Monday, January 31, 2011

World History (4): Axial Age

The following "conversation starters" were developed for my world history students at Aquinas College and Grand Valley State University, beginning in 2008.

The Axial Age

1. Let's first step back and look at the big picture. What changes people the most -- relationships, things, or ideas? Is the human story more about the people within our heart, the things outside our body, or the thoughts inside our head?

Some have argued that relationships are the drivers of life's most significant changes (e.g., New Testament writers and Plutarch's biographies). If it's relationships that drive change, then we need to follow the tracks of relatives, friends, teachers, mentors, priests, sages, and inspirational leaders.

Others have written that things are the engines of change (Marx's dialectical materialism). If it's things that are the agents of change, then we need to look at the way a people make a living, work the land, use technology, and bring about the expansion and contraction of empires.

Still others have said that ideas are the engines of transformation (Plato's Forms and Hegel's dialectic). If it's thoughts that change us most, then humankind's cultural evolution is explained by symbols, language, ideas, ethics, philosophy, and religion.

I imagine most of us take the position that all three elements help us make sense of the past. Relationships and things and ideas -- all have their place in a balanced narrative. But in telling our common story, historians will sometimes emphasize one or the other to develop an analytical, narrative, or interpretive thread.

Let us use the Axial Age to illustrate. My hypothesis is that the Axial Age -- that collection of simultaneous movements around the world that dramatically developed the human estate's morals, religions, philosophies, and ideas -- could only have come about as a result of the physical catastrophies that preceded it. Around 1200-1100 B.C. catastrophe hit the Mediterranean and Middle East. Troy was defeated. Mycaenean civilization collapsed. Egyptian civilization faltered as the Hebrews escaped to Canaan. Sea Peoples went desperately in search of a better life. A dark age began for most of the peoples in the region. We are not sure what caused all of these dramatic events to occur. But when civilizations did recover, the Axial Age was launched. Had humankind learned something from the physical catastrophe and resulting dark age ... perhaps that one should not put trust in physical empires but in spiritual quests? It is my hypothesis that the physical catastrophes were linked to the great spiritual leap forward.

2. What is the Axial Age?

The term "Axial Age" was coined by the 20th-century German philosopher, Karl Jaspers, to describe the breathtaking innovations in religion and philosophy that transformed human thought across the Afro-Eurasian landmass during the first millennium B.C. Jaspers thought he saw a pattern in ancient history from about 800 B.C. to 200 B.C. His notion of the "Axial Age" pulls together four diverse revolutions in different parts of the globe -- Judaism in the Middle East, Confucianism in eastern Asia, Buddhism in southern Asia, and Greek philosophy in southeastern Europe. It is the time during which all the foundations that underlie current civilizations came into being. These foundations are intellectual and spiritual in character.

3. How relevant are intellectual and spiritual movements that occurred two to three millennia ago?

Religion and philosophy are an inescapable part of human nature and history. They endure because they meet profound psychological needs. They answer our existential questions -- if not fully, then plausibly enough to give us comfort. Most everyone wants assurance that our existence has meaning and purpose.

The "Axial Age" is of fundamental importance to understanding where you came from. It describes four revolutions -- four innovative turning points in thinking -- Judaism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Greek philosophy. Each of these four revolutions impacts people's lives and institutions to this day. The church to which I belong is part of the Judeo-Christian heritage, drawing spiritual comfort and moral insight from Hebrew patriarchs and Jewish prophets. Chinese institutions are Confucian to this day. My sister and cousin are practicing Buddhists, renamed Jin Hai and Heng Sure, respectively. Greek philosophy -- especially Socrates -- informs my thinking, writing, and teaching in the college classroom. The answers to questions put by human beings during the Axial Age are truly the gold standard when it comes to living a good life.

In a very real sense, you and I still inhabit the Axial Age.

4. So is the Axial Age one of history's thresholds?

Yes. If religion and philosophy are fundamental to ordering our mind and heart, then the Axial Age is arguably one of the top ten thresholds of human existence. To give you an idea of how important the Axial Age is, put it in the perspective of a long time line: five earlier thresholds would include the "cultural Big Bang," Neolithic Revolution, the creation of civilizations in the Bronze Age, the invention of writing, and the formation of the first empires; two contemporary thresholds would be the creation of republican government in Rome and of democratic government in Athens; ten later thresholds would include the rise of the Roman Empire, the fall of the Western Empire, church-state struggles, the invention of movable type, the Reformation, Age of Exploration, Scientific Revolution, American Revolution, French Revolution, and Industrial Revolution. The Axial Age is right up there with the most significant revolutions in human history because it changed what counts -- the way people think.

The importance that Karl Jaspers accorded to the Axial Age comports with the belief of a number of historians -- Christopher Dawson, Arnold Toynbee, Samuel Huntington, Russell Kirk, and Stephen Tonsor, among them -- that religion is the basis of culture -- it's what puts the "cult" in culture. Religion provides the common worldview that forges a people together in a way that fear, terror, political commandeering, or marketplace connections do not. If a people share a transcending sense of mission, then they are inspired and empowered to undertake heroic feats on behalf of something greater than themselves.

From what has been said, it can be seen that the Axial Age was only the second time in human existence that a dramatic change in thought occurred around the globe. The first time was the so-called cultural Big Bang, which was in high gear around 35,000 years ago as evidenced by thousands of cliff and cave paintings. These paintings reveal a burst of aesthetic awareness and a higher degree of self-consciousness about man's relationship to animals and divine spirits. (See the work of Richard G. Klein and Ian Tattersall for more on this controversial concept, the "cultural Big Bang.")

During the Axial Age, human beings advanced beyond the cultural Big Bang in startling new ways. A handful of new religions, philosophies, and ethical systems expressed our species' expanded consciousness, organized around Judaism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Greek philosophy. Daoism, the Vedic traditions, and Jainism also developed at this time. Each one of these systems counted large numbers of adherents and transformed the way people viewed themselves, the world, and human destiny.

5. What about Christianity, Islam, and Zen, which develop later? Why aren't they part of the Axial Age?

True, the two great monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam, are foundational worldviews of one of every three human beings on earth, but they lie outside the Axial Age proper because they are derivative of what the Jews had already achieved -- that startlingly new Axial Age invention, monotheism.

Likewise, Zen is derivative of Buddhism.

6. What is the relationship between the Axial Age and the world's founding civilizations?

There is no simple answer. The Axial Age commenced some 1,500 years after the four major riverine civilizations had been founded in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and India. Only in China did Confucianism develop where an early civilization arose, along the Yellow River. The other three major philosophies and religions developed at the periphery of riverine civilizations. So Judaism arose between the Nile on the one hand, and the Tigris and Euphrates on the other. Greek philosophy developed across the Mediterranean Sea from the Nile and at a distance from the Fertile Crescent. And Buddhism did not grow out of the earlier Indus River Valley civilization, which had collapsed, but in the Ganges River Valley.

Isn't it interesting that three of the four Axial Age revolutions occurred away from centers of urban life and literate populations? The Jews illustrate. They were nomads wandering in the desert before they settled in Palestine. Later they were exiled from their remote civilizational outpost. Yet their great teachings endured to enrich much of humankind.

Some historians assert that the outbreak of these religious or philosophical revolutions coincided with the rise of the first great empires on earth. If true, there would be a compelling logic in this unity: Just as emperors unified vast expanses of the earth's surface, so teachers unified the worldview of extremely diverse peoples. But the relationship between the Axial Age and empires is not that clear cut.

Other historians observe that it is no accident that the Jewish Messiah, the Chinese sage-king, and Plato's philosopher-king all arose about the same time. "Each was a response to a crisis in a society of the ancient world. Each would ... restore order to a troubled society."

7. How did Axial Age innovations change thought and life?

There are four general ways in which the Axial Age changed the people who fell under their influence. Whether they embraced Judaism, Confucianism, Buddhism, or Greek philosophy, there was a dramatic change in people's view of ultimate reality (metaphysics), their view of the nature and destiny of human beings (anthropology), their view of how people should relate to one another (ethics), and their everyday spiritual practices (the rites and duties of spiritual discipline). It cannot be overemphasized. These changes were revolutionary in their day. Vast populations of human beings were impacted by these revolutions in thought, and the changes stuck. They even survived the corrosive critiques of the Enlightenment and lasted into the modern age, despite the cognoscenti's pronouncements to the contrary. (Then-presidential candidate Jimmy Carter's appeal to evangelicals in 1976, as well as the outbreak of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, surprised all the experts. None of the Ph.D.'s in the social sciences saw these transformations coming.)

