05 April 2016

High Toryism contra moonlight and magnolias

The Right Honourable John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore

I’ve said it before often enough, but it bears saying again anyway.

Traditional conservatism in the American colonies had three geographical hubs: New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. All were located in the Mid-Atlantic colonies. Each hub represented an Old World population (or many, in New York’s case); each held over a sentiment and culture that refused at first to give themselves over to an assimilated colonial identity. Anglicans, Catholics and Quakers kept their old loyalties to the King, and in many instances to the deposed House of Stuart. In the case of New York – true, it was cosmopolitan, but that cosmopolitanism ran straight to the centres of Baroque high culture in Europe. The Toryism of the Mid-Atlantic colonies found its voice in their attachment to Loyalism to the Crown during the Revolution. That voice – the last voice of an authentic ‘Toryism of the old school’ in the Thirteen – was subsequently quashed through revolutionary violence, expropriation and expulsion. However, the elder Toryism finds its North American voice in Canadian political philosophy, such as that of George Parkin Grant.

The two major victors in the War of American Independence were the colonies of New England (what Colin Woodard calls ‘Yankeedom’) and the Lowland South (‘Tidewater’ and parts of the ‘Deep South’). Two very different, but both revolutionary, concepts of what the new nation should be, began to emerge from these two victorious cultures.

Most of us are familiar with the Yankee conception of what the new nation ought to stand for, and many of us who know our history understand that it was very much tempered by a Puritan zeal, of the selfsame sort which ruled Calvin’s Geneva. This ideal is revolutionary insofar as it compasses a thoroughgoing break with the past and with tradition, but also insofar as it proclaims only the individualistic dimension of God’s relationship to man: either one is ‘elect’ or one is not. Thus, the Yankee conception also comprehends it as the destiny of that same, small elect few to ‘establish their standards of holiness in the world and thereby transform the world toward greater conformity’ with that same holiness, even if that means smashing up and burying older and more established forms of ‘prayer and adoration’. There is an active shunning of contemplative or mystical forms of religious sentiment among the Puritans centred on Boston, who are wholly driven by this mission of conversion to a high and rigid standard of republican virtue. The revolutionary-republican Yankee compulsion to make the world anew in its own image is one rightly shunned by traditionalists.

However, what too many American traditionalists tend to overlook, largely as a result of the myth-building of the Southern Agrarians, is that the revolutionary ideas were not confined to New England, and were just as strong in the South. They merely took different, and in some cases much more insidious, forms. This is something George Grant himself touches on briefly in Lament for a Nation, written in 1964: the Deep Southern ‘conservatism’ of a Barry Goldwater supporter is not truly a conservatism at all. Though the thrust of Grant’s attack is largely against the ‘dynamic empire spearheading the age of progress’ – an empire whose character is largely driven by Puritan Yankee imperatives – he could not at all countenance the pretensions of Goldwater-supporting Southerners to a genuine form of conservative thought or temper. Indeed, he said of Goldwater that ‘what he conserves is the liberal philosophy of Locke’. This has been the case, as (for example) nationalist free-trade critic Michael Lind has also been arguing repeatedly, for a very long time.

Going back further, into the Antebellum, Southern Ur-liberalism was firmly planted in the political theory of Thomas Hobbes and the ethical consequentialism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. If one looks at the most ardent defenders of the sectional economic and social interests of the South in the years leading up to the Civil War – including such notables as John C. Calhoun, Thomas Dew and George FitzHugh – their defences do not rest upon appeals to organic tradition, but rather to a ‘rational’ order designed with the ‘happiness’ of its inhabitants (including black slaves, who were in this ideological conception the beneficiaries of the ‘peculiar institution’!) in mind. In this, the history of the South is very sharply at odds with the mythology of the South. Calhoun, Dew and FitzHugh all regarded themselves as champions of the ‘new sciences’ against hidebound moralism and superstition. In his speeches before the Senate, Calhoun even likened himself to the ‘philosophical inquirers’ Newton, Laplace and Galileo, and his northern opponents to Galileo’s benighted and censorious Catholic inquisitors.

