As the “Exceptional Nation” totters and pratfalls further toward perdition, some on what is commonly, if not entirely accurately, known as the “Right” are calling for the various factions to unite beneath a single banner – a band of brothers, as it were – to battle shoulder-to-shoulder against the Bolshevik plague-beast.
Several such tocsins have resounded from the San Bernardino Mountains west of Los Angeles, where stand the halls of the Claremont Institute, a think tank with whose precepts you are excruciatingly familiar, even if not so the name.
Scofield’s Reference Bible launched the most successful heresies in the history of Christendom; similarly, Claremont’s vision of America, past and future, has evolved into the unassailable credo of the conservative movement. Do not deviate, lest you be accused of progressivism, socialism, America-hating or, worst of all, “Calhounism.” The Institute cemented its grip on the Story of America with the participation of several past and current scholars in the 1776 Commission, the Trump Administration’s “patriotic” response to 1619 Project.
Claremont recognizes that something deeply unwholesome is unfolding in “this fair land of freedom.” Senior Fellow Glenn Ellmers, in a remarkable piece titled “Conservatism” is Not Enough, states what many of us have been saying for . . . well, in my case, at least since Bush the First: there is virtually nothing left to conserve. “What is actually required now is a recovery,” Ellmers writes, “or even a refounding, of America as it was long and originally understood but which now exists only in the hearts and minds of a minority of citizens.” I unironically could not agree more.
There’s also Senior Fellow Michael Anton, who in September 2016 published anonymously a prophetic essay called “The Flight 93 Election.” In it, he argued that Trump was likely America’s last chance to forestall a collapse into a degenerate kakistrophy lorded over by shrieking undergraduates, snarling professors and smirking vice-presidents of Human Resources. Anton followed this in September 2020 with The Stakes: America at the Point of No Return, which (again unironically) offers one of the best analyses I’ve yet read on the degenerate malevolence of the Last Best Hope of Mankind. Any number of Anton’s recommendations on issues including trade and immigration are ones with which we Southerners can and should concur (if for no other reason than we thought of them first).
So, one hearty cheer, maybe one and a third for Ellmers and Anton; and I recommend their writings to fellow Southerners. Ditto The Claremont Review of Books, published quarterly, and two associated web sites: American Mind and American Greatness. There is an impressive roster of writers (including our friends Paul Gottfried and Ilana Mercer). There’s a good deal to learn from them and the other Claremont scholars: some good, and some bad.
And much that is very, very bad.
The Institute on its “About” page describes its mission as “teaching and promoting the philosophical reasoning that is the foundation of limited government and the statesmanship required to bring that reasoning into practice.” And the Platonic ideal of statesmanship – for Claremont, ditto the 1776 Commission, and needless to say, most of American conservatism itself – is none other than the sixteenth president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.
The Railsplitter manifests on the “About” page in the form of this profundity: “No policy that does not rest on some philosophical public opinion can be permanently maintained.” In accordance with this pensée from Uncommon Friend of the Common Man, Claremont’s philosophical principles “include the foundational doctrines of natural rights and natural law found in the Declaration of Independence.” Rather, that bit of the Declaration where Jefferson wrote “all men are created equal.” As you have doubtless been instructed by (e.g.) nationally syndicated radio showman Dennis Prager’s eponymous online university or Tucker Carlson (otherwise admirable) on Fox News, “equality” is the principle by which the Constitution should be read; “equality” stands as the stern judge over the works of man.
And this is so, because that is the Proposition delivered by Honest Abe said at Gettysburg (“dedicated to the proposition that all men” et cetera and et cetera). If your faith is wobbly, and your foot sliding toward the heresy of Calhounism, you are advised to consult the voluminous writings of Harry V. Jaffa, distinguished fellow of the Claremont Institute, the Henry Salvatori Professor of Political Philosophy Emeritus at Claremont McKenna College, and the author of ten books, including Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War, and Original Intent and the Framers of the Constitution.
Claremont is in the Professor Jaffa business, if I may be permitted to speak in crudely commercial terms. Claremont wholesales and retails the thought of Professor Jaffa throughout the body politic. In this they’ve been successful beyond the wildest dream of avarice, attaining a mind-share monopoly that would be the envy of Rockefeller in the Standard Oil days.
