04 July 2015

Case for the Crown

This Vox article by Dylan Matthews has a few points I probably could quibble with, but in the broad strokes it mirrors quite well my own sentiments on the War of American Independence. Great Britain at the time was also a liberalising imperial power, but there were elements within it - namely, the High Tory elements which would go on, in a Canadian context, to form the basis of George Parkin Grant’s Red Toryism - which militated against the worst and most egregious abuses of a burgeoning capitalist empire. (Amongst which were the chattel slavery of West and Central Africans as well as the theft of the native lands of the American Indians.) Though the aims of a few of the intellectual and legal minds of the thirteen colonies were varied, and a few of them even admirable, what they ultimately accomplished through revolution was the dissolution and exile of any such countervailing, conservative-moralist force.

So Dylan Matthews makes an excellent point about Britain having had, in the latter 1700’s and the early 1800’s, more humane and dignified policies with regard to the rights of black men and Indians. And slavery continued to be a profitable option for Britain well up until the Civil War, making its decision to abolish slavery throughout the Empire between 1833 and 1843 one of the rare examples of a disinterestedly altruistic act on the part of a modern state. As Howard Temperley put it,
Britain’s behaviour [in suppressing slavery and the slave trade] is particularly hard to account for. As Davis points out, the British are not thought of as having been particularly humane in other respects, including the treatment of their own working classes… It would appear that Britain's interests would have been best served by expanding the slave trade. … Instead of seeking to suppress the save trade, it could have dominated it, and in the process outproduced Cuba and Brazil, increased its own wealth, and contributed to the economic growth of the Americas. … In his History of European morals from Augustus to Charlemagne (1869), W. E. H. Lecky describes England’s crusade against slavery as “among the three or four perfectly virtuous acts recorded in the history of nations.” … Davis believes that Lecky was basically right.
But this virtuous act could not have taken place without the vocal, persistent moralisers across two generations drawn from both the radical and the conservative ends of Britain’s political field who agitated for abolition: on the conservative end, Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Swift, Beilby Porteus, Richard Oastler, Granville Sharp and (most famously) William Wilberforce are the primary representatives; on the radical end, the Quakers and Dissenters, William Cobbett, Thomas Clarkson and Robert Wedderburn.

By contrast, the conservative voice in the Americas, which gave rise to the Loyalists of the American Revolution, was extirpated through theft, murder and deportation by the revolutionaries. There were no John Strachans left south of Upper Canada both to rail against the evils of slavery, expropriation and exploitation of the working classes on the one hand, and to uphold peace, order and good government on the other. And so the task of ending slavery in the newfangled United States fell to the radicals, who grew to be opposed by an equally-radical (not conservative!) opposition from the slaveholders, who would sooner jettison the principles of good government and lawful, God-ordained order than the profits they derived from their ‘peculiar institution’. The bloody slaughter which ended slavery in the United States (a bloody slaughter whose historical meaning we are still fighting over in various forms to the present day) was therefore the result of the untimely death of the native tradition of moralistic conservatism among white Americans, at the hands of the revolutionaries.

With regard to the Indians, also: the bloodletting and the starvation marches on the frontier were the result of the victory of revolutionary ideology, and the extirpation of the voices of constraint. For this case we need to turn to Canada, which, though it has a far-from-perfect history of relations with its own First Nations, nevertheless managed to accomplish its westward push without the kind of brutal rapine, outright theft and genocide which characterised American frontier policy from Thomas Jefferson onwards. The sanguinary revolutionary slaughter Jefferson advocated against the colonial governments was carried to fruition largely by his equally-radical political protégé Andrew Jackson against what remained of the traditional agricultural and nomadic ways of life on the North American continent. I must agree with Mr. Matthews that, ‘[a]bsent the revolution, Britain probably would’ve moved into Indian lands [in the same manner Canada did]. But fewer people would have died’.

Where I begin to differ from Mr. Matthews on his reading of Britain, though more in the particulars than in the essentials, is in his appraisal of the Westminster parliamentary system. The success or failure of parliamentarianism lies not in the overt structural differences with the American government, but rather in the careful maintenance of the intellectual and moral habits which sustain it. Parliamentary democracy ought to grow organically out of the shared elements of the national life, rather than being considered a set of abstract written rules of government that can be imposed from the top down without any regard for the depth of that national life. (This is the problem, in fact, which I have with the American constitution and how it has been employed, often forcibly from without, as a standard for governments and nations to which it is culturally ill-suited.) Absent the habits of mind and soul, parliamentary governments are every bit as likely to devolve in as dysfunctional and unhealthy directions as ours has.

That said, Mr. Dylan Matthews, though his reasoning is more in the terms of governmental procedure than in the terms of spiritual and economic needs, says perfectly that which I have been saying for years, that ‘[m]onarchy is, perhaps paradoxically, the more democratic option’.

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