Pessimism is de rigueur these days. So is anger. Increasingly traditional political categories are defined more by demonology than principles. Christians often strive for a public philosophy conforming narrowly to their momentary social priorities. They often fail to consider a perspective more comprehensively including wider human experience. In our current self-absorption, we often forget we are part of a larger tradition with loftier themes.
The narrative describing 400 years of Anglo-American political experience is Whiggery. It seeks ordered liberty, rooted in tradition, but focused on hope for the future. It solidified in the seventeenth-century parliamentary battles against royal supremacy. And it culminated in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in which new monarchs submitted to binding constitutional authority. America’s Founding Fathers were known as Whigs.
With this past, Whiggery is wary of the crown and its court, jealously regards the rights of the people, protects dissenters, stresses civil and religious freedom, touts economic growth, and believes in social and political reform. It’s not utopian nor is it statically traditionalist. It assumes fallen human nature is fixed and yet expects a providential progress that is hopeful about human improvements.
Partly, Whiggery is Anglo Protestantism politically applied. But its antecedents are Hebraic. Its Puritan forbearers rejoiced in the Jewish scripture. And it is rooted in Catholicism. Lord Acton called Thomas Aquinas the first Whig. Michael Novak, the late Catholic philosopher who cofounded IRD, host of Providence, stressed this genealogy. He called the “Catholic Whig tradition” an “alternative both to traditionalism and to progressivism; both to the left and to the right.” He hailed Pope John Paul II a Catholic Whig for touting liberty, solidarity, and democracy to the communist bloc and to rightist dictatorships.
Novak described Whiggery, Catholic or otherwise, as the “Party of Liberty,” but not libertinism, stressing virtue over “appetite, passion, ignorance, and whim.” Whigs reject “geometric thinking” in favor of “individual agents who are free.” They aim to build God’s kingdom amid sin’s limitations. They know divine grace can lead to more just societies but human depravity can nullify progress.
Whigs “think of themselves as part of a living tradition, and therefore are as much future-oriented as they are respectful of the past,” Novak noted. Whiggery incarnates “cautious optimism,” that distrusts centralized power but also believes in human creativity. Whigs esteem experience over ideology. They cherish liberty followed by tradition.
In short, the Whigs are the party of liberty, tradition, and institutional progress. Yet…to call oneself “progressive” these days is to be enrolled against one’s will under a banner that is the euphemism given by the left to sinister dreams of domination. By comparison with the “progressives” of today’s left, the Whigs have too much respect for tradition to fall into neodoxy, the doctrine that the unproven new is better. Still, on their other flank, believing in the free polity, the free economy, and the moral and cultural order of ordered freedom, contemporary Whigs can scarcely call themselves (in the colloquial sense) “conservatives”; the free society is always, under the inspiration of liberty, open to creativity. Thus, their conservatism is tempered by the desire to test new spirits, to prove the good results of experiments, and—even when experimenting—to provide many checks and balances against observed tendencies to self-aggrandizement.
Of Thomas Aquinas, Novak said it was his role as the first Whig to “calm fevered passions.” Iconography of Aquinas, observed Thomas Gilby, shows him calm, not “denouncing, or wringing his hands. He was singularly free from the homilist’s complaint of living in bad times.”
Today’s discourse, by contrast, is full of denunciation, complaint, invective, resentment, ingratitude, despair, and morosity. We live not only in bad times, it is assumed, but the worst. Politics is rhetorical warfare and rage. There is little appreciation for the role of Providence and human ingenuity. There is little regard for the humanity of opponents. There is almost no contemplation that “our” side may be as sinful as opponents. Dogma and superficial ideology are esteemed as tribal totems, at the expense of principles and experience. Temporary political defeats are deemed apocalyptic. Liberty is only for the favored. And dissent from the team is confused with betrayal.
Whiggery’s “cautious optimism” is disfavored by today’s polemicists who traffic in calamity porn. Unlike today’s fast-talking heads and snarky social media mavens, Whigs don’t claim certainty for themselves. They look to wisdom from past civilizations to aid in sustaining and improving our own civilization. They appreciate that the struggle for justice and liberty is arduous and sometimes has many adversaries. But they aren’t anxious to tag all opponents as enemies. They don’t search through history or present times to separate sheep from goats. The Anglo-American tradition is the story of Whiggery, and its battles within that tradition are often family debates, however fierce. An impartial overview sees the wider mosaic and hears the symphony of liberty across centuries.
Although emerging from a historical particularity, Whiggery is not just for Anglo-Americans, or Christians, or Westerners. Its insights into the human condition have universal application. Whigs can be Nigerians fighting corruption, jailed Hong Kong dissidents, Burmese nuns, Belorussian students, or Venezuelan opposition leaders. Whoever contends for ordered liberty, for dissenters, for economic opportunity, for free speech, for religious freedom, and for building trans generational institutions devoted to human uplift premised on hope is Whiggish.
The Whig tradition—and particularly the Catholic Whig tradition—offers the world’s best statement of philosophical principles and practical guidelines concerning how and why free citizens should shape new societies worthy of their human rights and ordered liberties. Such societies, to secure these rights, must give primacy to community. But to build true and authentic communities, these societies must give primacy to persons. Both forms of primacy are important. Each is necessary for the other’s definition—and for the other’s flourishing.
Whiggery isn’t an ideology or a political agenda. It’s a centuries-old sensibility that counsels mutual respect, patience, and optimism for persons and communities. Our own times desperately need both. Maybe a New Whiggery will remind us of who we are and who we should be.