The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition (1995)
by Willmoore Kendall and George W. Carey
Catholic University of America Press
168 pp., $19.95
Ask the average American what his country stands for and he will likely answer “equality.” If that person studied a bit of American history, he or she would then cite the passage in the Declaration of Independence about all men being created equal. Although Joe Biden during a senior moment in a campaign speech couldn’t recall the entire passage, he reminded his audience, “You know the drill!” And quite likely his listeners did know it, because an American founding predicated on equality is what they were educated to believe.
Willmoore Kendall and George W. Carey dispute this conventional interpretation in their 1995 book, The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition, one of the most original interpretations of America’s founding documents and of their effect on the American republic. These documents reveal the origins of what became the American political tradition, one based on a virtuous people expressing themselves politically through “the deliberate sense of the community.”
As a study of America’s legal and political development, this book is distinguished by its starting point: the Mayflower Compact of 1620. The authors examine the Compact as a template for later images of how early Americans understood themselves as a political community. The opening words of this first document are particularly notable: “In the name of God.” This theological reference is one Kendall points to while exploring the political implications of two other early American documents: the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut of 1638-1639 and the Massachusetts Body of Liberties of 1641.
This is not an idle journey through Puritan antiquities. What Kendall underscores is the persistence of certain themes in early American political documents. In all of them he finds evidence that their adherents viewed themselves as belonging to a covenant, that they were acting as devout Christians, and that the members of what were to be self-governing communities were expected to behave virtuously, in accordance with biblical morality. For example, the “capital laws” of the Massachusetts Body of Liberties tell us:
If any man shall Blaspheme the name of god, the father, Sonne, or Holie ghost, with direct, express presumptuous or high handed blasphemie, or shall curse god in like manner, he shall be put to death.
Clearly the notion of liberty entertained by the Puritan settlers differed from the prevalent view of the second half of the 20th century. It is also consonant with Kendall and Carey’s thesis that what passed for self-government in early America assumed the existence of a righteous, Bible-reading citizenry. The character of the covenanted citizens comes up repeatedly in the 17th century documents that Kendall examines. So do certain requirements, such as the one that voting citizens should be both property owners and (Protestant) Christians in good standing.
above: Puritan couple kneeling in prayer (illustration by Herbert Paus, Sunday Magazine of the Sunday Record-Herald, Chicago, Illinois, Nov. 25, 1906 / Classic Stock / Alamy Stock Photo)
Kendall believes a constant paradigm is at work here, best understood through the symbology of the German philosophical historian Eric Voegelin. According to Voegelin, peoples—and particularly their well-attuned mystics and philosophers—have tried to make sense of reality through reference points that define their relationship to the mystery of human existence.
As a Neoplatonist and qualified Christian, Voegelin thought this engagement was mired not in illusion, but reflected an effort to grasp a spiritual truth extending back to both Greek thought and Hebrew revelation. For Voegelin, a long-dominant mythic or symbolic framework for Western life came from the story of the Exodus and its relationship to both God and the children of Israel. It is this narrative that Kendall and Carey place at the beginning of the American experience. It is the story about how the future American people escape “European tyranny” and fashion a virtuous republic in the wilderness under divine guidance.
One may easily recognize in this “mythic framework,” particularly as presented in Kendall’s final chapter, the picture of the Puritan settlement of New England, evoked by the iconic American historian Perry Miller. In his voluminous study Errand into the Wilderness (1956), a work that Kendall and Carey surely read, Miller lays out the Old Testament images that the author of Basic Symbols traces back to Voegelin.
One should ask whether this symbolic or mythic core remains permanently fixed in the American political tradition. Was there some point at which it was replaced by a more fashionable framework; and if so, when did that happen? And even if that change occurred, did the older leitmotifremain operative in the way Americans thought of themselves politically and morally?
The third document that Kendall analyzes, the Virginia Bill of Rights, constructed mostly by George Mason and promulgated on June 12, 1776, opens with this statement of natural right:
That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights of which when they enter into a state of society, they cannot by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely the enjoyment of life and liberty with the means of acquiring property and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
Mason’s language clearly foreshadowed Jefferson’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” passage in the Declaration, which was issued less than one month later. But it’s also hard not to notice what Mason borrowed from John Locke in this passage. Mason even replicates Locke’s famous theme from the Second Treatise of Government which depicts how those who entered the social contract moved from the state of nature into civil society.
As Thomas West, Bradley Thompson, and other historians have shown, it was common practice in early America to borrow from Locke’s social contract theory and his notion of inborn individual rights in introducing lists of authorized rights, particularly in state constitutions. From all appearances, by the late 18th century the self-image of American government had moved away from Protestant covenant theology or the children of Israel in the wilderness analogy and toward Lockean and Enlightenment natural right instead. Kendall and Carey do not entirely deny that such a change occurred, but insist that it was not as significant as some have believed.
When Kendall and Carey come to Abraham Lincoln and the attempt to present the Civil War as America’s rebirth as a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” they complain about a grave “derailment” of the American political tradition. It is here that Kendall’s illustrious coauthor, George Carey, who put the finishing touches on the book following Kendall’s death in 1969, contributes informative insights.
