killing one another over Lincoln after we win. He said no, it was much more important to kill me over Lincoln right now.”

[LF: I suspect it did not happen this way.]

* I really do agree with the paleo positions on trade, immigration, and war. Moreover, I believe that the American founders did, too, and that their principles provide the strongest possible support for those positions, much stronger than anything Chronicles offers here.

[Is Anton saying that the founders opinions provide the strongest support for those positions, as opposed to any other form of support, such as what is in the best interests of the American people now?]

* If the American Republic fails, then the question of what follows takes on paramount importance. There will still be people alive on the American continent. How will they organize themselves? According to what understanding and which principles? The same questions with which the founders were forced to wrestle will again be front and center. Before we reject their solutions, we had best know what they were, and then evaluate them against the available alternatives.

[What comes next will come out of the predispositions of the people wielding power in America. As Samuel T. Francis stated: “The civilization that we as whites created in Europe and America could not have developed apart from the genetic endowments of the creating people, nor is there any reason to believe that the civilization can be successfully transmitted to a different people.” Different peoples tend to organize themselves differently. People don’t usually operate in a deductive fashion (from general principles to the specific, but rather peoples have ways of doing things, and you might later try to ascribe principles to these practices).]

* McClanahan’s attack on the Trump Administration’s 1776 Commission report is never clear on what exactly it’s asserting. Something is said to be terribly wrong, but what? Is it the actual founding or a later interpretation? Were the founding principles wrong? If so, is that because the founders made an honest mistake? That is, were they true to their own self-understanding but nonetheless mistaken in their account of the nature of political things? Or did they not really mean what they plainly said? And if the latter, were they deliberately misleading, using elevated rhetoric to cover more earthly or self-interested motives? Or did they just not understand or think through the implications of what they said, thus unwittingly paving a way for the modern egalitarian catastrophe?

[He’s asserting that we are not a proposition nation and that we do not depend upon the assertion of certain philosophic principles to organize in our self-interest. Anton is a political philosopher, so he might put more importance on philosophy than most of us who simply regard America as exceptional to us because we live here.]

* The very grave question of whether the founders blew it or got it right but had their work corrupted matters. We can’t really know where we are without knowing how we got here, nor can we get to a place we want to go without knowing which routes to take and which to avoid. If the founders blew it, we should abandon their ideas. If, however, they got something—anything—right, we still have something to learn from them that may aid us going forward.

[Does it matter that much? Are we truly unable to know where we are without knowing history and philosophy? If Anton is truly curious about McClanahan’s answers to his questions, has he consulted any of Brion’s six books, numerous articles, podcasts, interviews and videos? Here’s the blurb to one of the books: “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers proves that the Founders had a better understanding of the problems we face today than do our own members of Congress. McClanahan shows that if you want real and relevant insights into the issues of banking, war powers, executive authority, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, states’ rights, gun control, judicial activism, trade, and taxes, you’d be better served reading the Founders than you would be watching congressional debates on C-SPAN or reading the New York Times.”]

* McClanahan further says that placing “the Declaration of Independence and Abraham Lincoln at the center of the American experience” makes the commission’s report “profoundly flawed.” This is an extraordinary claim. Say what one will about Lincoln, it nonetheless remains a fact that he is, and has been almost since his assassination, the most revered of American presidents (or perhaps tied with Washington). The Civil War which he fought and won was certainly, for good or ill, “cent[ral] to the American experience.” Indeed, does not the whole paleoconservative argument hinge on this very claim, that Lincoln and the war fundamentally changed absolutely everything? But now this is blithely dismissed simply because people McClanahan doesn’t like also say it.

[Perhaps Brion does not regard rhetoric and civil war as the center of the American experience. Perhaps he views the common cause of Americans to establish themselves as a separate nation and to expand across the continent as the center? Perhaps he sees lived experience of Americans rather than rhetoric as the center? Perhaps how much reverence one has for presidents from 150 to 220 years ago does not matter much for making the best of now?]

* it is flatly—almost perversely—ahistorical to deny the centrality of the Declaration of Independence to America. This is literally the document that founded the country, the date of whose adoption is still (for now) celebrated as America’s birthday, the first organic law of the United States, and the most widely quoted and imitated political document in the history of mankind. That’s before one even turns to the importance of that document’s principles to our country’s subsequent history and self-understanding, which the rest of McClanahan’s piece may be said to attempt to cover.

[Did this document found America or did people found America?]

* McClanahan next states, rightly, that the 1776 Commission was created to “combat” the aforementioned “1619 Project” which “paints American history as a story of black slavery and white supremacy.” It would seem, then, that to attack the 1776 Commission, McClanahan would have to do one of two things. First, he could argue that America and American history do not deserve a defense against the charges of the “1619 Project” because that project basically got it right: America is racist and evil, hence the 1776 Commission’s defense is false. Or he could defend the founding on the ground that it was just as racist as the “1619 Project” says it was, but assert that the founders’ (alleged) racism is true and just, and that therefore the 1776 Commission defense is false both in the historical sense (untrue to what the founders actually believed) and in the philosophic sense (untrue to the realities of nature).

