Monday, September 11, 2017

Tonsor: America: Liberal or Conservative at the Founding?


A heavy overcast settled over the Huron Valley. Expecting a cold rain at any moment, I sought shelter in Haven Hall. My hope was to intercept Tonsor coming down from his office, then to accompany him on the walk across the Diag to class. I had the proverbial "deep question" for him. Seeing him emerge from the elevator in his Paddington Bear hat, I greeted him and after pleasantries put my subject before him:

"Professor Tonsor, I am interested in how you think about the American founding. A political philosopher I'm reading says that America was the product of the Enlightenment, meaning that it was founded as a classical liberal nation. According to this view, conservatism in America is just classical liberalism's 'right wing,' pushing for freer markets in a free-market system and smaller government in a federal system. American conservatives are thus not like European conservatives who, in reaction to the French Revolution, sought to restore the ancien regime with its monarchy, mercantilism, and three orders. Since that old-world conservative tradition never existed in the U.S. after the founding, what we call 'conservative' on this side of the Atlantic looks much different from conservatism in Europe. Do you think that conservatism in America is just classical liberalism's right wing and nothing more?"

Tonsor responded: "The question, as you ask it, is not well framed. It tries to make the founding an 'either-or' event: liberal or conservative? But the interpretive methods that characterize the humanities encourage us to think not in terms of 'either-or' but in terms of 'both-and.' Complex events elicit divergences of interpretation. Note that I use the plural, "divergences" of interpretation. Given human incomprehension, it is rare to have just one interpretation that is intellectually sufficient.[1]

"Were we all liberals then? Were we all liberals in 1776 and 1787? That's what you're asking. From the viewpoint of the political philosophers who see the founding as the outcome of debate during the Enlightenment, we were liberal. But is there another way of reading the Founding? Taking in the longer perspective of Western civilization, we might ask: Were we conservative in any sense that is prior to and separate from liberalism? And the answer to that question is, yes, most definitely, if you consider the founders' inheritance from the ancient world and Christendom." 

I said, "That longer perspective is what Russell Kirk achieved in The Roots of American Order."[2] 

"There are many who have looked at the American founding in a longer perspective -- Wilson Carey McWilliams, for instance.[3] But since you are taken with Russell Kirk's argument, Mr. Whitney, I'd like you to elaborate."

Oh, my. I was taken aback when Tonsor suddenly lobbed the question back to me -- it was unusual for him to do so. But since I was the one who had just teed up Kirk's Roots, I had to run with it. The ideas in The Roots were once considered mainstream in the academy,[4] and I had read the book with enthusiasm before moving to Ann Arbor. But in the 1980s the book was hardly ever referenced much less taught in American and Western civ surveys. This presented problems for a graduate student. In the company of the methodological gatekeepers in Michigan's history department, it was best not to cite Kirk's Roots since his thesis was considered out-of-date at best; and racist, sexist, classist, and elitest at worst.

Taking a deep breath I said: "There is truth in the claim of the political philosophers. Since we were the first nation established in the modern age, our political economy was liberal from the start. In the first place, we didn't have a feudal or mercantile economy. We had a modern free-market system that owed much to Adam Smith and the Enlightenment. 

"Second, we didn't have a feudal or absolutist monarchy. Instead we had a mixed constitution that was the result of enlightened reflection [5] on liberal philosophers like Locke and republican thinkers like Montesquieu; the resulting federated polity balanced the primacy of the individual (seen in the liberalism of the Bill of Rights) with the primacy of civic virtue (seen in the republicanism of the Northwest Ordinance, Article III), and did so within a framework of innovative checks and balances to thwart the tyranny of the majority (seen in the Constitution of 1787). 

"Third, we didn't have a social order that looked like the ancien regime with its aristocratic privileges, noble titles, and laws upholding primogeniture. Traditionalist European conservatives -- Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald, and Pio Nono -- hated what we were. They condemned 'Americanism.' Our natural aristocracy renewed itself each generation in a relatively mobile society where most could rise due to merit and a little luck. So, yes, in all these fundamental ways, we were not a conservative European nation but a modern liberal one that owed its founding institutions mostly to the Enlightenment."

