The Revival of (Southern) Conservatism

luther martin

M.E. Bradford said of Southern Conservatism that:

“This conservatism is both historic and principled in not insisting on rights anterior to or separable from the context in which they originally emerged—what the Declaration of Independence says, if we read all of it and not just one sentence. No “city on a hill” to which we, as mortal men, will someday arrive is presumed by it—no New England millennium.”

What passes for conservatism has gone through numerous changes over the decades. It can be said to be virtually unrecognizable by comparison to its historic roots as a philosophy of “conserving” viable traditions and governing principals, in lieu of the more modern desire to establish empire at home, as well as abroad. An example is found in the recent advent of “constitutional conservatism” by those who, in their advocacy of constitutionalism, tend to display their unfamiliarity with the document and its history. Conservatives with whom I’ve spoken in recent times are not only of the persuasion that the constitution is the embodiment of conservatism, and thus demanding of our unwavering fealty, but also conclude that the Lincolnian view is necessarily correct. This view holds that peaceful departure from the document, secession, in an effort to form a more desirable form of government is somehow “un-American”, unthinkable, and even treasonous. Reconstruction has indeed taken its toll.

One well-intended individual told me in a conversation “the oath I took to the constitution was for life”. His insinuation was that, regardless of whether or not the constitution has fulfilled the obligation that its proponents forwarded- the obligation to restrain government –he is married to the document, and to view it otherwise is “treason”. Presumably, we are at a place in American “conservative” thought to where the maintenance of geography, and the continual propping up of an unrestrained central government, are both preferable to the preservation of individual liberty. This is the ultimate outcome of Lincoln’s war of 1861 to 1865- we are now “one nation” and “indivisible.”

Eschewing the basis on which America was founded- on the principle that government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed –this view not only rejects first principles and originalism with regard to our departure from the English Crown, but it calls into question those who opposed adoption of the constitution in the first place. You cannot, it is supposed, view the constitution as having detrimental effects to American liberty without being “Un-American.” Where then does this leave such stalwart patriots, men who indeed defined the term “patriot” in America, as Patrick Henry, George Mason, Rawlins Lowndes or numerous others who opposed the constitution’s adoption?

George Mason, in his speech of June 4, 1788 to the Virginia Convention stated-

“Whether the Constitution be good or bad, the present clause clearly discovers, that it is a National Government, and no longer a confederation. I mean that clause which gives the first hint of the General Government laying direct taxes. The assumption of this power of laying direct taxes, does of itself, entirely change the confederation of the States into one consolidated Government. This power being at discretion, unconfined, and without any kind of controul, must carry every thing before it. The very idea of converting what was formerly confederation, to a consolidated Government, is totally subversive of every principle which has hitherto governed us. This power is calculated to annihilate totally the State Governments. Will the people of this great community submit to be individually taxed by two different and distinct powers? Will they suffer themselves to be doubly harassed? These two concurrent powers cannot exist long together; the one will destroy the other.”

His warning is self-explanatory and his opposition to the constitution should be readily apparent.

Mason continues:

“The General Government being paramount to, and in every respect more powerful than, the State governments, the latter must give way to the former. Is it to be supposed that one National Government will suit so extensive a country, embracing so many climates, and containing inhabitants so very different in manners, habits, and customs? It is ascertained by history, that there never was a Government, over a very extensive country, without destroying the liberties of the people.”

Have his suggestions not materialized? Yet presumably, the same George Mason who penned the Virginia Declaration of Rights from which much of the Declaration of Independence was adopted, should not be taken seriously by some modern conservatives based on his opposition to the constitution, his refusal to sign the document at the Philadelphia Convention and his efforts to ensure its defeat in the convention of his State of Virginia.

Luther Martin, of Maryland, said in his State’s Convention that, “The ratification of this Constitution is so repugnant to the Terms on which we are all bound to amend and alter the former, that it became a matter of surprise to many that the proposition could meet with any countanance or support.”

He then asserted that:

“Our present Constitution (The Articles of Confederation) expressly directs that all the States must agree before it can be dissolved; but on the other hand it was contended that a Majority ought to govern – That a dissolution of the Federal Government did not dissolve the State Constitutions which were paramount the Confederacy. That the Federal Government being formed out of the State Governments the People at large have no power to interfere in the Federal Constitution, nor has the State or Federal Government any power to confirm a new Institution. That this Government if ratified and Established will be immediately from the People, paramount the Federal Constitution and operate as a dissolution of it.”

In other words, he is lamenting that a Federal government is being forced aside in favor of a “national” government that is run, not as a compact among States, but by “the people at large”: an idea that was abhorrent to those who recognized the variances between the different regions and cultures of the 13 States.