Carey’s introduction to the 1995 paperback edition tells us that Kendall’s confrontation with Lincoln is the “most controversial single element in the thesis advanced in Basic Symbols.” Those who dispute Kendall’s contention would rejoin that the “all men are created equal” proposition of the Declaration “contains a binding national commitment,” and that Lincoln’s interpretation of that proposition is correct, unlike the views of “the radical egalitarianism that has emerged in recent decades.”
Carey finds the latter half of this rejoinder to be the more interesting part. He cites Lincoln’s critical comments about the Dred Scott decision, which denied freedom to a slave who had lived with his master in a non-slave state; yet Lincoln’s opinions went well beyond addressing the argument in this controversial judgment. According to Lincoln, “the equality clause was of no ‘practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain’”; it was rather meant for future use, as we expanded our concept of this key value and its application. Like Kendall, Carey viewed the appeal to equality in the Declaration, unless properly contextualized, as an invitation to continuing social engineering.
For both these scholars, however, the perhaps insufficiently acknowledged change in basic symbols, which began in the late 18th century, encapsulates the nub of their argument. The virtuous, pious people engaging in cautious self-government with appropriate deliberateness is replaced conceptually by rights-bearing individuals. Kendall’s task is to demonstrate that this conceptual transformation transpired long after the 18th century, and that even after the Declaration and Lincoln’s crusade for equality, our political tradition remained fundamentally sound and communal.
According to Kendall, it was the Constitution, not the Declaration, which established the U.S. as a unified nation state. The Declaration emanated from 13 separate colonies, each seeking independence. These colonies, which redefined themselves as states, did not become a single nation until after 1776.
Moreover, until the addition of a Bill of Rights in 1789, the Constitution did not enumerate specific individual “rights.” The Federalist Papers, which defended the Constitution’s passage, confirms this, commenting critically about the proposal to introduce “a bill of rights.” Part of the reason for this initial opposition was concern that such a document, based largely on the Virginia Bill of Rights, would weaken the national Congress, which was meant to be the strongest of the three branches of government. Further, behind the invocation of natural rights, Kendall argued, was the 1689 English Bill of Rights, which established parliamentary supremacy in Great Britain. The American documents were updated versions of older lists of rights dressed up in natural rights phraseology.
Like Carey, Kendall provides copious evidence that the Constitution vested the highest power in Congress. Although Congress has historically deferred to the executive and judicial branches, the three branches of government were not conceived as having equal weight. Congress could, if it wanted, overrule the highest judiciary in the land, and it did so on at least one occasion after the Civil War during the Reconstruction Congress.
Quoting Publius in The Federalist Papers, Kendall presents the view that Congress was given such vast power because it was meant to reflect the deliberate sense of the federal government. If it moved slowly to legislate, then that was how it was intended to act, as a brake on the more impetuous or willful branches of the federal government. The transfer of power from Congress to the presidents and the courts, Kendall contended, belonged to a new tradition which found its heroes in activist judges and in “the Wilsons, Roosevelts I and II, and Lincolns.” It is also conceivable that Kendall was thinking about the work that Congress had performed in exposing former Communists and Communist collaborators after World War II. As an embattled anti-Communist, Kendall would likely have approved of this assertion of congressional power.
What Kendall writes about the branches of the federal government being based on what Carey called “the original design” is true; yet this understanding of Congress no longer corresponds to the politics of our time. Today’s Congress is full of cultural radicals and would-be revolutionaries who are trying to push through both houses a bill to federalize elections without safeguards against fraud. Another bill would make the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico into (presumably perpetual Democratic) states, while other measures intend to punish Trump voters as a right-wing threat. Democrats are promoting these plans with very slim majorities, which they may lose in the next congressional election.
Meanwhile, leftist law professors are urging Congress to exercise its power to quash Supreme Court decisions that are not radical enough in their support of late-term abortion. Congress has also been urged to annul judicial decisions intended to thwart its attempt to seize more power in a constitutionally dubious fashion.
Certainly, one finds here little evidence of the “deliberate sense” that Kendall associated with congressional deliberations. Does this mean, however, that he was wrong in how he conceptualized the role of Congress in a virtuous republic? My answer is: definitely not. There is a vast difference between how the American government was intended to run in the late 18th century and how it now functions.
Like Carey’s writings on the design for an American constitution, Kendall is calling attention to how the federal government was meant to operate. Neither offers a description of Biden’s America, in which transgendered and lesbian candidates have recently been promoted with unanimous bipartisan senatorial support to high positions in the Department of Defense.
Kendall’s counter-arguments to an American political founding based on the doctrine of equality and individual expressive rights have contributed significantly to discourse on the “Old Right.” They are carefully developed and presented with great verve and extensive learning, and I among others have turned to these counter-arguments many times. Yet Kendall’s argument about the “great derailment” after the Civil War is somewhat problematic.
One would not learn a great deal about contemporary British politics from reading such historical classics as Lewis Namier’s The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III or J.C.D. Clark’s English Society 1660-1832. The reason is not that such studies do not deal exhaustively with England in an earlier period. It is rather that the political and cultural world that these works describe in detail has changed significantly since the ages about which their authors are writing.
Similarly, the virtuous society and its constitutional order evoked by Kendall and Carey relate to an America that no longer exists, except in historical records or as a distant memory. It may have been fading into the past at the time this book was written, but it still was something that he hoped to see return.
It also throws light on how a leading American conservative thinker understood his own age. That age had still not turned into the present, but looked quite different from the virtuous republic given to deliberation that Kendall holds up as a model.