"Fine, but is there another way of reading the founding?" asked Tonsor in his laconic way.

"Yes," I said, "there's also truth in the claim that our founding was conservative -- deeply conservative in ways that were prior to and separate from liberalism. Our modern liberal roots, strong as they are, do not tell of deeper roots still. America's deeper cultural roots are revealed in our unwritten constitution, our habits of the heart, and our syncretic worldview -- a fusion that holds in dynamic tension the living traditions of ancient Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, as well as medieval London."

"I'm surprised," said Tonsor, "that you stop at medieval London. Remember that Protestant and Catholic thinkers were engaging the Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Archbishop Fenelon, Bishop Berkeley, John Locke, John Witherspoon -- they sifted the Age of Reason in light of what Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London had to teach.[6] Out of that dynamic tension, out of that struggle between those who argued for continuity and those who argued for change, emerged the Founders' syncretic worldview. The intellectual leaders of the American founding -- Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, Madison, Dickinson, Wilson -- stood atop the pinnacle of that worldview." 

One thing about my conversations with Tonsor: He always kept my mind on the stretch. There was no resting with him. I had never read any Dickinson or Wilson and in fact did not know that they were intellectual leaders of the founding.

"Dr. Kirk," I said, "does speak to our moral and spiritual formation. When Americans go to church or temple on Sunday, we are walking into the space inspired by premodern, illiberal religions that originated in the Near East between two thousand and three thousand years ago.[7] In theory liberalism is neutral when it comes to religion. It claims to have no necessary or sufficient need for citizens to believe in the God of the Christians or the God of the Jews. Yet Judeo-Christian moral norms and spiritual comfort have been a cornerstone of our culture from the start."

"Yes," said Tonsor. "To paraphrase Tocqueville: 'I doubt whether man can ever support at the same time complete religious indifference and complete political freedom. I am inclined to think that if he lacks faith, he will be a subject. But if he believes, he has the chance to be free.' Liberalism, he thought, cannot exist in some theoretical cultural vacuum. It needs religion to prop it up."[8]

Sucking in a larger breath, I said: "Another example Dr. Kirk explores comes from our intellectual formation. When young Americans read Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and others who inform our defense of reason and discourse, they are entering a space inspired by premodern, pre-liberal philosophies that originated in the eastern Mediterranean more than two thousand years ago.[9] Liberalism does not mandate what must be taught. It tries to be value free when it comes to knowledge. It claims to have no necessary or sufficient need for citizens to pursue the ancient classics that originated prior to and separate from liberalism. Yet we know that deep engagement with the 'great books' expands the competence of citizens to assess the human condition and to judge current events."

Tonsor weighed in: "So it seems that, in addition to religion, liberalism needs the interior reflection encouraged by the humanities to prop it up." 

"I think so, yes," I said in agreement. "Still another example in Kirk comes not from the Anglo-Saxons so much as from medieval England after the Conquest. Liberals would like to take credit for many of the developments that have contributed to ordered freedom in the modern age -- the common law, stare decisis, Parliament, habeas corpus, trial by jury, and other individual rights that were later adopted by liberalism.[10] In truth, they cannot. There was no -ism called liberalism when these rights and innovations appeared in the Middle Ages. Yet their absence today would be unthinkable in liberalism's public square."

Tonsor objected: "Stop right there. Using the term, 'public square,' is such a banal descent into cliche."[11]

"Okay," I said, trying to disguise my pique. Unfortunately, I was becoming used to Tonsor's gratuitous criticism of the way I said things. At the same time, I figuratively slapped my forehead since the word "okay" also made him peevish. If ever I wanted to drive him nuts I could say: "The public square is okay." 

