Louis Menand’s literary approach to the era masks some analytical fuzziness.
Conservatism: A Rediscovery
By Yoram Hazony
Regnery Gateway, 2022
Yoram Hazony’s Conservatism: A Rediscovery is a more personal book than its title suggests. As recounted in the fourth section, it tells the story of a sensitive young man who found in traditional religion, scholarly work, and nationalist politics a purpose for his life. Along the way, he married a loving wife, moved to a different land, and sired a goodly brood of children and grandchildren who bring him the comfort of a life well-lived already in middle-age. It is a beautiful story and a worthy example for the younger audience Hazony hopes to reach.
These circumstances are by no means discrediting. Every book is, to some extent, an autobiography of its writer, and Hazony deserves credit for telling his readers explicitly who he is and where he comes from. In addition to their honesty, these statements are consistent with Hazony’s epistemology, which emphasizes the limitation of any human perspective.
But the same considerations raise questions about whether Hazony is a reliable guide to what he calls Anglo-American conservatism. The book contains real insights—but also idiosyncratic omissions and emphases that offer a striking contrast to the sweeping rhetoric.
The peculiarity of Hazony’s account begins with religion, which is the book’s principal theme. Hazony contends that “a political theory in the conservative tradition cannot be made to work without the God of scripture.” The statement has attracted some criticism for its theistic premise. More important than the bare appeal to God, though, is the clarification “of scripture.” Although he does not specify the claim, when Hazony refers to scripture, he means the Hebrew Bible. His God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
This stipulation reflects Hazony’s commitments as a proudly observant Jew but also signals a narrowing of conservative canon. It does not only exclude open skeptics like David Hume, despite his contributions to the epistemology of limitation that Hazony emphasizes. It also casts doubt on the credentials of major figures, such as Montesquieu, who recognized the political and social utility of biblical religion but were not conventionally devout. Even among conservative Christian believers, there were and remain serious disputes about the relation between the Old and New Testaments and the status of “the Bible” in relation to other sources. Hazony, in short, is not only emphasizing the religious dimensions of conservatism, which are not particularly controversial. Developing arguments that appeared in his previous books, The Virtue of Nationalism and The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, Hazony proposes to reconstruct the whole conservative tradition around the narrative of biblical Israel, established by covenant and guided by a personal God to geographic and political fulfillment in its appointed land.
Hazony’s Biblical premise leads to an unusual genealogy. Edmund Burke plays the central role in Hazony’s conservative historiography, as he does for many other writers. But his major predecessors, in Hazony’s telling, include John Fortescue, the 15th century chief justice of England, Richard Hooker, the 16th century Anglican theologian, and John Selden, the 17th century scholar and jurist. The reason these figures are grouped together is to establish a coherent position—Hazony calls it a “paradigm”—that synthesized appeals to biblical narratives and sources with English common-law practices. Classical conservatism, on this telling, is no longer an offshoot of Catholic natural-law theories or feudal hierarchy, committed to a threatening unity of throne and altar. Instead, it is a biblically-inflected, philosemitic child of the Reformation that can be opposed both to medieval Christendom and to what Hazony calls Enlightenment rationalism.
This depiction highlights important differences between English conservatism and its continental rivals. But Hazony does not demonstrate that it was the either the primary or most distinctive influence on Burke. Burke does cite Selden among his authorities. For his part, though, John Locke cites the “judicious Hooker” as a precursor to his own defense of natural rights and limited government. There is continuing debate about how seriously those citations should be taken. But Hooker, Selden, and Fortescue were the common property of the broader Whig discourse in which both Locke and Burke participated. The sharp distinction between liberalism and conservatism that Hazony asserts is a backward projection from a subsequent period, when latent tensions within that tradition had been magnified to breaking point by the French Revolution.
The picture is even more confusing when it comes to America. Burke is largely out of the scene since he did not publish his most important works until after U.S. independence had been achieved and the Constitution ratified. In order to articulate a unitary Anglo-American conservatism, Hazony needs to show that the United States was founded on theoretical grounds similar to those that would subsequently inspire Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France.
