Realigning American Politics: Do We Still Hold These Truths?

Matthew Spalding

February 1, 2011

The following speech was delivered at Ashland University on October 26, 2010, by Matthew Spalding, Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation. Spalding is a constitutional scholar and an authority on American political thought and religious liberty. Project leader of Heritage’s First Principles initiative, he is author of We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future (ISI Books, Nov. 2, 2009).

I’m very happy to be here in Ashland, and I’m honored to be welcomed by my friend Peter Schramm, one of the people I turn to for guidance and advice. The Heritage Foundation gave Dr. Schramm our Salvatori Award a number of years ago because of his work and what he’s established at the Ashbrook Center. Thank you, Peter.

Last night I was in Florida speaking at the Tri-County Tea Party meeting. Two weeks before that I addressed the Virginia Tea Party Convention. Indeed, I’ve been traveling all over the country during the past year, and I can confirm what many have already observed: something phenomenal is going on in America. I want to talk about what I think is happening and the possible consequences for our politics.

But let me begin by telling a story that I came across in writing my book, We Still Hold These Truths. It’s about a young man named Levi Preston who fought at the Battle of Concord. Now, we all know what happens there. The British want to capture munitions said to be held by the rebel colonists, so they send infantry out from Boston. To get to where they believe the weapons are stored, they must go through a small hamlet called Lexington in order to get to their target, which is Concord. The British are unaware that the patriots have been warned of their approach by, among others, a rider named Paul Revere. And so at the Concord Bridge a small number of untrained colonists armed with old muskets—fewer than the number of people in this room—confront the British and (as we know) force them to retreat all the way back to Boston.

Now, as I told that story, many of you were nodding because you were already familiar with it. With the gift of hindsight, we know what happened at Concord that day. We see Concord as a turning point in American history because we know what happened afterward. But those who were fighting at Concord did not know what was going to happen. So here is the question: not knowing the outcome, why go out and fight at Concord Bridge—against the strongest, best-armed, best-equipped, besttrained and best-led military force the world had yet known?

That question was put several years later to Captain Levi Preston, now a veteran of the War for American Independence. Was it the intolerable oppressions of British colonial policy or the Stamp Act? “I never saw any stamps.” What about the tax on tea? “I never drank a drop of the stuff; the boys threw it all overboard.” It must have been all your reading of Harrington, Sidney, and Locke on the principles of liberty? “Never heard of’em. We read only the Bible, the Catechism, Watt’s Psalms and Hymns, and the Almanack.” Well, what was it? asked the interviewer. What made you take up arms against the British?

“Young man, what we meant in going for those redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.” End of interview.

It is often thought that American history is very complicated, and that you need several degrees and years of study to figure out what’s going on. Actually, our history revolves around some fairly simple (though profound) ideas. And sometimes those ideas come to the forefront of politics and, as we reconsider and debate their meaning, lead to great turning points of our history.

I believe this country is at a turning point right now, and that this moment may turn out to be just as decisive as the events at Lexington and Concord so many years ago, because of decisions being made by modernday Levi Prestons all over the country. But it will only happen if we are able to turn the sentiment of the moment into a new governing coalition intent on renewing constitutional government.

Every nation derives meaning and purpose from some unifying quality—an ethnic character, a common religion, a shared history. However, America is unique. America was founded at a particular time, by a particular people, on the basis of a particular idea.

At its birth, this nation justified its independence by asserting truths said to be self-evident, conforming to “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” Working from the great principle of human equality, those who launched this experiment in popular government claimed a new basis of political legitimacy: the consent of those governed. Through a carefully written constitution, they created an enduring framework of limited government based on the rule of law.

With this structure, they sought to establish true religious liberty, provide for economic opportunity, secure national independence, and maintain a flourishing society of republican self-government—all in the name of the simple but radical idea of human liberty.

The founding of the United States was indeed revolutionary, but not in the conventional sense of replacing one set of rulers with another or overthrowing the institutions of society. Our Revolution turned on the ideas upon which a new nation was to be established. Permanent truths “applicable to all men and all times,” as Abraham Lincoln later said, proclaimed that principle—rather than will—would be the ultimate foundation of government.

What is truly revolutionary about America is that for the first time in human history these universal ideas became the foundation of a particular system of government and its political culture. It was because of these principles, not despite them, that, rather than ending in tyranny, the American Revolution culminated in a constitutional government that could endure.

We have not forgotten these ideas. Most Americans actually have a pretty good sense of them. The problem is that these principles have been under strenuous criticism for about a century, having been questioned by elites throughout the country. We are now experiencing a culminating debate about America’s meaning.

