To Sustain the Anglo-American Tradition, Conversation Is Not Enough

In a February 2018 speech to members of the National Sheriff’s Association, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions offered a brief, improvised tribute to the office of sheriff in the Anglo-American tradition. While some writers leapt to defend the idea of that tradition, many suggested that Sessions’ use of the term was little more than another dog whistle. We might simply take the entire episode to be another manifestation of Trump Derangement Syndrome, but for so many supposedly-highly-educated people in the media to join the chorus demonstrates yet another area of failure in our nation’s civic education. Unless they set out to complicate or outright destroy the idea, scholars in politics and law mostly assume the presence of an Anglo-American tradition, or at least a loose collection of ideas about liberty, justice, and political order that flow from cultural preoccupations shared across the Anglophone world.

Two years ago João Carlos Espada published The Anglo-American Tradition of Liberty: A View From Europe with a different end in mind than most scholars. The book, which is just out in paperback, begins with a European puzzle: Why is it that the English-speaking peoples historically combined a deep love of liberty with a passionate devotion to their political duties, where for the rest of Europe this is so difficult? Espada develops his account of this phenomenon through brief engagements in the thought of 13 authors active from the 18th century to the present.

If this were just a foray into the history of political thought, I suspect the book would not have been very successful at enriching our understanding of the Anglo-American tradition. But what Espada actually offers is implied by his subtitle: a look at his personal journey into a tradition of thinking about politics, one that can be espoused by “conservatives, liberals, and even social-democrats” and that prizes a “non-revolutionary disposition and a common attachment to liberty and personal responsibility.” As such, his “view” is highly idiosyncratic, offering insights into a complex tradition of thought that are a mixture of perceptive analysis and personal observation.

For the most part, Espada unfolds his story in reverse chronological order. Part I offers four chapters centered on people who influenced his intellectual development, and that were most responsible for his exposure to the Anglo-American tradition. He attributes the most decisive influence on his trajectory to his relationship with Karl Popper. But what Popper represents in Espada’s thinking is a skepticism of grand theories, particularly those related to history. Popper excoriated historicism as an attitude “attributing to history a pre-determined sense not susceptible to alteration by individuals.” This is crucial because many rationalistic theories of politics and ideology—the sort of beliefs that aim at transforming the world—rely on an understanding of progress that flows from a version of this historicism. From Popper he also learned to admire Winston Churchill, upon whom a crucial element of the argument of this book rests.

After offering brief appreciations of his other teachers and mentors—Raymond Plant, Ralf Dahrendorf, Irving Kristol, and Gertrude Himmelfarb—Espada opens the second part of his book with an eclectic list of five “Cold Warriors” from whom he deepened his worldview and appreciation of the Anglo-American tradition: Raymond Aron, Friedrich Hayek, Isiah Berlin, Michael Oakeshott, and Leo Strauss. These chapters complicate the story, helping the reader grasp the essential outlines of how the Anglo-American tradition figured in 20th century thought. Espada also offers a tour of what each thinker saw in the Anglo-American tradition and details his own encounter with their ideas.

In Raymond Aron, Espada discovers a logic parallel to Popper’s rejection of historicism. Aron argued that thinkers on the Left all too often assume history has a direction which the elect can discover—and in effect a secular religion that animates lives and frees us from the ordinary rules and procedures of politics. Emphasizing the overlap between the common law tradition and the “grown” institutions and knowledge Hayek defended, we receive a reminder that “liberty is, not only the first value, but also the source and condition of most other values.” Berlin and Oakeshott offer a healthy dose of skepticism about abstractions alongside their own accounts of what defending liberty requires of citizens.

The most suggestive chapter here concerns Strauss, whose critique of relativism takes center stage, and against whose esotericism Espada offers a gentle criticism. He reminds his readers of the crucial role Strauss played in reviving political philosophy, with particular attention to the way Strauss held relativism to threaten liberal democracy. By including Strauss, Espada creates an opportunity to criticize his other Cold Warriors’ lapses into relativism, and to ask whether they offered enough intellectual sustenance with which to defend Anglo-American liberty.

In Espada’s rendering, none of these five Cold Warriors offers a full appreciation of the Anglo-American tradition—or more importantly, the challenge of defending what is true about it in the present day. With the possible exception of Strauss and Aron, each of his thinkers deploys an abiding skepticism to critique modernist, socialist, or illiberal views of politics and economics. While each appropriated elements of the Anglo-American tradition, all of them remained unwilling to commit to defending a comprehensive view of the political order, instead opting for conversation, philosophy, or economics as their primary ordering principle. And all of them offer lessons about how the tendencies in 20th century thought toward critique rather than grander, more constructive ideas left us adrift.

