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The Moral Case for Property Rights

In Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, Economics, Ethics, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Liberalism, Philosophy, Property, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on March 9, 2016 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here at the Library of Law and Liberty.

The James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University has become a hub of conservative constitutionalism and natural law theory, a forum where mostly likeminded scholars and public intellectuals can come together for constructive dialogue and critique. Directed by Robert P. George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton, the program has hosted established and emerging scholars alike. Adam MacLeod is one of the latter—a figure to watch, a fresh and tempered voice in the increasingly ideological field of jurisprudence and legal theory. During his James Madison fellowship, with the support and advice of his colleagues, MacLeod wrote Property and Practical Reason, his first book.

MacLeod frames his normative claims and pleas within the common law context. And he gives us his thesis in his crisp opening sentence: “This book makes a moral case for private property.” He adds that “institutions of private ownership are justified.”

That institutions of private ownership are now jeopardized is upsetting. Before the 18th century, it was simply taken for granted in most Western societies that private property rights incentivized both work and custodianship and served moral ends. Leaders of advanced nations understood that the opportunity to own land or goods motivated people to work; that work, in turn, contributed to the aggregate health of the community; and that once ownership was attained, owners preserved the fruits of their labor and likewise respected the fruits of others’ labor as having been dutifully earned. There were, of course, violations of these principles in Western societies, which is why the law protected and promoted private ownership.

Even absolute monarchs across Europe centuries ago understood the instinctual drive for personal ownership and, consequently, allowed their subjects to obtain at least qualified possession of land and real property. During the Enlightenment, however, philosophers such as John Locke awakened the Western intellect to the stark reality that private property rights were routinely violated or compromised by monarchs and sovereigns at the expense of morality and at odds with the natural law. Because humans own their bodies, Locke maintained, any object or land they removed or procured from nature, which God had provided humanity in common, was joined to those people, who, so long as no one else had a legitimate claim to such object or land, could freely enjoy a right of possession exclusive of the common rights of others.

It’s surprising that Locke isn’t mentioned in MacLeod’s defense of reason and private property, since Locke more than any other figure in the Western tradition—let alone the British tradition in which the common law emerged—made the reason-based case for the morality of private property ownership. “God,” Locke said, “who hath given the world to men in common, hath also given them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of life and convenience.” On this score MacLeod echoes Locke without giving him attention.

MacLeod advocates the type of mediated dominion of private ownership that, he says, existed at common law. Under the common law, he argues, dominion was mediated because it was restrained by the normative guides of “practical reasonableness.” He does not fully delineate what unmediated dominion looks like. But presumably it has something to do with “many contemporary accounts” that, he claims, “view property as an individual right” and facilitate an “atomization of private property” that’s “unnecessary and unhelpful.” An example might have polished off this point, since in the opening chapters it’s not always obvious to which property arrangement mediated dominion is allegedly superior.

He does, however, supply helpful examples of mediating private institutions under the common law: families and family businesses, religious associations such as churches or synagogues, civic associations, and other such cooperative forms that exercise modest control or otherwise influence a person’s claim to outright ownership. For instance, one’s community may reasonably insist that my absolute ownership of a weapon does not permit one’s use of that weapon to threaten or injure another except in self-defense. It may likewise restrict the profligate use of scarce resources, or the reckless use of intrinsically dangerous resources to the manifest detriment of one’s immediate neighbors.

The author submits that, under the common law, which illustrates constructive administration of property rights, private ownership is never total or unqualified but always subject to reasonable restraint as prescribed by custom and community. He intimates that one thing that makes private ownership reasonable is its promotion of reasonable behavior; the very reasonableness of private property is self-perpetuating. The owner of property who’s confident his ownership is legally honored and enforced will pursue future gain; as the number of such owners multiplies, the corporate prosperity of society increases.

MacLeod rejects consequentialist arguments for private property and seeks to justify private ownership on the basis of morality. He shows that private ownership is not just optimal by utilitarian standards but is practically reasonable and morally good.

In so arguing, he navigates around two anticipated criticisms: first that his defense of private property and promotion of common law standards and conditions are remedies in search of an illness, and second that beneath his proposed remedy is the sickness he wants to cure.

By discussing the work of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Jeremy Waldron, J. E. Penner, and Larissa Katz, among others, MacLeod proves he’s not remonstrating against straw men but engaging actual thinkers with real influence on our working perceptions of property rights. The problems he confronts are palpable: regulatory takings, trespass, taxation, riparian-right disputes, adverse possession, and waste, among others.