Martin had contended that three distinct parties were present at the Philadelphia convention “one were for abolishing all the State Governments (Monarchists); another for such a Government as would give an influence to particular States (Nationalists) – and a third party were truly Federal, and acting for general Equality.” The latter group, Martin asserted “were for considering, reforming and amending the Federal Government, from time to time as experience might point out its imperfections, ’till it could be made competent to every exigence of State, and afford at the same time ample security to Liberty and general Welfare.”

Martin submitted though that “this scheme was so opposite to the views of the other two, that the Monarchical party finding little chance of succeeding in their wishes joined the others and by that measure plainly shewed they were endeavouring to form such a Government as from its inequality must bring in time their System forward, or at least much nearer in practice than it could otherwise be obtained.”

In other words, Martin is suggesting that Monarchists and Nationalists, having outnumbered those who wanted a truly “Federal” relationship between the States, were to be victorious in forming a “national” government should the constitution be ratified. He considered this to be “repugnant”.

In his famous speech to the Virginia Convention on June 5, 1788, Patrick Henry stated the following:

“It is said eight States have adopted this plan. I declare that if twelve States and a half had adopted it, I would, with manly firmness, and in spite of an erring world, reject it. You are not to inquire how your trade may be increased, nor how you are to become a great and powerful people, but how your liberties can be secured; for liberty ought to be the direct end of your Government.”

Henry went on to suggest that the delegates should “Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect every one who approaches that jewel.”

“Unfortunately,” he continued, “nothing will preserve it but downright force: Whenever you give up that force, you are inevitably ruined. I am answered by gentlemen, that though I might speak of terrors, yet the fact was, that we were surrounded by none of the dangers apprehended. I conceive this new Government to be one of those dangers.”

Of the Articles of Confederation, which the new constitution was to replace, Henry asserted:

“The Confederation; this same despised Government, merits, in my opinion, the highest encomium: It carried us through a long and dangerous war: It rendered us victorious in that bloody conflict with a powerful nation: It has secured us a territory greater than any European monarch possesses: And shall a Government which has been thus strong and vigorous, be accused of imbecility and abandoned for want of energy?”

“Consider,” he cautioned, “what you are about to do before you part with this Government. Take longer time in reckoning things: Revolutions like this have happened in almost every country in Europe: Similar examples are to be found in ancient Greece and ancient Rome: Instances of the people losing their liberty by their carelessness and the ambition of a few.”

Of the new Constitution being debated, Henry warned that, “If we admit this Consolidated Government it will be because we like a great splendid one. Some way or other we must be a great and mighty empire; we must have an army, and a navy, and a number of things: When the American spirit was in its youth, the language of America was different: Liberty, Sir, was then the primary object.”

Entire volumes can be written about those who opposed the constitution. Many opponents of the Constitution had submitted, as had Rawlins Lowndes in South Carolina, that the cultures between North and South were too dramatically different to be bonded together under any national form of government, and that a league of mutual protection and trade was sufficient to their well being. It was their desire to leave all other considerations up to the individual States to govern according to local preference, local culture and local values. Such a system is the foundation of how true “conservatism” was once defined.

In the post-Lincoln decades this definition has been lost. It has given way to a mindset among modern “conservatives” that America is great, not because of her former recognition that government’s only legitimate purpose was the protection of individual rights, and that the people had an inherent right to “alter”, “abolish” or “throw off” a government that “had become destructive” of the ends for which it was created, but instead because of the size of her geography, the power of her military or the massiveness of various federal programs- the majority of which exist although the Constitution, which modern conservatives claim fealty to, does not legally allow them.

We have come to precisely the place that the numerous opponents of the Constitution warned of should that document be ratified. And worse, the characteristics which modern “conservatives” now celebrate embody the very dangers that traditional conservatives sought to prevent. Thus, in their minds, to suggest that the Constitution was perhaps a mistake, or to point out the fact that many objected to it at the time, not to mention broaching the “unthinkable” subject of secession is, in the parlance of these conservatives, “Un-American.” Again, where precisely does this leave that significant portion of the Founding generation who held such “radical” views as those expressed by Patrick Henry, Luther Martin and George Mason? Does conservatism, in its true form, any longer exist? Or, is it simply a catch phrase for what was once known as nationalism and considered by many in 1788 to be fatal to liberty?

Until these questions are answered, until our language changes, and until current subjects are viewed within their proper historical context, no real solutions can be offered. Instead, we are faced with the singular option of doing the same things over and over while hoping for different results. It should be abundantly clear at this juncture in history as to where this leads us.

Conversely, traditional conservatism, as birthed from the Southern culture of independence, self-government and rugged individualism, would propose and give birth to real solutions to modern problems. This conservatism must be revived. The survival of American liberty depends on it.

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