8. And more specific changes?

There are many:
- the belief in one all-powerful God (created by the Hebrews and carried forward by Christians and Muslims);
- the embrace of reason, not the gods, to explain natural and social phenomena (pursued by the Greeks);
- the development of an ethical understanding of all relationships (worked out by Confucius);
- the evolution of spiritual practices that took hold in great cultures (Vedic cults and Buddhist practices).

9. Summarize the importance of the Axial Age.

The Axial Age was a truly revolutionary time. Just as the Neolithic Revolution dramatically changed the material conditions of human life, so the Axial Age dramatically changed the way human beings think. In a very real sense, you and I still inhabit the Axial Age.

Alexander "the Great" Hamilton: The Indispensible Aide

The following talk, based on the New-York Historical Society's exhibit of Alexander Hamilton, was delivered on August 1, 2006.

Given the esteem in which I hold my colleagues from Aquinas College and Calvin College, I am proud to conclude this series on Alexander Hamilton -- based on the exhibit by the New-York Historical Society, organized by the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies, and hosted by Spring Lake District Library.

Who is this man with the sharp eyes and chiseled nose on our $10 bill?

Jason Duncan opened three weeks ago with an overview of Hamilton’s “strange and amazing life.” He “overcame huge odds” (proving that truth is stranger than fiction). “None of the Founding Fathers came from such unpromising origins.” He was born illegitimate, was orphaned by age 12, and grew up on a couple of Caribbean island that enriched themselves on rum sugar cane and the sweat of the slave’s brow. Who would have expected anything great on the American stage? Indeed, “three years before the outbreak of the American Revolution, Hamilton was an illegitimate orphan working in the Virgin Islands as a merchant’s clerk." His break came when he was sent as a teenager to New York to attend what would become an Ivy League university, Columbia. He performed brilliantly in every endeavor thereafter -- well, just about every endeavor. He did not fare so well in his duel with Aaron Burr.

John Pinhiero spoke two weeks ago of one of the great divides in American thought and culture: the Hamiltonian versus the Jeffersonian answer to the question: How shall we then live together. There are two very different ways of ordering freedom in a republic.

Jim Bratt spoke last week about Hamilton’s religious outlook, placing it in the perspective of more general intellectual, moral, and spiritual currents in the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment and Great Awakening.

A fascinating figure, Hamilton. He always ranks among the top five Founding Fathers; is arguably the foremost political figure in American history who never attained the presidency; and is perennially recognized as our nation's first economist.

In the course of this series, we have been exposed to extreme views of Hamilton -- ranging from the flatteringly positive to the scurrilously negative. Much of the negative press about Hamilton was his own fault. In the struggle to put forth his vision for the new republic, he made as many political enemies as any Founder did. Among his most vocal critics was John Adams, who referred to Hamilton as "the foreigner" and called him "the most restless, impatient, artful, indefatigable, and unprincipled intriguer in the United States, if not the world." Adams, never one to fall into the error of understatement, was even more complimentary when he called Hamilton, “the bastard son of a Scottish peddler.”

Jefferson did not like Hamilton either -- in fact, couldn't stand him. They were outright political enemies by the time they were serving together in Washington's cabinet.

It didn't boost Hamilton's reputation that he became the most notorious adulterer among the Founders. His own letters reveal that he carried on with Maria Reynolds in a seedy affair that had the approval of her husband -- but only to blackmail the treasury secretary in a weak moment.

Nor did his death at the age of 49 commend him. There was still so much that his demons of ambition were prodding him to accomplish. But Hamilton had the worst kind of enemy, a mortal enemy. The former treasury secretary suffered the most spectacular death of any of the Founders, shot by the vice president of the United States in a duel. He then lingered for 31 agonizing hours before mercifully dying. The same pistol that killed Alexander had previously killed his son Phillip -- also in a duel. Too weird.

On the positive side, we think of Alexander "the Great" Hamilton as a war hero at the Battle of Yorktown; as the principal author of the Federalist Papers; and as the trusted aide to George Washington for two decades, first during the War for Independence where he demonstrated how precocious he was (he was only 20 years old when he was promoted to colonel on Washington’s staff), then during Washington’s presidency, where he served officially as the Treasury secretary, but unofficially became a rival to Jefferson who was at State. (That may have been the longest sentence I've ever composed.) Hamilton was able to exercise considerable influence over Washington's policies, but the two men had a stormy father-son-like relationship.

The title of this talk, by the way, is a play on the title sometimes used for George Washington -- “the Indispensable Man” to America’s founding. Hamilton, we know, was Washington’s indispensable aide. This evening I’d like to talk not so much about how Hamilton was Washington’s aide, as how he is ours. After all, the America he helped create is our America. That’s why the exhibit is subtitled, “The Man Who Made Modern America.” Hamilton “left behind ideas and institutions that have lasted for centuries.” Whether we like Hamilton or not, if we have not grappled with him, we have not really grappled with the origins of modern America.

"In this exhibition, we wanted to show the startling degree to which, of all the founders, Hamilton had the most modern ideas--the power of the press, the need for a strong federal government and a strong treasury, a national banking system, a stock market and trade, and a mixed economy, not one only focused on farming…."

"It's phenomenal that this man, who died in his forties, could have had so many ideas that would become true for the America that we know today," says James Basker, president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute and professor of English at Columbia University.

Now let’s take a look at three areas where Hamilton is indispensable to our understanding of modern America (with due acknowledgment to James Basker, Forrest McDonald, Ron Chernow, and other Hamilton scholars).


Alexander Hamilton made – and continues to make – two great contributions to our American understanding of political order:

1. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, as the dominant mind on the Committee of Style along with Gouvernor Morris, Hamilton helped shaped the Preamble with its incisive argument for ordered liberty.

2. After the convention, he wrote some 50 of the Federalist papers, expounding on the meaning of the Constitution and arguing for its ratification.

Where did his ideas come from? Many came from his years of military service. Hamilton, who rose to the rank of colonel in the Continental Army, watched as General Washington and his officers struggled to keep the army clothed, fed, and armed. Under the Articles of Confederation, the loosely organized confederation of states could not raise taxes. The army was dependent on the individual generosity of the thirteen legislatures.

"Hamilton saw that a decentralized government was helpless and incompetent at doing what needed to be done," says Basker.

Hamilton's army experience helped shape his ideas about the need for a strong centralized government. In his spare time, he read the works of European thinkers and economists--Adam Smith, Samuel Von Pufendorf, and Malachy Postlethwayt. Already in the late 1770s he began toying with the idea of revising the Articles of Confederation. But war's end, he had outlined a plan for a federal government with strong central powers. But for his plan to work, the Articles would have to be dramatically revised or discarded. Not uncharacteristically, he wrote the resolution calling for the Constitutional Convention.

Hamilton got his chance when he became one of the three New York delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. He argued for a concentration of power in the national government – for senators and a national governor who would serve for life, based on good governing. His ideas received no support and had little influence on the other delegates. But Hamilton served on the Committee of Style and influenced the ideas and language of the Preamble.

Compare the early draft: “We the People of the States of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode-Island….”

[Hold up the $10 bill and reference the words, "We the People." ]

With the final version: “We, the People of the United States, in order to
- form a more perfect union,
- establish justice,
- insure domestic tranquility,
- provide for the common defence,
- promote the general welfare, and
- secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity
do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

These 52 words are the work of a genius who understood the political philosophy of ordered liberty. Ironically, a majority of Americans in 1787 did not want to be governed by the document.

If adopting the Declaration of Independence was the supreme Jeffersonian moment in American history, with its emphasis on liberty; then ratifying the Constitution with its Preamble was the supreme Hamiltonian moment in American history, with its argument for ordered liberty.

Take a step back and think about what Hamilton’s efforts mean to the human condition…. [See my Afterword in The American Cause]

Although they did not share Hamilton's federalist vision, the delegates had trouble devising a constitution. They disagreed on states' rights, representation, and slavery. With the existing government bankrupt and on the verge of collapse, a compromise had to be reached. After the other two New York delegates left in anger--they opposed any federalist provisions--Hamilton stayed behind and signed the final draft of the Constitution as an individual. Like other delegates, he recognized that the document, while imperfect, stood the chance of being ratified by the states.
"The most important thing Hamilton did was after the Constitution had been adopted by the convention, but before it was ratified. That was the real fight," says Basker.

Hamilton returned to New York, a strongly antifederalist state, to lobby for the Constitution. Hoping to turn the tide in favor of ratification, Hamilton, along with John Jay and James Madison, wrote The Federalist, a series of essays. Hamilton wrote more than two-thirds of the eighty-five essays, which were published in New York newspapers in 1787 and 1788 under the nom de plume "Publius." In the first essay, Hamilton wrote, "The vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty." Newspapers throughout the colonies began reprinting the essays, and little by little, opposition eroded. The thirteen colonies approved the Constitution.


