Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy and editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, speaking from deserted downtown Washington, DC and having the pleasure of interviewing and chatting with Allen Guelzo, formally many years at Gettysburg College, now at Princeton University. He’s renowned as a historian, especially of the Civil War, but not limited to that. And he wrote a fascinating review of a new biography of John C. Calhoun and concluded provocatively by noting that Calhoun was essentially a Burkean, but speculating whether or not an American believing in America’s founding principles could also be a Burkean. So, I’m going to start out by asking Allen Guelzo to expound on that provocative assertion. Allen, thank you for joining us.
Guelzo: Well, thank you, Mark, it’s fun to be able to talk about some of these figures who intersect across the Atlantic, Burke coming from the English side of things and Calhoun from the American. I was writing a review of Elder’s new biography of Calhoun and when I had gotten to the end of the review, the thought suddenly struck me that there had been no mention anywhere in the book about Edmund Burke. Now this wasn’t because anyone who writes a book about Calhoun is somehow obligated to talk about Edmund Burke. That’s not a criticism of the book. It just struck me as an unusual point that when talking about John C. Calhoun, the name of Edmund Burke would almost bubble up automatically to me. And that was why I concluded the review by drawing these comparisons between Edmund Burke and John Calhoun.
And then saying, perhaps even more provocatively, that despite that connection, Calhoun was wrong about the American experiment and, by implication, Burke was too to the extent that Calhoun understood himself to be a kind of American Burke. And he did admire Burke, there are a number of points that we have. He speaks in glowing terms of Edmund Burke. To the extent that Calhoun does not represent what we want to call the American creed, then can we honestly say that Edmund Burke does as well? Now that’s, in some quarters, a dangerous conclusion to draw, because there are many conservatives who do frankly idolize the image of Edmund Burke. This is not to say that that necessarily involves them in admiration for John C. Calhoun, but there are many conservatives who do take their bearings historically speaking from Edmund Burke. And there are organizations, there are societies, and there are very talented people writing about American politics today in American conservatism who would like us to understand Edmund Burke as someone from whom we should be taking our bearings. And I am one of those who is less than enchanted with that, and for a number of reasons.
First of all, Burke himself is a man of so many different talents. A philosopher and economist and art lover and, of course, a politician, a parliamentarian. He shows up in so much of English life in the 18th century, even as a friend of Dr. Samuel Johnson. So, it’s very difficult to put Burke into a pigeonhole, and, if I have in my own comments tended to do that, then that’s going to have to be something I apologize for. Burke is not easy to pigeonhole. There are many Burkes. In a sense, to paraphrase Whitman, he contained multitudes. But my experience of dealing with Edmund Burke really began not with Burke the politician or the philosopher, but Burke as a critic of art, and especially Burke’s 1759 treatise, a philosophical inquiry into the origins of our idea of the sublime and the beautiful. Now that title sounds a bit tendentious, but let me boil it down this way. Burke was trying to get people to understand what it is that really compels our attention, and his understanding was what compels human attention is the sublime.
Alright, great. What is the sublime? He said it this way: whatsoever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger. That is to say whatever is in any sort terrible is a source of the sublime. That is where I stumble, because what Burke is articulating is really the beginning of the romantic revolt. It’s the beginning of romanticism in philosophy, in literature, and romanticism as it flowered in the first half of the 19th century produced products that I think we have a lot to feel sorry about. It’s from romanticism that we developed, or at least Europeans developed, notions of nationality based upon race and blood and soil. Likewise, in art, likewise in music, I mean, romanticism gives us Wagner, and I am not a Wagnerian. I’m almost at the point of view that, I think it was Mark Twain or maybe it was Debussy who once said that Wagner has his wonderful moments and his dreadful quarter hours. Push it even to romantic politics and romantic philosophy and religion.