Claremonters’ reverence of Professor Jaffa approaches the rapture of the medieval mystic. Professor Jaffa, Robert Samuelson testifies, discovered in the words of The Prairie Sage the reason and morality inherent in the American political order, qualities obscure to every other exegete of the holy documents (not to mention their authors). Here is David Tucker, reviewing a book of the Professor’s essays by Claremonters Ed Erler and Ken Masugi: “Harry V. Jaffa published Crisis of the House Divided in 1959. The book established him as the foremost interpreter of the American political tradition, because it established him as the foremost interpreter of Lincoln, our foremost politician.”
Here is Michael Anton, from an appreciation of the Professor in the Winter 2014/2015 issue of the Claremont Review: “Before I discovered Claremont and what it stands for, I had no faith and few friends, in the highest sense of souls sharing a love of the good. Because of Claremont—because of Harry V. Jaffa and the people he taught, inspired, and influenced—I have had both in abundance for 20 years and counting.”
Samuelson again: “Jaffa was known to say: the fate of the West depends upon America; the fate of America depends upon the Republican Party; the fate of the Republican Party depends upon the conservative movement; and the fate of the conservative movement depends upon it rededicating itself to the truths of 1776.”
Which truths would those be? Self-determination? Wrong. Back to Anton: “Jaffa liked to quote Lincoln’s remark that the idea of equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence is the ‘father of all moral principle’ among us.”’ One cannot but imagine Professor Jaffa, like Moses, ascending the rugged peaks of the San Bernardinos, entering the divine darkness described by St Gregory of Nyssa and there obtaining the tablets of the law from Father Abraham.
Any such metaphysical system requires a juxtaposing wickedness, a dragon to slay, heretics to burn. That, my fellow Southerners, is our role in the divine economy. As hinted, Calhoun is a particular object of Jaffaite ire; none is worse than the “Calhounite” (did you know that wicked old John is the father of identity politics? Now you do, and you will be tested). Glenn Ellmers authored a tome scheduled for September release called The Soul of Politics: Harry V. Jaffa and the Fight for America (“a pathbreaking study of Ellmers’ teacher, Claremont McKenna Professor Harry V. Jaffa, Claremont’s intellectual godfather”). In an excerpt published on American Mind, Ellmers ponders secession from the Professor’s perspective. At times, Ellmers does seem to be tiptoeing edge toward granting secession an imprimatur. That does not mean, he hastens to add, that the South is thereby vindicated. Confronting “at least least one of the several myths which contaminate discussion of the Civil War on both the Left and Right,” Ellmers declaims:
To the degree that several states today simply wish to detach themselves from the intrusive overreach of the central government, it must be emphasized this was certainly not the motivation of the slave states in 1860, which emphatically did not want merely to be ‘left alone’ . . . On the contrary, it was their demand for an unprecedented expansion of national power—in the form of a federal slave code for the territories—which alienated the South from the rest of the nation, and caused the rupture… Both national parties rejected the South’s demand to repudiate the principles of the Declaration of Independence and commit the entire country to a more explicit pro-slavery agenda. It was against this background that the South, in 1860-61, attempted forcibly to break up the Union by rejecting the results of the election in which Lincoln became president.
Anton, in The Stakes, graciously grants that he does not support the removal of Confederate statues, despite their commemoration of men with the absolute cheek to defy King Linkum. He gives us Southerners a nice pat on the head for our “patriotism,” which I suppose means our consistent votes for a Republican Party that largely despises us and certainly does not defend us. He concurs with Ellmers that South’s bid for freedom was illegitimate, wicked and against truth and order. Follow this reasoning to its bitter conclusion, and you’ll find yourself in agreement with despicable propagandist VD Hanson, the Ilya Ehrenburg of the neocon movement, that “the South had it coming.” (Ehrenburg, who one might call Stalin’s director of strategic communications, encouraged the Red Army to rape their way from East Prussia to Berlin, which they did – two million, by some estimates.)
So, my fellow Southerners: while you may not know Jaffa at first hand, you know Jaffaism.