Perhaps this is why in Espada’s third major section, he turns at greater length to three champions of the Anglo-American tradition—Edmund Burke, James Madison, and Alexis de Tocqueville—as well as one virulent opponent of it, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. While the sections on Madison, Rousseau, and Tocqueville offer perceptive sketches, Espada offers the opinion that until Churchill, Burke was the author and statesman who best expressed “the exceptionalism of the political culture of the English-speaking peoples.” In part, this is because Burke unsystematically attempted to convey what it meant to defend an entire political and moral culture, not just limiting himself to formal—and largely critical—views like Berlin’s negative liberty or Hayek’s presentation of how our limited knowledge should shape our politics and economy. Espada draws from Burke a broad conclusion about the Anglo-American tradition:

In other words, what we now call liberal democracy has emerged in the Anglosphere as a natural outgrowth of existing, law-abiding and moral-abiding ways of life. For this reason, liberal democracy amongst the English-speaking peoples has naturally been associated with an ethos of duty – which, as Burke pointed out, is not and should not be deduced from will. For this reason, too, liberal democracy in the Anglosphere has been tremendously stable. And this is also why the English-speaking peoples have always been the first to rise in defense of their cherished liberties – their way of life.

He ends the book by pointing to Winston Churchill as Burke’s principal successor in defense of the Anglo-American tradition, and in elaborating systematically some of the lessons one might draw from the tradition. Most of these are valuable and apt statements of political moderation and opposition to ideology.

The trouble comes when Espada attempts to suggest sources for renewal. Rather than turning to the messy world of politics required to practically defend liberty—the one in which Churchill, Burke, Madison, and Tocqueville operated—Espada’s effort remains locked into the categories his Cold Warriors offered up for political guidance, particularly those found in Hayek, Oakeshott, and Berlin. And so, Espada concludes with an emphasis on human fallibility, irrationality, and non-foundational thinking rather than on more positive, action-oriented virtues.

This creates a somewhat paradoxical argument. In a section deeply indebted to Oakeshott and Himmelfarb’s thinking, Espada suggests that a politics driven by conversation will retain a “pluralist ethical consensus,” one driven by a good-natured toleration and willingness to compromise. He suggests the central component of this, and the one most deeply defended by both Churchill and Burke, was a culture of “gentlemanship.” By this, Espada means “the gentleman’s code of conduct,” a code “certainly inspired by Christianity . . . flexible and ambiguous enough to accommodate different shades and above all a conversation among shades.” The honor code to which he alludes did grow in a broadly Christian culture, but its aristocratic lineage poses the real challenge. Espada has little to say about the positive political virtues that give rise to gentlemanly conduct, and his exemplars of honorable Anglophone culture—Burke and Churchill—also lived in a culture of deference, stability, and hierarchy that gave sustenance to the code.

Tocqueville is a safer guide to understanding honor-bound politics, and here it is surprising that Espada misses the ways that equality erodes codes of gentlemanly conduct and honor by breaking down the stable civic and social bonds in which such manners and mores grow. He correctly questions—as Strauss did—whether we can return to any kind of classical natural right, but by implicitly calling for a renewed attention to a set of aristocratic virtues in an egalitarian time, he misses that the most likely source of “gentlemanship” is actually the appreciation for imperfection and defense of natural law that Christian belief provides.

Read in this light, Espada’s autobiographical study of the Anglo-American tradition seems elegiac, at least from a European perspective. On the other hand, appreciating these thinkers as he does serves as a reminder that no matter what the crisis, the West has been there before. This is a book that shows, despite itself, that conversation is not enough.

Reader Discussion

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on November 26, 2018 at 09:43:00 am

While each appropriated elements of the Anglo-American tradition, all of them remained unwilling to commit to defending a comprehensive view of the political order,

A comprehensive view of the political order is another term for rationalism, a system. On paper, in the realm of the abstract, the system of Anglo-American liberty is not demonstrably superior to other systems; quite the reverse in fact. The Anglo-American "system" was not instituted by theoreticians as were socialist and communist systems in the 19th and 20th centuries and as was the first French Republic and every succeeding one. Madison et al. were thinkers but not theorists; they did not devise systems.

The political culture and forms of government of the Anglosphere are demonstrably superior to all others only on an empirical basis ("only!"). They have worked. History attests to this, which is why it has been the work of multiple generations of academic ideologues to revise history to "prove" the opposite. Our institutions cannot convincingly be defended on a rationalist basis against systems native to a rationalist environment. "Natural law" is far too indeterminate to serve as a rationalist grounding for an Anglo-American political or moral metaphysics. The Protestant Reformation was first and foremost a rejection of European Christian orthodoxy; European Christianity was itself a system, and all systems are orthodox. The strength of "natural law" as a political principle constantly appealed to is that it is not an orthodoxy.