When you come to the boundaries of philosophy and religion and romanticism, you come to a variety of people who, when we reflect on it, did not take us in healthy directions, at least from a conservative point of view. To find Burke standing at the beginning of this flood of romanticism was for me a profoundly disenchanting discovering many years ago, and it made me wonder where are the connections that flow to other parts of Burke. When you see Burke write about politics, when you see him write about government as in his thoughts and letters on scarcity, Burke says this: circumstances give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing color and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind. Now let me unpack that, because at first blush what Burke is saying let’s not be abstract. Let’s not commit ourselves to airy principles that don’t have root in in real experience. All right, I can understand that.
But push it a little further and what it comes out to saying is that there are no overarching principles in human politics and human social organization. That we need to conform to that. Every political order, every political regime is a product of its own peculiar local history. And Burke would agree with that. I mean, for him the genius of what made England was the English experience and English history. For the American experiment, it’s very different. When we declared our independence of 1776, we did it based on certain propositions based on natural law. And natural law that taught us things about natural rights about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Things which were the possession of all human beings and true everywhere at all times, because they were a reflection of the will of the Creator. That’s very different from Burke. The American Revolution was not born out of a specific set of circumstances peculiar to the American landscape or peculiar to English speaking American settlers. They were born out of principles that were understood to govern human beings as human beings as created by God. They were in that respect universal.
And for the American experiment to be based upon principles which are universal sets us at a very different distance from Edmund Burke and from Burke’s thinking on politics. Burke, again, when he’s talking politically is speaking as romantic. Jefferson and the American Revolution, they are speaking as the product of the 18th century Enlightenment. And not only Jefferson, but, of course, Washington, Madison, Franklin, George Mason, you go down the list of people, here are people who are talking about universal natural rights which belong and adhere in every human being. That’s not what Burke is talking about. This is also why, when I finished reading the Calhoun biography, it stimulated in my mind the question about the reflection of Calhoun and Burke. Because what Calhoun articulates, of course, is a very different view.
There are no universal human rights. Races are what identify people, and there are superior races and inferior races, which it’s legitimate to enslave. And Calhoun based his entire political philosophy on that. That’s not the political philosophy of the American Republic. That’s not the political philosophy that we fought the Civil War over. And it’s not the political philosophy that Abraham Lincoln represents. Certainly, it’s not the political philosophy that brought us into World War I, World War II, and finally, into our contest with the Soviet Union and the Cold War. Calhoun faces in a very different direction. He faces in the same direction as Burke, but ultimately that is not the direction of the American experiment as born, as conceived in 1776, and carried forward not just by Jefferson, but by Lincoln and by the Civil War generation. So, you might say I have my problems with Edmund Burke.
Tooley: So, you would point out that Burke, as a sympathizer with the American Revolution, his sympathy was based upon their claims to the intrinsic rights of Englishman, and not to universal principles?
Guelzo: Oh, I think that’s very true. I mean, I’m grateful to Edmund Burke, who stood up in Parliament and said that if I were an American as I am an Englishman, I would never surrender. Never, never, never. I appreciate that and the speeches he gave in Parliament and the material he published on conciliation on resistance to taxation. Certainly, he was doing a great series of favors to the American revolutionaries, but at the same time, note closely the terms in which he’s doing it. When he writes in 1757 his account of the European settlements in America, he’s a mercantilist. He is still regarding the American colonies as subservient to the overall scheme of the British Empire.
What he objected to was particular policies the British Empire was imposing, but he did not object to the overall sense that the mother country was fully entitled to use the North American colonies to its benefit. He was in that respect a mercantilist. And even though he knows and corresponds with Adam Smith, the wealth of nations that Edmund Burke wanted to promote was not the wealth of nations, it was the wealth of one nation, which was England. His notion of conciliation, even though he supports American resistance to taxation in 1774, he still supports the Navigation Act. So, we’re still talking about an America, which although it’s going to enjoy by his argument the traditional rights of traditional Englishmen, is still going to be part of an overall English sphere. He does not see the American Revolution as something which is taking us to an entirely different understanding of the relationship of political society, and that’s in fact what the American Revolution is.