McClanahan doesn’t say either of things, but neither does he really reject either. The reader is instead left in suspense. Was the founding racist and good? Racist and bad? Not racist but still bad? The one thing we can deduce is that it cannot have been both non-racist and good, because that is precisely what the 1776 Commission report asserts, and if McClanahan is clear about one thing, it’s that the report is very bad.

One wishes to ask McClanahan: does the American founding, and America itself, deserve a defense against the “1619 Project” and other more or less identical attacks that are now ubiquitous from academia, the media, corporations, and every level of government? If it does, on what grounds?

[Maybe he finds it ridiculous to defend the founding of the nation?]

As I understand it, this is a clash between liberalism (Anton) and nationalism (McClanahan). Liberals see the world as primarily composed of individuals who are born with certain inalienable rights. Nationalists see people born into nations with responsibilities and rights that vary depending upon circumstance. Anton is articulating an individualist perspective and McClanahan gives a national view.

Anton sees America as a state in service of ideas. McClanahan sees America as a state in service of its citizens.

Did the Declaration of Independence shape Americans or was it more a rhetorical expression of Americans? Was the Magna Carta central to British history or was it more of an embodiment of the character of the British? Particular people produce particular documents more than particular documents produce particular peoples. DNA>culture>politics>documents, not documents>politics>culture>people.

Anton and McClanahan differ over the significance and wisdom of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Lincoln is articulating a new vision for America and a new understanding of its history. Few Americans who founded and built up the country prior to Lincoln regarded their national enterprise as “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Rather, they saw themselves building a home for themselves and for their posterity. As the preamble to the U.S. Constitution states: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Anton’s approach conceives of the founders as working out philosophical ideas in political practice. The other view sees politics as a way to promote the general welfare, and part of that welfare is insuring the rights of Englishmen.

Brion writes:

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….

“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.

Joe* emails:

I think you really have to get Paul Gottfried’s perspective on this. The problem is that the Claremont School following Harry Jaffa, not only venerate Lincoln, but also take their lead from Leo Strauss. The proposition nation, which is an increasingly popular way to look at America, is that it has certain ideals, some of which are enshrined in the Declaration and the Constitution, some of which are actually in the Articles of Confederation (which governed America between Yorktown and the adoption of the Constitution) the Federalist and Anti Federalist Papers, the arguments over Nullification and the Gettysburg Address. The Claremont Schools really focuses on the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the promotion of the primacy of the declaration in the Gettysburg address as the propositions that any person can adopt and become an American.

The other are based on a belief that American values and government were based not on these documents, but on the person who settled America and bequeathed their ideas of what a just society should act like. Thus, since our government and legal system are taken from English law, the emigrants from England shape the values in a way that immigrants from Latin America do not share. Our entire sense of responsibility and civic order may well be something entirely unrelated to the constitution, but related to the large number of German and Scandanavian immigrants starting in the mid 1800’s. You still see their influence both in large cities (Cincinnati) and small cities throughout the midwest and northwest even today.

The problem with the 1776 project according to them is that although the counter narrative promulgated by Howard Zinn and now the 1619 project is clearly false, it is also filled with propaganda or myths that have become accepted facts as of today. One of the main myths according to the Paleos relates to the civil war which the Paleos see as something that was avoidable and something that led to increasing Federal power at the expense of state autonomy as well as increasing executive power well beyond what the constitution anticipated. There remains the recurring fight over Wilson and WWI. Wilson was always thought of as a progressive and in some ways the forerunner of the next Democratic president Franklin Roosevelt. But Paleos feel he broke his promise to keep America out of war (and as an example, although Williams Jennings Bryan is ridiculed since he ran and and lost for the presidency three times, and was thoroughly made fun of for his position in the Scopes Trials where he said he believed every word of the bible literally as Wilson’s secretary of state, he resigned out of principle because he saw Wilson leading the U.S. into the war.)

Recent history is even more of a problem. Was there really much difference between FDR and Mussolini when FDR tried to push through the NRA? Although almost all Paleos believe Hitler was evil, many believe that the Soviet Union was an equal if not greater evil. Was WWII really a fundamentally different type of war or was it basically an attempt by the maritime powers (the U.S. and Britain) to maintain control of the world by controlling the oceans (including destruction of the Japanese fleet so they would be unchallenged in the far east) and was the clash between Germany and Russia simply a continuation of power struggles between the two great continental powers for dominance?

After the war, how much of the tension between the U.S. and Soviet Union was the fault of the Soviet Union. If you believe American history books, almost all of it. But the U.S. played no small part in maintaining tensions.

Anyway, I could go on all day, but suffice it to say that Trump wanted American textbooks to teach American exceptionalism and American triumphalism in the same way he was taught when he went to school. Most scholars realize that this model has serious flaws, not the least of which is that it often times is inaccurate. It doesn’t matter how many times Anton and others (such as Hugh Hewitt) say Larry Arnn is brilliant, all an open minded person has to do is listen to him and conclude that perhaps at one point he was a serious and respected scholar, and he may even now be considered a great teacher by his pupils, but he fully embraces all the mythic heroic parts of American history and downplays anything to the contrary.