“Propositional nation”? That’s Professor Harry V. Jaffa. “Nation of immigrants” – that too, is Professor Jaffa. How exactly did the Communist-leaning, Incarnation- and Resurrection-denying Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King become, with The Abolition Emperor, the second sun in the bright sky of American conservatism? Because Professor Harry V. Jaffa placed him there. (Professor J. also holds Churchill in high esteem; one must conclude that for the Henry Salvatori Professor of Political Philosophy Emeritus, the harangue is the measure of the man.) One can only assume, based on the Republican Party’s traditional role as the shadow that chases after Progressivism, that Caitlyn Jenner will in short order join the pantheon. He – sorry, she – has the proper ideology. For this we may also thank Professor Jaffa.
Proposition, principles, ideology.
Anton recently thundered against “Cracker Jack Claremontism,” the “fake, pulpy, distorted thumbnail version” (Who did this? Prager? Mark Levin? I want names, give me names!) He writes in an essay called “Americans Unite” (illustrated with a photo of Confederate veteran “uniting” with a U.S. Army soldier via handshake) that “to the extent that my school (or myself) had anything to do with propagating this garbage—and that extent is not zero—I sincerely apologize.” Furthermore, “some of us have been trying to make amends by telling a fuller account of the story, emphasizing those points left out of the Cracker Jack comic, correcting old errors, and making new friends.” Nevertheless, he says, his “commitment” to the “core tenets” of Claremont’s teaching “has never shaken.”
On that note, Anton directs a barrage of ire toward Brion McClanahan of the Abbeville Institute. McClanahan had the temerity, you see, to challenge, in a recent Chronicles article, the historiography of the 1776 Commission (including the unfortunately factual observation that He Who Saved the Union won with only 39% of the vote in the 1860 election). McClanahan’s “attack on it is harmful,” Anton says. McClanahan engaged in “deliberate fratricide.” He gives aid and comfort to those who “hate America.”
How dare you question the Professor, you… you… Calhounite.
“I still hope to gain more paleo friends and help broaden the pro-American populist-nationalist coalition on the Right,” Anton sniffs. “I hope this piece serves that end. Clearly McClanahan and Chronicles won’t be coming along for the ride.”
At this, I must confess, I burst into peals of sardonic laughter.
My dear Mr. Anton. Professor Jaffa and the Claremonters made careers out of demonizing the South, declaring our Confederate ancestors as heretics far beyond the pale of civilized society. And you’re surprised we decline to share shiraz and canapes in Claremont’s common room? I doubt you like it when grubby peasants cast doubt on the brilliance of Professor Jaffa or the world-historical significance of The Man Who Read the Bible by Firelight.
The great M.E. Bradford had a lot to say about Jaffa’s metaphysics, including the following (“The Heresy of Equality,” published in 1976): “Behind the cult of equality (the chief if not only tenet in Professor Jaffa’s theology, and his link to the pseudo-religious politics of equality) is an even more sinister power, the uniformitarian hatred of providential distinctions which will stop at nothing less than what Eric Voegelin calls ‘a reconstitution of being.’”
The theology of Professor J., and by extension the teachings of Claremont are, as Bradford and Willmore Kendall observed, nothing less than a call for permanent revolution, an eternal crusade toward an unattainable utopia. And one does not need philosophical training to conclude that egalitarian ideology, whether founded in “natural law” or a materialist interpretation of history, always end in terror, blood and fire. Expertise in John Locke is not required to conclude the end of every egalitarian rainbow stands the Grand Inquisitor. You could read Solzhenitsyn. Or look out the window at the accelerating disaster that’s the U.S.A today.
One only needs to consider, without ideological blinders, the history of the Propositional Nation since 1865, and the rapid onset of egalitarianism that began after World War II and accelerated in the 1960s. Much if not all of this can be laid at the feet of Abraham Lincoln and his devilish “proposition,” and its relentless promotion by Claremont.
As Oliver Cromwell wrote to the General Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland in 1650: I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken?
Glenn Ellmers says in his essay that “most people living in the United States today – certainly more than half – are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the word.”
If Ellmers means Professor Jaffa’s definition of “American,” then I certainly do not qualify. I am a Southerner. I am a proud son of a small region in the Deep South.
