May 29, 2009
The American Right, if ever there was one, certainly had little in common with Garrison, Thoreau, and/or Paine (or Pain, after he Americanized its spelling). Garrison, for example, made a lot of noise out of opposing the Constitution and the Bible, and whatever one may think of his arguments, it’s hard to see what can have been right-wing about that. Pain, of course, fled to this side of the Atlantic after getting into political trouble with the British authorities, fomented trouble here, went to France to foment political trouble there, and threw in an anti-Christian screed of his own. Thoreau … well, he had a lot in common with Garrison and Pain. And Rothbard was an anarchist. Again, whatever one may think of his arguments, there’s nothing right-wing about anarchism; there’s nothing any-wing about anarchism. It’s a fantasy.
The idea of the Right comes from France, where the word denoted proponents of traditional authority. That meant chiefly crown, church, and aristocracy. In America, the Revoluton got rid of those types of authority, to the extent they had ever existed here, and soon enough, the Revolution’s unanticipated implications played out in a lot of other forms of levelling. (Much of this levelling made radicals of the Revolution’s early days profoundly unhappy, as I’ve explored at book length.)
Louis Hartz posited long ago that there is essentially no Right in America, that America is dominated by a broad Lockean consensus. This strikes me as essentially true. Consider the absence of racist, sectarian, and aristocratic parties and platforms from American politics. No one significant advocates favoring Episcopalians in American political life, or Northern Europeans in American social life, or privileged families in the American economy. Yes, John Adams was right that old names have their weight in every society, but that is informal in America, not a principle; too, in the end, even the great American dynasties die out in a very few generations. (Even Adams’s proposal to give elite families special privileges was intended to cage them in, not to favor them.)
We have grown accustomed, then, to denominating “Right” what really is the less leftward alternative. So far as I can see, granting space on this site to other alternatives is along the lines of Thomas Jefferson’s statement that we can leave our errant compatriots free to promote error so long as debate is free; we have nothing to fear from rotten old-world ideas so long as our essentially (in European and world terms) leftist consensus holds.
Consider those New Haven firemen. Our visceral outrage at what has been done to them thus far springs from our feeling that their city government has violated our Lockean precept. We don’t think, as a European Rightist of old would have, that they should be favored because they’re of a certain ethnic group, religion, or class; rather, we feel, not think but actually feel, that they shouldn’t be disfavored for any of those types of reasons.
The task of identifying a historic American Right is further complicated by the federal nature of the American Constitution. A fellow whose attitudes seem perfectly Left at the federal level may easily have been a Rightist when it came to his own state. (Classically, defenders of slavery (Rightists par excellence) favored highly limited federal government (a classically Left attitude.) One may find oneself admiring such a person’s posture in federal affairs, then, while inwardly lamenting his “domestic” position. (I think of John Taylor of Caroline, say, or John Randolph of Roanoke.) The Right program that they generally favored is now defunct. Good riddance.
To argue about the ancestry of an American Right is, then, less a matter of historiography than a matter of taste. It’s about emphasis. Virtually every significant figure in American political history was in some sense Left-wing: Calhoun made South Carolina the world’s first jurisdiction with white manhood suffrage, John Adams argued forcefully for the Revolution (and against the Boston Port Act because it violated the traditional English precept that only guilty individuals should be punished), Lincoln argued a philosophical case against slavery, Goldwater advocated a tightly circumscribed Federal Government…. Where was the significant authentically Rightist American political figure?
Hartz was correct: there’s one wing in American politics. The question is almost always what kind of Left it will be. What we tend to call Right-wing in America is really very close to the middle of the philosophical road.
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