Politics & Policy

The Founders and Their Jackboots

Detail of portrait of John Adams by Gilbert Stuart (National Gallery of Art)
John Adams believed that civil society depended on piety and that the government should promote morality. Was he a fascist?

In the intramural food fight on the American right, our patience and friendships have been strained for lack of clear, shared definitions. Namely, I’m not sure that when we’re talking about “the common good,” “nationalism,” or even “classical liberalism,” we are working with shared definitions.

For example: My colleague Kevin Williamson has lately developed an unlovely habit of calling everyone he dislikes a fascist. He calls New York Post editorial-page editor Sohrab Ahmari a “bantamweight Mussolini” going through a “jackboot phase,” because Ahmari believes in “the common good,” biblically defined. Last week Senator Marco Rubio — drawing on the work of Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis, and Pope Leo XIII — promoted a notion of making capitalism work for the common good, which Williamson calls “the familiar moral basis of fascist economic thinking.”

On matters of Church and state, Williamson puts Thomas Jefferson, President John Adams, and liberty on one side, and the abyss of Josef Ratzinger, Ahmari, Il Duce, and the common good on the other. Government, Williamson informs us, is “not a fitting instrument of moral instruction,” and we should not invest “mere political functionaries with the power of moral compulsion.” Williamson implies that such ambitions are pharaonic — they had to be humbled by ten plagues for the lesson to settle in that we should not put our trust in princes.

Williamson believes the only proper object of government is securing liberty. Liberty to do what is presumably the next question. But I presume he would object if some enthusiastic God-botherer like Ahmari tried to write into an American constitution a directive about “the duty of all men in society, publicly and at stated seasons, to worship the Supreme Being, the great Creator and Preserver of the universe.” Or even worse, if such a constitution said that “the happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality” and made provision for the government to intervene when people don’t set up “the institution of public worship of God” voluntarily. This is precisely what the President Adams put near the top of the constitution that he wrote for Massachusetts.

Does Williamson believe that the Massachusetts of 1780 was a fascist state? Does he think Adams’s provision that the institution of public worship be made by the government (where it wasn’t volunteered) led to jackboots? I seriously doubt it. On the other hand, the current Massachusetts Supreme Court believes that Adams hid the concept of same sex-marriage within the same constitution. People claim to believe anything when expedient. But if Massachusetts wasn’t a prison house in 1780, then maybe just maybe we’re exaggerating the enmity between the Founders and concepts like “the common good.”

Funnily enough, the same God that Williamson claims sent plagues to teach Nozickian libertarianism to Egyptians then explicitly instructs His chosen people to build a theocracy in the Levant and also bids them to be faithful to Him not just as individuals but corporately as a nation.

That brings us to the nationalism part. Just as our Founders could be acquainted with the common good, so could nationalists be liberals. Williamson has noted that people who are comfortable with some aspects of the new nationalism would not even be in America if previous American nationalists had had their way. Various immigration restrictionists didn’t want my Irish ancestors, or Ahmari’s Iranian parents, or Mark Krikorian’s Armenian family to become citizens, he notes with evident relish.

But ironies abound. Political nationalism is less an ideology than a kind of temper — an opportunistic one that can take other ideologies in hand at will. Williamson’s objection to myself, Ahmari, and Krikorian is the exact same one made by the Know Nothings themselves: that we Catholics can’t help but pollute his Jeffersonian idyll with our foreign ideology. Williamson is right that some modern nationalists share with the Know Nothings the preference for controlled immigration as a policy. Highmindedly, Williamson adheres only to their prejudices.

He has dinged me for being a nationalist of two countries at once — for America and Ireland. But why not those two and more? As G. K. Chesterton put it:

Nationalism is a generalisation. . . . An Individualist, if there ever was such an animal, does not think that he is the only person who can be an individual. A Collectivist does not think that his cows and acres ought to be collected by an official, and everyone else’s left as they are. Nor does a Royalist mean a madman who thinks he is the King of England.

One gets to pick and choose. Chesterton the Englishman was accused by Orwell of being a French nationalist, and accused himself of being an Irish one. My Irish nationalism is a love for the songs, poetry, and language given to me in my youth, and a desire that Ireland remain independent, free, and, one day, united. I would abjure the IRA that sought the last bit by a three-decade campaign of terror. My American nationalism — such as it is today — is the conviction that our government has too often served an ideology or factional interests rather than its people in trade and foreign policy. I would similarly abjure the Yankee jingos who believe we have a destiny to democratize every atoll.

I’d be pleased if America’s classical liberals could show a little national solidarity — even opportunistically. Perhaps they could demonstrate one-tenth of the anger at 25 percent tariffs on American cars going into China in the past two decades that they have shown at the 25 percent tariffs on Chinese goods coming into the United States in recent months. Or at least they could stop using the F-word so promiscuously.

 

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