To anyone devoted to the political revitalization of Western Civilization, and a re-founding of the Anglo-American tradition within this context, Michael Anton has no doubt been a breath of fresh air of late. He is an articulate thinker, a brilliant polemicist, and, by all accounts, a decent man—crucial assets for anyone devoted to the uphill climb of the “paleoconservative” cause. He has never shied away from taking on heretofore controversial analyses, e.g., in “The Flight 93 Election.” Furthermore, in tentatively approaching probably the biggest taboo in American political discourse today—what comes after, in the possible future failure of the American republican regime—he has demonstrated not a little bit of courage.
All this said, and given Mr. Anton’s uncanny ability to see things clearly, one is taken aback by the fundamental shortcomings evident in his recent essay “Americans Unite.”  This essay comes in response to a recent essay in Chronicles magazine, “Rejecting the ‘Proposition Nation’” by Brion McClanahan of the Abbeville Institute, which is itself a response (mostly negative) to President Trump’s now-defunct 1776 Commission.  As a first point, “Americans Unite” takes the position that, in attacking the 1776 Commission report, Chronicles magazine and Mr. McClanahan are slapping away the olive branch offered by “mainstream” conservatives to their more rigorous “paleocon” comrades-in-arms. Mr. Anton suggests the criticisms leveled by “Rejecting the ‘Proposition Nation’” to be an exercise in score-settling, or at least a sucker-punch aimed at those ideations that Mr. Anton holds most dear.
In truth, if “Rejecting the ‘Proposition Nation’” appears to be in some sense the latter, it is so only in regard to sincere differences in first principles. “Rejecting the ‘Proposition Nation’” is not a puerile lobbing of a grenade into the camp of one’s allies stemming from a petulant dispute over tactics.
When one tries to make peace, one generally offers some concession to the other side. However, the 1776 Commission seemed to go out of its way to offer traditional conservatives, particularly patriotic Southerners, exactly nothing. Indeed, when one surveys the works of the 1776 Commission, one is hard-pressed to find anything other than paeans to America-the-Exceptional, founded upon liberalism-lite, with little to no treatment of America as a real nation, founded upon human frailty. All in all, for paleoconservatives, “Rejecting the ‘Proposition Nation’” gets it about right.
Although Mr. Anton makes some astute observations as to why paleoconservatives would reject the 1776 Commission’s narrative, he fails to get at the heart of the Old Right’s criticism. His essay actually only highlights the fly in the ointment. While at the outset of his essay, he takes pains to distance himself from the interpretation of “America as an idea, ”this disavowal is repeatedly belied by subsequent statements: “[The Declaration of Independence] is literally the document that founded the country”; and, “the enterprise in which they were engaged: founding a new country.”
America was not “founded” in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, nor on any other particular day of the calendar—at least not the America that Brion McClanahan cherishes. No country worthy of the name was ever truly founded on a certain date, or by a piece of paper. The Soviet Union may have been founded on a revolutionary manifesto, but neither Russia nor America ever was. One could better say that America was founded in 1607, 1620, etc…, as each of the colonies that would eventually become the United States was established (or were folded into the Union—Florida was first settled in 1565 after all). In truth, the focus of any “foundation” from a conservative standpoint will always be on the flesh-and-blood people, and their cultural evolutions (which contain political milestones, to be sure). Foundation, in this sense, is never really complete (Was Germany founded in 1871 in the Hall of Mirrors? Or in 870, at the Treaty of Verdun? Or in circa 9 A.D., at the Battle of Teutoburg Forrest?). As George Fitzhugh might say, “we want no new worlds.”
It is not clear what Mr. Anton thinks about America’s essential nature. If it is not an idea, he gives the impression that he finds it to be a polity resting on an idea. Assuming this impression to be correct, whatever difference such a distinction would make for him is likewise left a mystery. Nonetheless, the cleavage between his view and and that of Chronicles magazine post-liberals seems clear enough: The latter see the America worth saving as a particular people in a particular place, warts and all, and not as any kind of “-ism” whatsoever, whether it be egalitarianism, libertarianism, pluralism, or any other permutation of ideology spawned by the Enlightenment. For the American Right, to affirm in the face of the 1619 Project, that America is a European civilization on the North American continent is not just to acknowledge a fact, it is to hoist a banner for all to see.