I should note briefly that the economic model that the Deep South has always embraced, since its beginning in the Carolinas, has always been one in which a rootless-cosmopolitan rentier caste makes its living on the unfree or undercompensated labour of an equally-rootless underclass of indentured servants and slaves. The Barbadian planters and the West India lobby which made up the élite caste of Charleston were not, themselves, noblemen of blood and birthright. Most of them were derived from Southern English and Dutch shipping and mercantile classes, whose knighthoods and peerages were bought not with blood and valour, but with silver wrung from the sugar-harvesting backs, first of Irish convicts furnished from the gaols of Oliver Cromwell’s bandit régime, and later of West African chattel slaves. If these sugar-mongers, who on the Continent turned to rice, indigo and cotton as their low-wage extraction crops of choice, did have noble blood, they were largely bastards (in both senses of the word), second sons, scions of cadet houses, army deserters and generally ‘boorish, limited men’ who got one beating too few from their fathers. They were adventurers, in short, who were totally free of the compunctions of noblesse oblige which constrained their betters.

It is worthy of note also that the elder High Tory tradition which both lingered in the Old World and found refuge in Upper Canada, was inflected with an abolitionist moralism which utterly detested the chattel slavery of the Americas. During the War of American Independence, Lord Dunmore promised freedom to escaped slaves who would fight for the British Crown. Samuel Johnson, as recounted by his biographer Boswell, scandalously made a toast to the ‘next insurrection of the Negroes in the West Indies’. Jonathan Swift, though a latecomer to Toryism, was another notable opponent of slavery – and also of the mistreatment of the Irish which so often went hand-in-hand with it. Robert Southey, the Romantic Tory poet, was among those who championed the boycott against ‘the blood-sweeten’d beverage’. The Tory radical Richard Oastler vociferously opposed black slavery in the West Indies in 1807, and went on to oppose the ‘Yorkshire slavery’ of undercompensated child labour in the workhouses. John Ruskin, that ‘violent Tory of the old school’, drew his opposition to the drudgery demanded by capitalism by comparing it to the ‘bitter and degrading’ slavery ‘of the scourged African’, and attacked the condition that left industrial workers in ‘the best sense, free’, yet which robbed them of all other forms of consideration. In British North America, the Anglican Tories Sir John Colborne and Fr. John Strachan had no fear of offending American sensibilities by advocating before Upper Canada’s Executive Council that no runaway slave should be betrayed to the Americans; this sentiment was shared widely by the late Loyalist settlers of that territory.

Allow me to be perfectly forthright. I tend to look favourably on the Southern Agrarians, and Richard Weaver in particular, not least because they had such a profound influence on Wendell Berry and on the American distributists whom I count among my friends and comrades. But the mythology they promote has connived at what is, to my mind, a doomed love-affair. I speak of that between those Southern romantics attached to an elder traditional lifeway which is largely an imagined and nostalgic one, and that most selfish, godless and perverse of the revolutionary ideologies, the anarcho-capitalism of which Murray Rothbard and Ludwig von Mises are the primary proponents and exemplars. It is one thing to want to return to an idyll of human-scaled community and reciprocal obligations that isn’t necessarily infected by a levelling, nominalist and utopian understanding of ‘equality’. It is another thing entirely, to fabricate that idyll whole-cloth to suit a misplaced sense of national pride.


  1. Hi Matthew. I don't know if you've read 'The Conservative Heart' by Arthur C. Brooks, but I'd really welcome your comments on my review of that book, as you are probably more familiar with American politics than I am.

  2. Haven't read it yet - and I confess I'm not a particularly great fan of Mr Brooks, who tends to buy into a peculiarly-American idea that there is a zero-sum game between public and private forms of charity. (Which, not just disagreeing with his conclusions, I question even the validity of the dichotomy drawn.)

    But I do look forward to reading your review of his book!