Hamilton's experiences in St. Croix also influenced his economic visions. He took the view that for the new republic to survive and flourish, the economy needed to be divided between agriculture and manufacturing. "As a pre-adolescent, Hamilton saw that on the islands, they manufactured nothing for themselves; they had to import everything," says Basker. "During the Revolution, any supplies needed by the colonies, guns or uniforms or anything manufactured, needed to be acquired from the French or Dutch or had to be taken from captured British supplies. So he knew that America would have to have its own manufacturing or it would always be dependent on other countries."

This was in contrast to Jefferson's hope for a republic of free-holding yeoman farmers, and would lead to political skirmishes between the rivals.

[Hold up the $10 bill and point to the image of the Treasury Building.]

As the first treasury secretary, Hamilton inherited a bankrupt nation. The war debt was crushing. In 1790, he published his "Reports on Public Credit," a plan to assume domestic and foreign debt, pay off federal war bonds, and create a national mechanism for collecting taxes.

James Madison and Thomas Jefferson vehemently opposed Hamilton's plan. The Virginians saw it as unfair to their state. Opposition arose from other quarters as well. To break the deadlock, Hamilton turned to back room politicking and cut a deal with Jefferson. The southern states would vote in favor of his plan in exchange for Hamilton's support in favor of moving the nation's capital from New York to a site on the Potomac River.

Hamilton also secured the establishment of a federal bank and a federal mint. Against long odds, he had placed the nascent United States on solid ground fiscally. Exhausted from the political battles, Hamilton retired from Washington's cabinet in 1795. He may have retired, but his ideas did not. [See my Afterword in The American Cause.]

[Tell the story of the Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian bragging for their man's rightful place in American history.]


Even though Washington asked Hamilton to head up Treasury, he was too self confident, assertive, and patriotic to restrict his efforts to domestic fiscal affairs. Indeed, a few years into the Washington administration, “the Treasury Department had … been more active internationally than had the State Department…. [Hamilton] understood European affairs better than did his counterpart in the State Department.” With his boss’s blessings, Hamilton debated Jefferson over foreign policy (which must have irritated Jefferson no end), and offered indispensable philosophical counsel and policy recommendations to the commander in chief when it came to foreign affairs.

Hamilton’s view of foreign affairs was shaped by four elements:
1. his realistic view of human nature (he has been called Machiavellian);
2. he was an astute student of history (he knew how difficult it was for republics to survive and left posterity some great lessons of history in the Federalist papers);
3. he participated directly, for more than a decade, in one of the world’s most significant revolutions and in a war for independence against the world’s then-greatest superpower; and
4. he observed the excesses of the French Revolution, which broke out the same year the Washington administration began.

As Treasury secretary, Hamilton was justified in his desire to help shape U.S. foreign policy by six factors:
1. the new republic’s small army and navy were paid for by the Treasury. Early in Washington’s first administration, there were Indian wars to deal with;
2. the new republic was becoming buried by crushing debt and needed to seek credit abroad;
3. revenues had to be raised by taxing international commerce;
4. a commercial treaty with Great Britain was desired by Washington, and Hamilton was in accord;
5. the Whiskey Rebellion: Knox went away on personal business at the moment when the new republic needed him most!
6. Washington explicitly asked Hamilton for an alternate opinion to Jefferson’s when it came to the Proclamation of Neutrality (1793). Hamilton thought that Jefferson had “a womanish attachment to France and a womanish resentment against Great Britain.”

The outbreak of the French revolution coincided with the beginning of Washington's first administration, but by 1793 warfare had engulfed Europe, pitting Great Britain, Prussia, Austria, and Spain against the new French Republic. In the cabinet Jefferson opposed any expression of neutrality while Hamilton supported it. Washington eventually sided with the latter and issued a proclamation of neutrality that barred American ships from supplying war matériel to either side.

Forrest McDonald writes: “In the face of war in Europe, [Hamilton] saw neutrality as the great desideratum, but not because, having known war, he cherished peace. Rather, he understood that war, in the emotional and ideological climate of the United States in the 1790s, would divide the nation against itself and sap the strength of its infant national government. Every year of peace, conversely, would allow the country to grow stronger and its government to become more stable. As a matter of policy, he therefore regarded war as acceptable only if the alternative was national disgrace or the sacrifice of vital national interests, and only if the American people could be counted on to support the war with some measure of solidarity.”

You see these sentiments resurface three years later in Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796, where the out-going president urges Americans to avoid alliances that are not in the nation’s interest. Try to set a good republican example and be friendly to all to the extent possible. There are obvious lessons for today.


Hamilton had a vision. He believed the United States could become the world’s greatest nation ever. He foresaw us becoming a “republican empire”: at home, republican; abroad, first among the nations, with a commercial and military reach able to rival that of any other "superpower" (in Hamilton’s day, Britain and France). He thought our commercial and military reach should be proportionate to the nation’s vital interests. As our vital interests grow, we become richer, stronger, and – more subject to temptation. The temptation is to become imperial at home, dictatorial even. To Hamilton, it was necessary to avoid this temptation at all costs. No previous republic had ever quite succeeded in doing so. Ancient Rome came the closest. But Rome succumbed to imperial designs at home as its military conquered distant lands. In the United States, there would be a tension between the freedom of a republic, and the reach of a global empire. It would take time to grow the new republic. In the 1790s, to use Hamilton’s words to Washington, we were “a Hercules in the cradle.” Hamilton warned: “’Tis as great an error for a nation to overrate as to underrate itself.” Again, useful words for us to remember today.

How different Hamilton’s pragmatic vision is from Jefferson’s idealistic vision.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Language of Leaders: Washington, Jefferson, Webster, Lincoln

This talk was originally delivered at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, on December 10, 1999. The idea that caught most historians' attention was that the Declaration of Independence was every bit as much a rhetorical document as a political document, meant to be read aloud to rally Americans to revolution.

Forging Politics, Rhetoric, and "the Permanent Things" into Messages that Inspire a Nation

... Russell Kirk challenged us to look beyond tomorrow's headlines and see the meaning of our work in the "Permanent Things." This term, suggested to Kirk by his friend T. S. Eliot, is fundamental to my remarks this afternoon. As Kirk explained it:
There is an order which holds all things in their places: is made for us, and we are made for it. The thinking conservative, far from denying the existence of this eternal order, endeavors to ascertain its nature and to conform to that order, which is the source of the Permanent Things. [2]

The Permanent Things are identified, in other words, with truth, goodness, beauty, and all the transcendent norms that give life meaning. In due course I'll be saying more about the relationship between the Permanent Things and political discourse.

But first, permit me to meet head-on a perception that is frequently encountered--even in well-meaning people, not just cynics. It's the sense that the Permanent Things no longer stand tall in the political arena, but have been overmatched by brute Machiavellians. It's the feeling that truth, goodness, and beauty have been muscled out by their postmodern counterfeits--PR, celebrity, and glitz. It's the apprehension that pollsters and focus groups are no longer handmaids but masters of policy. People actually come up to me and ask: How can you stand working in government? Is there any honor left in politics?

The honor is to be found wherever there are men and women who champion the Permanent Things.

Conservatives in the Western tradition like to say, after Richard Weaver, that ideas have consequences. But before there can be ideas, there must be words. It is on the wings of words that ideas are born. It is on the strength of words that ideas either take flight or fall flat. That is why words, language, and rhetoric are so important in a constitutional republic where the people are sovereign and so must sort out how they shall live. As Kirk explained, "we cannot dissociate political principles and the methods of persuasion.... Some genuine connection subsists between the order of rhetoric and the order of society; false phrases open the way for false measures."[3]

What Kirk is saying, in essence, is that behind every abuse of language, there's potentially an abuse of power, and behind every abuse of power, there's probably an abuse of language.

Because our republic has such a rich history, I'd like to take a long view this afternoon and discuss a few key moments in America's past, when a gifted leader forged politics, rhetoric, and the Permanent Things into a powerful unity. The illustrations are, I believe, sufficiently vivid to suggest numerous applications today.


Let's begin by looking at an American leader whose best speeches are considered literary masterpieces, and that is Abraham Lincoln. He knew one of the greatest sources of persuasion--the radical idea that people are moved by truth. Lincoln wove the truth and other Permanent Things into his speeches as few other leaders have. One of his favorite ways to argue for the truth was by using logic. He was especially masterful at using the law of the excluded middle. He no doubt perfected his use of the excluded middle in the courtroom, where unambiguous guilt or innocence had to be established before a defendant could be judged. But what I want to look at is how he used the excluded middle in his bid for a U.S. Senate seat in 1858. Lincoln's argument was that if the United States was born in freedom, if it defined itself in terms of freedom, if its destiny was freedom's very destiny, then it inevitably followed that--here come the famous words--"A house divided against itself cannot stand.... This government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.... It will become all one thing, or all the other."[4]

Lincoln explained why this must be so, with a series of powerful rhetorical questions and imagery: "When ... you have succeeded in dehumanizing the Negro [sic]; when you have put him down and made it impossible for him to be but as the beasts of the field; when you have extinguished his soul in this world and placed him where the ray of hope is blown out as in the darkness of the damned," what is the effect on a freedom-loving people?