In depicting mediated dominion as a form of voluntary “plural ownership” that excludes state coercion, moreover, he reassures readers that a common law property regime does not contravene private ordering, despite the fact that the common law dates back to periods when English monarchs retained total and ultimate control of the land within their jurisdiction under the Doctrine of the Crown; forced owners to hold property rights in socage; confiscated property from rivals and dissidents; redistributed property in exchange for loyalty and political favors; and permitted and at times approved of slavery and villainy.

These unreasonable elements of the common law tradition do not square with the case that MacLeod makes for practical reasonableness; yet the common law tradition he invokes is sufficiently flexible and adaptive to modify or eradicate rules that perpetuate unreasonable practices and behaviors. He reminds us, too, that “slavery was for a long time unknown at common law, and its rise in positive law derogated common law rights and duties.” In other words, the rise of the English slave trade “is a story of lawmakers first departing from, then returning to, common law norms.”

Following if not synthesizing John Finnis and Joseph Raz, MacLeod recommends in the property-law context something akin to perfectionist liberalism and value pluralism. The pluralism championed by MacLeod involves multiplying the options for deliberating agents: the more room there is for rational choice, the more diverse and numerous are the opportunities to exercise human reason. These opportunities may be circumscribed by the morality of the community that is inherent in the rules that reflect basic values. The law is by nature coercive, but it is good to the extent it enables practical reason and restricts bad behavior, as determined by the net, collaborative efforts of non-state actors. MacLeod calls these combined actors members of “intermediary communities.”

The trope of individualism and community is for MacLeod a framing device for advocating mediated dominion as an incentivizing force for moral action. He skillfully and meticulously affirms that private ownership, which is conditional on the reasonable limitations established by collective norms, is reasonable not only for instrumental purposes (because it works well and facilitates constructive social relations) but also because it is good in itself. Summoning the commentary of Thomas Aquinas, William Blackstone, James Madison, Alexis de Tocqueville, Joseph Story, Georg Friedrich Hegel, F.A. Hayek, Neil MacCormick, Ronald Dworkin, Richard Epstein, and Robert P. George, MacLeod also manages to work in unexpected references to writers who do not immediately spring to mind as jurisprudents: Richard Weaver, Wendell Berry, Charles Murray, John Tomasi, and Milton Friedman. This range demonstrates the importance of property law across disciplines and in broad contexts.

To profit from this book you must, I think, hold in abeyance any assumptions or readymade generalizations you have about the nature and function of private property. You’d benefit as well from a prior familiarity with the field and discourse of property jurisprudence, not to mention the new natural law theories. I make this observation as an outsider myself. If you can’t immediately define terms like “usufruct,” either because you’ve never heard of them or because it’s been too long since you studied for a bar examination, you’ll likely need Black’s Law Dictionary and other resources close at hand as you piece through MacLeod’s rationale. Readers in other disciplines might find that the chapters presuppose an awareness of, say, the essentialist debate over whether exclusion or use defines property norms, or might question the meaning and import of “personalist” approaches to private property that emphasize the doctrines of positive liberty and personal autonomy.

Such disciplinary specificity isn’t a bad thing. One hopes, in fact, that it would motivate curious readers to undertake further study and inquiry. Yet specialization limits what a book can accomplish.

MacLeod exhibits a disposition to be philosophical rather than sociological, adopting as he does a neutral, academic tone free of animus and personal pique, arguing from logical deduction rather than concrete data or statistics. Whether this approach redounds to his advantage depends on what he wants to achieve. If he’s writing only for an academic audience of philosophers and political theorists, he’s succeeded admirably, but if his goal is to reach beyond the narrow confines of the academy, spreading his influence as widely as possible, he has fallen short. The prose is accessible to scholars and advanced graduate students, but the average lawyer will find no practical instruction in the book and might even question the at times challenging syntax and vocabulary that can obscure basic points. If economists ignore the book for its rejection of consequentialist arguments, however, it’s to their disadvantage.

No common reader, I’m afraid, will read this book from cover to cover, and that’s a pity because the subject is important, especially given the spread of eminent-domain abuse and the general embrace of egalitarianism, redistributivism, and Rawlsian notions of social justice by Americans today. The desire for private ownership is a primordial fact. We need more books and treatises that examine at a fundamental level how and why we alienate, possess, and exchange property. At around $100, Property and Practical Reason is prohibitively expensive for curious undergraduates, and also for courses in graduate studies. Moreover, the law schools may well ignore it due to its focus on abstract jurisprudence.

