The History of Conservatism, Liberalism & Libertarianism (Part 6 – Conservatism, Liberalism & Nationalism in Mainland Europe)

Unlike Great Britain or the United States, mainland European countries faced an array of unique issues, giving the ideas of conservatism and liberalism their own unique colors and political ramifications, similar in some ways to that of the island just off their northwest coast or the fledgling thirteen states across the Atlantic, but also very different in many other ways.

But first, make sure you’re caught up:

We’ll come back to both the United States and Great Britain in the upcoming posts, but a neglected Europe certainly deserves a bit of our attention. This is especially true because of the unique way that movements there will ultimately have global impact.

What Was Going on in Europe?

Sadly, many of our teachers overlooked (or breezed through) European politics from the French Revolution to World War I. So a solid historical review of the narrative seems in order.

As Medieval Europe ebbed into the early modern period, many nations across Europe experienced a great deal of centralization of power. Certainly this was true of France, Spain and England, major players on the world stage for centuries. Germany and Italy would take longer to unify, and those people groups of modern Eastern Europe were, by and large, under the control of various other powers, such as Russia, Austria or the Ottoman Turks.

In England, as we’ve already explored, the autocratic power of the monarch had long since been whittled away as constitutionalism – the idea that a system of law supersedes the king and government – became more secure. Quite the opposite in France. Various measures used by the Cardinal Richelieu in the early 1600s help to launch King Louis XIV, nicknamed the “Sun King,” into a position of absolute power, a position envied by King Charles I in England (who was executed by Parliament in 1649, as discussed in part 3).

Maximilien Robespierre (1754-1793)

Two kings later in France, young King Louis XVI faced the guillotine as the line of monarchs was (temporarily) ended during the French Revolution, which began in 1789. It is important to note that the French Revolution did, in fact, have roots in Enlightenment thought, at least parts of it. What started as both a manifestation of the aggrieved (and some nearly starving) poor and middle class of Paris and the more liberal rhetoric of lawyers like Maximilien Robespierre (who at first called for free press and free speech and other liberal goals) soon became an all-out bloodbath. The atrocities of the French Revolution and the thousands murdered cannot be attributed simply to a sort of “mob-mentality,” though certainly the terror it induced was a self-feeding fire. But there was a deeper worldview behind the revolution that sought the entire remaking of society and even of human nature.1 What that remaking was to be fell to the interpretation of whoever was in power. Even Robespierre soon abandoned his liberal beginnings and called for an all-out slaughter of anyone who did not show ready and active support of the “new society” that the French Revolutionaries sought to create. In place of a subject whose existence was to meet the demands of the king was now a citoyen (citizen) whose existence was to promote the “virtue” of the new civic society. Individual dignity or independence had little or no place in either system.

I dedicate more description to the French Revolution, as this will be important to understand both now and when we get to Progressivism.

In the wake of the revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte was able to work his way to the top (as consul) after military campaigns in Italy and Egypt. He would eventually declare himself emperor of the French Empire that he would rapidly expand across Europe, nearly reaching Moscow in 1812 before suffering a serious defeat in his trans-European conquests.

The Congress of Vienna by August Friedrich Andreas

Napoleon’s dominance would radically change Europe, and when European leaders met in 1814 at what has become called the Congress of Vienna, they would seek to undo much of his changes. But there was only so much they could do. Napoleon’s codes of law had replaced many of the old legal codes handed down from medieval Europe, land arrangements within the many Germanic kingdoms (there were around 300) had been rearranged, and dynasties had been overturned.

The Congress of Vienna was more of a series of informal meetings between diplomats and leaders of the five major powers of Europe than it was a formal assembly. The powers? Great Britain, France, Prussia, Austria and Russia. During these meetings, these leaders embraced distinctly conservative goals: the restoration of old monarchies overthrown by Napoleon, the return to old borders (with some changes), and the restoration of the old order in other various respects. To be sure, there were innovations, such as agreements to open up rivers for universal use, but by and large, the Vienna meetings were notably conservative.

And this takes us to our topical discussion.

Europe after the Congress of Vienna, 1815 (Photo credit to Britannica.com)

Conservatism in Mainland Europe

Stick with me for a moment as we revisit England. Recall that Edmund Burke (discussed in part 3), Whig and the Father of Modern Conservatism, had aptly predicted the terrors of the French Revolution. His fear of and resistance to any such radical revolutions sparking like events in England was the predictable result of his conservative views.

In mainland Europe, conservative was defined in part by the desire to “conserve” the old order and avoid such drastic revolutions. The difference here was, however, that in England, constitutionalism and natural law traditions had been foundational in England for so long that retention and expansion of these concepts was fundamentally a part of British conservatism. In mainland Europe, conservatives were primarily concerned with the retention of the monarchical dynasties and the church structure and authority. Both of these institutions, they believed, were divinely sanctified by God.

Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821)

Joseph de Maistre from Piedmont-Sardinia (a kingdom in the north part of what is today Italy), a key continental conservative thinker, saw the French Revolution as God’s judgment for their embrace of Enlightenment ideas. As more of an anti-Enlightenment ideologue, Maistre argued that because governments and the church are both divinely ordained, neither can nor need be justified through rationalization or logic; people must be submissive and not question either. On a practical level, he and many other conservatives called for the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in France—the family of the executed King Louis XVI.

This conservative bent dominated the Congress of Vienna, as I already mentioned. Austrian foreign minister Klemens von Metternich, a major diplomatic player until 18482, also played a pivotal role in the restoration of old dynasties. In addition to the restoration of the Bourbon family to the throne of France, he and the diplomats in Vienna ensured that the Hapsburgs remained on the throne of Austria, and that France remained a major player in the European theater, despite war between Austria and France virtually from 1792 to 1814.

Klemens von Metternich (1773-1859)

This latter point was fundamental to conservatism, as well, because it helped maintain order and stability. Conservatives would do what they could to ensure balance between the five major powers of Europe in hopes of avowing conflict and the potential revolutions that could be sparked in such conflicts. To this end, they also established multiple alliances, such as the “Holy Alliance” between Austria, Prussia and Russia, or the Quadruple Alliance between those three and Great Britain (and later France).3 At times, alliance members would provide financial and military support to suppress uprisings within member countries’ borders.

Liberalism & Nationalism in Mainland Europe

Liberals in Europe would, like mainland conservatives to their English counterparts, share some traits and be distinct in others. By and large, the liberals of mainland Europe supported movements and even revolutions that held within them the promise of greater individual liberty, freer range of motion in commerce, greater freedom of religion, more limited government (and expanded democracy), et cetera. All ideas espoused by the liberal social, political and economic theorists discussed in part 4. In the German kingdoms, as discussions ramped up about drawing the 30 member states (the 300 prior to the Congress of Vienna consolidated them into about 30) into a closer union,  liberals were pushing for a German constitution that would guarantee these principles. Likewise, in France, where political leadership changed semi-frequently, liberals pushed for more power in their representatives (as opposed to the king or emperor, when they had one) and stronger guarantees of individual rights.

But notable here is that many liberals began to latch on to notions of nationalism. Nationalism can mean many different things in many different contexts, but there are two of pertinence in this discussion. The first is a sort of tribalism—an active support or favoring of those among one’s cultural, racial and/or language-based heritage.  A second sort of nationalism was based not on tangible differences, but based on an invented nation-state. For example, the inhabitants across the Italian boot spoke numerous languages and shared little by way of a common culture. The Piedmontese were different than the Milanese who were different than the Sicilians. But a nationalist in this context, as was a very prolific Giuseppe Mazzini, promoted “Italian Nationalism”—that is, that people should embrace the national identity of “Italian” (something that had not existed prior) rather than Milanese or Venetian. Even in France, where numerous languages can be found across the nation, was the sense that everyone ought to think of themselves as “French” first, and whatever their local culture and language is second.

Many liberals promoted both types of nationalism.

In addition to the nationalism already mentioned, in Germany, liberals would actively promote union on college campuses.4

Why? A modern observer would probably be quick to warn that the centralizing nature of nationalism—especially of the invented kind—would risk more vast abuses of power. That is, the exact opposite of what they sought. But without the benefit of hindsight, such changes offered the opportunity for new constitutions favorable to their goals.

Frédéric Bastiat

Claude Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850)

We should certainly mention one other key liberal figure in the continental tradition: Frédéric Bastiat. While Bastiat was not known for major innovations, his writings helped to popularize economic liberalism: the advocacy for private property, free markets and limited government. An astute observer of trends in his native France, Bastiat understood the growing demand for popular redistribution of wealth and property as the ideas of socialism were becoming more popular. One of his most-well-known books, The Law (full text linked), exposed this reality by claiming that when the majority used the power of the state to acquire and redistribute wealth and property, this was sanctioned theft, or what Bastiat called “legal plunder.” Furthermore, he argued, free market voluntary exchange between individuals was the best way to preserve economic harmony. Among other works was Bastiat’s What is Seen and What is Not Seenin which he makes the point that for any government intervention, it is important to understand and look for the consequences–what is foregone in the implementation of some policy. This would form a cornerstone of works by later economists like Henry Hazlitt and Thomas Sowell.5  Today, many libertarians see Bastiat’s writings as essential readings in classical liberalism and libertarianism.

1848: Year of Revolution 

I will not comment on this extensively, but it must be mentioned that 1848 was a profound year in Europe. Of the major powers, France, Austria and Prussia, along with most other smaller nations, experienced revolution (or attempted revolution). Who led these? Interestingly enough, they were often two-fold. Liberals orchestrated movements to seek their own goals, often pushing for national unification (as in Italy and Germany) en route to those goals. But another major movement mentioned above had also taken root in the early 1800s in mainland Europe: socialism, rooted deeply in the writings of people like Karl Marx. Many of these socialists also had their agendas behind many of the 1848 revolutions. Although the title of this series indicates its emphasis on conservatism, liberalism and libertarianism, socialism (in its many facets) would have perhaps more widespread impact in the 20th century than any other ideology during that century (until the 1980s). So we’ll most certainly have more to say about that in the future and in this series.

1848 would prove a turning point in European history. Though most revolutions failed, the second half of the 19th century would see major shifts in ideological alliances. Nationalism would be taken up by many conservatives. Socialism would be taken up by many who called themselves liberals.

And the world would feel the consequences.