Furthermore, Lincoln asked:

What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and independence? It is not our frowning battlements, our bristling sea coasts, our army and our navy.... Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in us. Our defense is in the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands everywhere. Destroy this spirit and you have planted the seeds of despotism at your own doors. Familiarize yourselves with the chains of bondage and you prepare your own limbs to wear them. [5]

There's an interesting story behind the "house divided" line, which, as you know, is an allusion from the Bible.[6] Lincoln had actually tried the line out in 1856, two years before the contest with [Stephen A.] Douglas, but had been severely criticized. Advisers said he had put the issue of union too bluntly, and they actually got him to agree never to say it again. But two years later, faced with a formidable opponent in Douglas, he just could not resist. He first rehearsed the House Divided speech before an audience of one, his partner William Herndon, who liked most of it, but questioned whether the "house divided" passage was politic. Lincoln responded: "I would rather be defeated with this expression in my speech, and uphold it and discuss it before the people, than be victorious without it."[7] How many politicians can you imagine talking like that today?

Next, Lincoln tried the speech out on a dozen of his closest supporters and asked what they thought. All but one condemned the "house divided" line, one going so far as to call it a "damned fool utterance."[8]

Lincoln this time stood resolutely in disagreement with his advisers. He said the people needed to hear the stark choice before them--in other words, the law of the excluded middle. "The time has come when these sentiments should be uttered; and if it is decreed that I should go down because of this speech, then let me go down linked to the truth--let me die in the advocacy of what is just and right." As one of Lincoln's biographers noted, this was "Rather a memorable pronouncement of a candidate to his committee"--especially on the eve of the nominating convention. [9]

Now, a minute ago I said that people respond to the truth. And you are thinking, "Yeah, and Lincoln lost to Douglas." Technically, that's true. What is forgotten nowadays is that Lincoln actually won a majority of the popular vote in 1858. This, despite running against a very well-liked, charming candidate. It was a majority of the new Illinois legislature that sent Douglas back to the U.S. Senate.

And yet, in the long run, who lost to whom?

The "house divided" allusion would go on to win the heart of the Republican Party, then only four years old, and after Lincoln's death, it would win the heart of the American people. The fact that these words are studied and memorized to this day shows that human beings do indeed respond to truth.


Let's now turn to another American leader whose speeches merit the accolades given to literature, and that's Daniel Webster. Like Lincoln, the Massachusetts Senator knew all the sources of persuasion. But for him the essential thing was that people are moved by goodness--another radical idea. Psychological research confirms scientifically what Webster knew intuitively, that our brain is wired to enjoy listening to a bard recount the great and heroic deeds of others. That's why historical narrative is such a satisfying way to communicate.

A student of Webster's oratory writes that "True eloquence is not an ordinary occurrence; it demands the right person, the right subject, and the right occasion--but when it breaks out it is godlike."[10] That was precisely the effect the 38-year-old Webster had on Americans with a speech that captured the nation's imagination. The occasion was the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims. The date was December 22, 1820, and the site was the First Church in Plymouth, Massachusetts. It's difficult to imagine a more historic occasion or more historic site for Americans in the new republic. To a packed audience that included former President John Adams, Webster began:

We have come to this Rock, to record here our homage to our Pilgrim Fathers; our sympathy in their sufferings; our gratitude for their labors; our admiration of their virtues; our veneration for their piety; and our attachments to those principles of civil and religious liberty, which they encountered the dangers of the ocean, the storms of heaven, the violence of savages, disease, exile, and famine....

Webster proceeded to build up the speech with powerful images of the Pilgrims' first years. The audience was visibly moved. A young Harvard professor made a remarkable confession after leaving the church. "I was never so excited by public speaking before in my life," he said. "Three or four times I thought my temples would burst with the pulse of blood.... When I came out, I was almost afraid to stand near him. It seemed to me he was like the mount that might not be touched and that burned with fire. I was beside myself and am so still."[11]

John Adams was not given to being easily impressed by thirty-somethings. Yet even he was so moved by Webster that he urged Americans to read the address "every year forever and ever."[12]

The key to understanding the power of this speech is in part Webster's charisma; he was an extremely impressive individual to be around. But it is also the stories he told, stories of good men and women whose example showed what Americans were made of. We are reading the stories still.


Let's now turn to the Founder responsible for the most famous political statement in American history, and that's Thomas Jefferson, the lead author of the Declaration of Independence. If Lincoln was the rhetorical master of truth, and Webster the rhetorical master of goodness, then our nation's third president could claim rhetorical mastery of another source of persuasion--beauty. He knew that people are moved by beauty.

In rhetorical terms, beauty involves using apt words effectively arranged. The task, as Richard Weaver put it, is to use the gift of imagination "to make words even in prose take on wings."[13]

In the English language, there are many ways to achieve beauty in the spoken word--through parallelism, alliteration, simile, metaphor, and so forth. For our present purposes, I want to focus on Jefferson's use of parallelism. In American political discourse, arguably the greatest example of the repeated beginning (what is technically called "anaphora") occurred at the beginning of our nation, in the Declaration.

Now, I'm going to say two things that surprise most people. First, to the Continental Congress that adopted the Declaration, it was not the beginning that was regarded as most important. ("When in the course of human events.... We hold these truths to be self-evident....") I know it's heretical to say nowadays, but political philosophy was not the main thing on the minds of the signers; that's our modern reading of it. To the delegates assembled in Congress, it was rather the middle of the document that was most important. That's the part which justified independence by listing the myriad of ways in which the king had violated their ancient rights as Englishmen.[14] It's the most conservative part of the Declaration, and it consists of 18 well-crafted statements, each attacking George III, and each beginning with the words, "He has...." To cite a few examples:

"He has erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hither swarms of new Officers, to harass our People, and eat out their Substance."

"He has plundered our Seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our Towns, and destroyed the Lives of our People."

"He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection, and waging War against us."

Without a doubt, the parallelism is one of the most striking rhetorical features of the document. Which leads to the second thing that surprises people, which is that the Declaration was written to be read aloud. It's as much a part of our oral as our written culture. To prove this, I'd draw your attention to the formatting in Jefferson's original draft. It is preserved in the Library of Congress. If you ever have the opportunity to see the original or a facsimile, look at how he wrote out the eighteen "He has" statements. They don't all run together in a single paragraph. Rather, they are broken out in clauses, each having the same left-margin and indent pattern. This makes them visually as well as rhetorically parallel. Not accidentally, the first printing of the document was typographically true to Jefferson's layout.

After examining the original draft, what strikes me as a speechwriter is this: the left-margin and indent pattern is precisely the format I've long used in Governor Engler's texts. I give each sentence its own paragraph, and I line up parallelisms for ease in reading aloud. The Declaration looks to me like the scripted text of a speech.

This thesis is further buttressed when you recall how news spread in the eighteenth century. It was not just by reading newspapers. It was not just by posting documents for passersby. It was also by reading aloud to people gathered in the town squares. It was a form of entertainment. And sure enough, during that hot summer of 1776, the Declaration was proclaimed--read as a speech--in hundreds of town squares up and down the 13 states. The Pennsylvania Gazette reported that when it was read aloud in New York, the crowd became so excited that they pulled down a statue of George III, recovered the lead, and turned it into bullets!* When the Declaration was read aloud in Boston on July 19, Abigail Adams observed in a letter to her husband that the crowd grew quite excited when the reader went through the series of charges against George III. As Jefferson had intended, the parallelism created an irresistible drumbeat, inspiring resolve to fight the War of Independence to the finish.


So where does this bring us, this awareness that such Permanent Things as truth, goodness, and beauty can powerfully shape public discourse, even to the point of changing the course of human events? That may sound as if I am about to launch into my peroration--but not quite yet. I beg your forbearance. For there is one source of persuasion that I've yet to mention but that crowns all the others--and that is love. Every great rhetorician knows that people are moved--moved deeply, inevitably, and finally--by love.

To illustrate I wish to turn to the man, the 200th anniversary of whose passing we shall be celebrating within the week, and that is George Washington. We don't usually think of Washington this way, but the historical record bears out that the father of our country was a master rhetorician when it came to expressing love to, and eliciting love from, an audience.

