TAG | history
Arnold Kling recently mentioned he was reading Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. A little over halfway through the book, I am struck again by the historical contingency of particular foreign & social policy outlooks. For example, around 1800 New England was an export driven economy based on trade, in particular with Great Britain. Around 1850 the South was an export driven economy based on trade, in particular with Great Britain. By 1850 New England the whole Northeast had shifted toward a more diversified economy, and native manufacturers militated for the tariffs which their forebears would have scoffed at. Additionally, around 1800 New England was the redoubt of orthodox Christianity. The South was the domain of more easy-going religion, and outright heterodoxy among its social & political elites. Finally, one of the most interesting things to note is that it was in the Southern states that Francophilia during the period of the French Revolution was strongest!
Over the past few days we have had some discussion on this weblog about the marriage of individuals of the same sex from different vantage points. As an empirical matter I think Andrew Stuttaford is correct to predict that this is one argument that the social conservatives are going to lose in our time. I also lean in Andrew’s direction when it comes to accepting this change. This is not to say that I think that homosexual marriage is wrong and I am accepting it as a point of pure pragmatism. In fact, there are all sorts of things which I find inevitable, from my own death proximately, to the futility of baryonic based life ultimately, that I am not positively inclined toward & wish to postpone as long as possible. This is why I understand why social conservatives may oppose this change, even if they also agree that it is an inevitable development, for they oppose it as a matter of principle and not pragmatic utility, and postponing what they consider to be wrong is naturally a mitzvah in their eyes.
But a dispositional conservatism serves more than a periodoc brake upon the inevitable march of history toward its final Utopian state. In fact the empirical record shows some cyclical dynamics in human morals and values. After all, Western liberal democracy is a throwback in many ways to the individualism of the hunter-gatherer phase of human history. I believe that the institutions and norms of communitarian “traditional” cultures were in fact ad hoc kluges which attempted to reconcile our “caveman psychology” with post-Neolithic mass society. Conservative and liberal dispositions seem to be partly hardwired; as humans we place ourselves along the spectrum. It is not simply a matter of conservatives always being a few generations behind liberals along the inevitable secular ascent up toward earthly paradise. Rather it seems possible these different political tribes are like two cylinders which serve as the motive force behind a winding and unpredictable journey.
I’m reading Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World right now. I’ve not read Ferguson before, and I have to say he’s a rather good prose stylist. Though dense with data & concept The Ascent of Money is a page turner, though perhaps it says more about me than the gripping narrative.
But the most interesting aspect for me right now is how dated some of the observations made are. The final touches on the book were put into place in late-Spring of 2008, so you have Ferguson referring to the “Financial Crisis of 2007.” I’ve heard him on the radio and he ruefully has admitted that events are so volatile that despite the timeliness of his book, in some ways it is almost quaint in terms of the perspective which it offers. Despite the fact that here in the United States we are on the precipice of verging to the Left, I can’t but help wonder if the ultimate results of the current crisis will be conservative. Not conservative in specific ways such as the election of conservative governments or greater faith in modern capitalism, but a deep conservatism of disposition which is nourished by the jaundiced skepticism which is in the air. Skepticism of the efficacy of government in the face of corrupt capitalism. Skepticism as to the virtue of the free market. Skepticism of engineering, financial and social. Skepticism of the goodness of one’s fellow man and the inevitable ascent toward the pinnacle of progress.
Though prehaps you’ll find it ironic that my pessimism about the current state of affairs makes me optimistic, so to speak, about conservatism.
In the late 4th century the Roman Empire was diverting its state subsidies from the customary pagan cults to the Christian church. At the same time the public space was evolving from one where tokens of pagan piety were being replaced with witnesses to the Christian tradition. The pagan elites resisted this change, and it is from this period we have some dialogues between elites from both intellectual traditions. I was discussing with a friend recently how in late antiquity Christianity was a progressive and anti-traditional force, overturning norms which stretched back into the pre-literate past, passed from generation to generation. Today where Christianity and conservatism are seen to be coterminous this might seem peculiar, but it illustrates how conservatism is context specific. What might be conservative in one age is radical in another. Additionally, I would with some trepidation add that when some Christians appeal to the a priori Truths of their religion as the source of their views on how a Good Society should be ordered, it is in some ways as constructivist as the outlook of proposition nation proponents. Instead of an organically evolving society which changes incrementally from generation to generation, a Big Idea can reorder the constellations as the scales fall from one’s eyes.
I’ve recently triggered a round of discussion on several weblogs around the interwebs relating to the term “Judeo-Christianity,” especially when it comes to definiting the civilization of the West (as in, “our Judeo-Christian culture”). I started the discussion here, to which Ross Douthat responded with his disagreement (also, my response to Ross, of a sort, here). Noah Millman and Sam Goldman lean toward my side, though with reservations. James Poulos stayed neutral. At Taki’s Mag I tried to show that the debate might have the faintest of relation with current events, while Richard Spencer responds with, Is Christianity Western?, where he considers some of the arguments in The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity. A quick answer to Richard’s query would be that though I would not say Christianity is necessarily Western, I do believe that the West as we understand it is necessarily Christian or post-Christian. Even if we are not religious, I would say that Christianity is the religion we are not if we are Western. Similarly, if one is Japanese, and not religious, Buddhism is the religion one is not, if you get my drift….
I’m almost finished with What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. Reading this and other books on this period of American history I’m struck by how milquetoast the public discussion of religion is in the political domain today in comparison. I noted below that very few individuals in Congress will admit to not having a religion, and yet I recall John Ashcroft being grilled as to the nature of his adherence to the Assemblies of God during his confirmation hearings. We live in an age when religion is good, just not too much, or too strange. In 1832 Andrew Jackson, arguably the first orthodox Christian president of the early republic, refused to set aside a day of prayer due to his strict separationism. A robust anti-clericalism and secularism was not too uncommon in some sectors of what became the Democratic party. Robust enough that Benjamin Tappan, the irreligious brother of the more famous evangelical Tappans, could win enough favor with the legislature of Ohio to be elected Senator during the period we know as the Second Great Awakening, when evangelical reformist politics were waxing.
I just realized something strange the other day. Here are the American presidents who were affiliated officially as Unitarians:
- John Adams
- John Quincy Adams
- Millard Fillmore
- William Howard Taft
The first Adams, Fillmore and Taft were undeniably conservatives in their time. John Adams’ faction was much more hostile to French Jacobinism than those who supported Thomas Jefferson. Fillmore was a conservative Whig who later ran unsuccessfully as a Know Nothing. And Taft’s conservatism later prompted a third party challenge from Teddy Roosevelt. Whether John Quincy Adams is a conservative or not is more confused, and depends on whether you paint the Jacksonian populism which he opposed as Right or Left. Thomas Jefferson had personal Unitarian sympathies, but he was never an official member of the church.
This is strange because the modern Unitarian-Universalist Association is arguably more a body which brings together people of Left-Liberal politics, than a religious fellowship. And of course historically there were many radical Unitarians, such as the abolitionist Theodore Parker. But during this period Unitarian didn’t have such a strong factional valence in politics; besides Fillmore, Daniel Webster was another conservative Whig Unitarian, while John C. Calhoun was arguably the intellectual godfather of the Confederacy.
Reading about the controversy surrounding the Second Bank of the United States, I get the sense that we know more about how economics operates today than we did 180 years ago. But how much more? Enough to matter? I assume so. But with how much certitude?