What has happened? By the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, after the Civil War, a number of Americans—or, I should specify: American intellectuals—had decided that the American constitutional system had failed. It had failed to prevent the Civil War, and was not thought adequate for the changing circumstances of the industrial revolution. And so they looked elsewhere for better models of effective, modernized government. They consulted the Fabian Socialists in Britain, and they looked to intellectuals in France, but they especially studied German concepts about man, politics and government. These imported ideas, applied in the American context, gave rise to what is called the Progressive Movement, and laid the intellectual groundwork for the political development of progressive-liberalism and conservatism over the course of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.

According to the progressive argument—formed by German thought—there are no such things as self-evident or fixed truths. Not only are all ideas relative, but they are historical, constantly evolving and changing. Given that assumption, America’s principles and the practices that stem from those principles had to be fundamentally reevaluated and rewritten. Most prominently, the idea of a permanent framework of constitutional government had to give way to a dynamic, “living” Constitution capable of growth and adaptation.

As there is no human nature, so there are no natural rights. Like man himself—the progressives are very influenced by Charles Darwin as well—rights evolve and adapt to the needs of the time. With more rights we need more government to secure them. This government is best administered by those trained in the scientific regulation of society through government—what we today call “bureaucracy.” And to be most efficient, this government must be centralized and unified under a national administrative state.

This argument underlies the form of liberalism that develops in the United States in the twentieth century. Liberalism goes through various unique phases, of course, and we shouldn’t focus only on the early progressive part, but its beginnings do presage what is to follow.

At any rate, the first phase—the Progressive Movement— was followed by the New Deal, which was followed by the Great Society. The New Deal introduced interventions in the economy and the Supreme Court, and the Great Society produced massive pieces of legislation meant to regulate whole segments of American society, bringing them under the supervision of experts in Washington.

Sound familiar?

The argument of progressive liberalism has always been that the rise, expansion and evolution of government is the inevitable result of modernization. The Progressive Movement is the first wave, then the New Deal, then the Great Society; each period a movement in the direction of progress and change. The “administrative state”—this notion of bureaucratic expertise, of elite government—is the splendid and inevitable culmination of modern government, so the argument goes.

In 2008, Senator Obama interpreted the popular mood to be a call for that next wave, and a revival of progressive liberalism. It was understandable, but he misread the moment. During the previous great waves of liberalism something else was simultaneously occurring in the country. You can go back to the early critics of the progressives like Calvin Coolidge and Elihu Root; you can look at the critics of the New Deal; we see it with the critics of the Great Society: an alternative movement pushing back against progressivism to conserve the principles of American constitutionalism as the center-piece of American politics.

This conservative movement eventually shapes politics as well. Barry Goldwater runs for president in 1964, but eventually the mantle is taken over by a governor from California named Ronald Reagan. The key to Reagan’s program was not simply to cut taxes and rebuild national defense; it was to revive an understanding of America’s core principles and build a political coalition around that understanding. Reagan’s speeches lay out an alternative to modern liberalism that claims the ground of the American political tradition.

The Left has long maintained that the rise of progressive liberalism has finally gotten us over our love affair with the Founding and its archaic canons of natural rights and limited constitutionalism. The New Deal and the fruits of centralized authority brought most Democrats around to this view, and over time, many Republicans came to accept the progressive argument as well. Seeing responsible stewardship of the modern state and incremental reforms to chip away at its edges as the only viable options, these Republicans tried to make government more efficient, more frugal, and more compassionate—but never questioned its direction.

As a result, politics came to be seen as the ebb and flow between periods of “progress” and “change,” on one hand, and brief interregnums to defend and consolidate the status quo, on the other. Outside the aberration of Ronald Reagan and a few unruly conservatives, there seemed to be no real challenge to the liberal project itself, so Democrats thought they simply had to wait for the next great era of reformism to flower. Was it to be launched by Jimmy Carter? Bill Clinton? At long last came the watershed election of Barack Obama.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the next revolution.

The Left’s over-reading of the 2008 election gave rise to a vastly overreaching agenda that is deeply unpopular. Large numbers of citizens, many never before engaged in politics, are protesting in the streets and challenging their elected officials in town-hall meetings and on talk-radio shows. Forty percent of Americans now self-identify as conservatives—double the amount of self-professed liberals—largely because independents are beginning to take sides. Voters are profoundly impassioned about a new cluster of issues—spending, debt, the role of government, the loss of liberty—that heretofore lacked a focal point to concentrate the public’s anger. In the last year and a half, the margin between those favoring smaller over larger government has moved from five points to twenty points.