It was probably a good thing that I did not have time to dwell on Tonsor's peevishness since we had mounted the stairs and were entering the classroom. I was proud of myself for making the case that classical liberalism could not fully account for the American mind. Using Kirk, I had pulled back the curtain on our founders' deeper conservative roots -- evidenced by the living traditions they embraced from Semitic Jerusalem, Mediterranean Athens, cosmopolitan Rome, and Germanic London. Conservatism was not just the right wing of classical liberalism but something much richer.


After Tonsor slapped his satchel down on the table at the front of the class, he came back to the desk into which I was settling. "You know, Mr. Whitney, we must talk more about The Roots. It's a beautiful work in conception but a flawed work in execution."

My professor's words reminded me of something I'd read between Fort Collins and Ann Arbor the previous summer. At the beginning of the road trip to Michigan I had grappled with Tonsor's "The United States as a 'Revolutionary Society,'"[12] and it occurred to me then that his 1975 essay might be a critique of Kirk's 1974 book. Both were written in anticipation of America's bicentennial celebration, and both sought to plumb the meaning of the American experience. 

Tonsor's thesis was that the American founding revitalized Britain's governing principles and thus could be seen as a conservative event. However, in the process of revitalizing Britain's governing principles, the American founding also unleashed the ideas of liberty and equality to an unexpected degree. After 1776, the empire of liberty would spread as never before. Also after 1776 and especially after the four Civil War years culminating in 1865 -- what Lord Acton called "the Second American Revolution"[13] -- the empire of equality would spread as never before. The American founding, paradoxically, was just as much an act of revolution as it was an act of conservation. Looking back, Kirk had focused on the American founding as a fusion of the living traditions of four old cities -- Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London. Looking forward, Tonsor saw the American Revolution as a launchpad that took man's aspiration for more liberty and more equality to new heights. It was both-and: both a conservative and an innovative event; both a stroke for liberty and a stroke for equality.

Given my admiration for both men, I needed to come to terms with the tension between Kirk's and Tonsor's interpretation of the founding era. Each in his own way seemed to sound the right note. Could their notes be harmonized? The Roots was one of my favorite works of history, plumbing the subjects I liked to think about most. It played no small part in my decision to pursue graduate studies in history. The Roots was also an important work since it preserved an interpretation of American history that was important to keep alive, somewhere, anywhere, in the postmodern academy that dismissed it amid a swarm of deconstructing "narratives." But Tonsor's insight was also critically important to understanding how America became the country she was. Could I keep the thought of both men in dynamic tension? 

Kirk published the Roots in 1974 in anticipation
of America's bicentennial celebration.


[1] Tonsor thought that the most difficult problems of modern history did not usually involve what happened but why it happened. Rarely was there just one correct interpretation of why a historical event or movement occurred. Sifting a variety of interpretations was thus a fixity in Stephen Tonsor's thought. He demonstrated appreciation for different interpretations in one of his first publications after graduate school, when he assembled and compared then-current interpretations of Nazism: Stephen J. Tonsor, National Socialism: Conservative Reaction or Nihilist Revolt? (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1959). The pamphlet is in a series called "Source Problems in World Civilization." In a statement that serves as the foreword, the publisher explains that the task of the historian "is essentially one of selection ... for it is only through selection that knowledge can be arranged in meaningful and usable patterns." Tonsor's pamphlet is a selection of the most compelling interpretations of the philosophical and ideological roots of Nazism. Tonsor concludes: "Perhaps the variety and contradiction in the four major interpretations of National Socialism [in this pamphlet] suggest the difficulty involved in reaching conclusions concerning any historical event or movement. Moreover, these are only four among many interpretations.... If the judgments of [conflicting students and historians] are sometimes ambiguous or slow in coming, perhaps the fault lies in mankind's incomprehension rather than in history's opaqueness." (pp. i, 26, 27).

[2] Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order (Malibu: Pepperdine University Press, 1974). 

