Creed, Conservation and the American Founding

July 4 is separated from Bastille Day by a week and a half on the calendar but by eons in political culture.  The interim is an appropriate interval for reflection on why exactly the two events were so different.  One reason is arguably that America is precisely not what one might be led to believe from exclusive emphasis on the Declaration of Independence: a simply creedal nation bound solely by political belief.  The creation of a new people connected by creed alone rather than shared tradition and history would, like the French Revolution, have been a radical event.  As Willmoore Kendall would remind us, the American Revolution is better understood as a restorative or conserving one.

That is not to reduce the American Founding to the age-old debate between creed and culture—even if, despite the valuable nuances added to this discussion by James W. Ceaser and Bradley C.S. Watson, the simply creedal perspective remains largely ascendant in much of popular discourse.  It is, rather, to hypothesize that creed versus culture may be a less helpful framework than creed versus conservation.  Conservation, in turn, better frames the Revolution and Declaration than creed.

The simply creedal perspective, which is inherently forward-looking, holds that the American people were constituted—and continue to exist—based on subscription to discrete beliefs articulated in the Declaration.  Yet the Declaration instantly signals otherwise: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another. . . .”  This is a sentence written from inside unfolding political time, not at L’année Une; it refers to a people that already exists—here I would disagree with Kevin Gutzman’s critique of Watson, even while being sympathetic to its underlying perspective—not to the creation of a new one.  The Declaration proceeds to propound those people’s beliefs, but the beliefs, like the people, are the product of a steady process of evolution that by then has been under way at least since the Mayflower Compact.

The Compact’s animating symbol is deliberative self-government, not individual rights, and an examination of early colonial documents shows a steady trajectory along which rights, duties and community are balanced—a trajectory on which the Declaration is a point rather than from which it is a departure.  Rights in the Massachusetts Body of Liberties, for example, were governed by the legislature rather than framed in absolutes, as in: “No mans life shall be taken away, no mans honour or good name shall be stayned, no mans person shall be arrested, restrayned, banished, dismembered, nor any wayes punished … unless it be by vertue or equitie of some expresse law of the Country warranting the same …”  This is, as I recently suggested in this space, the same model of rights to which the Declaration subscribes.

Indeed, if the Declaration was meant suddenly to erupt with a newfound commitment to individual rights that had not been located in the colonies until then—again, a radical event—the revolutionaries must quickly have retreated into reaction.  As Donald S. Lutz has shown, the state Bills of Rights adopted during the post-Revolution burst of constitution-making were admonitory rather than absolute in nature: their form was typically that a right “should” or “ought” not be infringed: a guideline, in the timeless political theory of Ghostbusters, not a rule.  The prevalence of established churches in the states during the founding period—not to mention the fact that it took until nearly the 20th century for it to dawn on the Supreme Court that the national Bill of Rights might be a tool for insulating minorities from majority rule—further undercuts the idea that the early American regime was based on absolute individual rights as reservations from the community. (On this point, see also Barry Alan Shain, The Myth of American Individualism.)

The Declaration’s ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are better understood as continuous with this tradition rather than as a sudden juke away from it.  The Revolution’s purpose was not to create the world anew but rather to conserve a tradition from which King George III had departed.  The complaints in the Declaration are directed to the restoration of an antecedent political state with which the colonists appear to have been more or less satisfied.  King George III has “depriv[ed] us” of trial by jury,” “suspend[ed] our own Legislatures,” “alter[ed] fundamentally the Forms of our Governments,” and so forth.  Severance from the king requires the colonists to “alter their former Systems of Government” mainly insofar as they must, of necessity, reframe them without monarchy, but they do not appear to intend radically to reconstitute them.  This antecedent state draws on centuries of British political culture as gradually modified by a century-and-a-half of American political experience.  Similarly, when the delegates met in Philadelphia 11 summers later, they were able to recur to decades of experience with various forms of colonial and state self-government that supplied bases for many of the major features of a Constitution that was, in the end, successful precisely because it was in many respects not revolutionary.