 


1 This  idea that human nature can be “reformed” or even returned to a state of natural goodness, was, indeed, a part of many of the Enlightenment writers, as the full scope of the Enlightenment covered a great many areas of thought. For example, Enlightenment writer Jean Jacques Rousseau actually rejected many of the rationalistic Enlightenment ideas, embracing a more “emotion-driven” understanding of humanity and society. He would inspire both the leaders of the French Revolution and many in the Romantic movement of the early 1800s (which, ironically, appealed to many conservatives!).

2 Some historians call 1814-1848 the “Age of Metternich” in Western Europe. He would go on to coordinate major diplomatic events in the German Confederacy and Europe more broadly.

3 Those who remember their history well can probably see the beginning of a series of fateful alliance systems that will contribute to World War I. Participants in various alliances, however, would change over the course of the century.

4 In in 1848, the Frankfurt Parliament would propose a plan for a unified Germany, but this would ultimately fail. This plan, had it been enacted, would have unified Germany under a very liberal constitution. When Germany was finally unified in the 1860s, it was done so under Otto von Bismarck, who was far from a Lockean liberal.

I recommend books by both Hazlitt and Sowell on the Recommended Books page

The Civil War… Slavery or States’ Rights? (Answer: Both)

Was the Civil War about slavery or states’ rights? And are supporters of states’ rights, by extension, supporters of slavery?

I recently responded to a Facebook debate over these very questions (I know, I know…I should avoid that sort of thing…but in my defense, I did ask for permission to enter the discussion and was approved), and what I intended for a succinct reply quickly grew into the following more essay-like response. So instead of constantly re-inventing the wheel, I figured it would make a good blog post (I have slightly expanded it here).

First, to suggest that it was EITHER slavery OR states’ rights is far oversimplified. It was clearly both. But real history doesn’t fit on bumper stickers.

To clear one important point up , many southerners were genuinely concerned about the future of slavery in the south, and hence the language in their declarations of secession that testify to that. There is clearly no moral defense of this concern; it should rightly be condemned. However–and this is a key reminder–at the outset of the war1, and indeed even through most of the war, the end or continuation of slavery was not in immediate question or the immediate cause of the war. Lincoln did not start the war with any intent to end slavery in the south. In fact, he had earlier supported a Constitutional amendment that would have specifically protected slavery where it existed. The decision for the emancipation of southern slaves was a strategic move to destabilize the southern economy and encourage southern slaves to have a vested interest in a Northern victory.2 I comment on Lincoln’s views of slavery in the footnotes.It also exempted states like Kentucky and Missouri (where secession was still in debate throughout the early part of the war) and allowed them to retain their slaves if they remained in the Union.

With that being said, saying that the Civil War was about either slavery or states’ rights is like saying the American Revolution was about either taxes or self-government. It’s clearly both. To risk redundancy, saying that the war was really about slavery and not really about states’ rights would be to say that the American Revolution is about self-government and not about unjust taxation. (I’m not drawing a moral equivalency–for crying out loud!–just observing the facts as they stand.)

Let’s start with states’ rights, the legal and immediate question of the war. In 2017, we can’t really understand the states’ rights arguments in the way they were viewed in early American history because we live in a day and age of increasingly centralized power. Local self-government had much of its roots in the Middle Ages, which then endured very importantly in England itself, and many of the American conservatives throughout the colonial period had enjoyed self-government for so long that it was considered, to them, to be part of the unwritten, but very real British Constitution.

The southerners were very much in this vein of belief that power ought to be distributed between multiple sources, in line with the Jeffersonian position (and most of the Constitutional Framers). The modern central state that we have today was not the federal government of the U.S. founders, and as southerners saw it becoming more and more powerful, cesetion was their recourse as negotiations broke down.

This was not something they made up. Multiple states only ratified the Constitution itself on the promise by Constitutional supporters that it did not bring an end to state sovereignty. The states were the primary political unit (like the countries in the UN), and the federal government was formed by the states for pragmatic purposes, mostly related to foreign affairs. During its ratification process, Virginia ratification delegates deliberately said they would only ratify if they retained their right to secede if the federal government went beyond the limited powers granted in the Constitution. Rhode Island and New York maintained similar provisions. When the southern states seceded, the reality that the U.S. was becoming a centralized modern state was on the forefront of many peoples’ minds both in the north and south.

Robert E. Lee wrote, “I yet believe that the maintenance of the rights and authority reserved to the states and to the people, not only are essential to the adjustment and balance of the general system, but the safeguard to the continuance of free government. I consider it as the chief source of stability to our political system, whereas the consolidation of the states into one vast republic, sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home, will be the certain precursor of ruin which has overwhelmed all those that have preceded it.”4

Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were both against slavery on moral grounds. Lee called slavery a “moral and political evil.”5

The question of secession (and states’ rights more generally) had a more vigorous northern tradition than southern. In fact, New England states had been the first to seriously consider withdrawal from the Union during the War of 1812 due to what they considered unfair federal tariff laws and a federally-imposed embargo. As one of many examples, the Connecticut legislature proclaimed in 1812, “It must not be forgotten, that the state of Connecticut is a free sovereign and independent state; that the United States are a confederacy of states; that we are a confederated and not a consolidated republic.”6 The Massachusetts governor, MA Supreme Court and legislature all concurred and issued a similar statement. New England secession was openly debated at the Hartford Convention of 1814-1815. Later, after the Fugitive Slave Law of the 1850s required active state participation in the rounding up of slaves who had escaped to the north, multiple northern states actively nullified the law—instructing their police forces to ignore it, and several passed “personal liberty laws” for this very purpose.

As for the soldiers in the war, most war memoirs and letters show that soldiers, by and large, were first and foremost concerned with self-government and the self-determination of each political society to decide its own course, as the Founders had been in 1776.

The question of states’ rights and secession was pushed to the point of crisis because of the question of the expansion of slavery. With newly acquired territory from Mexico in 1848, and a population balance in the north putting far more northerners into the federal government than southerners, attempts to compromise on decisions about whether or not newly created states would be permitted to have slavery or not frequently broke down, and those that went through were fraught with controversy. Voting fraud during the vote on statehood in Kansas led to bloodshed there as early as 1854. (There were only 2 slaves in Kansas at the time!)

Also, the abolitionist movement in the North was very small, but very loud. Led by people like William Lloyd Garrison, a small number of passionate abolitionists were very active. Of course, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, had profound effect on northerners, drawing many into the abolitionist viewpoint. With that, free-soil parties, like the Republican Party, were formed on the basis of preventing the expansion of slavery into newly created states. (It is important to note that many northerners were opposed to the expansion of slavery because they thought it would crowd out work opportunities for northern laborers moving west.)

Nevertheless, southern concerns that an increasingly powerful federal government filled with more and more abolitionists who might seek to end slavery were real. There is no illusion about the fact that many southerners were very intent on ensuring the institution continue. (As a side note, only 25% of southerners owned slaves. The aristocratic structure of southern society ensured that it was these people who held the vast influence over southern policy.) With people like Jackson and Lee as exceptions, many certainly had their personal financial investments anchored in slavery, and even George Washington had not been able to overcome his financial dependence on the enslavement of humans (while he lived; he bequeathed them freedom after his wife’s death), despite his disdain for the institution as a whole (I commented on this briefly in my previous post, as well.)

So clearly it’s not an ‘either-or’ question. When the war broke out, Lincoln nor his generals were fighting to end slavery; that wasn’t in the question with regard to immediate causes of the war, though many southerners were concerned about the trend in powerful central government that might limit or seek to end the institution.

Real history doesn’t fit onto bumper stickers.

And more than anything, it is so important to understand (and accept) that people who argue that the war was fought for states’ rights are not supporting slavery and may, in fact, be supporting the very traditional and conservative principle of self-government. They can both argue that point and argue that southern slave-holders were profoundly hypocritical in their views on liberty and condemn slavery as the despicable institution that it is; there is no dissonance with that position. To explain or endorse the states’ rights cause of southern secession is not even a defense of the Confederacy, let alone to support slavery or even ‘white nationalism’. Likewise, we shouldn’t ignore the slavery issue and its broad cultural acceptance at that time, nor be insensitive or uncharitable to those who bring attention of this reality to the forefront. But let’s not pretend that the evil of slavery is still being supported by the vast majority of those who see the argument made by Robert E. Lee, as quoted above.

I ask for charity both ways. A rarity, to be sure.

As in all things, condemn what is evil and immoral and praise what is good and virtuous, rather than picking teams and calling names. Let’s be charitable, understanding, and honest.


Some will argue that Lincoln did not start the war because the south fired the first shots at Ft. Sumter, which in fact they did. However, most historians agree, on account of Lincoln’s discussions with his Cabinet, that he very much intended to provoke them, even after the Confederacy government had offered to pay for the land occupied by federal bases, including Ft. Sumter. 

In August of 1863, Lincoln wrote his friend, attorney and federal agent James Conkling, “I issued the proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union. .. I thought that in your struggle for the Union, to whatever extent the negroes should cease helping the enemy, to that extent it weakened the enemy in his resistance to you.” 

Lincoln was opposed to slavery as an institution. He wrote, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is.” But he also argued that the “physical difference” between blacks and whites prevented them from ever being able to live together, and argued clearly that whites ought to have the superior position. He supported a plan to encourage blacks to move to Liberia. He later on did appear to have been glad of the opportunity to free slaves as a consequence of the war on moral grounds, but even after the emancipation declaration, he would still contend that he would have sought war to preserve the Union with or without the end of slavery. 

4Quoted in 33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask ©2007, Thomas E. Woods, Jr. Ph.D, page 76.

Ibid.

6 Ibid, page 31.

 

The History of Conservatism, Liberalism & Libertarianism (Part 5 – Conservatism, Liberalism & the Founding of the United States)

One central question can premise this part:

Given that core components of both conservatism and liberalism were influential among the early American Founders, how can we accurately categorize them?

While I’ll leave that to my readers to decide, I think the answer will become rather clear: you can’t. That case is made immediately clear in the debate between some historians as to whether or not Thomas Jefferson was essentially a liberal or a conservative. In the vein of the first argument, Jefferson was hugely influenced by John Locke, continuously promoted civil liberties, and ultimately promoted blatantly liberal policies such as the separation of church and state, a wider democratic base, et cetera. Other historians argue that Jefferson was actually a conservative. In their line of reasoning, Jefferson supported republican principles going back as far as the Roman Republic and was pro-agrarian (a traditional vocation). By the time of Jefferson’s prolific support of all these various principles and ideals, many of his ideas were already widely accepted and promoted by many in the 13 colonies of the U.S. So did that make them conservative…or liberal?