The most famous example of this is the speech he delivered at Newburgh, New York, on the Ides of March in 1783. This was literally the speech that kept his army from marching against Congress. (Which shows you how little things change; people were even mad at Congress in those days.) The officers were understandably upset that Congress had not given them back pay for their many years of service to their country. They had willingly left their families and farms to aid the cause of freedom, and they simply wanted to be able to pay off their debts. As frustration mounted, someone high up the chain of command circulated a memo through the officer corps, urging insurrection. The malcontents planned a secret meeting.

Washington caught wind of the caucus and intervened swiftly. He denounced the treasonous plot and postponed the gathering by three days. This gave him critically needed time to think about how to give perhaps the most important speech of his life.

Now Washington, as you know, was crafty. He kept his own counsel and didn't alert the officers that he would be confronting them personally. So when they met on the Ides of March, they wondered whether their commander in chief would exert his authority through a surrogate. If this is what they assumed, they miscalculated badly. Remember, Washington had a keen sense of drama. All his adult life he had been a devotee of the theater.

Imagine the officers' surprise when, after the start of their meeting, their commander strode in and made straight for the lectern. There was a tense silence. The General spoke from a prepared text for approximately five minutes. The remarks were built around a series of parallel constructions that emphasized the men's common sacrifice. They had become like family, and he only wanted what was just and right for them. But they must not be imprudent or disloyal, not after having gone through so much together, and not when so much was at stake. The men were moved by his appeals--in fact, it was the best speech they had ever heard him deliver.

But all this, powerful as it was, was a prelude contrived to set the stage for the final act. After Washington finished his prepared remarks, he removed a letter from his coat pocket that he said he wished to read aloud. He began to read, then all of a sudden fell silent. Not a word came from his mouth as he fumbled awkwardly with the letter. Then he pulled a new pair of eyeglasses out of his pocket and remarked, "Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind."

The high drama had its intended impact. The men stood in stunned silence. The gesture and words did more than any armed force could have to dissolve the insurrection, for it dissolved the rebellion in their hearts. As one officer later recorded, Washington's action was so disarming that it brought tears to the eyes of every man present. They suddenly felt inexpressible shame mixed with a renewed love for their leader. He had sacrificed more than anyone, yet never complained. They pledged their abiding support to Washington and to the new republic.

A narrow escape for the new nation, this, and it was pulled off by love--the love that Washington expressed for his men, and the love that they returned to him.[15]

Mirror or Lamp?

Truth, goodness, beauty, love--these are the Permanent Things, the wellsprings of persuasion that are never out of season. The good rhetorician instinctively knows that they move people more deeply than anything else.

But these days there are two competing schools of thought about speechwriting, especially as it applies to political discourse. One school of thought says that a speech should hold a mirror up to the public. It should reflect the fashions of the day. You study focus groups and polling data to get a sense for who's up and who's down, who's in and who's out. The speechwriter, merely one "consultant" among many, is typically brought in at the end of the process. He is a clever fellow, a merchant of sophistry who knows how to package flattery for mass consumption.

Another school of thought says that a speech should be more than a mirror; it should be a lamp lighting the way for the better angels of our nature. It understands that the act of speaking is one of the most ethical things we do, and thus that "language is sermonic," as Richard Weaver so memorably put it. It apprehends that rhetoric, at its best, seeks union with the Permanent Things. "The rhetorician," observes Weaver, "is a preacher to us, noble if he tries to direct our passion toward noble ends and base if he uses our passion to confuse and degrade us."[16] At the very least, such a rhetoric should issue some challenge to be stronger, truer, and worthier of our blessings. It should remind us to keep the roots of our American order embedded in the Permanent Things.

There's no doubt in my mind which school of thought orators like Washington, Jefferson, Webster, and Lincoln subscribed to. As in much else, we would do well to follow in their footsteps.


[2]Russell Kirk, Prospects for Conservatives, revised ed. (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1989), pp. 36-37. Examination of earlier editions reveals that Kirk originally wrote the statement in a slightly differently form. See, for example, Russell Kirk, A Program for Conservatives, 2nd ed. (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1962), p. 50.

[3]Russell Kirk, "Rhetoricians and Politicians," Kenyon Review, Fall 1964, p. 768.

[4]Abraham Lincoln, speech to Republican State Convention, Springfield, Illinois, June 16, 1858.

[5]Abraham Lincoln, speech, Edwardsville, Illinois, September 11, 1858.

[6]Mark 3:25.

[7]Quoted in Lord Charnworth, Abraham Lincoln: A Biography, Introduction by Peter W. Schramm (Lanham, Md: Madison Books, 1996; originally published 1916), p. 110.

[8]Charnworth, Lincoln, p. 110.

[9]Charnworth, Lincoln, pp. 110-111.

[10]Irving H. Bartlett, "Daniel Webster: The Orator and Writer," in Daniel Webster: The Completest Man, edited by Kenneth E. Shewmaker, foreword by William H. Rehnquist (Hanover, N.H.: Dartmouth College/University Press of New England, 1990), p. 80.

[11]George Ticknor quoted in George Ticknor Curtis, Life of Daniel Webster, vol. 1 (New York, 1870), p. 194. See also Bartlett, "Daniel Webster," p. 83.

[12]Adams quoted in Bartlett, "Daniel Webster," p. 83.

[13]Richard M. Weaver, "Language Is Sermonic," Language Is Sermonic: Richard M. Weaver on the Nature of Rhetoric, ed. Richard J. Johannesen, Rennard Strickland, and Ralph T. Eubanks (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1970), p. 202.

[14]To say that the conservative heart of the Declaration was the most important part to the Founders is hardly an unorthodox historical interpretation. It has even made its way into common reference works. See, for example, Jack P. Greene, "Declaration of Independence, United States," in Encyclopedia Americana, 1986 ed., vol. 8, p. 592.

[15]Virtually every competent biography of Washington recounts this pivotal event. One of the most detailed accounts, based on a primary source, is found in Josiah Quincy, Memoir of Major Samuel Shaw, p. 104. See also Washington Irving, George Washington: A Biography, ed. Charles Neider (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), pp. 603-607, which draws from Shaw's observations; and Richard Norton Smith, Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), which takes a less idolizing view of Washington's thespian talents.

[16]Weaver, "Language Is Sermonic," p. 201.

Additional source:

*For the July 17, 1776, story in the Pennsylvania Gazette about the statue of George III being turned into bullets after the Declaration was read, see Peter C. Mancall, Origins and Ideologies of the American Revolution, vol. 3 (Chantilly, VA: Teaching Company, 2006), p. 28.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Adam Smith: He's about More than Capitalism*

This Constitution Day address was delivered at the Presidents and Philanthropy conference at Grand Valley State University, September 17, 2010.

The Three Sectors

Although we are devoting this conference to American philanthropy, I'd like to tell you about a man who was neither an American nor a philanthropist of renown. He is Adam Smith. Hardly anyone links the Scotsman to charitable giving. Given the recent corruption on Wall Street, he seems more like capitalism’s evil genius. People would be forgiven if they thought that his most famous book, The Wealth of Nations, provided intellectual cover for greedy investors pursuing ill-gotten gains in an unregulated market.

It does not. Still, why spend any time on Adam Smith and philanthropy?

First, Smith painted on a much bigger canvas than economics. His work, taken as a whole, mounts a robust defense not just of the market, but of all three major sectors in public life: (1) the market or private sector, which generates wealth, (2) the government or public sector, which draws from private-sector wealth for its revenue, and (3) civil society, those voluntary associations that can flourish when people are making profits in the private sector. His work explored the relationship of all three sectors because he understood that the fiscal fitness of two of them – government and civil society – depends on the health of the economy. Thus all three sectors worked together to improve the human estate, the goal that philanthropy seeks to achieve.

Second, Smith was concerned not just with wealth generation, but with the morals and culture that are most conducive to creating prosperity. His Theory of Moral Sentiments is an exploration of critically important virtues -- trust, altruism, self-discipline -- that are prior to, and above, strictly economic considerations. These are also the virtues that make philanthropy possible.

Third, Smith did not just write about charitable giving. He lived in a philanthropic culture -- a veritable "golden age of English philanthropy" as the moralist-painter William Hogarth would put it. Moreover, Smith himself was generous to those less fortunate. But his private beneficence is not well known to Americans today.