All that said, this book should be read—and will be, by the people who know about and are sympathetic to the work of the James Madison Program. Unfortunately, that’s not many people. Not enough, anyway. There’s no cottage industry for the philosophy of practical reasonableness. Yet there ought to be, and the reception of MacLeod’s work might tell us whether there can be. Those of a philosophical bent will delight not just in the conclusions MacLeod reaches, but in the way he reaches them: framing and reframing his sinuous arguments until his central theses become refrains. This reviewer found it a delightfully industrious, hard-won defense of private property, and well worth the high sticker price.

“Winston Churchill and the American Civil War,” by Miles Smith IV

In American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Britain, Conservatism, Economics, Essays, History, Humanities, Libertarianism, Nineteenth-Century America, Slavery, Southern History, The South on February 4, 2015 at 8:45 am

Miles Smith

Miles Smith IV is a visiting assistant professor at Hillsdale College and a historian of the Old South and Atlantic World. He took his B.A. from the College of Charleston and holds a Ph.D. in History from Texas Christian University. He is a native of Salisbury, North Carolina.

Last week saw the alignment of a peculiar set of anniversaries: The Fiftieth anniversary of Churchill’s death, the seventieth of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet Army, and the 208th birthday anniversary of Robert E. Lee. Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill died in 1965. One century earlier General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to his Federal counterpart U.S. Grant. Churchill and Lee enjoyed widespread acclaim for their conduct—Lee in the late nineteenth and both he and Churchill in the latter half of the twentieth century. In recent years deconstructing both men enjoyed being the vogue of both academic and popular commentators. Both Churchill and Lee lived their lives as traditionalists. Neither embraced the social or moral innovation of their own eras. Modern commentators degrade both for their seemingly reactionary ideals. Unsurprisingly, Churchill adored Lee (and Abraham Lincoln as well). A recent historian opined that Lee’s “tragic flaw” was that he upheld the genteel values of eighteenth century Virginia “in a society that left older ideals of nobility and privilege behind.” One might grant that Lee’s aristocratic and heavy-handed slaveholding would understandably guarantee him a fair share of detractors in the early twentieth century, but this commentator offered as his reason for deconstructing Lee a calamitous rationale:

In the long run, Lee’s decision to follow Virginia out of the Union and resign his commission from the US Army further reveals his eighteenth century sensibilities which emphasize state over country and a parochial interest in defending home and family rather than one’s nation. In choosing loyalty to his state over loyalty to his country, Lee ensured that his destiny would be tainted by defeat and the specter of treason.

The disturbing notion that one’s parochial interest in defending his home and family constitutes a “fatal flaw” ultimately saw its hellish culmination in the totalitarian nationalist regimes of the twentieth century. It was Lee’s very cultured localism, tragically tinged as it was with slaveholding, that endeared him to Winston Churchill.[1]

Before Winston Churchill assumed the premiership of the United Kingdom and before he battled the nationalist brutes ruling Germany and Italy, he wrote history. In History of the English Speaking Peoples: The Great Democracies, the fourth volume of his history of the Anglosphere, his view of American history reflected a patrician education and disposition. Never comfortable in the twentieth century, Churchill kept the values of a bygone Victorian Era well into the middle of the twentieth century. In Lee he found a similarly anachronistic gentleman of the eighteenth century living in the nineteenth. Churchill wrote that Lee’s “noble presence and gentle, kindly manner were sustained by religious faith and an exalted character.” He “weighed carefully, while commanding a regiment of cavalry on the Texan border, the course which duty and honour would require from him.” Churchill overstated Lee’s antipathy towards slavery but nonetheless seized on the Virginian’s conservative Whiggish politics. Lee knew secession to be dangerous and ill-advised “but he had been taught from childhood that his first allegiance was to the state of Virginia.” Churchill found Lee’s Old South an admirable but flawed reflection of British gentry. “There was,” said Churchill, “a grace and ease about the life of the white men in the South that was lacking in the bustling North. It was certainly not their fault that these unnatural conditions had arisen.” Churchill’s denotation of white men underscores his innate humanity. White men, he knew, built their civilization on the backs of enslaved people held in human bondage. “The institution of negro slavery,” Churchill knew, “had long reigned almost unquestioned.” Upon the basis of slavery “the whole life of the Southern states had been erected.” Churchill saw a “strange, fierce, old-fashioned life. An aristocracy of planters, living in rural magnificence and almost feudal state, and a multitude of smallholders, grew cotton for the world by slave-labour.” Churchill’s empathy for the planter class stemmed from his willingness to conceive them as a class that “ruled the politics of the South as effectively as the medieval baronage had ruled England.” Southerners who by varying degrees colluded with the capitalist system became feudal agrarians and misplaced Englishmen in Churchill’s romantic imagination. [2]