I’ll give you the history; you can decide the answer. Here are the previous parts, if you are just now joining me:

A Review of Colonial Foundations

I want to start this section off with a quick historical comparison of some of the colonies, loosely categorized for our purposes. This will help inform the impact that these founding influences had on the later framers of the United States during the Revolutionary Era and serve as a helpful reminder more generally.

Virginia & the Aristocratic Colonies: The first colony, established in 1607, grew into an agrarian colony (mainly on tobacco) based on the aristocratic hierarchy of England. Their colonial assembly, the House of Burgesses, was made up of members chosen by the various land-holders of Virginia. Until the Revolutionary Era, Virginia looked much like the mother country, with an officially state-established and state-sponsored Anglican Church. Founders such as George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson would all herald from the aristocratic society of Virginia. Maryland and Carolina (and later Georgia) would follow a very similar structure. (And we should note that Thomas Jefferson was able to produce and get a measure passed in 1786 that ended the government-sponsored church in Virginia.)

Massachusetts & Puritan New England: Though preceded by Plymouth Colony (established 1620), Massachusetts Bay Colony (established 1630) would ultimately become the dominant New England Colony. We’re all familiar with the narrative: led by John Winthrop, thousands of Puritans migrated to Massachusetts in the 1630s to escape the restrictive religious/political environment of Anglican England. There are far too many misconceptions about Massachusetts to expound on here, but for now it is suffice to say that the Puritans were very clear about their goal of a Puritan society in which the church was state, and the state was the church.  Their decentralized system of governance left politics extremely local and based in the church in each community. Members in each church were the voting members in their community. The Puritans did not intend for any separation of church and state, and quickly images of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter emerge to condemn them. Another debate for another time, to be sure, but we have to remember Winthrop was also clear in the voluntary nature of living in Massachusetts. When Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson digressed from the basics of Puritanism, they were asked to leave.

Roger Williams

Puritan Dissenters & Rhode Island:  Roger Williams himself decided to establish his own colony in 1636 at Providence (Rhode Island), established on the idea of separation of church and state. In his essay, The Bloody Tenet of Persecution for the Cause of Conscience, Williams argued against the Puritan church and state unification on the argument that enforced religion was no true religion at all, and the political sword could never effectively create or maintain the true church or the true spiritual life of a believer. (Interested readers are encouraged to read his essay and the response by Puritan Minister John Cotton of Massachusetts, The Bloody Tenet Washed and Made White in the Blood of the Lamb.)

The Middle Colonies: New York (established as New Amsterdam by the Dutch in 1624), Pennsylvania and New Jersey were rather distinct from the other colonies in the propensity of their settlers to take advantage of the somewhat greater economic opportunity. Established as a trading colony by the Dutch and later taken by the British, New York boasted of significant diversity, as well as a great number of people loyal to the British crown during the American Revolution. Pennsylvania and New Jersey, gifted to the Quaker William Penn (and established 1681), were afforded extensive economic freedom. Quakers, while known for being distinctly devout, were also very much committed to economic, political and religious freedom.1 Overall, it is not surprising that New York and Philadelphia grew into the two most prosperous cities in the colonies.2

British Colonial Political Culture

It is important to note that during the 17th and 18th centuries, the British people were among some of the most free in the world in comparative terms. The natural law traditions of Great Britain were an element of pride and specific importance to those in Great Britain and her North American colonies. Much of the conflict arising in the early days of the series of crises leading up to the Revolution cited violations of the colonial “rights as Englishmen.” More specifically, according to Dr. Jason Jewell, many colonists, regardless of their colony of origin, saw themselves as heirs of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (discussed in parts 1 & 3) and of the Whiggism that followed (discussed in parts 3 & 4).3

Although a fading part of the current narrative as it is told, most colonists read and were immersed in the Bible on a regular basis, and beliefs in people as both inherently sinful and made in the image of God were common. Additionally, most of the more educated colonists (and a great many of the aristocratic planter-class of the southern colonies) were well-read in the writings of Ancient Greece and the Roman Republic. Political thinking was no doubt influenced by Cicero and Cato the Younger’s advocacy of “civic virtue” and republicanism. Republicanism, in the Roman sense, was deliberately opposed to absolutism and was premised on the idea that those with a vested interest in the political society of a country should be actively involved in the affairs of the political society.

Newspapers of the day displayed these cultural influences with constant Biblical and Roman references. The symbolism of Republican Rome was perhaps most popularly notable with the title given George Washington: “The American Cincinnatus”4. In addition, it was common for newspaper columns to be authored by someone taking a Roman name as an alias. The Federalist Papers were published under the pseudonym Publius, for example.

A key feature of this appeal to Roman republicanism was the conservatism of these Romans. Fundamental to Cicero and Cato the Younger was a desire to retain traditions and the norms of the ancestors. The conservative Romans who found their influence in American periodicals often bemoaned the loss of their traditional society and culture under the influence of the Roman emperors.

Likewise, despite modern critiques that blur the importance of the Bible in colonial society, this very importance was itself precisely conservative. We see this from New England, where the “puritan ethic” described the general adherence to a life of hard work and strong Biblical ethics, to Georgia, where even the aristocratic elites were well-versed in Scripture. Prayer and Scripture, whether with devout or nominal devotion, were a regular part of private and political life throughout the colonies. (And do not criticize me for any lack of critique with regard to issues of hypocrisy, inconsistency or slavery; that is not the purpose of this series. I merely wish to highlight historical realities that help us understand the progression of the ideas in its title.)

And note one omission from the narrative that is not by accident. Many critics today accuse the conservatism of the Founding generation to be inherently tied to the preservation of slavery. Clearly, that is not the case in any uniform sense. Yes, a distinct conservative thread would emerge in the defense of the slave-based plantation system in the south insofar as they wanted to conserve that lifestyle, but it was not applicable in a more broad sense during the founding days of the United States. (I have included a small digression related to this issue in the footnotes.5 )

The Revolutionary Crisis

Philadelphia, c. 1776

A full discussion of the series of events leading up to the Revolutionary War won’t fit in this post(!).6 Most of us are familiar from our school days with the tax crises. After the French & Indian War, a heavily indebted British government began a series of taxing measures in the colonies to help pay off war debt, as well as to help cover the costs of the British troops stationed in the colonies. Long story short, early problems caused by the taxes led to repeal of some of the taxes, but a Parliament itself divided over policy (Whigs vs. Tories) ended up instating further taxes (some of which were also repealed, and some of which were kept). Eventually, with increased resistance on the part of the colonists and increased determination to secure authority over them by Parliament, a snowball effect of events led to an acute crisis in Massachusetts. A meeting of colonial delegates (ambassadors) was called and the First Continental Congress was formed. It would be the second Continental Congress that would issue the Declaration of Independence two years later.

What was the real issue? Did the resisters oppose taxation on principle? No, not particularly. The real issue was the belief in local government. It was common belief that only the local legislative assembly had the authority to tax its constituents (we’re all familiar with the cry, “no taxation without representation.”)

This principle of localism was very conservative, drawing largely on the localism and traditions of the Middle Ages. As Tom Woods writes,

“Medieval Europe…was a radically decentralized society that featured a multiplicity of jurisdictions. … The Catholic Church, giving voice to the rich tradition of Christian social thought, recommends the principle of subsidiarity… The ideas of federalism and states’ rights, in short, hold a central and honored place within the Western tradition.”7

Finally, it should also be obvious by now the effect that liberalism had in the colonies. We are all familiar with John Locke’s influence on Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. As many colonists saw it, their traditional rights as Englishmen were being violated and their traditional societal values were being challenged. All this culminated into justification for rhetorical and active resistance and ultimate rebellion against the British.

American colonists themselves split as the crisis unfolded. Many remained loyalists and gained themselves the title Tories (recall the Tory origins in England). According to Dr. Jewell, an estimated 20-30% of the colonial population supported continued union with England and the king. Though many did not support British tax policy, they nevertheless were not willing to sever ties to a country that had a better track-record than most of protecting their natural rights, as they saw it.

Of course, the Patriots won the day in bringing full rebellion to pass. Radicals such as Thomas Paine (especially in his booklets such as Common Sense) helped push American colonists into supporting independence.

Post-Revolution Politics

I once again apologize for my lack of historical exposition. It is my full intention to expound fully in the future. For now, I intend to summarize the points that help tell the conservative/liberal story.

With the decision to fight for independence, the citizens of the 13 independent states began a process of attempting the creation of a new political system. In the wake of the declaration, they created the Articles of Confederation to form a continual Congress of delegates from the sovereign states.

I do want to explain the importance of the all-too-often overlooked Articles of Confederation, ratified as the Revolutionary War began. See the footnotes for more information on that document8, but for now, a few points. First, the Articles of Confederation were particularly deliberate in protecting the full sovereignty of each of its member states, much as the nations of the United Nations maintain their sovereignty today. As we’ve already seen, this was a conservative position. Likewise, the Articles were conservative in their guard against democracy, as was the later Constitution (though, with the implementation of the House of Representatives, to a lesser extent). Like the conservative Tories in England (though generally emphasizing different reasons), the Founders, as historians have aptly pointed out, were not supporters of direct democracy, understanding its tendency for the tyranny of the majority.9

In 1787, delegates met once again in Philadelphia to discuss changes to (or more specifically, by the design of James Madison, a full replacement of) the Articles. The Constitution emerged from its debates.

Thomas Jefferson

Passage of the Constitution not a foregone conclusion (something I think we don’t get taught today!), vigorous debate broke out in many states over its merits and demerits. Ultimately, these factions would become known as the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, respectively. The Federalists were proponents of ratification and the consolidated powers given the new federal government not given under the Articles. In opposition, the Anti-Federalists were concerned about losses to state sovereignty that could be brought about by the Constitution. Appeasing their concerns, the Federalists promised a Bill of Rights, the most important of which to the Anti-Federalists was the 10th Amendment. According to historians Kevin Gutzman, Brion McClanahan and many others, the promise of the 10th Amendment was pivotal in getting several key states to ratify the Constitution, including Virginia. The 10th Amendment was put in place to protect state sovereignty, and the conservative principle that promoted localism.

John Adams

 

Thomas Jefferson (though not in the states during the ratification debates), taking the helm of the arguments against increases in the scope of the federal government’s power, is most remembered for his continued push for the separation of church and state, civil liberties, and generally more limited government. The Constitution passed despite his concerns with the document, but he later went on to demand that the federal government must be bound down by the “chains of the Constitution.” Today, many traditional conservatives, as well as libertarians, look back at Thomas Jefferson for inspiration.