When it comes to the independence movement itself, that’s a hard case to make. American patriots appealed to the old Whig sources, while biblical narratives of oppression and liberation also justified resistance to tyrannical government. But these ideas were blended, in ways that seem dubious under retrospective scrutiny, with Enlightenment philosophy, Roman republicanism, and localized concerns. Rather than rejecting history or religion in favor of abstract rationalism, the Declaration of Independence reflects those syncretic tendencies—and the Declaration was significantly amended by the Continental Congress, not simply dashed off by Thomas Jefferson in a blaze of theorizing. In fact, Jefferson famously described the text as an expression of “the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.” rather than an expression of his personal opinions.
Hazony rejects the Declaration but can’t quite ignore the role of natural rights and natural law in making the case for independence. His argument for the American aspect of Anglo-American conservatism therefore rests heavily on the Constitution of 1787. Hazony not only depicts the Constitution as a stabilizing reaction against the disorder unleashed by the revolution. He argues that it accomplished its task by restoring, sometimes under different names, the basic features of the British constitution.
It is a curious feature of this interpretation that it is derived less from the advocates of the Constitution than from their opponents. As Hazony notes, it was the anti-Federalists who insisted that the Constitution would set up a limited monarchy in republican drag. In effect, Hazony argues that the anti-Federalists were right in their analysis but wrong in their value judgment.
It is unquestionable that participants in the Philadelphia convention, particularly Alexander Hamilton, praised the British constitution and proposed to adapt some of its features to American circumstances. But Hazony acknowledges that these efforts were not wholly successful: the result of negotiations was a bargain between notions of more centralized and more disaggregated government, more expansive and more limited powers. To the extent that American conservatism centers on the defense of the Constitution, it must come to terms with these tradeoffs. Hazony’s preference for an uncompromised Constitution that was never proposed to the people, let alone ratified, is oddly reminiscent of progressives’ quest for a politically convenient Constitution lurking in the preferences of select Framers.
Some aspects of the constitutional compromise were familiar from colonial experience. Others reflected what Publius calls in Federalist 9 a “great improvement” in the science of politics. Among such improvements, Publius goes on to state, is the possibility of increasing the size and number of constituent units within a federal system. Hazony does not address this contrast to the centralizing aspects of the British constitution, and he barely mentions its principal theoretician, James Madison. Instead, he depicts the careful division of powers and weighting of representation among states as an exchange of “honors” between pre-political tribes—developing a biblical analogy that was used by some by political ministers, especially in New England, but sheds little light on the resulting institutional design.
Conservatism: A Rediscovery covers an enormous amount of ground in its few hundred pages, and some degree of simplification is unavoidable, as are differences of emphasis and interpretation with other writers. Although debatable in its details, Hazony’s depiction of the Federalist Party of the 1790s as a bulwark against Jeffersonian democrats at home and French-inspired revolutionaries abroad is not implausible. It is in this period, more than during the revolution or constitutional founding itself, that the possibility of a British-aligned American conservatism comes into focus.
It is striking, though, how little attention the book pays to the fate of the tendency in America after about 1800, while English ideas and figures disappear entirely. Hazony argues that genuine conservatism is based on “historical empiricism,” that is, careful attention to what has worked in the past as opposed to appeals to abstract principle. But the narrative of American history here essentially concludes with the ostensibly disastrous election of Jefferson, only to recommence with the rise of modern liberalism around the middle of the 20th century. The stopping point is curious because, while in office, Jefferson governed much more like one of Hazony’s Anglo-American conservatives than either his supporters or opponents had anticipated. Perhaps the disagreements among figures who were, after all, practical statesmen rather than political philosophers were not so great after all.