Southerners engaged in the capitalist system in the antebellum era. Not all southerners were equally capitalist, however, and the Whig planters of Mississippi and Louisiana embraced the economic, expansionistic, and modernizing nationalism of the United States in a way that horrified old planters in Virginia and Carolina. Nonetheless, the Old aristocratic Anglo-American planter communities provided Churchill with set pieces as he wrote his histories. Of Lee, Churchill somberly wrote that he “wrestled earnestly with his duty” during the secession crisis. “By Lincoln’s authority he was offered the chief command of the great Union army now being raised. He declined at once…” The immediacy of Lee’s refusal supplied Churchill with a heroically long-suffering but duty-bound Anglophone hero. Churchill made much of how Lee resigned, “and in the deepest sorrow rode across the Potomac bridge for Richmond. Here he was immediately offered the chief command of all the military and naval forces of Virginia.” Lee’s decision, thought Churchill, seemed beautiful and tragic. “Some of those who saw him in these tragic weeks, when sometimes his eyes filled with tears, emotion which he never showed after the gain or loss of great battles, have written about his inward struggle. But there was no struggle; he never hesitated.” Lee’s choice, declared Churchill, “was for the state of Virginia. He deplored that choice [and] foresaw its consequences with bitter grief; but for himself he had no doubts at the time, nor ever after regret or remorse.” Writing in 1858, Lee appeared as a forerunner of Churchill himself: warning of the disaster befalling England, but fighting determinedly when the conflict came. [3]

Sensitive to the political differences between Imperial Britain and the United States, Churchill nonetheless tried to make sense of the American Civil War and its aftermath. Churchill saw that “Radical vindictiveness” in Republican ranks “sprang from various causes. The most creditable was a humanitarian concern for the welfare of the negro.” Belief in the God-given humanity of African Americans was “shared only by a minority.” Churchill believed that “more ignoble motives were present in the breasts of such Radical leaders as Zachariah Chandler and Thaddeus Stevens.” Because they loved “the negro less than they hated his master, these ill-principled men wanted to humiliate the proud Southern aristocracy, whom they had always disliked, and at whose door they laid the sole blame for the Civil War.” But Churchill argued that “there was another and nearer point.”

The Radicals saw that if the negro was given the vote they could break the power of the Southern planter and preserve the ascendancy over the Federal Government that Northern business interests had won since 1861. To allow the Southern states, in alliance with Northern Democrats, to recover their former voice in national affairs would, the Radicals believed, be incongruous and absurd. It would also jeopardise the mass of legislation on tariffs, banking, and public land which Northern capitalists had secured for themselves during the war. To safeguard these laws the Radicals took up the cry of the negro vote, meaning to use it to keep their own party in power.

Churchill conceived of the Civil War from a perspective of a Briton deeply suspicious of the effects of modernizing industrial nationalism. His best known Liberal biographer, Lord Jenkins, painted him as a champion of Free-trade economic libertarianism and of workers as well. William Manchester, a far more conservative biographical voice, likewise understood Churchill as essentially a Free-trader whose conservatism remained confined to foreign policy. Free-trade economic views never allowed Churchill to entirely embrace the relationship between corporation and nation that characterized post-Civil War American politics. [4]