John Adams, who very much could be considered a conservative in his era, was the president who signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts, violating the First Amendment and punishing those who publicly spoke poorly of Adams or the government. This was done, incidentally, about the same time that Tory William Pitt the Younger signed the British Sedition Act into law (discussed in part 3). Jefferson and Madison, in reply, authored the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, calling state “nullification” of the laws the “rightful remedy.”

So, how do we classify the Founders and their ideas? Once again, it becomes clear that categorization is not so clear. (And clearly, a complete analysis would discuss individuals and not such a generalized approach. My goal has been summary.) Nevertheless, understanding how they fit into (or didn’t) the ideas during their day will help to clarify the progression of conservative and liberal thought heading toward the current day.

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1 Quakers were, notably, some of the most passionate abolitionists well into the 1840s and 50s. They got their name from the way their services would include quiet worship time during which members were known to quiver or quake as part of their worship experience.

2 Some might attribute that claim to southern cities such as Charleston, but the wealth of Charleston was created by the land and slave-holding aristocrats and brought back into the cities. New York and Philadelphia were filled with far more entrepreneurial-generated wealth created from the unique opportunities of economic freedom.

3 Jason Jewell is the Humanities Chair at Faulkner University and blogs at The Western Tradition. His lecture series on related topics is a key source of my series. You can subscribe to Liberty Classroom for a special discount by subscribing to LCKeagy.com. Already subscribed? Send me an email or message at the LCKeagy.com Facebook page for the coupon codes.

4 Cincinnatus was a Roman farmer who, in the time of need, led Rome to victory against invasion, after which he returned to his farm, declining an opportunity to use his power and loyalty as an avenue to dictatorship. Washington, likewise, returned to Mount Vernon after becoming the hero of the Revolutionary War, despite concerns (and some proposals) that he would become an American King.

Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington were all slave-owners, and all admitted to a distaste of slavery in general, but were unwilling to alter their lifestyles so radically as to honor their distaste. Some who expect perfection of humanity do not think these two ideas can go hand in hand, but human nature is more complicated than these people will admit. George Washington was willing to ensure all his slaves were free upon his and his wife’s death and wrote regularly of his opposition to the institution, but, knowing that freeing his slaves would lead him into bankruptcy, was not willing to catapult himself into poverty. It was a conflict of desires, and his personal desire to avoid bankruptcy and a radical change of lifestyle for which he was not prepared won out over his desire to see slaves freed. Sure, there is plenty of critique to be made here, but that is not the place for this series.

6 I am currently working on writing a summary of these events, but my time dedicated to it has been rather limited. Subscribe to know right away when that one is finished and posted!

33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask, ©2007, Thomas E. Woods, Jr. Ph.D, page 25.

8 I am going to be embarrassed to post this, but I did a video discussion about it for my students, which you can find here. There is nothing professional about the videography or style, and it is my first video lecture I have done! The Articles are far more important in understanding the American founding than they are almost ever given credit for. Instead, we’re always stuck with the “did they succeed, or did they fail?” discussion…and we miss the whole point.

9 John Jay, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton make this point very clear later on in the Federalist Papers.


 

The History of Conservatism, Liberalism & Libertarianism (Part 4 – Liberalism in 18th & 19th Century Great Britain)

Let’s jump right in. In this part, I’m going through the key elements of liberalism in Great Britain during the 18th and early 19th centuries. In case you missed any of the previous parts:

In my approach to this rather sweeping scope and sequence, I am going to first discuss key thinkers (primarily John Locke) in the development of distinctly liberal thought in the political sphere and then in the economic sphere. Then, I’ll look at specifically how liberal ideas had an impact on British politics and policies more directly.

John Locke (1632-1704)

John Locke & Other Key Theorists in Liberal Political Theory

As already stated numerous times, the character perhaps most foundation to classical liberalism is John Locke, who we already mentioned briefly in part 1. Given the profound influence on many thinkers and particularly on many of the American Founders, Locke’s ideas merit a bit more expansion than I have offered so far. As Edmund Burke is often cited as the “father of conservatism,” so Locke is considered the “father of liberalism.”1

Despite his work as a physician to the Earl of Shaftsbury (a key founder of the Whig Party who probably influenced many of Locke’s ideas), John Locke committed much of his time to philosophy and writing, producing, among other works, his primary disposition on political philosophy, The Second Treatise of Government.

Though I will not reproduce a full analysis of Locke’s theory, I do want to lay out some of his foundational ideas. To begin, Locke believed that all people are entitled to what he called the “law of nature.” He writes first that the state of nature is “a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they see fit, within the bounds of the law of nature.” A few paragraphs later, he clarifies this law of nature:

“The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one; and reason, which is that law, teaching all mankind who will but consult it, that, being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberties or possessions. For men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker—all the servants of one sovereign Master—they are his property” and “there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another.”²

 

Continuing through his Treatise, Locke then theorizes that the reason that men leave the “state of nature” and join together in political society is for the protection of those rights. In gathering together, Locke believes that people have formed a sort of “social contract,” whereby they consent to be governed by the very status of being in civil society (called social contract theory). In this civil society, they then create for themselves a government (which Locke specifically calls a commonwealth) for the protection of natural rights, and that commonwealth is only legitimate insofar as it gains its power from the consent of the governed. When the government fails to protect natural rights, it can and should be resisted and, if necessary, replaced.³

Any readers familiar with the American Declaration of Independence cannot miss Locke’s profound impact on its primary author, Thomas Jefferson.

To safeguard the government’s prescribed role as protector of individual liberty, Locke advocated a clear separation of political power into the law-making (legislative), law-enforcing (executive) and judicial branches. Of course, it’s all but impossible to miss the impact his ideas had on the American Constitution, as well.

Locke’s ideas expanded beyond his Treatises on Government. In A Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke also argued adamantly for the separation of church and state and for religious toleration, writing that “no man by nature is bound unto any particular church or sect.”4 His ideas on religious toleration and the separation of church and state would, of course, as any student of American History understands, have profound influence on the debate over these issues in the North American British colonies.

A final note before moving on. Neither modern American conservatives nor most current libertarians fully adhere to all of John Locke’s principles or premises. Nevertheless, it is hard to understand the impact of his ideas on American political life, both in the conservative and classically liberal traditions, without a more complete understanding of these fundamental tenants.

Though perhaps the greatest voice of his day advocating for natural rights, Locke was not alone. We’ve already mentioned Samuel Rutherford in part 1, but even some French thinkers would have an impact on the liberal tradition in Great Britain.

Voltaire (1694-1778)

Voltaire is a key example. A poet, playwright and humanist who spent much of his time in England, Voltaire is largely remembered for his political writings like the satirical Candide. In his writings, Voltaire argued against arbitrary power and specifically for free speech and religious toleration.

Another writer in the liberal tradition (and, incidentally, also in the conservative tradition, depending on the ideas discussed) is David Hume (1711-1776). Though an entire section could be written on Hume, as well, it must be suffice to say that he spent much of his writing arguing for the liberal idea of minimal government.

And born nearly a decade after Locke’s death, John Stuart Mill would also write a passionate treatise advocating for liberty in his essay conspicuously titled, On Liberty. I’ll mention him again in a bit.

 

Key Theorists in Liberal Economic Theory

Supplemental to the political theorists were numerous economists who either self-consciously or inadvertently can be identified in the same liberal vein. As Locke argued for political liberty, economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo would argue for economic liberty.

Adam Smith (1723-1790)

The name most people are familiar with, naturally, is Adam Smith, a Scottish economist boasting his major work, The Wealth of Nations (1776). We find ironies with Smith as with Locke; as a professor of moral philosophy, it is his economic writings that have earned him the title by many, “the father of modern capitalism.” (Note that some current free-market economists contend this title.)

Though by no means the key originator of these ideas, Smith made the now well-known case for free trade and deliberately opposed the mercantile ideas of the day. Mercantilism is (in layman’s terms) the economic theory that wealth is fundamentally finite and it is in a nation’s best interest to maintain a favorable balance of trade (more exports than imports) in order that more wealth enters a country than leaves. In summary, Smith is probably most well-known for his advocacy of laissez faire—or “hand’s off”—economic policy. In truth, Smith drew much of his understanding from others. This same anti-mercantilist ideology was perhaps first promoted by a group of economists in France known as the physiocrats.

(Readers hoping for a more extensive description of the economic ideas of the day will have to forgive me; click the links for further reading. Particularly interested readers may also research Cantillon, an Irish-French economist preceding Smith who laid much of the anti-mercantile groundwork. He would play a key role in the development of economics as a field of study broadly and in Austrian Economics specifically.)

In summary, then, the French physiocrats, Adam Smith and other classical economists were largely united in their view that markets, both domestic and international, ought to remain largely free of government intervention, a position that aligned itself with and became a key part of liberalism going forward.

Utilitarianism

I want to touch briefly on one other vein of thought that is often tied, in historical context, to the liberalism of the era we’re discussing: utilitarianism. To be sure, not all liberals adhered to utilitarianism, and not all utilitarians can be considered liberals. But that a few key figures did does tie the two movements together to a limited extent.

John Stuart Mill

But first, what is utilitarianism? Utilitarianism is the idea that favors policy that maximizes social utility, that is, whatever improves the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. Advocated first largely by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), utilitarians believed that government should pursue policies that improve social utility (or happiness) for the most people. (Some even went so far as to try to calculate pain and pleasure in what Bentham called “hedonistic calculus.”)

While not premised on principle, as for liberals such as John Locke, utilitarians often ended at liberal conclusions such as free trade, civil liberties and political equality, inevitably uniting many of their policy positions.

As already mentioned, James Mill (1773-1836) and his son, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), are two well-known thinkers in the utilitarian and liberal streams of philosophy. Though both passionately agnostic and anti-Christian, they wrote both economics works and political philosophy pieces such as Mill the younger’s On Liberty.

Liberalism in British Politics

Okay, time to get to the practical influence of liberalism on English politics. We need to back up in time for a moment. In the last part, we looked at the development of the Whig and Tory parties surrounding the question of whether to allow James II to become king of England, which he finally did in 1685. Whiggism, originating in the fear that James would bring Great Britain back into Catholicism, became tied more and more with liberal ideology over the following centuries. Part of the reason for this was that Whigs based their policy positions on the longstanding natural law traditions in England that afforded the land-holding gentry some, if limited, sovereignty over their government.