Jefferson’s relatively successful presidency is not the only event that falls into the great hiatus in Hazony’s account. Other developments include the Second Great Awakening, which emphasized personalist and voluntarist currents in tension with the stern biblicism Hazony prefers; the commencement of mass immigration, which made it harder to construct American national identity around Anglo-Protestant origins; Western expansion, which revitalized the myth of the state of nature even as it depended on massive government support; and the advent of mass suffrage and institutional parties, which undermined old traditions of hierarchy and deference. It’s not necessary for conservatives to approve of these developments. In the event, many bitterly opposed them. (Including Gouverneur Morris, who is presented here as a theorist of national unity but advocated that New England secede during the War of 1812.) Yet they happened—and in the process created a gap between us and the administrations of Washington and Adams that cannot be ignored.
Hazony does offer a brief excursus in matters of slavery. But here again complications arise. On the one hand, he characterizes Southern politics as fatally tainted by racism. At a later stage of the book, that characterization reappears in a criticism of Russell Kirk, whom Hazony regards as too deferential to regional and especially Southern customs and loyalties. On the other hand, Hazony attempts to distance Federalists from the sin of 1619, praising their general if not unanimous opposition to slavery. The implication is that a more conservative America would have eliminated the practice earlier and on customary grounds, as England, in fact, did. Rather than being a betrayal of the Jeffersonian legacy, slavery now features as its bitter fruit.
The matter is not so simple, though. It is true that many Federalists and their Whig Party successors opposed slavery, while Jeffersonian and Jacksonians Democrats tended to support it. Yet the favored solution in the former circles was the “colonization” of blacks in Africa, where they could enjoy their freedom at a safe distance. Anglo-American conservatism offered powerful reasons to oppose slavery—that was also among Burke’s causes. But it provided little support for what we would now call a multiracial society where blacks were any significant portion of the population. As Hazony admits, that goal was eventually justified on liberal grounds rather than through appeals to conservative religious nationalism.
The weakness of traditional arguments in dealing with the emerging American situation drove some erstwhile conservatives in a more Jeffersonian direction. By 1821, John Quincy Adams—who had translated Friedrich Gentz’s volume making a favorable comparison of the American to the French Revolution—was denying any integral connection between the American and British people and praising the Declaration as establishing the “only legitimate foundation of civil government.” These Jeffersonian themes became even more prominent after Adams’s presidency, when he became a leading figure in the anti-slavery movement. In the South, meanwhile, defenders of slavery increasingly backed away from Jeffersonian rhetoric that seemed incompatible with human bondage. Instead, they claimed the sanction of history and the Bible—the same sources that Hazony invokes as bulwarks of freedom.
No good idea is immune from bad use, and the emergence of Anglophile and neo-biblical justifications for slavery and another round of advocacy for secession does not mean they were destined to serve those purposes. Still, the crisis that led to the Civil War simply did not fit the model of opposition between empirical conservatism and rationalist liberalism that Hazony articulates. The attempt to present Lincoln as an “Anglo-American conservative” is particularly strained. Although not without his own contradictions, including support for colonization projects that he inherited from his hero Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln asserted the ideal of America as a propositional or creedal nation rather than a religious or ethno-cultural configuration more explicitly than any president before him—or after him, until at least World War I. Lincoln was not Burkean, and he would not have succeeded politically or militarily if he had been.
Hazony’s implication that the course of events since 1800 has been largely a succession of wrong turns raises the question of what, if anything, he likes about the really existing United States. Widespread appeals to general principle, a penchant for geographical movement, moral preference for self-reliance, and a voluntaristic approach to social affairs all seem inconsistent with the ideal of a stable, traditionally ordered society. That distance, which has been noted by observers of American life since the 19th century, is among the reasons that European conservatives, including English ones, have tended to be wary of American influences. Hazony particularly does not like the American conception of religious freedom that eclipsed older models of church-state relations within the first half-century of the republic, even though he acknowledges that it may have contributed to the relative vitality of religion in the United States compared to other Western countries. Instead, he echoes Burke in praising the established Church of England and suggests that the framers of the Constitution erred in not including an acknowledgment of God anywhere in the document. (Indeed, the Declaration is notably more concerned with political theology.)