Perhaps Brion McClanahan was a little bit opaque in faulting the 1776 Commission for placing “the Declaration of Independence and Abraham Lincoln at the center of the American experience,” and thus Mr. Anton technically correct in observing that the Declaration and Lincoln are indisputably at that center. But surely Mr. Anton can read between the lines. It is not their centrality, but the reverence, and the nature of that reverence, offered these seismic historical events/persons that rankles Mr. McClanahan. Centrality and sanction are two different things. That the Reformation and the English Civil War are lodestars of the English historical experience is probably undeniable. However, that all good, patriotic Englishmen must unreservedly revere these legacies—something English Catholics and monarchists may be understandably loath to do—is a wholly different matter.
The 1776 Commission and the 1619 Project quite explicitly revere the perceived ideals encapsulated by “the Declaration of Independence and Abraham Lincoln.” They just differ on the interpretation of the associated facts, and this is doubtless why Mr. McClanahan calls them “intellectual siblings.” Even in the interpretations of some of the facts, the 1776 Commission does not always seem to differ that much from the 1619 Project. A cautious, targeted attack on the 1619 Project might have simply condemned the Project’s elevation of racism and slavery out of proportion to their significance; yet, the 1776 Commission’s stance in this regard is tepid at best and positively apologetic at worst. As a practical matter it appears that the 1619 Project seeks to narrow American experiential focus onto historical racism and slavery, excoriating both as ultimate evils… in order to turn America into a de-colonialization project, with all that this entails. The 1776 Commission’s report does nothing to assuage fears that it would not prove ultimately irrelevant in combating such an effort.
If “Americans Unite” is any indication, the Mr. Anton appears to side with the 1776 Commission on factual interpretation, but with both the Commission and the 1619 Project on ideals. What are those ideals, one may ask? Given the thrust of much of Mr. Anton’s essay, they seem to boil down to the proposition that “all men are created equal.” It inevitably follows from this proposition that emancipation from all un-consented-to bonds is the letter of justice, and, cascading onward, consent is the sine qua non for legitimate governance. While equality, emancipation, and consent may define all that is valuable in the American tradition for Mr. Anton, they do not do so for the typical man of the American Right. Mr. Anton would be hard-pressed to find in most readers of Chronicles an attitude that no regime in human history prior to 1776—not the Ancient Israel of the patriarchs, nor the High Middle Ages, nor the English constitution extant in the 1770s—represented legitimate governance.
The real distinction between the Commission on the one hand and the Project on the other, with no fundamental moral disagreement on the horizon, seems to be all in how the equality proposition should play out in practice. Yet, equality has never been an authentic principle on the Right.
To be clear, it is not as if the Right rejects equality tout court, or espouses inequality in se, much less slavery. Rather, it is that true conservatives are not especially bothered by hierarchies extant in pre-“enlightened” communities. Indeed, such hierarchies may still have their place, and certainly the Right continues to believe firmly in traditional gender distinctions if nothing else. Conservatives also make faces when hearing the vague platitude “human rights”—what Richard Weaver called a “god term”—thrown into a conversation. Although the Right typically holds to universally applicable moral standards, it insists that rights are historically-conditioned, and are attached to particular societies within their own particular stories.
Thus, Mr. Anton’s otherwise reasonable questions—e.g., “Do you believe in the older meaning of inequality, that there is a natural order of rank among men entitling some to rule and consigning others to be ruled?” and “if so, how do you distinguish these castes [sic]?”—soon liquefy into straw-men. It isn’t that the Right needs to formulate how ranks may justifiably arise; the Right isn’t planning for Utopia of any kind any time soon. Rather, it is that the Right demands of liberalism that the latter explain the moral imperative for a man to treat his fellows indistinguishably, when history and nature so obviously present them otherwise.
That is, no one on the Right questions the notion of group rights; they are in fact axiomatic to be on the Right. Thus any criticism of John Calhoun (or Joseph de Maistre) on this particularized score inevitably falls on deaf ears. As does any attempt to re-imagine the American way forward from here based upon the presupposed meanings of history cultivated by the 1619 Project, by the 1776 Commission and, apparently, by Mr. Anton. Emancipation from all unconsented-to-bonds, the project which is at the heart all shades of the Left from liberalism to Communism, and inexorably leading to atomized individualism at least in moral terms, is in no way a facet of the Right.
To return to the point: Just what does equality mean in Mr. Anton’s estimation? That all homo sapiens are equally… homo sapiens, as has been established to rational satisfaction by modern biology, is hardly a momentous proposition. What is its upshot? Without more, the biological fact of human equality as a proposition delivers no more ethical instruction than the observation that all mammals are equally mammalian. Is it right and just to treat a stranger equivalent to a sibling, at least to the extent of so-called “self-evident” “natural rights”? Or is it a moral imperative to destroy all un-consented-to hierarchies?