In his book The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers, Brion McClanahan wrote:

Thomas Jefferson, author of the well-regarded pamphlet A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), was chosen to lead a committee in drafting a declaration of independence. Work began in June 1776. Congress approved independence from Great Britain on 2 July 1776, and the final wording of the Declaration was hammered out over the next two days.

Many years later, Jefferson told Henry Lee that he wrote the Declaration “not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of … it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.”

Many historians, including Jefferson’s most important biographer, Dumas Malone, believe Benjamin Franklin changed Jefferson’s draft of “we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” to “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” a much more powerful expression. Jefferson himself probably borrowed language from George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Resolves, written a month before Jefferson authored the Declaration. Mason had argued, similarly to Jefferson, that “all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights … namely the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and maintaining happiness and safety.” It seems likely that Jefferson simply shortened Mason’s wording. But even that wording was not new. The idea that Englishmen had a right to “life, liberty, and property” went back at least to John Locke and his Two Treatises on Civil Government in 1689, which itself was meant to couch England’s “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 in the rights of Englishmen, established in 1215 when King John was forced to sign the Magna Charta at Runnymede. These rights were thus common parlance not only in Britain but in America. They were, for instance, part of the Carolina Charter, which Locke may have helped author. Most colonists did not consider themselves to be solely “Americans.” They were British subjects pleading with the king for relief from taxes and laws that violated their “natural” rights as Englishmen. Indeed, Americans were proud to be British. And, why not? Englishmen were the freest and most prosperous people in the world.

Jefferson insisted that the colonists had suffered patiently while the king and Parliament assumed tyrannical rule over the colonies, but only the “present King of Great Britain” deserved the condemnation of the patriot leaders. Jefferson never declared that all kings were unjust, just George III. It is true that Jefferson was not a monarchist, but it is equally true that he thought there were worse things than monarchy. When the French Revolution, of which he was an early proponent, had proven itself to be unmistakably extremist, with the revolutionary government lopping off heads at a rapid pace, Jefferson called for a restoration of the royal family in France. Moreover, contrary to what the historian Joseph Ellis says, Jefferson never suggested that government was an “alien force.” Government, in Jefferson’s words, should protect the “safety and happiness” of the people. Only after a “long train of abuses and usurpations” reduced the people “under absolute Despotism” did the people have the “right” and “duty, to throw off such Government and to provide new Guards for their future security.” They could “alter or abolish” a tyrannical government, but Jefferson did not consider the British system of government per se to be unjust, only the government of King George III. Even conservatives like John Dickinson knew their grievances would not be addressed by a Parliament determined to maintain its sovereignty over the king’s subjects, no matter what the cost. Independence was justified because it was the only way left for the colonists to preserve their inherited rights.

Myth: The Founding Fathers really believed everyone was equal The most famous line in the Declaration of Independence is “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal… . ” But the Founders meant something very different by that phrase than most of us have been taught to believe.

It was written, of course, by a slaveholder— by Thomas Jefferson— and politically correct historians mock him, for that very reason, as a hypocrite. But they do so by ignoring what he meant.

When the Founders talked about liberty and equality, they used definitions that came to them from their heritage within an English culture. Liberty was one of the most commonly used terms in the Founding generation. When Patrick Henry thundered, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” in 1775, no one asked Henry to define liberty following his speech. Similarly, when the Founders talked about equality, they thought in terms of all men being equal under God and of freemen being equal under the law. But the distinction of freemen was important. The founders believed in a natural hierarchy of talents, and they believed that citizenship and suffrage required civic and moral virtue. Jefferson wrote, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and what never will be.” To that end, restricting the status of freemen was essential, in the Founders’ view, to the liberty of the republic, which is why some states initially had property qualifications for voting, and why equality did not extend to slaves (or for that matter to women or children). Most of the Founding generation favored a “natural aristocracy” consisting of men of talent and virtue. They believed that these men would be, and should be, the leaders of a free society. The Founders were not at all egalitarian in their sentiments, as might be clearer if we quote Jefferson at greater length: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness— that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed … .”

…It is a politically correct myth that the colonists sought to create a radically new conception of political and civil rights. The popular historian Joseph Ellis has fueled this misinterpretation in his American Creationby concluding that the Declaration of Independence was a “radical document that locates sovereignty in the individual and depicts government as an alien force, making rebellion against it a natural act.” 10 On the contrary, colonial protests and America’s founding documents always relied on a common understanding, and a reassertion, of the rights of Englishmen, which is why the British statesman Edmund Burke supported the colonists in Parliament. Hardly a radical, Burke is considered the founding father of Anglo-American conservatism. American leaders justified their protests against Parliament in terms of the Magna Charta of 1215 and the 1688 English Bill of Rights. The Revolution intended to preserve these “ancient constitutions” of their forefathers. In the eyes of the Americans, it was the British Parliament that was making a radical departure from tradition, usurping powers to itself (principally the power of taxation) that rightly resided in the colonial legislatures. It was this sense of traditionalism, of conservatism, that separated the American Revolution from the later and more ideological French Revolution that sought to create an entirely new politics and even a new religion. The Americans were looking to keep what they had: liberties that had been developed over centuries of English history and law.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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