[3] Wilson Carey McWilliams, The Idea of Fraternity in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973). This award-winning book treats some of the same themes as Kirk's Roots and Tonsor's "The United States as a 'Revolutionary Society,'" but precedes them both.

[4] For an earlier statement of Kirk's basic thesis, see the address by the former president of the American Historical Association, Carlton J. H. Hayes, "The American Frontier -- Frontier of What?" December 27, 1945, American Historical Review, vol. 50, no. 2 (January 1946): 199-216, at URL 

[5] Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Papers, 1 and 9, 1787. 

[6] For a recent study of the traditionalists' confrontation with the Enlightenment, see Ulrich L. Lehner, The Catholic Enlightenment: The Forgotten History of a Global Movement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[7] Kirk, Roots, chaps. 2, 5.

[8] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Et tu, brutish?" Christian Science Monitor, April 9, 1979, p. B36.

[9] Kirk, Roots, chaps. 3-4.

[10] Kirk, Roots, chap. 6.

[11] Both Tonsor and I were alluding to a recently published book by Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984).

[12] Stephen J. Tonsor, "The United States as a 'Revolutionary Society,'" Modern Age, vol. 19, no. 2 (spring 1975): 136-45.

[13] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Quest for Liberty: America in Acton's Thought," Introduction by James C. Holland (Grand Rapids, MI: Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, Occasional Paper No. 1, 1993).

Friday, September 8, 2017

Tonsor: Catholicism: Confrontation with Modernity


T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)
"You speak about the confrontation with modernity," I observed in our next office-hour conversation. "More than that, you have dedicated your life to it -- it is your mantra. But what specifically does the Catholic confrontation with modernity look like?"

Tonsor answered: "It looks like Chesterton ... Belloc ... Dawson ... Maritain ... Gilson ... Guardini ... Sheed ... Ward ... Waugh ... and a host of others who led the Roman Catholic intellectual renaissance. It looks like Eliot ... Lewis ... Auden ... and many more who led the Anglo Catholic intellectual renaissance. 

"You no doubt want to know: What do these Roman- and Anglo-Catholics share in common? One element they share is humility. These Catholics -- integral humanists all, since they recognize that man is both matter and spirit -- these Catholics know that the underlying order which is perceived in the course of human experience and history never reveals itself in its completeness and perfection. Human limitations, passions, and sinfulness always stand in the way of a complete vision and harmonious accommodation.[1] 

"People are sorely mistaken if they believe God revealed what a specifically 'Catholic' social arrangement, political regime, or economic system should look like. The proclamations of today's televangelists notwithstanding, Jesus is not a registered Republican. He is not a Yankee-doodle patriot. He did not ordain our federated polity or free-market economics. These systems are of human devising. They are more or less satisfactory, and they are always conditioned by man's inadequacy and sinfulness. To elevate a human invention is to worship man rather than God, and Karl Barth was correct to call such excesses of enthusiasm by their right name: idolatry.[2] 

"Nevertheless, to be a Catholic in any meaningful sense is to confront the modern age, to critique modernity. The task of the Church in every age is to be like the parent who pesters teenagers with relentless questioning before they go out on a date. Since the modern age is a particularly petulant teenager, the Church must challenge the culture, standing up to any individual or authority who would harm life, violate religious freedom, or diminish the dignity of the human person. The Church -- along with her integral humanists -- should thus be a gadfly, a sign of contradiction to our base drives and animal motives. Note that I said 'should be.'

"In practice, the body of believers has hardly presented a unified front. That's because there are two kinds of Catholics -- positivists and realists. There are many nominal Catholics in the academy and they tend to be positivists. You will know they are positivists by their governing assumptions. Positivists believe that religion is a purely human phenomenon that reflects the evolution of human consciousness. Thus ethics are merely social conventions. Positivists would say that a controversial issue like abortion, if it is considered 'wrong,' is only 'wrong' because the hierarchy says so, or because the catechism and canon law say it is. In other words, it is only 'wrong' because human beings with authority claim it is wrong. Such positivism is similar to what one hears about rights: Human beings have rights because the state or society says so.