Mention of whom brings me to another reason to talk about Adam Smith -- a bit out of left field. One would not expect a natural affinity between Barack Obama and the Scotsman. Of the U.S. presidents who have served during the past one hundred years, President Obama has the lowest percentage of cabinet officers with experience in the private sector -- by far. In October 2008, the New York Times asked then-candidate Barack Obama to provide a list of his favorite authors and books. He responded with 19 authors whom he regarded as important to his intellectual formation. The most distant author in time and place was Adam Smith. Then-Senator Obama noted that he appreciated Smith not just for An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, but also for the Theory of Moral Sentiments.[1]

Mr. Obama is hardly alone. He is in such a long line of admirers that P. J. O’Rourke quips that Adam Smith is America’s “founding dutch uncle.” After all, The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, makes mention of America more than one hundred times.[2] Early in its history the book served as a guide for Alexander Hamilton who, as our nation’s first treasury secretary, helped set up America’s economic infrastructure during George Washington's first term. Hamilton's major departure from Smith was to argue for protective duties to help the new republic establish its own manufacturing sector. Otherwise, he was a devoted student of the Scottish professor.

Markets and the Providential Arrangement of Things

Adam Smith’s work should be seen not just in the context of the 18th century, when he lived, but also of the 17th century. In that early modern era, when free-market ideas were in the springtime of their growth, capitalism was justified by recourse to God’s providence. One hundred years before Adam Smith was explaining how a better understanding of the division of labor, the price mechanism, and supply and demand could greatly increase the wealth of nations, a Frenchman named Jacques Savary, writing in a more religious age, defended markets as the providential arrangement that insured humans would be dependent on one another:

“By the manner in which Divine Providence has dispersed things throughout the world, it is clear that God wished to create unity and love among all [people], because He imposed upon them the state of always having need one of another. He did not choose to permit necessities of existence to be found in one place, but rather spread out his gifts, in order that men might have to trade together….”[3]
And not only to trade, but come to each other’s aid as well.

Such references to divine intent were frequent among Jesuit-trained Frenchmen in the 17th century. But a reliance on religious explanations became increasingly avoided or critiqued during the 18th century. That’s because in the hundred years between Jacques Savary and Adam Smith, the Western mind underwent a complex transformation we gather under the term “Enlightenment.” Western civilization, shocked by a series of devastating religious wars, was further rocked by science and the new philosophies of Descartes, Bacon, and Locke. Increasingly, thinkers took up the challenge of explaining human behavior not in terms of God’s providence but in terms of man’s reason. Nature rather than the Church would be the new source of authority.

Onto this increasingly secular stage stepped Adam Smith. A professor of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow, he took up the challenge of explaining how people helped one another despite the contradictory motivations and impulses within them. (1) A free market betters the human condition by channeling self-interest into socially positive outcomes, even when the exchanges occur among strangers. (2) A strong government improves the human condition by acting in the common interest to defend the realm, administer justice, and build infrastructure in a nation. (3) A well-developed civil society makes more bearable the human condition by tapping into the altruism many feel toward those with whom they have (or want to have) some connection. It is all three sectors functioning together that raise the human estate. That is the key thought, the take-away, if you will.

My students are often surprised to learn that Smith is not a champion of unbridled self-interest; not the apostle of greed in an unfettered marketplace. His thought, while much more nuanced and interesting, has been grossly distorted or oversimplified on the cocktail party circuit. So much of what we think we “know” about Smith ain’t so, and so much that’s relatively unknown should become better so. It’s time we move beyond the clichés and acknowledge that Adam Smith was no libertarian as that term is nowadays understood – and he certainly did not wear an Adam Smith necktie!

You probably can sense where I am going with all the misconceptions.

  • Smith was supposed to be the friend of "capitalism" … but in truth he was never the defender of unscrupulous "capitalists."
  • Smith was supposed to be the apologist for self-interest … but in truth he wrote against greed and socially destructive behaviors. He only defended self-interest rightly understood; self-interest that was exercised in an ethical framework informed by the West’s Judeo-Christian spiritual inheritance and Greco-Roman moral earnestness.
  • Here’s the real kicker: Smith was supposed to be anti government … yet in truth he was a government bureaucrat for much of his adult life, and in his writings he mounted a vigorous defense of the necessity of strong states and strong governments if the market were to work properly. To see this for yourself, read Book V of The Wealth of Nations.

(1) The Market

Let’s now look in a bit more detail at how the market is supposed to lead to the betterment of the human condition. For this summary, I am indebted to Catholic University of America economist Jerry Muller’s excellent scholarship on Adam Smith, and in turn I commend it to you.

Smith defined the free market as a social arrangement whereby goods and services are exchanged among people who do not necessarily know one another. Indeed, it is not through altruism but through market competition, the profit motive, unfettered supply and demand, and the understanding of prices that the marketplace absorbs self-interest and turns it to social benefit.

For Smith, the reason a nation should adopt modern free-market techniques is that it’s humane. It will raise the standard of living for increasing numbers of people over time. In The Wealth of Nations, he famously showed how such simple products and wool coats and hatpins could be manufactured in dramatically greater quantities and at substantially cheaper prices so as to be affordable to increasing numbers of people. The metaphor he used to explain the institutional arrangements that channel self-interest into socially desirable goods and services was the “invisible hand.” That’s in essence what Books I-IV of The Wealth of Nations is about – this invisible hand that, through institutional arrangements, channels our selfish impulses into useful, affordable commodities. It’s worth repeating that, by this “invisible hand,” people who have never met one another benefit one another.

But Smith knew that the invisible hand could become an invisible foot, and that is why you have to read beyond Books I-IV of The Wealth of Nations to get a more complete picture of his thought. To understand how it was not just the marketplace that would produce betterment, but ALSO government and ALSO civil society, go to Book V of The Wealth of Nations as well as to The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Let’s briefly tackle these additional sectors one at a time.

(2) The Government

It comes as a surprise to many, but the early chapters of Book V of The Wealth of Nations is devoted to the role a STRONG if limited government should play in tempering the vices of the marketplace. Smith advocates building up a strong national defense, an unimpeachable system of justice to which all citizens have recourse, a well-maintained infrastructure of transportation and communication, and an educational system that can develop the intellectual and moral virtues of the young so that they will not be dehumanized on the assembly line. Without a reliable stream of revenue, there can be no strong government to build up these things. And there is no better way to insure reliable revenue than through a free-market economy that is generating national wealth. It certainly beats the mercantilist policies pursued by most European sovereigns at that time. Their notion of expanding the wealth of nations often involved going to war and stealing wealth from other peoples. Smith thought mercantilism was ultimately self-defeating. He championed free trade as a better, more peaceful way for humans to provide for each other’s needs.

No doubt, free trade would best thrive in a world of strong, not weak, nation-states. For it's robust governments that made good trade agreements when they were also providing for the common defense, administering justice, and building up a people’s transportation and communication infrastructure.

Smith also observed that the marketplace could be brutal to workers. He was writing in the opening act of the Industrial Revolution. In glaring instances, the division of labor had dehumanized the workplace, and in the factory (as he put it) workers were losing their manly virtues. In response, Smith advocated universal education, paid for mostly at government expense, to lift the human estate. He knew that children, while only 25 percent of the population, were 100 percent of the future. Modern nation-states could not shirk the obligation to invest in children.

(3) Civil Society, Philanthropy, Benevolence

The Britain of Smith's day was no stranger to a strong civil society. As mentioned in my introduction, Hogarth called the mid 18th century "a golden age of English philanthropy." About this astonishing observation Rhian Harris, curator of the Foundling Museum, observes that there was a

"great wave of philanthropic activity that took place in England during the eighteenth century. The liberal beliefs of the Latitudinarian branch of the Church of England partly accounted for this; they emphasised benevolent deeds as opposed to mere church worship, coupled with philosophical underpinnings found in the writings of John Locke, who wrote of the utility of virtue. The cult of Sensibility focused on the engagement of an individual's compassion and sense of moral or spiritual duty with the plight of the less fortunate. The impulse towards social reform in London was largely the desire to reduce the terrible waste of life."

This is the culture into which Adam Smith was born. It was a dynamic, exciting period to be sure. But much of the impulse to do good was triggered by the most dehumanizing effects of the Industrial Revolution. In Smith’s view, even a strong government could not always effectively compensate for the vices of an unregulated marketplace. To get a full account of his moral philosophy, one must read his 1759 work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The work was specifically prompted by the writing of another philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It is devoted to giving a secular explanation, which is to say a social scientific explanation, of how people become moral beings. In the very first sentence Smith asserts:

“No matter how selfish we suppose man to be, there is obviously something in his nature that makes him interested in the fortunes of others and makes their happiness necessary to him, even if he derives nothing from it other than the pleasure of seeing it.”

In Moral Sentiments, then, Smith demonstrates that most of us are moved by altruistic impulses – what he called benevolence. But he recognized that it is a limited impulse in most humans. Typically people show the most benevolence toward those with whom they develop some connection – in their family, among their friends, and amid acquaintances. In the development of civilization, institutions developed in civil society that bettered the condition of people left behind by the marketplace and government.

