Monday, April 21, 2014

U.S. FOUNDERS | The Mid-Atlantic Conservatives

David Lefer. Photo by JT Marlin.
I shared views recently with David Lefer, who has written The Founding Conservatives (New York: Penguin, Sentinel Books, 2013), about voices of conservatism that helped ensure that the American Revolution was sustainable–i.e., resulted in a constitution for the new nation that was  balanced–with respect for the rule of law, property rights, and the rights of minorities.

Some of the strongest advocates of independence had agendas that would have made life difficult for many minority groups–i.e., those of different religious views or degrees of wealth.

He champions these conservatives on the basis that (1) they are neglected by historians, and (2) they helped ensure that the United States of America became a country that was not hostile to capitalism.

As the revolution progressed, the popular program shifted. Initially, the external enemy–George III and his Prime Minister Lord North were the targets.

Then it became clear there was also an internal enemy.


John Dickinson, for example, was a conservative hero for Lefer. Dickinson began in 1774 as an advocate for resistance to George III, but by 1776 he was as much concerned about the rule of the mob as oppression by royalty. (The French Revolution could have used someone like Dickinson.) His views had not changed - the agenda had changed. But his popularity waned as he preached the rule of law.

Lefer - a Harvard graduate who also studied at Oxford - starts in his Introduction making his point about the tendency of the Revolution to get out of hand. His first chapter goes on to describe violent incidents that create the context for the rest of the book.

In Lefer's Introduction we are introduced to a riot in Philadelphia. A mob reacts to rising bread prices in 1779 by parading four merchants to the home of a prosperous lawyer, James Wilson. The mob brings with them a cannon.  Its leaders are ready to storm the building. Wilson's allies, barricaded inside, shoot back.  Five men are killed, and 14 wounded, before the crowd disperses.

One takeaway from the story might be that Wilson was right to stand his ground. But Lefer says that the mob's attack on the home of a leading lawyer had a larger message - it was a huge shock to wealthier people who had focused their antagonism on George III:
The street fight had a seismic impact on public perception... Within a year, fear of the mob would lead to the decline of radical power. (Lefer, p. 1.)
In Chapter 1 Lefer brings us back to the beheading of Charles I in 1649. Charles went to his death bravely, convinced that he had the Divine Right to rule and was being martyred. He had dissolved Parliament years earlier. Oliver Cromwell was no less convinced that Parliament had a right to exist and even the Divine Right to chop off the king's head.

The fact that Cromwell prevailed was not lost on subsequent monarchs, who tended to show more respect for Parliament. The "Glorious Revolution" later in the century was bloodless because one would-be king decided to let Parliament install another less tainted by sympathies to Roman Catholicism, i.e., William of Orange.

The theme of Lefer's book is that the New England Puritans tended to go overboard along with the tea they dumped on December 16, 1773. They might have allowed mobs to take over as they did in witch-hunting sessions in Salem and elsewhere.

The mid-Atlantic moderates saw that in their single-minded opposition to the exercise of power by George III, the radicals from New England were running the risk of replacing one repressive regime by another.

My Comments

James Wilson has been somewhat neglected by history. He was one of six men who signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He was greatly respected by his peers. Fellow Scotsman Lord Bryce singled Wilson out as a major thinker of the American Revolution, who influenced first the Pennsylvania Constitution and then the American one.

The conservative leaders tended to be from the mid-Atlantic states - New York and Pennsylvania in particular - and served as a moderating influence on the radicals from New England. They were less likely to be Puritans, and more likely to be orthodox, either as members of the Church of England, as Roman Catholics, or as children of the Scottish Enlightenment.

This reflected the position of the Middle Atlantic states in the history of the colonies. The New Englanders tended to be refugees from regimes they disagreed with - they were dissenters, more likely to be from Cambridge than Oxford. New England had four universities by the time of the Revolution, all of them emanating from dissenting Protestant movements - Puritans or Evangelicals.

Those to the south often went to the New World with land granted by the Crown. They were in search of prosperity. They were more likely to be, like George Washington's ancestors or the Calverts, Oxonians. Since there were no universities at the time of the American Revolution south of William & Mary in Virginia, the leading thinkers outside New England were likely to be from the four mid-Atlantic states of Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey, which had five universities among them, primarily Anglican or ecumenical in origin.

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