Anton is right that the South was, is and remains the most conservative region of this failed nation. But I don’t think either Ellmers or Anton understand the South or our conservatism any more than Jaffa did. We are not “people” to them; our history is irrelevant except as a philosopho-theological principal to be (literally) destroyed
The South is not a “proposition.” It is not an ideology. It is not a political religion. It is not Gnosticism tarted up in the language of Natural Law. The conservative, Russell Kirk once put it, “detests Abstraction, or the passion for forcing men and societies into a preconceived pattern divorced from the special circumstances of different times and countries.”
The South is, in the words of Edmund Burke, “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Again, not abstraction, not an ideology derived from Aristotle and Locke and filtered through the stump speeches of a diabolically clever railroad lawyer and Republican political hack with a gift for fooling most of the people all of the time, but real men, real generations, in a particular time, space and community.
William Faulkner, in Absalom, Absalom!, describes Shreve McCaslin, a Canadian, in conversation with Quentin Compson, a Southerner, in the “iron dark” and cold of their room at Harvard in New England:
“Jesus,” McCaslin said. “If I was going to have to spend nine months in this climate, I sure would hate to have come from the South. Maybe I wouldnt have come from the South anyway, even if I could stay there. Wait. Listen. I’m not trying to be funny, smart. I just want to understand it if I can and I dont know how to say it better. Because its something that my people havent got. Or if we have got it, it all happened a long time ago across the water and so now there aint anything to look at every day to remind us of it. We don’t live among defeated grandfathers and freed slaves (or have I got it backwards and was it your folks that are free and the niggers that lost?) and bullets in the dining room table and such, to be always reminding us to never forget. What is it? Something you live and breathe in like air? A kind of vacuum filled with wraithlike and indomitable anger and pride and glory at and in happenings that occurred and ceased fifty years ago? A kind of entailed birthright father and son and father and son of never forgiving General Sherman, so that forevermore as long as your childrens children produce children you wont be anything but a descendant of a long line of colonels killed in Pickett’s charge at Manassas?”
Our conservatism is what we learn from the old folks – the old ways and the old stories we pass down to our children, the history that happened to us and the blood we spilled.
We may conclude that this is something Professor Jaffa and the Claremonters do not have. They have abstractions and a philosophical scheme. We have the memories of living breathing men, with our feet rooted in the ground of the land they fought for.
My daughter knows that she is descended from a Confederate soldier who fought for four long years in the Army of Northern Virginia under General Robert E. Lee, and who died at Richmond in the winter of 1865. My daughter and I have stood together at Gettysburg, on Cemetery Ridge and walked the grounds of Pickett’s Charge and Little Round Top and the Wheat Field and the Peach Orchard. Other ancestors fell at Perryville, Chancellorsville, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, Petersburg. And I have told her, this ground is sacred to us because it is where our people fought and died.
Our people did not for an ideology. They fought for the one thing that an inscrutable Providence gives us to fight for: our land and our people and our memories.
And no, not for slavery, the always-deployed trump card. I would be happy to “have a conversation,” as Americans like to put it, about the institution. Provided you first remove “slavery” from Professor Jaffa’s philosophical ether and consider it in its time and place and relative to, say, slavery in Brazil, serfdom in Russia and Poland, and industrial factory labor in the enlightened North. Start with the thirty-odd volumes of the Slave Narratives. I’ve read them. Have you?
Anton and Ellers are absolutely correct that a recovery of old things and old traditions is necessary. And of course the founders should be re-considered, but without the lenses of Professor Jaffa. And you should consider that the Southern tradition is completely different from the ideological strawman of Jaffa’s scheme. If you can’t bring yourself to study Calhoun, consider the Agrarians and their critique of financial and industrial capital and of the American notion of Progress. Christopher Lasch and Jacques Ellul can be helpful; so too the heirs of the Agrarians, including Wendell Berry and the brilliant English writer Paul Kingsnorth.
And yes, we do share a common enemy. And yes, we can and should be friends; there is much we agree on. And perhaps we will one day do battle together.
But not under your flag. Under our flag, the Southern flag. And not for your philosophizing, but for our Southern traditions.
And never, ever again for a “proposition,” nor a nation “founded” on one.