As time went on, the ideas of John Locke helped to solidify the philosophical grounding to many Whig positions. Drawing on not only Locke, but as far back as Classical Roman Republicans, a series of essays called Cato’s Letters circulated Great Britain.5 Using historical characters to expose contemporary issues, Cato’s Letters dealt with government corruption, natural law, freedom of speech and political resistance, among other things. Published while Whigs held Parliamentary power from 1720 to 1723, Cato’s Letters helped inspire many in English society, as well as the North American English colonists.

What of specific policy prescriptions of the liberals? Let’s jump ahead to the early 1800s, where we see a few key clear-cut liberal policies come into effect.

One already mentioned in the previous part was Catholic Emancipation. Liberals and Whigs were the most ardent in their advocacy that Catholics be allowed to meet in public and serve in public office. Ultimately, in an effort by both liberals and the conservative Duke of Wellington, Catholic Emancipation managed to be passed in 1832.

Another major issue put forth by liberals was the Reform Act of 1832.

It is important to draw out one more clear point here. During the later 18th and early 19th centuries, liberalism pursued democratic expansion—the inclusion of greater numbers of people in the political process. The theory behind this is best understood in context. With the backdrop of Divine Right (discussed in Part 1), absolutism becoming stronger in neighboring France, and a hierarchical system that put power in the hands of the aristocracy, liberals saw some of the best safeguards of liberty to be in the greater “voice” of the people as a check against the arbitrary power of oligarchs. (That many people would soon come to see democracy as a way for large numbers of people to vote themselves political privileges and monetary transfers was not particularly clear to liberals at the time. More on this development later.)

Charles Grey (1764-1845)

And it was in this push for greater democracy that the Reform Act of 1832 was passed. Passed under Whig Charles Grey (for whom the tea Earl Grey is named), the Reform Act vastly expanded suffrage (by relaxing land-owning requirements for voting) and rearranged parliamentary districts (called boroughs) to ensure more equal representation. The Industrial Revolution had resulted in such massive demographic shifts and boroughs that were either vastly over-represented or under-represented, that it had become a major Whig goal to reform the entire Parliamentary district system.

The Reform Act was met with substantial opposition from Tories, who feared that a greater voting base would degrade politics into a sort of rough and tumble sport while removing it from those with the higher levels of education and nobility. It is also an important note to remember that almost all taxes were paid primarily by the land-owners. Conservatives feared that by giving suffrage to those who paid little or no taxes, the political process could, in fact, become vulnerable to taxes being raised under the pressure of those who would not pay them.

Despite opposition and with the help of political maneuvering, Charles Grey managed to get the Reform Bill passed.

Encouraged by this, the Chartism working-class movement of the 1830s-1850s sought to expand these democratic and, at the time, liberal gains. The Chartists pushed for universal male suffrage, voting by secret ballot, the elimination of property-requirements for members of Parliament, a more evenly balanced constituency for these members, and annual elections. For the time being, these measures failed in the British Parliament.

Finally, liberals were at the forefront of the abolitionist movement. While the slave trade had already been passed in England (with the advocacy of conservative William Pitt the Younger), it was also during Charles Grey’s tenure during which all slaves were freed in the entirety of the British empire, a longstanding goal of many liberals.

And this concludes the foundational ideas of conservatism and liberalism as they developed in Great Britain. Many readers will already see how these ideas impacted the development of the United States, in some cases in opposition to each other, and at times in unison. In the coming posts, we’ll head over to the specifics of this narrative in the American colonies before coming back to look at these ideas on continental Europe, the emergence of socialism, the modern trends in conservatism and liberalism, and so much more. Thanks for reading!


¹A quick Google search turns up many articles testifying to these titles. 

²The hyperlink before is to a full-length text. The quoted portions come from pages 2-3 of the Dover Thrift Edition.

³Ironically and contrary to the understanding of previous scholarship, it turns out that Locke’s Second Treatise on Government was written prior to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, discussed in parts 1 and 3.

4Same version as footnote #2, page 116. 

5Cato the Younger was the Roman Republican who, after attempting and failing to prevent Julius Caesar’s rise to virtual dicatorship, eventually committed suicide. In addition to inspiring his namesake essays circulating Great Britain, his story also inspired many in the American Colonies, especially Patrick Henry.

The History of Conservatism, Liberalism & Libertarianism (Part 3 – Conservatism in 17th & 18th Century Great Britain)

In Part 1, I laid out a bird’s eye view of how natural law translated into its common law protections in England and in Part 2, I attempted to share how the terms conservatism and liberalism can be defined. So does that make 17th century Great Britain notably liberal (given liberalism affinity with liberty) or conservative (given conservative affinity with tradition)? As noted in Part 2, you could argue both ways. But let’s get into the details and you can decide for yourself. That takes us back to the English Civil War. In this part, I’ll take you from this event to the mid-1800s, specifically looking at the early Whig and Tory parties and the development of conservatism in British politics.

But first, why is this important to modern readers? Because many modern American Conservative values are rooted in the writings and ideas of the British conservatives of this time period.

Charles I (1600-1649)

The Whigs and the Tories

Before we get to the 18th Century, let’s expand on a few details alluded to in Part 1. The English Civil War broke out in 1642 and would finally be settled with the execution of King Charles I in 1649 at the hands of Parliament and its military commander, Oliver Cromwell. To oversimplify the matter, Charles ended up at war with Parliament for his numerous attempts to dissolve Parliament and rule in absolutist fashion as his neighbor, King Louis XIV (the “Sun King”) of France when they restricted Charles’ access to taxation and other elements of power as laid out in the Magna Carta and later documents. The war, more about power than political theory, was nevertheless embodied a sort of symbolic conflict between the king and his supporters and country and their political representatives—absolutism vs. representative government. (It should be noted that only the land-owing aristocracy of England both paid national taxes and voted, as it was understood that tax-paying citizens should be responsible for the representatives using those taxes.)

Puritan leader and Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell ruled in the British Commonwealth until his death in 1658. His son was unable to keep the loyalty of Parliament and the army, and Parliament, disenchanted with the Cromwells, invited Charles II (the son of executed Charles I) back from exile in France (where he also admired the absolute rule of Louis XIV). To most of Parliament, Charles II was the same disappointment as his father.

James II (1633-1701)

Charles II (1630-1685)

This is where we see the earliest development of what would later become distinct political parties in the English Parliament: the Whigs and the Tories. Though these groups were not formalized until much later, the question that would start to divide them was: Who should succeed Charles II, who did not have a son of his own? Charles had a brother, James, a Catholic, who was in line to rule upon Charles’ death. Members of Parliament who began to unify against the ascension of James to the throne became known as Whigs, and those who generally supported James as king were known as Tories. The Whig argument centered around fears of a recurrence of the days of England’s notorious “Bloody” Mary, the Catholic queen who had attempted to return England to Catholicism through often violent means. Tories, on the other hand, notwithstanding their own concerns of a Catholic King in a country where it was culturally-expected to be anti-Catholic, were inclined to grant royal prerogative. This was the idea that the succession of kings is a matter outside the hands of Parliament.

Whigs won the electoral debate in Parliament, which passed the Exclusion Bill, barring James from the throne. The bill was expectedly vetoed by King Charles, and when he died in 1685, James came to the throne as James II despite Parliamentary efforts. However, within three short years, James had managed to isolate both Whigs and Tories, and 1688 marked the astonishingly peaceful transition of power as James’s sister Mary and her Dutch husband William came to the throne and James himself quietly slipped out of London.  This was the Glorious Revolution discussed in Part 1.

The English Bill of Rights and similar measures passed in the immediate wake of the Glorious Revolution and agreed to by King William and Mary solidified parliamentary sovereignty in England. This would put the bulk of future policy debates primarily in the hands of the members of Parliament, and though the issues would change, the Whigs and the Tories would persist and eventually formalize into more distinct political sides.

The Development of Conservative Thinking

Amidst these significant changes in English politics and the ultimate ascendancy of Parliament in the political process, the Whigs and the Tories would increasingly become more aligned with liberalism and conservatism, respectively. In this part, we’re focusing on the latter.

Henry St. John Vincent Bolingbroke (1678-1751)

Two key people must be discussed as particularly influential in conservative thought: Henry St. John Vincent Bolingbroke and the more well-known Edmund Burke.

Bolingbroke’s period of influence came about shortly after yet another short but turbulent political episode. After the death of William and Mary, Mary’s younger sister, Anne, also died  after a short period as queen (in 1714) without an heir. When Whigs in Parliament decided to invite the German Hanoverian King George to be the British King George I, a plot emerged to place James III, son of James II, on the throne. Those supporting this measure were known as Jacobites (named for the Latin word for James: Jacob), who twice tried to accomplish their goal (known as the “Jacobite Uprisings”). Tories, having their political beginnings in support of the royal prerogative of the very much disliked James II, were naturally suspected of sympathy toward the Jacobites, resulting in Whig dominance of Parliament during the period. Bolingbroke, a Tory, was also implicated and spent some time in exile before regaining favor and returning to England.

A key early conservative thinker, Bolingbroke (1678-1751) is one of the first to clearly lay out what would become known as conservative values. First, he argued that the primary unit of society is the family, and all law should be centered around the family unit rather than the individual. Second, though deistic himself, he supported the established and government-sponsored Church of England. Third, he believed that politics could only affect limited influence on society. And finally, he favored the land-owning aristocracy and looked down on the growing merchant and middle class. All four of these would, to one extent or another, come to be key elements of conservative principles.

Edmund Burke (c.1729-1797)

The second key figure in the development of these principles was Edmund Burke (1729-1797), considered by many to be the father of modern conservatism in both England and the United States. Ironically, and as a further demonstration of the nebulous nature of terms, ideas and labels, Burke was a Whig and is also often cited as a key thinker in the liberal tradition. In and out of Parliament, Burke never produced a clear political treatise (there is some debate over the only one he did produce as a young man, but most of his political theory is drawn from his later political career and bits and pieces of his writing). Conservative in his approach to politics, Burke nevertheless favored some political reform, such as Catholic Emancipation. If enacted, this would free Catholics to meet publicly in England and open up further opportunities to Catholics, an idea shunned by many, if not most, outspoken voices in Parliament and England. The measure was rejected. Burke also supported the American Revolutionaries. None of these approaches would seem particularly conservative to many observers.