None of this is to deny that Americans are devoted to certain elements of a creed or, crucially, that the creed informs and shapes the political tradition the Revolution was intended to conserve and restore.  Similarly—contra many adherents of the cultural view, such as Samuel Huntington, who fear that immigration will overrun it—immigration in the American experience provides the opportunity to join the tradition in part by subscribing to the creed.  Immigration, put otherwise, is part of the political culture, not a threat to it.

It is the notion of a forward-leaning, teleological creed that stands above and separate from the culture that is the radical idea, insisted upon in many of the same exceptionalist circles that would foist on America the duty of spreading those beliefs and achieving that telos.  The very fact that experiments in doing so have faltered on the shoals of political culture—in places where the creed would establish something new rather than conserving the essence of a tradition marinated in decades or centuries—is a reminder of the wrong-headedness of a simply creedal orientation.

America as a cautious, conserving and prudent regime seems far less historically grandiose than the exceptionalists understand us to be.  It is a notion less given, perhaps, to the triumphalism that has, needlessly, overtaken American self-understanding, in which our national self-esteem seems to depend on an excessively radical interpretation of the Founding.  Of course the question is why this should be—why denying a creedal rather than conserving foundation for America should be seen as an act of lèse majesté rather than one of respect for the regime.  It was the very moderation of the American Revolution that was its glory and, not incidentally, its triumph.  We are, after all, heading into our 238th year of independence, which seems plenty exceptional.  The republican French, creed and all, only made it to L’année Quatorze.

Greg Weiner, who teaches political science at Assumption College, is a former political consultant and the author of Madison’s Metronome: The Constitution, Majority Rule and the Tempo of American Politics. He is currently working on a book on the political thought of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

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Comments

  1. djf says

    This essay is great, except for the ill-considered remark about immigration. Granting that immigration has always been a part of American history (although there was relatively little of it from WWI to 1970), the question to be answered is this: under present circumstances (which include, unfortunately, an omnipresent official ideology of “multiculturalism” and “diversity”), what quantity of immigration, and from where, is consistent with conserving our political culture? (I mean, assuming that conserving that political culture even remains as an option, which I’m not sure it does.)

  2. gabe immordino says

    Agree with djf on immigration. Let us begin by stating that while this is a nation “populated” by immigrants, it is not a nation “founded” by immigrants. Rather, it was founded by “settlers” who brought with them some distinct notions on government and self government as Mr Weiner ably demonstrates above.
    Subsequent to that new arrivals were expected to adopt our creed. Is this currently the case?
    All that being said, it is still not persuasive that the American Founding was not “radical” and indeed outward looking. Certainly many of the founders expressed such an outward looking sentiment / hope.
    With respect to the founding being only concerned with ‘conserving” the rights enjoyed as Englishman and the corresponding abuse of such rights by King George, such an assertion obscures the fact that those English rights were traditionally considered as being granted by the Monarchy. The radical part of the founding was the assertion that these rights inhered in human beings as human beings (obviously not all humans at the time) and in Jefferson’s original draft they were “sacred and undeniable.” This is not so much a conserving effort but, at minimum, an expansion and yes, in some sense, radical. At the time, as the founders later boasted, what other nation took such a view of rights?
    To claim that it must be conservative simply because the Founding did not appear fully formed “L’annee une,” argues against an assertion that has not been advanced. The founders and any fair minded reader will, of course, recognize the influence of English law and tradition upon the American “creed.” The genius was to take it further than English tradition had previously allowed. Some may argue that in so doing they were also nudging it away from the formula found in the Compact (which after all was unsuccessful).
    In so far as having to wait until the 20th century for the Supreme court to use the bill of rights for minority protection, this also fails as a means to test the intent of the founders. Indeed, Jefferson and Madison bought thought that the Court was the weakest branch of government and should so be. (I guess they could not always be right!!!) They would not place their reliance upon the Court to guarantee rights which they asserted inhered in the individual – not the Crown!,
    not the community.
    Again, they expected that a virtuous, religious people would recognize their duties to the community. Given today’s climate, I guess you would have to say that this was truly radical!!!!

