18 September 2011

Of Adams, Jackson and Calhoun – and new battles on old fields

John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the United States

I am currently reading Peter Viereck’s Conservatism, which actually manages to be a fairly good overview of various strains of thought which can really only loosely be put together. He quite astutely identifies three strands in American thinking which have come to dictate how we conduct our politics – each typified by a politician representing a different set of interests and goals and political constituencies. In fact, what we are doing right now in the American political scene – though we don’t really realise it, given the disconnect much of the American populace has from its own history – is fighting out the same battle once more.

This goes back to the four men whom Viereck identifies as the leading lights of American conservative thought, insofar as any thought among the Founding Fathers could be considered conservative (which I doubt): Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, John Jay and James Madison – the founders of the Federalist party and the Brahmins (to use the common phrase) of an elite merchant class based primarily in the American North, centred around Boston. Theirs was a conservatism which was based – unlike the more liberal thought of Jefferson and Paine – in very deep convictions about original sin, and the need for legal and cultural stability in the face of faction. It was Hamilton who devised a system which would direct the people’s allegiance, loyalty and religious impulses toward a common centre in the US Constitution and in the office of the Presidency (as we have seen in abundance!). One may question whether or not this action was ‘conservative’ as these were norms which were written, not grown; created rather than cultivated, philosophically emphasising negative liberties and individualism over positive liberties and stability… but this is the closest we have to a conservative tradition.

It is into this very tradition (wary of mob rule, painfully aware of original sin, staid and militant advocates of stable political institutions) that John Adams’ son, John Quincy Adams, was raised. One can detect his aversion to mob rule and his allegiance to the tradition of natural law and the unwritten English constitution in his Letters of Publicola, rebutting the ultra-liberal Thomas Paine:

[The] principle, that a whole nation has a right to do whatever it pleases, cannot in any sense whatever be admitted as true. The eternal and immutable laws of justice and of morality are paramount to all human legislation. The violation of those laws is certainly within the power, but it is not among the rights of nations… [If what Mr Paine says is true, t]he principles of liberty must still be the sport of arbitrary power, and the hideous form of despotism must lay aside the diadem and the sceptre, only to assume the party-coloured garments of democracy.

Originally, JQ Adams had only to contend against his Vice-President, John Calhoun – aptly remembered by Erik Loomis of Lawyers, Guns and Money as ‘[o]ne of the most evil men in US history’ – however, his defeat in 1828 came not at the hands of the Southern partizan Calhoun, but of another pro-slavery Southerner, Andrew Jackson. Jackson practically embodied the ultra-liberal ideals of Paine: he ran under the party slogan ‘the Supremacy of the People’s Will’ (with all of the Rousseauean connotations that carries!), and routinely took presidential actions which ran roughshod over checks and balances, as well as over various foreign nations (as the Cherokee, Seminole and Choctaw were considered at the time) with the Indian Removal Act.

Viereck briefly notes that these three men – Adams, Jackson and Calhoun – mutually despised each other, and the way their political fights shaped up, they divided the nation along sectarian lines. Viereck makes note of a ‘Jacksonian West’, which gave rise to a populism which was virulently hostile to the conservative elites of the Northeast – ‘with its faith in an idealised a priori abstraction called “the common man”… [a]s if original sin could cease at the Alleghenies’. The South, naturally, followed the theories of Calhoun, who was bent on carrying the unstable and sinful institution of slavery forward in perpetuity, as a ‘positive good’. The North – and not just the metropolitan merchant elite of the coast, but also the smallholders and independent workmen of Vermont, New Hampshire, upstate New York and most of Pennsylvania – largely followed the conservatism of Adams: suspicious of both the concentrations of power in the slaveowning class of the rural-industrial South, and of the Rousseau- and Paine-spouting Western frontiersmen who thought by their faith in their commonness and the forward march of history that they could do no wrong.

Naturally, there are many new issues (like the rise of modern industrialism) which have come into play, but what is truly interesting to me is that there is this idiom that has passed into modern use which corresponds to the threefold political fracture in the United States. Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry both expound the same radical-liberal, very anti-conservative Jacksonian narrative which absolutely denies original sin; they are speaking to a political bloc which aspires to use majority rule to ‘take back Washington’ (from whom, one might ask?), and are none too careful about which checks and balances they override to exercise their political will. If one reads the Tea Party platform carefully, one can see precisely where and how their political goals translate to increased powers, even dictatorial powers, for the presidency; as well as all of the anti-conservative energy, land-use and tax policies on display.

Of Calhoun’s corner, it is best represented by the presidential campaign of Ron Paul, who is notoriously tone-deaf if not downright insensitive regarding issues of civil rights for men and women of colour in America, and who expounds the political philosophy of Calhoun on ‘states’ rights’ and ‘nullification’ at every turn. It is worth noting that he’s not a very good or even consistent conservative given his rather unprincipled stance on abortion, and his unwillingness to actually conserve resources which by rights belong to everyone (I’m thinking here of his stance on selling off publicly-owned land).