If Burke wasn’t strictly conservative in these regards, what gains him the title “Father of Modern Conservatism”? Specifically, his conservatism comes through in his writings, primarily in his essay Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790 (the French Revolution began in 1789). First of all, he makes the very conservative case that the structure, traditions and relations of society are organic and develop over time through unique human interaction, not as some mechanical, impersonal or forced process. He is here arguing broadly against a growing humanistic culture, a worldview glorifying the ability of people to guide and orchestrate society toward some form of perfection (we will later call this progressivism). He is more specifically countering French philosophers who argue that society can be “reset.” Second, he argues that political change must be made very gradually; not through revolution or radical uprisings. Keep this second point in mind going forward.

William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806)

Conservatism in English Politics

Far more involved in British politics from the mid-18th to mid-17th centuries were a a few key characters instrumental in transforming conservatism from a vague ideology to a semi-organized political approach. The first, William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806), a Tory, would serve as Prime Minister (the youngest in English history) during the French Revolution of 1789. Like Burke, he favored some reformist policies, but was conservative in his belief that change should be limited, gradual and organic. Particularly, he feared the spread of revolution to England, and took measures to repress free press and free speech in his Sedition Laws, suspended habeas corpus, and banned trade unions, which he believed fostered discontent in the working classes. This particular fear of an overflow of the revolution into Great Britain from France was reflected in the writing and words of many conservatives during the era, and conservatives saw it as crucial to avoid any chance that this could happen.

Overall, Pitt’s actions characterized political conservatism: a premium put on keeping order at the expense of individual liberty. (Many Americans will recall this is during the same time that American President John Adams would sign the Alien and Sedition Acts into law.)

Robert Peel (1788-1850)

The Duke of Wellington (1769-1852)

Tories would dominate Parliament for the first part of the 19th century. Key figures among them, especially after the resignation and death of Pitt, would be George Canning and Arthur Wellesley (the Duke of Wellington), both of whom followed in the politically conservative stream of Burke and Pitt, working to maintain order, but also pursuing the more liberal Catholic Emancipation.  Still, it wasn’t until Robert Peel (1788-1850) that Tories began to consider themselves conservatives in a self-conscious fashion and in the sense that we understand Bolingbroke and Burke retrospectively. Peel would serve as a leader in the House of Commons and had a few stints as Prime Minister, during this time creating the first modern municipal police force in London and finally managing to work with the Duke of Wellington to pass Catholic Emancipation in 1829. A later policy position ended up with a split in the Conservative Party, but the fundamental points of conservatism had been laid. We’ll look at this split in a later post.

What Did Conservatism Look Like in Great Britain?

In addition to Tory/Conservative dominance in the Parliament during the early 1800s, conservative authors and poets were representative of the cultural phenomenon of conservative. Names such as Sir Walter Scott are familiar to some readers, among others like William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The latter, Coleridge, wrote specifically in 1830 on how the integral union between the church and state formed a backbone of English society (On the Constitution of Church and State); a church was the unifying center of every community across England, he argued. Many of these writers were influenced by the Romantic Movement, a cultural and artistic emphasis on emotion, beauty and the subjectivity of feeling (and a pendulum swing away from the rationalism of the 18th century Enlightenment).

So, despite its varieties, what commonalities bound conservatives together in the 18th and 19th Centuries in Great Britain? I’ll conclude with a concise list. (Obviously, some of these will overlap with current emphases of American Conservatism and some will not.)

  • Support for established institutions, particularly the Anglican Church (and its status as government-sponsored)
  • An emphasis on slow, organic political and social reform, if any, with an acute skepticism of government as an agent of change
  • A praise and support for tradition
  • Recognition of society as an organic, naturally occurring organism rather than being mechanical and systematic
  • A prime importance put on maintaining order, using government restrictions on liberty to maintain it, if necessary, and to ensure that revolutionary fervor not spread

Thanks for sticking with me this far! In the next post, we’ll look further and the development of liberalism in Great Britain, and then move to America in the founding era after that. Subscribe to know when the next one is posted (and to get my enjoyable emails)! See you then.

The History of Conservatism, Liberalism & Libertarianism (Part 2 – Definitions: Conservatism & Liberalism)

In the first post in this series, I explored a few key ideas and thinkers that help to establish the context for the development of distinctly conservative and liberal thought. To review, a tradition of some extent or another of natural law had existed in England for a long time, manifesting itself in the stipulations of the Magna Carta, the English Petition of Right (which I did not get into) of 1628, the English Civil War and the English Bill of Rights in 1688. To note, thinkers such as Samuel Rutherford and more specifically John Locke, who we will explore in depth in Part 4, drew these to their full conclusion that all people are a natural right to life, liberty and the protection of their property.

As the narrative proceeds into the 18th and 19th Centuries, the ideas of conservatism and liberalism begin to take on more specific parameters. Let’s nail down a few of these before proceeding.

Defining Conservatism & Liberalism

I’ll begin with straight forward definitions. Conservatism is an ideology that holds to tradition and societal norms. Conservatives tend to favor maintaining the status quo by definition, including its various institutions and structure. They want to “conserve” the way things have been.

In American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, Bruce Frohnen defines conservatism as, “a philosophy that seeks to maintain and enrich societies characterized by respect for inherited institutions, beliefs and practices, in which individuals develop good character by cooperating with one another in primary, local associations, such as families, churches and social groups aimed at furthering the common good in a manner pleasing to God.”

Liberalism comes with a less clearly defined definition, as any dictionary search will turn up several definitions, the first of which is something along the lines of, “holding to liberal views.” Well, that sure helps (sarcasm meter high).

The fact of the matter is that both terms need context for clarity. If conservatives in a given context desire to maintain tradition and the order that exists, it is often presumed that a liberal must be someone inclined to push for change. This is sometimes, but not always, true. The context of the original use of the word liberal has formed a basis for its classical definition. Also in American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, Ralph Raico defines classical liberalism as “the term used to designate the ideology advocating private property, an unhampered market economy, the rule of law, constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and of the press, and international peace based on free trade.”

The word classical is added to liberalism today to describe this emphasis on individual liberty because the word liberal today has taken on meanings more aligned with progressivism, a term I’ll explore fully in later posts. In its context, we can drop that qualifier classical and simply refer to the liberal of the 17th through 19th Centuries; readers can know that I am referring to the historical context until we reach the 20th Century and the explanation of changing terms.

One more point before moving on. Are conservatism and liberalism mutually exclusive or opposed to each other? As with many umbrella-type labels subject to numerous degrees and varieties, it depends on who you ask. You could both argue that they do in are in some respects, and not necessarily in others. Insofar as libertarianism has its roots in classical liberal thinking (they are similar, though not entirely), I will take a later post and explore this question more fully. For the time being, understand that there are not always black and white lines of separation between some of these ideas, and reality more often plays out in the grubbiness of politics than in rhetoric. That’s what we’ll see in Great Britain.

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(A note on my sources: I combine a variety of sources in my historical narrative, combining lectures from Liberty Classroom with my own extensive reading, research and study from my years of teaching much of this content in High School. )

The History of Conservatism, Liberalism & Libertarianism (Part 1 – Natural Law Traditions in Great Britain)

 

Given that terms like these—liberals, progressives, conservatives, libertarians, et cetera—are thrown out all the time, it is important to have some understanding of where these terms come from. My goal for this and its subsequent topical posts is to condense this history into an abridged narrative. Please keep in mind that the history of ideas is so abundantly rich and diverse that a blog cannot do its full intricacies justice. Indeed, full series could be written on the topics I hope to summarize in a series of blog posts. I hope my readers will give me the grace to necessarily avoid the full exploration of nuances that come up constantly in the history of terms and ideas.

The Enlightenment & the Divine Right of Kings

In that similar vein of clarification, there is no possible way to satisfactorily address the vastness of the Enlightenment. As the Middle Ages led into the Renaissance, and the Renaissance into the Enlightenment during the 1600 and 1700s, many old ideas, anchored in Europe since the Dark Ages, were beginning to be challenged, some for better and some for worse. And although the ideas fostered during the Enlightenment could be quite different depending on the person and area studied, this refusal to follow the entrenched ideas of the Middle Ages were a common feature throughout. The supremacy of the Catholic Church was being challenged (where it had not already been overthrown by the Reformation Wars). The old beliefs about human nature—taught generally consistently by the Catholic Church as being inherently sinful in the Christian tradition—were being challenged. The old hierarchies were being challenged. For the sake of brevity, I couldn’t possibly exhaust the list, and most readers will find the list a mix of good and harmful ideas.

Of particular note in our story, the old idea of the Divine Right of Kings was being challenged, as well. This idea, supported by the ecclesiastical coronations from Charlemagne onward throughout the Middle Ages in numerous European kingdoms, was the idea that the monarch of a country had a divine right to rule because they had been appointed to the position by God and confirmed by the Pope (or the Archbishop of the Anglican Church after King Henry V of England pulled England away from the Catholic Church because the Pope refused to let him divorce his wife).

The implication of this idea was that the king was above the law; he had absolute power because, in essence, he was the law. In France, kings would rule with increasingly centralized power and capitalize on this idea of absolutism. In England, the story was a bit different.

King John IV signs the Magna Carta, June 15, 1215

The Struggle in England

Though I cannot relay the full story here, England had localized democratic traditions going back prior to the Norman (people from the Northern French region of Normandy) takeover of the country by William the Conqueror in 1066. Some of these persisted, and after a series of kings attempted to establish themselves as absolute dictators in the Norman and French tradition, the English Parliament, in 1215, forced King John IV to sign the Magna Carta – the “Great Charter” – providing some limits on his power and Parliamentary control over taxation, as well as habeas corpus for all free men in England.

Mixed results followed for some centuries, and the struggle between Parliament and the King of England came to a head in the English Civil War of 1642-1649, followed by a decade of quasi or real military rule by Oliver Cromwell, followed by a return to the monarchical line until 1688. In that year, Parliament went over the head of King James II and invited his daughter and her Dutch husband (who was king of Holland at the time) to come rule in England on condition that Parliament’s demands in the English Bill of Rights be honored by the new monarchs. In a remarkable event known as the Glorious (or Bloodless) Revolution, King James II quietly retired (after all, his dad had been decapitated by the Parliament’s allies in the civil war) as William and Mary took his place and submitted a great deal more power to Parliament.

Samuel Rutherford

The English & Scottish Traditions of Natural Law

At the same time as many of these events, a number of English (and Scottish) Enlightenment writers were publishing their ideas. Scottish writer Samuel Rutherford published Lex Rex in 1644, a book emphasizing the supremacy of law over kings, a direct attack on absolutism and Divine Right. This helped influence a young Englishman, John Locke, who would later publish his own political philosophy laying out a case for limited government and a clear defense of natural law.