Is it possible that Americans are waking up to the modern state’s long train of abuses and usurpations?

There is something about a nation founded on principles, something unique in its politics that often gets shoved to the background, but never disappears. Most of the time, American politics is about local issues and the small handful of policy questions that top the national agenda. But once in a while, voters step back and take a longer view, evaluating the present situation in the light of our founding principles. That is why all the great turning-point elections in U.S. history have ultimately come down to a debate about the meaning and trajectory of America.

In our era of big government and the administrative state, the conventional wisdom has been that serious political realignment—bringing politics and government back into harmony with the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—is no longer possible. Yet we are seeing indications that we may be entering a period of just such realignment. Perhaps the progressive transformation is faltering, and its indefinite extension not inevitable.

This creates a historic opening for conservatives.

Growing opposition to runaway spending and debt, and to a looming government takeover of health care, doesn’t necessarily mean that voters want to scrap Social Security or close down the Department of Education. But it may mean that they are ready to reembrace clear, enforceable limits on the state. The opportunity and the challenge for those who seek to conserve America’s principles is to turn the healthy public sentiment of the moment, which stands against a partisan agenda to revive an activist state, into a settled and enduring political opinion about the nature and purpose of constitutional government.

To do that, conservatives must make a compelling argument that shifts the narrative of American politics and defines a new direction for the country. We must present a clear choice: either stay the course of progressive liberalism, which moves away from popular consent, the rule of law, and constitutional government toward a failed, undemocratic, and illiberal form of statism; or correct course in an effort to restore the conditions of liberty and renew the bedrock principles and constitutional wisdom that are the roots of America’s continuing greatness.

As I mentioned at the beginning of my talk, I’ve been traveling a lot, speaking about the American Founding and fielding questions. One question I often get from younger audiences is: Why do I like to spend so much time talking about dead white men? What they did and said happened so long ago. How can their old ideas contribute anything to current politics?

We’re really not so far from those ideas and those men. Think about it in the context of your own lives. I was born during the Great Society. My father was born during the Great Depression. At that time, the leading Supreme Court Justice was Oliver Wendell Holmes. When Holmes was a young man, he fought in the Civil War. And on the battlefield he met Lincoln. When Lincoln was a young man the President of the United States was John Quincy Adams. And when John Quincy Adams was a boy, he heard from his own home the gunfire at the Battle of Bunker Hill. We are only four generations away from our nation’s founding.

Another one of my favorite forgotten figures from American History (perhaps a little bit better known than Levi Preston) was a young man named Joseph Warren. A young medical doctor, Warren was the father of four small children, a widower engaged to remarry. He was the author of the Suffolk Resolves, the resolutions passed by the Continental Congress calling for wartime preparations, and it was he who sent Paul Revere and William Dawes on their famous rides to warn of an imminent British attack on Concord.

Following Lexington and Concord, the American patriots had chased the British back to Boston. The British retreated to a position within the city, and the American militiamen took a weak position on Breed’s Hill. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress had relocated to safer quarters, but Joseph Warren, its new president and head of the public safety committee, remained in Boston to lead the American opposition. He chose to fight as a volunteer private.

Twice the British Regulars attacked, and twice the Americans, holding fire until the advancing regiments were in close range, decimated the British ranks and forced them to fall back. Short of powder and ammunition, and without reinforcements, the Americans were overwhelmed on the third assault—British soldiers swarming their redoubt, stabbing with their bayonets. Most of them escaped; some of them did not. One who was captured was Joseph Warren. He was immediately pulled aside and shot in the head.

Let me leave you with something he said a few months before he was killed, while speaking on the fifth anniversary of the Boston Massacre:

Our streets are filled with armed men; our harbor is crowded with ships of war; but these cannot intimidate us; our liberty must be preserved; it is far dearer than life.… Our country is in danger, but not to be despaired of. Our enemies are numerous and powerful; but we have many friends determining to be free, and heaven and earth will aid the resolution. On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important question on which rest the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.

We must all act worthy of the legacy handed down to us, and worthy of ourselves as a free people. This country has always been an experiment: one that tests the proposition that all men are created equal, possessing rights that are the gift of God. As an experiment, America can only be what its citizens make of it, and that will be determined now, as it was then, by the arguments and actions of people like Levi Preston and Joseph Warren. They determined to be free and self-governing. So should we.