Tooley: Now Burke, unlike John C. Calhoun, did oppose slavery I recall. So, was there embedded in that perspective some notion of universal rights?
Guelzo: Well, in the sense that legally speaking Burke is living in a generation in Britain which had already moved beyond the idea of slavery in Britain, Burke can be a critic of slavery because he regarded slavery as being a violation of British common law. And the Mansfield decision in 1772 and the famous Somerset case which terminated the status of legalized slavery in the British Isles was itself based upon an appeal to common law and common law overturning the supremacy of parliamentary statute. In that respect, Burke is very much a traditionalist, and his opposition to slavery emerges out of centuries of tradition of British common law, but not out of the kind of justification that Americans would use in opposing slavery. And that is to see slavery, as Abraham Lincoln did, as a violation of natural right. For Burke, there is only the thinnest concept of something you can call natural right distinguished from the history of a particular nation.
Tooley: And you have pointed out that the new nationalism, which could be linked to a Burkean perspective, is also at odds with America’s founding principles or universal aspect. Is there room within American founding principles for any concept of nationalism?
Guelzo: Well, there’s room for nationalism in the sense that there is a certain natural instinct to love the circumstances in which you have been born and bred. It’s almost as natural as the love of family itself. And Lincoln himself articulated this in 1852 when he delivered a eulogy for Henry Clay. What he called his “beau ideal” of a statesman. Lincoln said that Henry Clay loved his country, first of all, because it was his country. And there is in that respect an instinctive affection one feels, which we capture, for instance, in so many of our national songs. “I love they rocks and hills.” The words won’t come to me. “And templed hills.” This, from lyrics written in the 1820s, there is a natural affection that one feels that way because of simply who we are as human beings. We love our environment. We love our families.
But Lincoln, he also loved his country because he believed that the United States had shown that free men could be prosperous. And what he meant by prosperous was not just that freemen could be rich. You could come to America and become rich and realize the American dream, or something like that. What he meant by prosperous was that the Americans were not failures. That in establishing a democratic republic, in going against the grain of European monarchies, aristocracy, hierarchies, they were not somehow foolishly throwing away the lessons of history. To the contrary. What Clay and Lincoln believed was that Americans had laid hold on the real principles of human organization and human political society. And that was what made them prosperous.
And it showed that democratic republics were not automatically going to devour each other. That they were not necessarily going to come apart at the seams the first time that stress and pressure was put on. So, yes, there is room for a national love, a national affection, and we would be less than human if we didn’t feel that. But, at the same time, where is our principal identity derived from? That principal identity is derived from a set of propositions, argued Lincoln. And those propositions are those which are contained in the Declaration of Independence. And Lincoln I think said this about as well as anyone could possibly say it in 1858 when he spoke of how few people in America in his day actually had some kind of living connection to the American Revolution. Fully half of our people, Lincoln said, fully half of our people either came from someplace else or are the offspring of those who came from someplace else.
They came from France, they came from Scandinavia, they came from Germany, but he said when they look into that old Declaration of Independence and they read those words that all men are created equal, then they feel that they are of the flesh and blood of the blood of those men that wrote the declaration. And so, what they are, he said, is the electric cord that unites every lover of liberty. So, yes, let’s love our country, but let’s love it not just because it’s our country, but because our country has shown that it has built its structure politically on the natural laws that are true in every place and in every time. And on the creed that those natural laws embody, we enjoy something which embraces people of every nation, of every race, of every color. And in that respect, I have to see it in a way as a reflection of the Kingdom of God itself, because what else are we told in the New Testament but that the Kingdom of God is made up of people drawn from every race, every nation, every walk of life?