It bears emphasizing: The ethos to found and establish philanthropic institutions was well established on both sides of the Atlantic during the "golden age of English philanthropy." It was the ethos that emigrants from the U.K. brought with them to British North America. Last night Dr. Richard Gunderman told us about a whole slew of such institutions in Franklin’s Philadelphia – juntos, hospitals, colleges, lending libraries, volunteer fire departments, and much else. These charitable institutions could not exist were it not for the strengths of the marketplace (generating great wealth) and would not exist were it not for the weaknesses of the marketplace (leaving people behind).

Smith, who died in 1790, did not live to see the birth of modern public relations, but he would surely have appreciated the way philanthropic organizations have used various media to connect us with people beyond our ordinary interactions, and thus to better the human condition through voluntary contributions of time, treasure, and talent on a much larger scale.

A Vision of Commercial Humanism

To sum up, Adam Smith presents us with “a vision of commercial humanism” (Jerry Muller’s phrase) that is at once compelling and comprehensive. He details three diverse ways that human beings can better their material condition. In Books I-IV of The Wealth of Nations, Smith analyzed the power of the free market to improve the human estate among people who do not necessarily know each other. In Book V of The Wealth of Nations, Smith championed a strong government if not a big one, to insure adequate defense, justice, roads, communication, and education. He was convinced that in a world of independent nation-states, free trade policies would be the most peaceful way to increase the world’s collective wealth. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith called for a robust civil society to tap into the altruism we feel for others with whom we have formed some connection. The key point is that each of these three sectors – market, government, and civil society – plays a critical role in bringing about human betterment. Just as you cannot knock any one of the legs out of a three-legged stool and expect it to stand, so it is with the three sectors in the life of a nation. To make a people prosper, it is necessary to perfect the market, government, and civil society – Adam Smith’s Holy Trinity.

* * *

In this ground-breaking conference, we have explored the sources of American philanthropy. We have looked at some pioneering philanthropists who would serve as exemplars at the founding – Benjamin Franklin, Charles Carroll, and George and Martha Washington. We have looked at the institutions of civil society – Burke’s “little platoons” and de Tocqueville’s “voluntary associations” – those lyceums, Chautauqua chapters, mutual aid societies, quilting bees, and barn raisings that characterized American culture from the East Coast to the frontier. Created independent of government, these free institutions were the glory of a free people in the New Republic.

In the course of this conference, we have also explored the importance of the frontier in encouraging the voluntary spirit since there was little government reach and no institutional infrastructure on which to draw. Out in the vast lonely spaces of the West, people had to solve their own problems.

Other factors in the U.S. that contributed to the formation of a robust civil society included periodic Great Awakenings (promoting charity); military engagements (with their camp followers voluntarily doing much of the work); economic panics, depressions, and recessions (calling on better-off Americans to help those worse off); and major decisions of the Marshall Court (McCulloch v. Maryland and Gibbons v. Ogden) that confirmed the national government’s pursuit of a Hamiltonian-style market economy. Thus over the years, the market economy, properly understood, has been a wellspring of American philanthropy. Adam Smith gives us fundamental insights into how the market economies of the West encourage philanthropy and ensure strong nation-states and effective governments. But he also explores the moral nature of man to give us a richer picture of all the ways we seek human betterment. Perhaps that richer picture is Smith's greatest gift of all.

[2] P. J. O’Rourke, On The Wealth of Nations (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007), p. 119.

[3] Jacques Savary, The Compleat Merchant (first published 1675); quoted in Roger Mettam, ed., Government and Society in Louis XIV’s France (London: Macmillan, 1977), pp. 172-73; quoted in Craig, Graham, Kagan, et al., The Heritage of World Civilizations, 8th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2009), p. 533.


*Throughout these remarks I avoid the term "capitalism" because it never appears in Adam Smith's work. "Capitalism" first appeared in English 64 years after Smith died, in 1854, in William Makepeace Thackerey's novel, The Newcomes.

For more on Smith's theory and practice of charity, see Thomas D. Birch, "An Analysis of Adam Smith's Theory of Charity and the Problems of the Poor," Eastern Economic Journal (24), Winter 1998, pp. 25ff.

Tribute to William F. Buckley Jr. (1925-2008)

Sunday, March 2, 2008

William F. Buckley Jr. died last Wednesday, February 27th. I only met him on four occasions -- the first time was in New York City in June 1988, at a Philadelphia Society meeting, and the last time was at a tribute at Hillsdale College. Each encounter left a lasting impression. Moreover, he was always gracious to answer my letters. For three decades his writing and public life have been a large presence in my mind. I regret never telling him how much he meant to me. There was one thing in particular I always wanted to thank him for. If I had the chance now, this is the letter I would write.

Dear Mr. Buckley,

It was from the lips of my mother that I first heard your name. I suspect that’s true for many of us who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, when dinnertime conversation introduced us to some utterance of yours. In my case, it was during the Goldwater campaign, and Mom delighted in one of your verbal jousts. While I don’t recall the passage, I remember the look on her face and thinking: Mom likes this man and his words. For a child, it was a vivid image: the mother delighting in the mother tongue. Thank you for this early memory of the importance of words.

A decade later, when I was in college and finally asking serious questions about politics, a friend got me hooked on National Review. Poring over each new issue, I discovered writing as funny as Woody Allen movies, as informative as most 50-minute lectures, and more persuasive than the articles in other opinion journals. In truth, I was receiving an informal education parallel with – and in some respects superior to – the one I had formally matriculated in. You were an arresting voice in a higher-education wilderness. In retrospect I see how wholly quixotic your mission was. Against the liberal orthodoxy that dominated American intellectual life, you provided a gathering place – a cultural commons – for the disparate voices of Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet, Friedrich Hayek, Richard Weaver, Milton Friedman, and yourself – challenging the rising generation to reason rightly about the first principles of our political economy. Thank you for giving my generation such memorable instruction in republican freedom and virtue.

Shortly after becoming addicted to National Review, I began watching Firing Line. Your persona on TV – featuring the slouch, the stare, and the stutter – evoke a chuckle to this day. More significantly, you won the debates; consistently you reasoned better than your interlocutors. I could imagine you as a Roman in a toga – a Cicero excoriating Mark Antony or Catiline for failing the republic. While these performances went far to making me self-consciously conservative, they also showed me how critical it is to take the argument into the public arena. And to do it with style. Thank you for showing us how to fight the good fight.

At some point during my undergraduate years, perhaps when you were hosting Malcolm Muggeridge or Mortimer Adler or Mother Teresa on Firing Line, I realized the full logic of your mission. Your mission was not just political; it was civilizational. I found myself wanting to understand every historical and literary allusion you unquivered. Your seemingly throwaway references to Shakespeare prompted me to go and read entire plays. An observation you made about St. Augustine inspired me to read his Confessions. Then one day it occurred to me: Behind your civilizational mission was a compelling force, a faith that I did not yet know well. In due season I would. You, as much as any man in our cultural commons, nudged this Protestant toward the Catholic Church. Your frequent references to the Church made me curious about all things Catholic – about Evelyn Waugh, John Cardinal Newman, St. Thomas Aquinas, Pope John Paul II, Christopher Dawson – the whole amazing intellectual, moral, and spiritual patrimony of Holy Mother Church. The upshot: While in grad school in Ann Arbor, I discovered I was really seeking Rome. In 1990, during the Easter Vigil Mass, I was received into the Catholic Church. The faith has informed my own sense of mission ever since.

When I had the chance to review Nearer, My God for Russell and Annette Kirk’s University Bookman some years back, your words made me think: I have come home. Thank you, above all else, for such a powerful example of the vita activa – a life dedicated to truth, goodness, and beauty.

Requiescat in pace.

Gleaves Whitney

One Generation from Barbarism

The following remarks were delivered at the Center for the American Idea's Founders' Breakfast in Houston, on Wednesday, September 19, 2007.

Three Questions

In a former life I taught college writing and rhetoric. I always used to tell students to think about their audience in terms of three questions:

- What do I want 'em to know?

- What do I want 'em to feel?

- What do I want 'em to do?

Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of the three questions. They are a colloquial translation of enduring concepts in the liberal arts, from Aristotle’s era to St. Benedict’s day down to our own time. I told students that what writers and orators want their audience to know is related to Aristotle’s understanding of logos. What they want people to feel is an extension of the Greek philosopher’s notion of pathos. And what they want them to do is wrapped up in the vita activa, championed by St. Benedict. As I reflected on my message to you this morning, I decided to follow the same rhetorical formula I inflicted on a generation of students.