Capitalism accompanied Free-trade in Churchill’s mind, and he affirmed capitalism in his ideals about society. But he likewise displayed antipathy for the wedding of corporation and nation that followed the American Civil War. Of the captains of industry he wrote that “Carnegie and Rockefeller, indeed, together with Morgan in finance and Vanderbilt and Harriman in railroads, became the representative figures of the age,” when compared to the “colourless actors upon the political scene.” “Though the morality” of the captains of industry “has often been questioned, these men made industrial order out of chaos. They brought the benefits of large-scale production to the humblest home.” Still, Churchill saw the Gilded Age American Union as racked “by severe growing pains” and unrest. “There was much poverty in the big cities, especially among recent immigrants. There were sharp, sudden financial panics, causing loss and ruin, and there were many strikes, which sometimes broke into violence.” Most disturbing to Churchill the free trader, “Labour began to organize itself in Trade Unions and to confront the industrialists with a stiff bargaining power. These developments were to lead to a period of protest and reform in the early twentieth century.” Churchill’s deep ambivalence about the wedding of capitalism and nationalism led him the recognize “gains conferred by large-scale industry” but also to lament that “the wrongs that had accompanied their making were only gradually righted.”[5]

Churchill’s British perspective offered a nuanced perspective that stood outside the intemperate screeds of Lost Cause southerners, and the more numerous and far more influential hyper-nationalist hagiography devoted to the white northern liberators. Churchill understood that slavery constituted the great systemic evil of the nineteenth century United States and caused the Civil War. His libertarian proclivities left him unconvinced of the necessity of 800,000 dead. In this he prefigured agrarian Wendell Berry who noted in his essay “American Imagination and the Civil War” that a botched emancipation was far batter than no imagination. But Berry also noted that history demands that a botched emancipation be criticized for what was botched. David Goldfield, former president of the Southern Historical Association, declared in his America Aflame that his work was “neither pro-southern nor pro-northern. It is anti-war, particularly the Civil War.”[6]

To his credit, Abraham Lincoln regretted the Civil War’s violence in 1865 and subsequently proposed an expeditious readmission criterion for the seceded states, only to have it scuttled by Radical Republicans after his assassination. Unbeknownst to Lincoln, who genuinely seemed interested in restoring the status quo ante bellum, the war unleashed the ideological monstrosity of modern industrial nationalism on the American polity. Harry Stout recognized that industrial nationalism tarnished the war’s consequence of liberating African Americans from chattel slavery. Elliott West’s history of the Nez Perce War of 1877 posited the idea of a greater Reconstruction, whereby the Republican Party remade the entirety of the continental American polity in the image of white capitalistic, militaristic, Evangelistic Protestant nationalism. Native Americans stood in the way of the American nation, and the U.S. Army ruthlessly destroyed the last free Indian societies in the Far West. Societal transmutation on that scale necessitated violence in the name of the nation. Jackson Lears pointed out in his Rebirth of a Nation that racism on a societal scale (southern and northern) fed this nationalism driven by a political organization formally committed to black liberty. By 1900, four decades of almost uninterrupted Republican government turned the United States into an imperialistic nation-state. Though to a small degree mitigated institutionally in the United States by a lingering federalism, nationalism with its muscular industrial core eventually threw Europe into the nightmare of two world wars.[7]

Few American historians have offered an anti-nationalist vision of the Civil War. The camps seemed too rigidly defined for works such as Churchill’s to remain valid. Churchill’s vision of the American Civil War Era is at once not southern enough for Lost Cause partisans, nor is it sufficiently pro-northern for Neo-Abolitionists. Churchill saw the conflict as a tragedy. Nationalist historians and political philosophers generally counted the war a blessing; to think it a tragedy negated the benefits of union and emancipation. British Marxist Robin Blackburn exasperatedly asked why “a willingness on the part of the United States to admit the possibility that the war was not the best response” to secession or slavery was seen as condoning either.[8]

Conservative historians understandably co-opted Churchill into the pantheon of Anglo-American heroes committed to the maintenance of the Western World and to its transcendent expression of human liberty. Much of the resilience involved in Churchill revolves around the image of a nationalist military chieftain committed to Britain’s place in the world. That image is true—Churchill biographer Carlo d’Este argued that his subject was one of the humans truly born for war—but not complete. John Keegan once described Churchill as a true libertarian, and this seems an appropriate corrective given the multitude of remembrances published on this fiftieth anniversary of his passing.[9]

[1] Glenn W. LaFantasie, “Broken Promise,” Civil War Monitor 13 (Fall, 2014): 37

[2] Winston S. Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Vol. 4: The Great Democracies.

[3] Churchill, Great Democracies.

[4] Roy Jenkins, Churchill: A Biography (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2001), 398-401; William Manchester, Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Visions of Glory (New York: Little & Brown, 1989), 361.

[5] Churchill, The Great Democracies.