(I don’t have time to distinguish between the various Scottish vs. English influences on natural law, but they certainly had extensive mutually-influential impact, such as Rutherford’s influence on Locke. Readers can explore that further, if they like. For our purposes, we’re going to somewhat loosely categorize them together.)

The basic idea of natural law was, as John Locke would put in the clearest terms, the individual’s right to life, liberty and property. Samuel Rutherford, a Presbyterian (the more formal Scottish version of Anglicanism), approached these ideas from a reformation-based background, arguing much of his case on the basis of Scripture. John Locke, whose spiritual views amounted to a vague deistic worldview, argued for the right to life, liberty and property on a more secular basis. Though others certainly had influence in English and western tradition, the impact their ideas had on Great Britain (the greater England, Wales and Scotland Island) and the United States can hardly be understated. Thomas Jefferson, directly drawing on Locke’s language, would attempt greater inspiration with the words, “right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the American Declaration of Independence.

John Locke

 

Locke’s major political work, Two Treatises of Government

Still, we must understand that these were not entirely new ideas. That Parliament had forced the signing of the Magna Carta as far back as 1215 testified to the importance of some limitations on the Divine Right idea, and while it wasn’t a full codification of natural law, its grant of habeas corpus to all free men was a significant step in affirming a key part of natural law: a promise of the protection of a person’s rights in the courts (and protection against being held without charge). By modern standards, Parliament members were not particularly prodigal in their ideas that all people had extensive individual rights, but there was a distinctly growing tradition in England, going back centuries, that gave all Englishmen a strong sense of natural law, to some extent or another, and that the king’s power should be limited by Parliament or law was both a product of this tradition and helped fertilize it. This formed a basis for what was known as English Common Law, a tradition of upholding property rights, allowing for jury trials, and various other elements built into the legal system that helped protect some individual liberties, especially for those among the upper classes and the large-landholder aristocrats (this point will be important going forward, so keep it in mind).

This background will help to provide key context as we begin to explore, first, the ideas of conservatism and liberalism as they emerged in England. As we proceed, I’ll also clarify how this contrasted with views on the same terms in Continental Europe especially with the advancement of socialism in the late 1800s, but will spend more time looking at how these, and terms like progressivism and libertarianism developed and impacted ideas in the United States. It’s a complicated world exploring ideas like this, but I hope to lend a bit of light to such a complex subject.

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What is Fascism?

Many people claim—most often with despair—that we’ve elected a fascist president to the American White House. And a worse offense could not be fathomed by many who thought the time had finally come for a woman president.

Now, I’m not a Trump supporter or a Trump opponent. Though it may seem like a paradox, I take a broader and a more specific view. If you want more thoughts on that, sign up for my email! So, having said that, I don’t have any agenda in this post with encouraging readers to any extent of support or disdain. As with many of my posts, my purpose here is to bring clarity, not to utilize hyperbole to influence opinion. I believe that good opinion must be well-informed.

So, the accusations have been sounded: Trump is a fascist! And yet, I would guess that many who throw this term around do so with a tragic level of ignorance about the genuine meaning of the ideas involved with and behind fascism.

And to be clear (does that sound a bit too Obama-ish?), fascism isn’t a clear-cut set of ideas. Although Germany and Italy both followed fascist ideologies, there were certainly differences. Still, a generally good idea of the commonalities of various fascist regimes can be accurately identified.

So what is fascism? A bit of history helps, as usual.

Benito Mussolini

Fascism as a formal ideology with a political platform was founded by Benito Mussolini in Italy. During World War I, Italy had joined the fight on the side of the Allies in time to benefit, they hoped, from the peace terms. Yet, many in Italy were unsatisfied with the terms that finally emerged from Paris in 1919. Additionally, war debt and economic stagnation plagued the country, like most countries in Europe, and the popularity of socialism and its extreme version of Marxist-communism saw a huge leap in popularity.

Keep in mind that many socialists were actually opposed to communism, a point I’ll clear up in coming posts. But for now, it is suffice to say that a general desire for social and economic control by the government had become increasingly popular since the early 1800s, and the desire to implement this control by revolutionary means and authoritarian regimes saw a surge in the wake of World War I.

A quick point of distinction. Marxist ideas (ie, communism) place the worker as the center and central unit of society. Ultimately, Marxism advocates for the dissolution of political boundaries in favor of a united working class and the elimination of private property in favor of commonly-shared means of production and eventual social, economic and political equality. That this can never actually be realized notwithstanding, it was reaction to this idea that spurred the creation of the Fascist Party.

In Italy, the Fascist Party was started as a distinctly anti-Bolshevik (many communist parties took the name of their Russian counterpart) party. At its heart wasn’t the plight of the working class, but rather the pursuit of national glory. In direct rejection of the dissolution of political boundaries, its adherents sought to glorify the nation-state, epitomized by the government of that nation-state. And more specifically, the glorification of the nation-state being the foundation for political morality and the highest of ends, violence in pursuit of power and glory was not only condoned; it was celebrated. You might call fascism fiercely aggressive nationalism. Fascists and Bolsheviks broke out in fire fights across Italy prior to Mussolini’s rise to power in 1921, and when he was in power, Mussolini had no qualms about banning all other political parties and ensuring the “disappearance” of any potential political rivals. We see similar trends in Germany with the rise of the Nazi Party and their first attempt at sparking revolution in Germany in 1923 (which failed). Clearly, later actions by the Nazis in Germany followed the fascist praise of violence with precision.

On the economic front, fascism is profoundly socialist and admittedly anti-capitalist. (I discuss related terms and ideas here.) Mussolini and fascists in other countries, like the Nazis in Germany, ultimately sought to control and oversee the economy with strict regulation and direct take-over of major industries, setting up government-protected and directed monopolies. Bear in mind that this was the common trend of western society (and had been for a decades) and it was Mussolini’s economic policies that Franklin Roosevelt in the United States admired and sought to emulate (without the direct violence).

Romanesque Fasces

One more point of interest. In pursuit of the glorification of the Italian nation-state (created as a merging of multiple distinct regions in the 1860s), Mussolini adopted the Roman symbol: fasces. Obviously, this is where the name comes from. It is a symbol of national unity, strength, glory and power. The ax included epitomizes its praise of aggression. The fasces, in line with other Romanesque cultural elements adopted by the U.S. government, can be found in our capital, but often without the ax.

Knowing what fascism is and where it comes from helps to debunk the idea that fascism is merely passionate nationalism*. It is its celebration of violence to achieve its ends that distinguishes fascism. And despite and cultural conservatism it brings with it (such as celebrating the cultural traditions of the nation), it is also distinctly anti-capitalist and authoritarian.

If you’re up for a more extensive reading on Fascism, here is a link to a very thorough article over at Mises.org. At that post, author John T. Flynn presents comprehensive research and come to the following list of the components of fascism as implemented through policy. As the author says, fascism “is a form of social organization…

  1. In which the government acknowledges no restraint upon its powers — totalitarianism
  2. In which this unrestrained government is managed by a dictator — the leadership principle
  3. In which the government is organized to operate the capitalist system and enable it to function — under an immense bureaucracy
  4. In which the economic society is organized on the syndicalist model, that is by producing groups formed into craft and professional categories under supervision of the state
  5. In which the government and the syndicalist organizations operate the capitalist society on the planned, autarchical principle
  6. In which the government holds itself responsible to provide the nation with adequate purchasing power by public spending and borrowing
  7. In which militarism is used as a conscious mechanism of government spending, and
  8. In which imperialism is included as a policy inevitably flowing from militarism as well as other elements of fascism.”

(Source: https://mises.org/library/what-fascism)

(A note on coming posts: Back in my post, “The Issue of Standards”, I discussed the ambiguity of the typical left-right paradigm. The terms conservative and liberal carry a complex, confusing and dynamic—changing—history. As I am able, this will be the focus of coming posts. Sign up for my email to know when each one is posted!)

*I’ll have a post in the future expanding on what nationalism is; history always presents a much more complex and interesting picture than the media narrative.

Middle East Conflict – Part 4: The Current Mess in Syria

A quick TV sound bite just doesn’t do justice to the current mess the U.S. has decided merits its own entanglement in and attention to in the Middle East. That’s what this post will ultimately attempt to clear up.

My first three posts on the Middle East conflicts laid out important background necessary to understanding the current scenario. You can access those here: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Now on to our fourth part (but perhaps not our last…?).

Recall the U.S. interventions discussed in the previous post. If you need a refresher, I’d recommend revisiting that post before continuing with this one. If you’re prepared with where we’re at in the narrative, then read on!

There is one more event that I need to discuss to help build our context, this one vaguely alluded to in the previous post. To complicate the web of policy, prior to the First Iraq War in 1990-91, the U.S. policy had actually been in support of Saddam

A group of Iranians during the 1970s

Hussein during his war with Iran (1980-1988). In 1979, after a long-brewing backlash against the U.S.-backed Shah in Iran, demonstrations turned into revolution—or perhaps more accurately described, as is often the case in revolution, in multiple revolutions with varying ends. Ultimately, fundamentalist Shi’ite Muslims won the day, installing the Ayatollah as sovereign in social, religious and political life, and transforming what had progressed into a remarkably secular culture back toward their version of Shari’a.

Ayatollah Khomeini (1902-1989)

In all this mess, the U.S. was a natural adversary of the new regime. In addition to propping the Shah up back in 1953, they also allowed him sanctuary in the U.S. in 1979 when Iranians demanded he stand trial in Iran.

Consequently, when strongman dictator, Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, declared war on and invaded Iran the following year in 1980, the U.S. (and other Western countries) readily offered financial and supply aid. The long and bloody war essentially ended in a draw. (Incidentally, the Ayatollah’s effective halt to the Iraqi army and the war itself helped rally

far greater support for the Ayatollah among Iranians than prior to the war). And it was just a few years later that Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, sparking the U.S. retaliation that resulted in the 1990-91 operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield. And we’ve made it back to that part of the story.

You’ll have to forgive me for unsatisfactorily omitting narrative elements that help to clarify the Second Iraq War beginning in 2003. For now, it is sufficient to explain that after the First Iraq War, the United Nations had demanded a close eye be kept on Saddam Hussein, and biological, nuclear and chemical development facilities were to be accessible to inspectors on demand. At first relatively compliant, Hussein slowly restricted their access throughout the 1990s, prompting U.S. bombing of Iraq under President Bill Clinton in 1998. But it wasn’t until 2003, with an alleged goal of taking out presumed nuclear weapon programs (which proved nonexistent), that we began a full-fledged invasion.