That Michael Anton does not seem to recognize the philosophical chasm (i.e., the existence of moral disagreement) between himself and the “Deplorables” of all description is not really a strike against him or his endeavor. He appears to be trying to mend bridges in good faith, and everyone is left feeling one’s way in times like these. More disturbing however is the dead spot he seems to have regarding political theory and one very particular American narrative.
He purports not to understand why “vilifying” Lincoln looms so important for so many on the Right. Yet, his bafflement is itself mystifying. In truth, the only way the American Civil War means what Mr. Anton’s mentor Harry Jaffa purported it to mean, is if the United States of America is viewed as a unitary, sui generis, state and ideological regime. Otherwise, the war can only be seen as loyal Southerners and the unblinkered see it: the conquest of one country by another.
That is, contra “Americans Unite,” Lincoln did not try to avoid the Civil War. If he had tried, he would have succeeded. He would have simply credited and negotiated with officials from the Confederate States of America on the matters in dispute, and the crisis would have passed, akin to the BREXIT movement. Secession from the Constitutional Union was, after all, accomplished in terms of legitimization in much the same manner as accession to it. Instead, in Lincoln’s pseudo-legal estimation, secession was a nullity, and the Confederate States of America didn’t exist, technically because the Union preexisted and overarched not only the Constitution, but all its constituent States.
Taking reality as a guide, this farfetched claim—to the effect that there never existed a State out of the Union, pre- or post-Constitution—is belied by the historical facts and common sense. What could Mr. Lincoln really say of Texas, recognized as an independent republic by the United States for some ten years prior to 1845? Why was Texas always America? Because Texas was settled by Anglo-Americans perhaps?
All the State communities involved were real, made up of live human beings, not theorems constructed from political fiat. The Declaration of Independence was authorized by a Congress of delegates sent from discrete communities, acting on behalf of those discrete communities—not on behalf of all British possessions, and certainly not, contra what unfortunate prating in the Declaration of Independence might seem to imply, on behalf of the whole planet. These delegations received their separate instructions from thirteen separate colonial administrations (extra-legally), administrations that authorized participation in the Continental Congress and in independence (apparently New York did not accede to independence until July 9, 1776—was New York in a state of rebellion for those five days in Harry Jaffa’s reckoning?).
Those thirteen original American communities were distinct from one another, sometimes with radically different ethnic, cultural, and religious pedigrees, and often possessing diverse economic, political, and social characteristics. Their one incipient connection with one another, apart from generally speaking the same language, lay in their prior common allegiance to the Crown—not a common tie of allegiance to one another. Whether or not the original American States had a duty of loyalty to the Crown in the 1770s, they certainly did not have such a duty to remain in the American Union in the 1860s. Doubtless the descendants of some of the colonial delegations, ninety years later, would have had good cause to second-guess their ancestors’ decision to come to the aid of Boston in its dispute with London in 1775… if facts and history are the guide.
However, if what occurred in the summer of 1776 worked not so much as an act of self-determination, but rather worked in pith to launch a new revolutionary star into the firmament, one of liberty and equality (with democracy, pluralism, inclusion, etc… to be later heuristically added); then, just like Vladimir Lenin’s similarly experimental star, its course of flight could brook no dissent nor disunion. This, was of course, necessarily, Abraham Lincoln’s position, and this may explain for Michael Anton why some naysayers wax so stubborn on the subject. After all, if this is fundamentally a revolutionary regime, then the 1619 Project’s Nikole Hannah-Jones becomes less unreasonable in asking why the revolution should not continue? Her tactics may appear underhanded, but they are less bloody (one may yet hope) than the Battle of Bunker Hill or the Siege of Petersburg.
To all this ranting though, Mr. Anton may ask, is this not water under the bridge?
It is indeed.
But the 1776 Commission is not simply content to let the water flow past, as a matter of fact, like the fact of the English Reformation, but is looking fundamentally to ground America. Therefore, for the sake of American patriotism, if one is forced back to consider first principles, as the events of the day seem to counsel, it would be the height of folly to exacerbate a misstep and rally Americans around a Thomas Paine-Thaddeus Stevens pact of steel. From this vantage point, the 1776 Commission offers something not only wrong-headed, but completely self-destructive.
Michael Anton may be trying to square a circle, to live as a post-liberal with an Enlightenment heart. One is left unsure. He seems to have the potential to offer leadership for the future. Hopefully he will eventually recognize that the vision presented by the 1776 Commission is one that the American populace should be desperately looking to avoid. In sum, if President Biden does one good thing in his administration, it will be to have thrown the 1776 Commission into the trash bin of history. Good riddance.
This piece was originally published at The Imaginative Conservative.