A modern way of expressing this is to say that the Anglo-American political tradition is inferior as a "narrative" to political systems designed as narratives, i.e. as works of authorship (fiction). This is the same way in which modern progressives understand "science"--as narrative; not, as Popper insisted, as trial-and-error empiricism. The fact that Berlin et al do not "systematize" the Anglo-American political experience is their strength, but the chief consequence is that to people trained to approach political history as a form of literary criticism, the practical superiority of our traditions and institutions is obscured.

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on November 26, 2018 at 11:44:00 am

"...the most likely source of “gentlemanship” is actually the appreciation for imperfection and defense of natural law that Christian belief provides." In the past, perhaps. What if that source is not present in the future? While, as Tocqueville points out, spirituality is part of human nature, particular forms of spirituality, such as Christianity are not. Indeed, Tocqueville suggests that Pantheism, not Christianity, is the form of spirituality closest to democratic sensibilities, even though he thinks it a source of moral impoverishment.
Espada is perhaps closer to Tocqueville in calling for gentlemanship than Smith. Tocqueville strove to reinforce the aristocratic elements in democratic societies as a balance for their characteristic flaws. Espada is only following in his footsteps in this respect. Whether anything aristocratic or gentlemanly can survie Twitter is another matter.

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Alan S. Kahan
on November 26, 2018 at 15:17:33 pm

The term gentleman is problematic as it implies a particular social status under the English common law. There were two kinds of gentlemen. Gentlemen of the first order were the untitled sons of Peers. Knights were gentlemen but the sons of knights were not. Then there was the class of gentlemen by courtesy; the so called gentlemen of trade and the professions. Except for gentlemen of the first order, if you worked for living and did not possess a university degree, you were not a gentleman. In England, even after 1688, gentlemen had a number of rights that commoners did not enjoy.

Of course this rubbed the republicans the wrong way and as early as 1636, the commoner settlers of New England told their titled sponsors and benefactors that would be welcomed, honored and given land and public offices should they join them but they would not recognize hereditary titles and they would be subject to the same laws as everybody else.

Espada's tradition seems to be much more high Whig British than republican American.

On the point of an established religion and religious tolerance, Eric Nelson's recent "The Hebrew Republic" (2010) argues that after 1650, the English adopted the Hebrew understanding of Erastianism, which required that civil and religious authority be merged in the head of the civil state but also required broad toleration of non-conforming religious practice so long as the non-conforming practice did not violate the first tablet, were not disturbing the peace and did not demand political loyalty to another sovereign.

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on November 26, 2018 at 17:21:15 pm

Recently there was discussion of James Wilson’s law lectures; see https://www.lawliberty.org/2018/11/20/natural-law-and-democracy-the-philosophy-of-james-wilson/

At the beginning of that essay, author Roberta Bayer writes: “Wilson argued that the philosophers John Locke (1632–1704) and David Hume (1711–1776) advanced theories that were antithetical to democratic government, because they deny to human nature the moral properties necessary to a knowledge of justice.”

Now we have consideration of Edmund Burke, whom Brian A. Smith describes as a "defender of the Anglo-American tradition." However, in his law lectures, James Wilson condemned Burke’s Lockean view – that the institution of society come between man and his natural rights – as “TYRANNY.” In Wilson’s words:

“Tyranny, at some times, is uniform in her principles. The feudal system was introduced by a specious and successful maxim, the exact counterpart of that, which has been advanced by Mr. Burke” who argued, as Wilson summarized, that “the connexion between man and his natural rights is intercepted by the institution of civil society.” (Wilson 2007, 2:1057)

This disconnect between man in civil society and his pre-extant natural rights allows for (for example) the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty (running roughshod over the natural and constitutional rights of the American colonists), and the institution of slavery in colonial America (blacks were defined as being outside the body politic, and so not beneficiaries of customary “rights of Englishmen”).

As I have mentioned before, Locke’s credentials as an apologist for slavery should not go un-noticed: He owned a share in the slave-trading Royal Africa Company, he wrote South Carolina’s original constitution instituting slavery (and white serfdom, too); and in his Second Treatise he presented slavery as the continuation of war (conveniently rationalizing the Royal Africa Company’s purchase of African prisoners of war to be transported and sold in the American colonies).

On this last point, young Thomas Jefferson wrote into the margin of his copy of Kames’ “Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion” a comparison of Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui’s condemnation of slavery versus Locke’s earlier limited justification of it as an “improvement” in our moral sense.