[6] Wendell Berry, “American Imagination and the Civil War,” in Imagination in Place (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2010), 27; David Goldfield, America aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011).

[7] Elliott West, The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); Jackson Lears, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America (New York: HarperCollins, 2009).

[8] Robin Blackburn, “Why the Muted Anniversary? An Erie Silence,” CounterPunch (18th April 2011):

[9] Carlo d’Este, Warlord: A Life Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945 (HarperCollins, 2008); John Keegan, Winston Churchill: A Life (New York: Penguin, 2002), 27.

A Few More Words on Patrick Allitt’s The Conservatives

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Politics on October 9, 2011 at 4:51 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Many American politicians call themselves “conservative” despite never having read Paul Elmer More, Irving Babbitt, Robert Taft, Donald Davidson, Frank Meyer, Richard Weaver, James Burnham, or Russell Kirk.  Television pundits recycle the term “neoconservative” without even a passing reference to Leo Strauss, Irving Kristol, or Norman Podhoretz.  A welcome respite from the ignorance of the talking heads, Patrick Allitt’s The Conservatives (Yale University Press, 2009) is an engaging and informative book, even if it is more of an introduction to American conservatism than a critical study.  I recently reviewed the book here at the journal 49th Parallel, but I have more to say about it.

American conservatism is rich and complex but too often simplified or ignored by academics who think they know what conservatism means.  I applaud Allitt for taking conservatism seriously and for marshaling a wealth of evidence to support his thesis.  Those who cannot identify what generally distinguishes a paleoconservative from a neoconservative, or who’re confused by the apparent hypocrisy of conservatives who call for big-government spending on military and surveillance while griping about big-government, need to read this book.  Allitt provides clarity and direction for the uninitiated.  He deserves not just our attention, but our admiration.

Allitt attends to several figures in this book, including John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, William Cobbett, John Marshall, John Randolph of Roanoke, George Fitzhugh, Rufus Choate, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, George Ticknor, Abraham Lincoln, Orestes Brownson, William Graham Sumner, Andrew Carnegie, Theodore Roosevelt, John Crow Ransom, Andrew Lytle, H. L. Mencken, Herbert Hoover, William Howard Taft, Albert Jay Nock, Ralph Adams Cram, George Santayana, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig Von Mises, Murray Rothbard, Ayn Rand, Whittaker Chambers, William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman, Barry Goldwater, George Will, Ronald Reagan, Michael Novak, Robert Bork, Allan Bloom, M. E. Bradford, Thomas Fleming, Clyde Wilson, Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington, Patrick Buchanan, Jerry Falwell, Roger Kimball, Thomas Sowell, Charles Murray, Dinesh D’Souza, and others.  One book cannot address every major figure that influenced American conservatism, and Allit’s failure to mention some names (Strom Thurmond, Gerald Ford, Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, Donald Rumsfeld, Wendell Berry, James Dobson, Pat Robertson, or any of the Bob Joneses) is understandable.  Paul Gottfried appears just once in the book, and passingly.  But a case could be made that Gottfried’s paleoconservatism is more European in origin and thus worthy of analysis.  And surely Eric Voegelin warrants more than a casual reference in a single paragraph.

For some, Allitt’s most objectionable suggestion will be that the Civil War was a conflict of two conservatisms: Calhoun’s versus Webster’s.  This interpretation illuminates and simultaneously complicates such recent debates as the one held between Thomas DiLorenzo and Harry V. Jaffa over the issue of Abraham Lincoln’s legacy.

Allitt also suggests that the Federalists represent an early manifestation of conservatism.  This classification would mean that Jefferson and his ilk were not conservatives, which would in turn imply that current Jeffersonians are not in keeping with a purely conservative tradition.  Allitt offers this helpful and accurate note about Jefferson: “He might not have been the Jacobin his Federalist foes alleged, but neither can he easily be thought of as a conservative.”  Many scholars and enthusiasts consider Jefferson to be a “classical liberal,” but the signification of that word relative to “libertarian” or “conservative” merely confounds definitional precision:  All three words have been used interchangeably and negligently in recent decades.  It may not matter if Jefferson is called “conservative” or “liberal,” especially if those terms cause people to short-circuit reflection or affix a contemporary label to a complicated man living in a complex, radically different era.

Allitt’s book is a fine contribution to and about conservative letters.  I recommend it to anyone who thinks he can explain conservatism.

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