In that respect, what Americans have sought to discover is a political order that really is a creed to be understood, to be believed. To be apprehended by the reason not as Burke would have had it, not to be moved to it by an experience of the sublime, not to be moved to it by what causes terror or ideas of pain and danger, but rather the sheer attraction of those fundamental truths about the natural equality of all people and the natural possession they have of natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It seems to me that pointed in that direction, we are not going to be Burkeans. Ultimately, we are certainly not going to be Calhounians, definitely. And while there are going to be a number of details in that complicated man Edmund Burke that I will frankly tell you I’m glad for that. I applaud and I admire that he was a great writer. Yet at the same time, fundamentally, when we come down to the political vision that animated the man, I do not see American conservatism doing yourself a favor by leaning too heavily on those principles. I think we have our own principles as articulated by Jefferson, by Madison, by Washington, by Lincoln, and it’s from those sources, rather than Edmund Burke, that I believe a real and a healthy American conservatism should be drawn, can be drawn, and can renew itself.
Tooley: Of course, you’re a professional historian, but you are ordained in the Episcopal Church, so you have theological training as well. What are, and you’ve touched on this already a bit, but in terms of the contrast between America’s founding principles and the Burkean perspective, what are the theological implications of those differences?
Guelzo: Well, the theological implications it seems to me come back to the sense that the New Testament articulates that nations have certain characteristics. Nations have certain importance, but at the end of the day, the Gospel itself trumps those characteristics. I’m thinking here particularly of how when the Apostle Peter was shown the vision of all kinds of things that were unclean, and he says in response, “I’ve never eaten any unclean foods from my youth upwards.” Well, the answer that is given to him is, “What God has called clean do not thou call unclean.” And, of course, what that has particular application to, and had particular application to in the acts of the Apostles, was the question of non-Jews participating alongside Jews in this new Christian ecclesia. There was a real hesitation on the part of many of the earliest Christian converts who were Jews to look beyond their nationality at Gentiles and see these filthy Gentiles as being brought into the Kingdom of God on the same basis of themselves. They both did that, and that had to be reviewed by the Apostle Paul.
And, of course, Paul took no second place to anybody in terms of his Jewish identity. He says very, very clearly, I’m a Hebrew of the Hebrews. I’m born with a particular tribe. I have all the identification that one could possibly want to have as a Jew, and yet, I also understand saying that God through Jesus Christ has made his kingdom much wider than that that the responsibility of the Jewish people has been to hold through the centuries. A testimony to the truth of God so that now they can be a beacon to all nations. Now being part of this new nation that brings in Gentiles, that brings in people from far and wide into this revelation that God has given through Jesus Christ, it doesn’t mean the end of Judaism. What it means is the expansion of everything that Judaism, going back to Moses, had always talked about and always promised.
Now in that respect, there’s a real parallel between what we see in this notion of an American experiment, because this American experiment likewise takes ideas that had dominated Western thinking for centuries. Ideas that had been very nationalistic, very parochial, very hierarchical, and sweeps them away. And since there are no hierarchies, that we are all created equal and that everyone can be part of this irrespective of their national origin, I mean, there’s nothing in the Declaration of Independence which makes exceptions. There are no second thought clauses. It does not say that all men are created equal except, and then flows a list. No, that doesn’t happen. That fundamental equality in which all may participate is a representation of the possession of natural rights that we all receive from our creator as a political fact.
And in the largest sense, Christianity itself builds upon a parallel welcoming that says all may come, all may drink of the water of life. And it matters not whether they are Jew or Gentile, whether they are Jewish or Samaritan, all may drink from that water of life, because the sacrifice of Jesus Christ himself has been made for all to take advantage of. So, there is a kind of working ideological parallel. I don’t want to fuse them together. I am not trying to make a religion out of American politics or substitute American politics for religion. No, not at all. But there is a certain parallel in the sense that these are opening devices, that they take something which had been defined in one way and they’re opening the definition. And in that respect, yes, there is a theological construction that one can see. Is it conscious on the part of Thomas Jefferson? Probably not, but I think there are certain conscious ways in which it was part of Enlightenment political thinking and which we I think even from a religious point of view can applaud as politics. Even as the politics can applaud the religious point of view from which it is drawn.
Tooley: Allen Guezlo of Princeton University, historian and enthusiast for the American project, thank you very much for a fascinating conversation.
Guelzo: Thank you, Mark, it’s fun to do.