"There is another position, that of the official church and her integral humanists. They are realists. The realists think that morals are grounded not in social convention but in objective reality, a reality that is inseparable from the order of creation. For the realist, abortion is wrong because it offends God and disorders man.

"The gap between positivists and realists cannot be papered over. There is a perennial battle between them. Take, for instance, the issue of premarital sex since it is linked to other nettlesome issues like birth control, abortion, children out of wedlock, and intractable poverty. To think like a modernist is to be a positivist and say, Premarital sex is only 'wrong' because social convention makes it so, but that does not make premarital sex intrinsically wrong at all times in all places. To think like a traditionalist is to be a realist and say, Premarital sex is intrinsically wrong because it violates the order of nature, of reality, and it offends God. 

"The positivist-realist divide is one of the fundamental chasms in the modern mind. It is a fierce battle line in the present culture wars. When I say that to be Catholic is to confront modernity, what I mean is that the traditionalist Catholic will weigh the so-called truth-claims of the positivist against his own beliefs as a realist. Every ethical proposition, every action, will be sifted and tested -- not necessarily rejected outright, but sifted and tested: To what extent is it true, good, and in adherence to the natural law? To what extent can error teach us something of value? This has been the Catholic way from St. Augustine to the Dominicans to Lord Acton. It is the way of charity, and we are called to be charitable in our disagreements -- though I find it exceedingly difficult to be charitable toward silly people!" 

Tonsor was in a rare revelatory mood. To get him to admit a weakness was like trying to get a bone from a bulldog. But since it was best not to point that out, I simply said: "To disagree without being disagreeable, as Gerald Ford likes to put it."

"Yes," he nodded.


I wanted to stretch our discussion from the conversational to the civilizational. What elements in the critique of modernity united the Roman- and Anglo-Catholic realists? "From your teaching it is clear that the Catholic confrontation with modernity will also venture onto a larger stage, that which shines a light on the course of a country or a civilization. Won't Catholic cultural critics judge a country or civilization against its best moments. For the U.S. a benchmark might be what the founding fathers achieved to expand the empire of liberty. Another might be what the civil rights movement did to expand the empire of equality. For Western civilization a benchmark might be the advance of peace and prosperity in the nineteenth century; or the will of the allies to fight to the death to secure victory in World War II."

"Yes," said Tonsor. "And determining those benchmarks would be a good debate to have. 

"The important thing to realize is that becoming a Catholic, like being a conservative, is to embark on a quest for order. Ultimately this quest is not for a humanly created order invented as a form of political wish-fulfillment, but a discovery, though history and experience, that such is the way things are. The notion that the ideologue can create his own order out of whole cloth, fashion his own paradise out of nature, build his own utopia out of ideology, has been the human calamity of the past two centuries."[3]
Prometheus, by Otto Greiner (1909)

"It's a thin line between prudent progress and Promethean overreach." I offered.

"Yes," he said simply. "If the first requirement of the integral humanist in our day is to confront modernity with humility, then the second is to name things rightly; to say, after careful consideration, This pattern of thinking or that pattern of behavior is disordered. It is imprudent. Tragedy will follow in its wake." 


"Still one more thing is needed," concluded Tonsor, sitting squarely like a block of granite.

"What is that?" 

"The temptation for Catholics and conservatives to be as Faustian as the modernists. But we must be watchful lest we become what we disavow. In the end, perhaps the confrontation with modernity comes down to the simplest thing -- being an example, ourselves, of how best to live. That loving dedication to family, community, and all those who lent their lives in the past to the fashioning of a living tradition that can only be religious. Service in the cause of the good, the true, and the beautiful is always an act of compelling love."[4]


[1] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Mistaken Assumptions," Modern Age (winter 2002): 59.

[2] Ibid.: 58.

[3] Ibid.: 59.

[4] Ibid.