And then there’s Adams’ own corner – the traditionalist yet socially-conscientious conservatism which weakly echoes the Tory radicalism of various English thinkers across the pond (my gentle readers should be very familiar with the breed at this point – Johnson, Oastler, Ruskin, Morris, Disraeli, Chesterton, Eliot, MacIntyre). At this point, it stands fairly vacant. The Roosevelt family, to a certain extent, mirrored the career of the Adams family in a number of ways: though Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy was questionable, his insistence on civic tradition and his distrust of the concentrations of power in big business that led to his ‘Trust-Buster’ moniker are good examples of how he followed through on the Adams legacy. Franklin Delano was also interested in yoking the cause of the Eastern elites to that of organised labour through the New Deal – a large part of which was concerned not with building new economic and political institutions, but rather with stabilising ones which were already there. To a certain extent, the Democratic Party follows in FDR’s footsteps (very selectively and very tepidly), but even in the present day Republican Party, there are several former politicians and public figures who have adopted policy positions and political philosophies which overlay somewhat that of Adams – Jim Jeffords and Lincoln Chafee leap to mind.

In the broader scheme of things, I certainly hold out for a more radical, more MacIntyrean alternative – but within the historical idiom of American politics I am certainly most sympathetic to the Yankee conservatism of John Adams and his son, John Quincy. This tradition remains my touchstone in American politics; my grandfather – himself a smallholding Vermont dairy farmer – identified very closely with this tradition.


  1. Great post. The New Deal was a pretty conservative platform. The New Deal was designed to save the basic nature of the American socio-economic system via reform, which is why so many people on the Far Right and Far Left hate its legacy and the legacy of the various successor platforms (Truman’s Fair Deal, Kennedy’s New Frontier, Johnson ’s Great Society).

    If I had to choose an American political tradition to identify with, it would be that of the New Deal Democrats, although I am probably still further to the left on economics. I hate to say it, but I often feel like I identify with European political traditions more than American ones, especially because American politics has shifted so hard to the Right on economics.

    When I read the economic platforms of FDR, Truman, Kennedy, and LBJ (heck, even Eisenhower and Nixon!), I just imagine what the Tea Partiers and FOX News would say about those fellows!

  2. Disraeli was not a Radical in either the small or large-"r" sense. Disraeli was opportunistic, power-hungry and in opposition for the majority of career, which led him to snatch at any opportunity to embarrass or defeat the Liberal-Whig-Peelite coalition which governed the UK (in various forms and combinations) for most of his adult life. I would be wary of inserting Disraeli into any discussion of political creeds.

    Any discussion of conservatism turns on the question of "conserving," but the question of what to conserve will vary based on time and place. Disraeli, for example, wished to conserve the "aristocratic settlement," although it was never entirely clear what he meant by that. This distinguishes Disraeli from the ultra-Tories who would be better described as reactionaries; men who did not believe in change and believed all changes since [insert undesired event here] should be rolled back.

    I'd like to see you discuss the current Republicans (for whom I have little sympathy) from this angle. Policies are less interesting than the assumptions they spring from. Analyzing Obama from this perspective might also be fruitful.

  3. John - very good point, though the formation of the current political alliances would appear to justify placing the New Frontier and the Great Society as edging toward the Jacksonian-liberal-populist side of things.

    Remember that the Democratic coalition that FDR kludged together married together an old-money Northern merchant class distrustful of the Gilded Age 'new money' which had made its fortunes fifty years before, Dixiecrats who probably had more in common with Calhoun than with Adams, and labour unions which tended to be more religious and immigrant in composition than other political cohorts. Because of the growing importance of the issue of civil rights, the reforms of Kennedy and Johnson couldn't enjoy the same broad support.

    Mackensen - I defer to your judgment on Disraeli, though I will note that Viereck's brief biography gives a rather more sympathetic view. One may argue his motives, naturally, but the Reform Act, the Employers' and Workmen's Act and the Conspiracy Act of Disraeli's administration would seem to render his opportunism not entirely fruitless.

    As for your challenge on attempting to apply this discussion more thoroughly to the current crop of candidates, I would definitely enjoy analysing the current candidates in greater depth from this historical angle. That's probably a subject for an entirely new blog post, though.

  4. I haven't read Viereck's biography so I can't comment on his views. The Reform Act of 1867 is indeed very liberal--more liberal in fact than the failed act which brought down Russell's government in 1866. Blake's analysis of the Disraeli/Derby government (1866-1868) is that the Tories main concern, after essentially two decades out of power, was to control events and push through a bill, the consequences be damned.

    It's true that much socially progressive legislation made it through under Disraeli's second administration, but that's complicated. Disraeli had a very good home secretary in Richard Cross, and the Tories had a paternalistic outlook which contrasted in interesting ways with the Liberals. It's worth remembering, for example, that the great factory owners were Liberas and Radicals, while Tories were still the party, even into the 1880s, of the landed aristocracy. A workers bill did them no harm at all. The "liberal/conservative" paradigm does no good here; both ruling parties in the UK between the 1840s and 1880s can probably be described as "conservative" (and I used that term advisedly) but with different "interests" and "influence."