What Do I Want You to Know?

Many things.

First, I want you to know that civilizations are fragile. Maybe it is hard to accept that statement in this place, on this morning, in a mighty metropolis like Houston, with its abundant energy, power, and wealth. But a “Western civ” guy like me is trained to view Houston – and, indeed, American civilization – from the perspective of millennia. According to the British historian Arnold Toynbee, the last 5,500 years have seen the rise of some 30 civilizations. Do you know how many of them have fallen? At least 25. Put another way, five of every six civilizations no longer exist except in stone monuments, papyrus fragments, and historical narratives.

Second, I want you to know that most civilizations decline internally before they succumb to invading armies. As Toynbee put it, “Civilizations are not murdered. They commit suicide.” How do they commit suicide? The number one cause is the loss of purpose. When a civilization’s leaders and their institutions lose their sense of purpose, they lose the energy to grapple with all the challenges to the commonweal. If leaders and institutions have no guiding North Star, no sense of cultural mission, they are reduced to currying favor with power or to satisfying the impulses of the masses. If the choice is to exist merely at the pleasure of power on the one hand, or of people's whims on the other, then leaders and institutions can begin to act awfully nihilistic.

Third, I want you to know that we are only one generation from barbarism. Think about it. If teachers and parents and the clergy fail to transmit the culture, then in just one generation that civilization can lose significant knowledge of its heroes, models, ideals, and principles, and then an enervating nihilism can set in.

But -- and this is fourth -- I want you to know that decline is not inevitable. Human beings are volitional creatures. Decline results ultimately from the countless, cumulative decisions and actions – or indecision and inaction – of leaders, citizens, and teachers who are the guardians of our culture. I define culture after Matthew Arnold’s famous definition – the best that’s been written and done by men and women of virtue and intelligence. Teachers transmit the contents of culture from generation to generation and thus are critical to the survival of civilization. They help hold it all together. So we are ever in need of committed, wise teachers.

How can we know whether our civilization is going to pieces if we do not know how it was put together? Good question. So the fifth thing I want you to know is a book that tells how American civilization was put together: Russell Kirk’s Roots of American Order. In this classic, Kirk shows how four historic cities laid the foundation stones of the United States.

In the beginning, there was ancient Jerusalem, where a moral revolution built on the Ten Commandments took root and was transmitted from generation to generation. The Hebrews’ moral rigor would become part of the patrimony of humankind and permanently challenge the way human beings relate to their Creator and to one another.

Then came the second city, ancient Athens, where a philosophical revolution built on natural reason took root and was transmitted from generation to generation. The Greeks’ intellectual quest would become part of the patrimony of humankind and permanently alter the way human beings think about their existence and the way we choose to live in community with one another.

Then came the third city, secular Rome, where a form of government and code of laws were developed and transmitted from generation to generation. The Romans’ civic virtue would become part of the patrimony of humankind and provide an everlasting model of republican simplicity and order.

After the martyrdom of Sts. Peter and Paul, and after the conversion of Constantine, there was Christian Rome – Roma sacra – where spiritual leaders urged the transformation of justice into mercy, of injury into pardon, and of hate into love. Their teaching spread from generation to generation, and redefined the “family of man,” and life on this earth has never quite been the same.

Later still there arose a fourth city, medieval and early modern London, where the habits of ordered liberty, private property, and the rule of law took root and were transmitted from generation to generation. British advances in political economy would become part of the patrimony of humankind and put a tolerable order within reach of emerging nation-states in the modern age.

And then there was Philadelphia. Between 1775 and 1800 the City of Brotherly Love witnessed one of the most audacious, imaginative acts in human history: the creation of the United States of America. All those civilizational roots – from Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London – were grafted together by our Founders to generate a liberty tree that has given life to millions and is still growing.

This is an amazing progression, and it is something that I want you to know.

Sixth, I want you to know that some civilizations are more important for how they are remembered than for what they did. I want you to know that American civilization is important for what we have done and continue to do. I want you to know that American civilization is nothing short of amazing – a catalogue of miracles. As I point out in the "Afterword" of The American Cause, our nation has gone farther to solve more problems in the human condition than any other civilization – ever.

Consider the number one existential problem humans face: famine and disease. Ever since Homo sapiens appeared on this good green earth, our species has been beleaguered by physical threats – hunger, malnutrition, famine, plagues, epidemics, and all manner of diseases that would leave swaths of destruction in their wake. The Spanish Influenza epidemic that swept the earth following World War I is something my grandparents’ generation had to contend with. Yet during the last century, we have virtually eradicated such threats from American soil. We do not have epidemics of smallpox, typhoid, and cholera sweep through our cities anymore, as was frequently the case in the past. Forrest McDonald, for one, writes about the epidemics our Founding generation faced. We forget that a high percentage of Patriot soldiers during the American Revolution died of some dread disease. The statistics are hard to pin down, but during the War for Independence probably seven times more soldiers died of disease than of battlefield wounds. It was a real problem of the human condition, and in American civilization it was largely overcome.

Next consider the number one economic problem: poverty. For most of history – indeed, in many countries today – the majority of human beings have lived and died in squalor. Most immigrants have come to this country poor. If they had been so well off in their homeland, they would not have emigrated. Our free market system is far from perfect, but we should never lose sight of the fact that tens of millions of immigrants and American citizens have been able to lift themselves out of poverty. Humanity has not solved the problem of human want, yet surely more people in America have been able to overcome poverty than at any other time or in any other place.

Finally, consider the number one political problem: tyranny. Ever since civilizations began, the mass of people have lived under oppressive governments. To the extent there were constitutions, these tended to devolve into despotisms. Ancient writers like Polybius wrote about those constitutional cycles in which despots always reappeared. The American founders read their Aristotle and Polybius and Montesquieu, and they conceived a constitution that overcame these endless cycles. Through a federated system with checks and balances and a bill of rights, power was decentralized and we solved a persistent problem in humankind’s political condition.

There are many, many other problems in the human condition. My point is this: As a historian trained to take the long view, I have concluded that, as nations go, the American experience is nothing short of amazing, and I want you to embrace that sense of amazement. Believe in the American idea because, when you do, you are believing in yourselves.

What Do I Want You to Feel?

Let me begin to answer this question by telling you what I do not want you to feel. I do not want you to feel apathy or complacency. Our challenges are real. As Toynbee warned, we are only one generation from barbarism. Nor do I want you to feel immobilizing fear or despair. Our challenges are not insurmountable. Therefore the appropriate emotion is "en-courage-ment," from the Latin meaning “to be in a state of courage.” The ancient virtue of fortitude requires us to do the right thing when our first instinct is to ignore danger or run from it.

If history teachers are well grounded in the roots of American civilization, then young people will have a better grasp of our nation's mettle. And if we remember that we stand on the shoulders of giants, then we realize we don’t face our threats alone. What company we keep when we consult those who preceded us – from Socrates to Maimonides. (Or – Bob McNair will appreciate this – from John Milton to Milton Friedman.) What a well of wisdom to water our roots! The encouragement of the Sages of the Ages leads not just to a sense of optimism, which is as superficial as the optic nerve, but to a deeper virtue, that of hope.

In his first annual message to Congress in 1790, George Washington captured the feeling of encouragement perfectly. He had been president for less than a year and faced seemingly insuperable challenges, yet he derived encouragement from “the concord, peace, and plenty with which we are blessed” because, combined with “the blessings which a gracious Providence has placed within our reach,” Americans would surely be able to increase their “national prosperity.” Prosperity in this context meant material abundance, to be sure, as well as intellectual, moral, and spiritual abundance.

Washington was saying we are Americans. Our fate is not set in stone. We are not as burdened as other nations that have been dragged into the briar patch of ancient rivalries, geographic limits, and spiritual malaise. We are a can-do people who have solved many problems and can effectively address the challenges we face today if -- if -- we know where we came from, understand our purpose, and feel the courage to carry it out.

So, following George Washington, I want you to feel encouragement.

What Do I Want You to Do?

Simply: to help educate the educators. If the roots of American order are to be watered, if our liberty tree is to continue to grow, then each generation of Americans has to tend to the cultivating. I am punning: The Latin cultus referred originally to the gods of sowing and reaping and thus alludes to the religious roots of order.

What does cultivating in the twenty-first century entail? Rewarding the call to teach. Keeping alive the historic reality of Western civilization and this audacious experiment with ordered liberty. Never severing rights from responsibilities, never severing freedom from virtue, or property from the rule of law, or free markets from compassion. So long as we teach these things, then we possess the capacity to renew our civilization. We do not have to go the way of 25 previous civilizations that, in essence, died from within.

So let's roll up our sleeves and get to work. We are, after all, Americans.