  3. David Upham says

    I think a fair reading of the Declaration indicates that it both credal and conservative. Credal, in affirming the universal nobility of man, his fundamental rights, and the capacity of the people for good self-government. Conservative because it preached the laws of nature and nature’s God, truths known to man by his natural reason–for if so, the conclusions reached by our ancestors are entitled to great consideration, not only because there are so many of them, equipped with the same natural reason as us, acting across so many generations, but also because it is they who raised us, whose very tradition gave us such a keen insight into the universal dignity of man.

    The Declaration itself is an integrated argument combining both: the creed is the major premise, the violation of our traditions is the minor premise (the 27 grievances), the conclusion is the rightful independence of these united, free, and independent states.

    The Founders celebrated both the English tradition and the American enterprise. See, among many, many sources, Hamilton in Federalist. In Number 9 he notes the British constitution gave us four vital tools to make republican government safe, but in Federalist 1, he says that ” it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice,” and again, and in Federalist 11, it is the job of Americans to “vindicate the honor of the human race.”

  4. says

    I think Professor Upham has the batter argument here. I do not believe that “creedal” and conservation are as distinct as implied in the main post. Also, the distinction between the basis of individual rights and the mechanisms and institutions employed to protect them does not produce the conclusion that the Declaration specifically or the founding generally, was concerned with one to the relative exclusion of the other. “The idea that the early American regime was based on absolute individual rights as reservations from the community” is largely a straw man argument that leaves unexplored the relationship between what the founders thought of individual rights and the forms of government they thought best served them. In short, Mr. Weiner makes an interesting argument, but I am unconvinced.

  5. Greg Weiner says

    I appreciate the thoughtfulness and range of these comments. The argument was not that the Declaration did not partake of a creedal character, it was that the Declaration does not — or ought not — exhaust our understanding of the Founding. It must be understood in the context of a broader tradition that — unless the Declaration is an outlier that departs from the tradition that precedes it and that is then immediately departed from — consistently emphasizes deliberative self-government rather than individual rights contemporarily understood. I would simply urge careful attention to the documents as against our wishes here. While Professor Upham is correct to note the balance between Publius’ rhetorical understanding of the innovative versus conservative aspects of his project — a rhetorical stance, incidentally, he alternates based on what suits his purposes, as elsewhere (see, for example, Federalist 14) he discourages attention to the new — and while my original post acknowledged that creed informs culture, I am less convinced that the Founding can, in the end, be both at the same time. Creed is about creating something new; conservatism about preserving continuity with tradition. The Founders do both insofar as they modify the politics they inherit. But even this, it seems to me, is an act of conservation, as the modification is the gradual and ongoing product of decades, not of the Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America on July 4, 1776. At any rate, the hypothesis was less that creed and conservation are entirely mutually exclusive than that creed versus conservation is a more useful dichotomy than the age-old debate between creed and culture — a hypothesis that seems to me valuable if only for the quality of the debate it sparked.

    • Jason Khan says

      As far as I can tell, you are essentially warning us not to confuse motivation with reality. I’m basing this on when you stated ‘the Declaration ought not exhaust our understanding of the Founding’.

      It seems to me, that the ‘Credal versus Cultural’ framework is primarily used to characterize the motivations of the founders. I would assume that you find the ‘Credal versus Conservative’ framework more appealing since it better recognizes the disparity between declared beliefs and actions.

      While the Declaration may have declared guiding principles, the founding can be viewed as conservative in nature because it was meant to revert the colonies into a state that the people had previously enjoyed.

      As I mentioned earlier, I think (perhaps wrongly) that the previous framework of Credal versus Cultural was primarily used to abstract the motivations of the founders. It was jarring when you contrasted professed motivations (declaration of independence) with inferred motivations drawn from the reality of the founding, “[t]he Revolution’s purpose was not to create the world anew but rather to conserve a tradition from which King George III had departed.”

      The abrupt transitions between “discrete beliefs articulated in the Declaration” and “products of a steady process of evolution” made for a confusing read. Well that and the lofty language; I gotta brush up on my English.

      Long story short, it was kinda hard to follow your thought process, so I understand why there was confusion in the earlier comments.

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