Burlamaqui wrote that governments exist to safeguard out natural rights, with natural right understood in terms of the pursuit of happiness (which was in turn understood in terms of our “perfection” or mature moral development). This was the language of the Declaration of Independence, and Burlamaqui was the era's leading exponent of natural law (the foundation of the legal tradition studied by colonial lawyers), so it is only natural that the Founders would embrace a familiar argument from Burlamaqui.

However, today’s leading “expert” on the Declaration of Independence – Michael Zuckert, in “The Natural Rights Republic” – dismisses the possibility that Burlamaqui could have said what Burlamaqui actually said (did Zuckert actually not read Burlamaqui before going into print?), and this egregious blooper is Zuckert’s quicksand foundation for his otherwise-groundless assumption that the Declaration is based on the thought of John Locke.

Ten years ago I wrote a 200-page master’s thesis, the centerpiece of which was the newly-recovered 1776 congressional definition of happiness – from the original May 1776 independence resolution. My earlier efforts to get published were met with brusque dismissal, so I gave up and tried again a few years later, finding out that Michael Zuckert’s journal “American Political Thought” was the place for my topic. (Editors at other journals just said, Go over to “American Political Thought.”) More articles got dismissed, with an increasing accumulation of incompetent, contemptuous blind reviews, which I rebutted point-for-point to “make the record.” One of these days, there is going to be quite a lot of material here for an investigation into the perversion of the academic peer-review process.

Finally, in my two most recent submissions, I made a point of directly attacking Michael Zuckert’s sophomoric errors in “The Natural Rights Republic.” That got me a “revise and resubmit,” but the revision got axed by a hostile reviewer who displayed no awareness of the Cicero-Hutcheson-Burlamaqui-Vattel tradition (at the core of my discussion of the Declaration of Independence) and who simply refused to engage with the substance of my submission. (As this situation slowly oozes toward the realm of public scandal, the question of the identities of the peer reviewers is likely to take center stage.)

In my rebuttal of the dismissive review, I called for Michael Zuckert to resign as editor-in-chief of “American Political Thought.”

It seems to me that my experience with “American Political Thought” illuminates the appalling scholarly unawareness of the fact that James Wilson condemned Burke’s argument as “tyranny.” How can Burke be considered a "defender" of the Anglo-American political tradition if his thought is condemned by a mainstream American revolutionary leader? What kind of Orwellian nightmare do we live in?

Twelve years ago, I found the May 1776 congressional definition of happiness (“internal peace, virtue and good order”), and I can’t get published.

I’ve posted several of my rejected submissions here: https://independent.academia.edu/JohnSchmeeckle

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John Schmeeckle
on November 26, 2018 at 17:53:19 pm

“. . . modern progressives understand “science”–as narrative; not, as Popper insisted, as trial-and-error empiricism.” I think “progressives” are only one faction and comprehension is constrained by 17th-century political correctness and scholarly surrogates such as “trial-and-error empiricism.”

“Natural law” and “nature’s God” are on the same scale in the Google books Ngram viewer from 1800 until about 1960, when “pseudoscience” displaces “nature’s God.” “Nature” drives the other three phrases to zero.

In 1941 at a symposium on science and religion, Albert Einstein delivered the speech “The Laws of Science and the Laws of Ethics.” Perhaps Einstein informed humankind that physics (the object of discovery) is the source of integrity, and when fellow humans collaborate to discover the-objective-truth, ethics is lame. Pseudoscience has no place in Einstein’s message. In other words, all of the 1941 terms---science, religion, and ethics---obfuscated physics as the authority to which every human may choose to pursue integrity or not.

Christianity’s participation/partnership in Parliament is constitutionally specified in England. The 1789-1793 Congress unconstitutionally imposed factional-American Protestantism as an official tradition. The U.S. Supreme Court erroneously codified merely ceremonial prayer in Greece v Galloway (2014), rendering legislative prayer unworthy speech. Yet they told me I am niggling to object to their folly. The U.S. psychological independence from British colonialism has not yet begun.

Going forward, a better future is achievable by most fellow citizens adopting the agreement for the civic, the civil, and the legal self-discipline that is offered in the U.S. preamble and managing governments so as to constrain Christian principles to private, adult pursuit, allowing unrestricted collaboration to discover civic integrity.

Once the people of the U.S. end Christian dominance, the First Amendment may be revised to protect the development of integrity rather than establish the un-disestablish-able freedom of religion.

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Phil Beaver
on November 27, 2018 at 01:04:18 am

[…] To Sustain the Anglo-American Tradition, Conversation Is Not Enough […]

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