That story is important in regard to the current situation in Syria. Of the Iraqis, about 60% adhere to the Shi’ite tradition and 20% to the Sunni tradition. Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, had risen through the ranks through the revolutionary activity of his uncle, and once dictator, implemented both some secular socialist policy, and strict one-party rule (a common theme for the Middle East dictators of the second half of the 20th Century, if you haven’t caught that). While I’m not going into extensive detail regarding the terrors of his regime, he put down opposition brutally, killed thousands of Kurdish Iraqis with poison gas, and bombed some his own towns. At the same time, he allowed for some economic and educational freedoms not known before in Iraq. A mixed record with terrible abuses, to be sure!

Why does all this matter? Because when the U.S. deposed him in 2003 (declared a stunningly rapid success at the time), it opened the floodgates to Al-Qaeda, a Sunni-based military, members of which flowed into Iraq from Afghanistan and other nearby states, building on the already angry rhetoric spewing from people like their leader, Osama bin Laden. For a decade, the U.S. found itself caught in in the middle of a vicious civil, sectarian war. Oddly enough, that put the U.S. on the side of Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias in Iraq, which, with the U.S. military, virtually kicked the ruling Sunnis and their adherents out of Bagdad (which is now 85-90% Shi’ite). Numerous Sunni militias formed in opposition, and many eventually joined Al-Qaeda.

But we still need to link back to Syria. Don’t worry; we’re still headed there.

After a few years of siding with the Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias in Iraq (which of course, inadvertently supported the Ayatollah in Iran), the Bush administration began a policy switch (called the “Redirection”) in 2006, shifting support back toward Sunni groups, but primarily in neighboring Syria. Wikileaks documents from that time expose a deliberate desire to provoke a Sunni uprising in Syria with the intention of destabilization there. This was corroborated by further leaked Pentagon papers in 2011. Now operating under the Obama administration, these latter documents state that, “there is a possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria, and this is exactly what the supporting powers [of anti-Assad groups] want in order to isolate the Syrian regime….”. Who is referred to as the supporting powers? The U.S. and her allies. The same leaked documents listed “The West, Gulf Countries and Turkey” as the “supporting” powers, while also listing “Russia, China and Iran” as the powers supporting the Bashar al-Assad regime (background described in Part 2). (In fairness, the same leaked document admitted that such a organization as mentioned would threaten the peace process of Iraq.)

Quick clarification: The “Salafist” ideology referenced here is the radical Islamic fundamentalist ideology that drives Al-Qaeda, ISIS and other ideologically-affiliated groups.

In other words, U.S. policy in Iraq was in support of Iranian-backed Shi’ite groups, while at the same time favoring, or at least not opposing (but to be clear, not directly facilitating) the creation of a fundamentalist group in eastern Syria that would destabilize that country and help promote the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad. (Yes, I know the big question is “why.” Keep reading; I will get there.)

That fundamentalist group proved to be ISIS—the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Now, that doesn’t mean that the U.S. policy actively supported ISIS (and obviously, the U.S. is no friend of ISIS; quite the opposite), but it is hard to imagine the creation of ISIS without U.S. intervention in the Middle East.

But I get ahead of myself…again.

Opposition to the Assad regime in Syria grew steadily in 2011 into a full-fledged sectarian, multi-faced civil war that many of my readers will have followed on the news for years, now. From the beginning, U.S. policy has been clearly on behalf of “moderate” rebel groups in Syria. Why use quotes? Because moderate, of necessity, must be used loosely. Virtually all opposition groups to Assad are sectarian and fundamentalist, though certainly some are more extreme than others.

Of these groups, perhaps the most powerful in early opposition days of 2011 and 2012 was al-Nusra (alternatively known as the al-Nusra Front), which was essentially the Syrian arm of al-Qaeda.

The problem is, many of these “moderate” groups supported by the U.S. ultimately became arms procurement groups for al-Nusra, meaning that many ultimately got their funding by selling weapons to al-Nusra, some of these weapons even supplied to them by the U.S.

So why did the U.S. even care about destabilizing and ultimately seeing the replacement of Assad in Syria? I alluded to this before. Two key U.S. allies, Israel and Saudi-Arabia, were both clearly upset by U.S. support of Shi’ites in Iraq. Assad, himself a nominal Shi’ite, is a primary ally of Iran. As both the Bush and Obama administrations have been clear about, though somewhat hidden under humanitarian rhetoric, taking out Assad would be a clear strike against Iran and a clear benefit for both Israel, which has a vested interest in ensuring that their own bordering enemies don’t grow too strong, and Saudi-Arabia, an avowed enemy of Assad.

Back to ISIS.

Virtually non-existent in 2012, ISIS was another group pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda. In 2013, it had a falling out with al-Nusra, putting the two groups at odds. In 2014, as many will recall, the nearly unheard of ISIS suddenly captured major Syrian cities, and expanded rapidly across eastern Syria and into Iraq, reaching as far as the outskirts of Bagdad. And of course, as many readers know, ISIS has declared itself an Islamic Caliphate, brutally claiming the lives of countless Christians, non-Sunni Muslims, westerners, and anyone else who doesn’t pledge allegiance to their ideology and rule.

So now what? The complexities of who supports who against who with who is enormous, and I won’t go into all that detail in writing. My goal has been to explain how things have come to where they are now. In conclusion, I include two videos below. The first, in addition to the visual benefit, does an excellent job explaining the current mess. The second is a piece by investigative journalist Ben Swann with revealing statistics on the tragedies of what has transpired in the Middle East.

Googling “before” and “after” pictures of Syria reveals many terrible scenes like this one, taken in Aleppo, one of the largest cities in Syria.

All in all, it’s hard (yes, I do tend to write in deliberate understatements) to show anyone walking away from the mess with clean hands. Perhaps we should understand that there are no praise-worthy members of this conflict. Millions of Syrians are now refugees, displaced, many finding solace in the same ideology that drives ISIS. Towns once thriving metropolitan areas are haunted by rubble and silence. Numbers uncounted have had their lives destroyed or taken. This does not imply that the situation under the dictators was good, but its certainly hard to make the claim that things are better. Perhaps, going forward, we should consider the unintended, or often very much intended, consequences of policy. So far, nearly every policy decision has led to its own bitter fruit of greater problems and more lives destroyed. A dose of humility and reflection may be in order. Watch the two videos below:

Thanksgiving in Perspective

hith-pilgrims-eMany of us were raised with a romanticized rendition of the story of the Pilgrims, a story that still brings back my childhood memories of Indians and Pilgrims placing fish in the ground with corn seeds, smiling and gathering around a large table with the cornucopia and all the trimmings that adorn Thanksgiving tables today. (There are many misconceptions about the “first thanksgiving” that I am not going to be addressing. A fellow blogger has done an excellent job of that here: “The First Thanksgiving?“)

And while it wasn’t the first thanksgiving celebration ever to be celebrated, and romanticized exaggerations aside, most of us haven’t the faintest idea what it would have been like. Finding themselves increasingly at odds with the Anglican clergy and legal system in England, the small group of Separatists had moved from Scrooby, England to Holland, where they found themselves remarkably accepted. Nevertheless, opportunities for making a living were somewhat limited, the lure of Dutch culture for very conservative English was a presumed threat from parents, and the outbreak of the 30 Years’ War threatened Holland with another invasion from Catholic Spain.

So they left again.

This time, to settle just south of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam at the mouth of the Hudson River (modern-day New York). Still, the land they hoped to settle on was still within what was claimed as British Virginia.

When a plane takes us across the Atlantic in four to five hours, we can’t fathom weeks of sea travel amidst the tempestuous whims of the weather.

When our legal systems protect our expressions of faith, by and large, we can’t imagine what it was like to have to meet in secret for not sharing the common denominational association as the church prescribed by king and parliament.

When we drive five minutes to pick up as much food as we can eat—and then some—for any meal, let alone Thanksgiving, we have no hope of empathy with those who only ate what they themselves planted, nurtured and harvested.

When we can “bump up the heat” because we’re uncomfortably cold at 70 degrees Fahrenheit, there is not a chance that we can put ourselves in the shoes of those who lived exposed to the cold and knew that it may well take their lives.

When we can run to the clinic for a quick diagnosis and cure, lost to our memory is a time when a simple flu could just as likely kill as not.

In 1620, 102 Pilgrims landed in what would later become Massachusetts, five-hundred miles off-course, in land not particularly claimed by anyone. Given poor conditions, they couldn’t sail right up the coast a little ways to New Amsterdam for supplies.

That first winter, 45 people died.

At your family gathering this Thanksgiving, imagine half dead in 6 months. I apologize for the morbidity, but I am guessing you can’t. I can’t. Or, at least, I won’t.

So maybe instead of that disheartening image, understand that we are far more blessed than we can ever imagine. We have a standard of living that far exceeds any other known to any other group—poor, middle class or rich—in the history of the world.

The Pilgrims understood thankfulness. Do we?the_first_thanksgiving_cph-3g04961

A series of studies published in what has been known as the Happiness Literature conducted in recent years shows something that might otherwise be considered common sense: that people become accustomed to their standard of living, and that becomes a baseline for expectation. In essence: we become accustomed to what we have, and take it profoundly for granted.

So how can we be thankful? It has to do with expectations.

Thankfulness can only be truly derived from accurate expectations and accurate perspective. If I expect to be fed well on Thanksgiving Day, my thankfulness for that meal will be nominal. All the more if I expect it will be provided to me because I deserve it.

True thankfulness understands our blessings in perspective.

Much-needed perspective.

In December of 1621, Edward Winslow was able to write, “by the goodness of God, we are so far from want….” Ninety natives joined the Pilgrims for three days of feasting. Almost every single person there had lost someone–more probably several–they loved in the previous year. And yet, they were thankful. Let me rephrase: therefore, they were thankful. They understood the true blessing of what they had.

cornucopiaDo we?

Addendum: Let me make one more observation, if I may. Thankfulness reveals more about a person’s character than many other expressions or attitudes. Gratefulness is an attitude of maturity.

May you and yours have a blessed and thoughtful Thanksgiving.

(Don’t have time to read it? Enjoy the audio below. And please forgive small hiccups; this is my first time to record a post.)