Continuity, again

Nathan Gill writing for The Witherspoon Institute contributes great perspective on a debate that’s been playing out for years within a small subsection of conservative and Catholic circles. “There are deep flaws,” writes Gill, “in the narrative of decline that blames the Founders’ natural-law liberalism for today’s cultural and political decay.” The debate centers on whether a “radical traditionalism” is necessary given this perceived decay. It is sort of a “structural decadence” critique of America in parallel to discussions of structural inequality or racism.

I’ve written about the idea of continuity before. The bits of the debate I’ve heard are fascinating, but in general the concept of a radical break from the present seems anything but conservative. In the words of a friend, at some point you might as well be talking about terraforming Mars. In other words, maybe interesting, but far out. Not only should we deal in the reality of out time, but we should learn to think differently:

Frederick Douglass’s life illustrates a conservative alternative to radical traditionalism—an alternative that allows us to be honest about America’s failures, without confusing every failure of practice for a failure of principle.

Although born a slave and raised in the midst of far greater persecution than any of us is likely ever to know, Douglass became a champion of the Constitution in his later years. It was for this reason that he broke with many of his abolitionist friends, including William Lloyd Garrison. In their zeal to remain unstained by slavery, these radical abolitionists had accepted the Dred Scott narrative of the Founding: the Constitution was written by slaveholders and was intended for the government of whites only. Garrison and his friends concluded from this that the only way to purge the nation of slavery was to abandon the Constitution (which Garrison called a “devil’s pact”) and its principles.

Despite the fact that he himself had suffered as a slave under the Constitution and had criticized the American Experiment for its double standard, Douglass saw through this flagrant mischaracterization of the Founding. He contendedthat Garrison’s strategy was self-defeating for two reasons. First, it distracted abolitionists from the true causes of slavery:

“Those … who [deal] blows upon the Union in the belief that they are killing slavery, are … woefully mistaken. They are fighting a dead form instead of a living … reality. It is … not because of the peculiar character of our Constitution that we have slavery, but the wicked pride, love of power, and selfish perverseness of the American people.”