To put the matter a different way: there is more to the American political tradition than Jefferson, more to Jefferson than the Declaration, and more to the Declaration than its familiar natural-rights paragraph. But to remove these things altogether leaves very little tradition behind. The amputation of Jefferson, after all, does not only carry away the Francophile radicals of the 1790s, whom few conservatives would want to retain. Among other excisions, it removes rhetoric and ideals that have always inspired populism and that play a central if not definitive role American conservatism to this day.
If conservatism is to be compelling, it should make some connection to living traditions and institutions, as well as seeking wisdom in old books. Although it contains a justified polemic against abstraction and universalism, Hazony’s conservatism is strangely isolated from the main currents of American life, especially since the second half of the 19th century. It is admirably honest that Hazony acknowledges not only that his brand of conservatism would be unlikely to attract support from a majority of Americans today but that it was not especially popular even at its peak of influence. The name Hazony selected for the magazine he helped found while an undergraduate, The Princeton Tory, evokes the problem.
Indeed, the culmination of Hazony’s autobiography, although he does not tell the story in quite this way, is his decision to move to Israel. There he could join a clearly defined national community jealously defending its autonomy in a religiously-infused (and increasingly Orthodox) public sphere. Despite his admiration for the Anglo-American past, the core of Hazony’s conservatism is a form of Zionism built around an interpretation of the Hebrew Bible as the primary guide to modern politics. He even quotes with apparent approval a private remark by Irving Kristol that only Christians should be able to vote in a Christian nation on the same principle that only Jews should be allowed to vote in Israel.
Hazony does not suggest that this principle can be applied directly to the United States, although he hints that it should be. Instead, he appeals to the same practices of federalism that he elsewhere depreciates. The book’s main practical argument is that state and local majorities should enjoy greater freedom to experiment with public religion and decentralized education than the Supreme Court has allowed since World War II. Yet conservatives and some libertarians have been making similar arguments for decades without distancing themselves from American history or ideals. It is hard to understand why a comprehensive renovation of the conservative archive of theory and history would be necessary to continue doing so.
The answer may be that Hazony has made little effort to understand the intellectual sources of the postwar conservative movement on their own terms. He admires Kirk but rejects his “sympathy with the South.” He presents a curious interpretation of Leo Strauss as an Enlightenment liberal that ignores the criticisms of liberalism, the Enlightenment, and modernity that defined Strauss’s scholarship. He dismisses Frank Meyer’s “rigid and dogmatic” defense of freedom but does not discuss his mature reflections on the dialectical and historical character of Western civilization. Only Friedrich Hayek comes off relatively well, praised as a theorist of historical empiricism but criticized for his insistence that virtually no considerations of expedience can justify violations of individuals’ freedom.
My point is not that these figures were right and Hazony is wrong. Rather, it is that his refusal to acknowledge that the American conservative tradition is broad and contentious leads, ironically, to another form of dogmatism. Despite his rhetorical emphasis on contingency, experience, and variety, his effort at defining conservatism yields much the same thing he criticizes in his predecessors: a list of articles of faith.
I would not mention the personal circumstances that produced this book if Hazony did not introduce them himself. But it is hard to resist the feeling that there is something odd about Americans, whether Christians or Jews, taking lessons from a writer who decided that America is not only the wrong place for him and his posterity but has also been on the wrong track for the majority of its past. The result here is difficult to reconcile with Hazony’s own defense of nationalism, which insists that different countries have different histories, resources, and needs, which cannot be reduced to broad ideological categories. Conservatism: A Rediscovery is a contribution to the rediscovery of certain forgotten American resources and prospects, but the search cannot stop there.
Samuel Goldman is the executive director of the John L. Loeb, Jr. Institute for Religious Freedom and director of the Politics & Values Program at the George Washington University. His latest book is After Nationalism: Being American in an Age of Division.
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