Hillsdale, Mich. Jack Rakove reviews Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left (finder’s fee to John Fea) and can’t figure out why some Americans like Burke:

Levin also argues that, in particular, the intellectual struggle between Burke and Paine lies behind our current political divisions. There is no question which of these authors Levin finds more attractive. The very way in which he poses the question reveals his answer. “Should our society be made to answer to the demands of stark and abstract commitments to ideals like social equality,” he asks, “or to the patterns of its own concrete political traditions and foundations?” Given that choice, who but deranged liberals could possibly prefer an abstract commitment over our communal experience?

The problem with this formulation is that the struggle for equality of all kinds has always been a defining commitment of American political life. And there is nothing “stark and abstract” about why that has been the case. Why Burke, a figure embedded in the aristocratic privilege of 18th-century Britain, would capture our “political traditions” better than Paine is a mystery, even an absurdity, that Levin never resolves.

No doubt Paine — that hard-drinking lapsed Quaker, a corset-maker’s son — is guilty of all kinds of rhetorical excesses and naive enthusiasms for a better world. Yet a true American Burkean might better ask why Paine still appeals to Americans across the political spectrum, from the libertarian right to the radical left, and why his notions of equality resonate so deeply in our politics, even in the age of the Koch brothers.

This may be above the pay grade of a lowly U.S. historian, but when I teach early national history, pay any attention to the Constitution or restrictions on suffrage, I don’t see equality as the “defining” commitment of American political life. It may eventually become so by the Progressive Era. But that commitment is so capacious and vague that egalitarian Americans love the hierarchy (even downstairs) of Downton Abbey and rise at ungodly hours to watch royal weddings. In fact, if Rakove looked hard enough, he might see a commitment to equality as downright sappy. Would he really argue that Fresno State is equal to Stanford? Would he relinquish perks to make it so?


  1. He said, “… the struggle for equality has been A defining commitment of American political life.” Not, “THE defining commitment…” (my emphasis)

    Though realizing it has been fitful and painful, from the Declaration of Independence onward, equal rights for all has been an ideal guiding our history, our “progress”, if you will. As in: these truths being “self evident” and “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

    It seems when we say equality, it is an abbreviation for meaning: the innate desire for equal rights, opportunity and dignity — which is different than all of us acutually BEING equal.

    I imagine Downton Abbey is popular as much for the delight we take in the landed gentry’s misfortunes and obsolesence, as in fascination with it’s opulence and privilege. We can ‘t all be “To The Manor Born”, so we take some satisfaction in seeing it is often frivilious and burdensome. The whole thing is, in part, about evolving away from that privilege by birthright.

  2. Those are good points, Ed.
    My dim, paradoxical understanding is that what Paine is made to represent is a long arc that started with and ends in Christianity. It seems to me the ideal is best realized in a utopian Christian community, and in fact only makes sense to me in that context. It could be the ideal of other religious belief systems – it is not my intention to exclude them, it’s just that I’m not particularly familiar with them, so do not know. Anyway, as important as Paine is I’d say the better exemplar is the Rev. Martin Luther King and something such as his Letter from Birmingham Jail. Which also means I do not agree with the argument “… that, in particular, the intellectual struggle between Burke and Paine lies behind our current political divisions.”. Reverend King had such a profound impact on our political discourse that I don’t think it makes sense to look past him to Paine. And putting that aside, the differences between Paine and Burke pale next to the divisions caused by money, greed and folly.

    To me Burke more or less accurately presages the idea of complexity; that humans are irreducibly complex and our systems and cultures will respond to change in an unpredictable way. It’s simply the nature of a non-linear system. Burke did not know of complexity, but he did recognize a complex system.

    So I’d say that notions of equality strongly persist because of our long exposure to Christianity and that the question “Why Burke, a figure embedded in the aristocratic privilege of 18th-century Britain, would capture our “political traditions” better than Paine is…” hardly “…a mystery…” to anyone who has been exposed to complexity or chaos theory. My two cents.

  3. Thanks, Dave.

    The assumption that Burke “would capture our political traditions better than Paine…” is debatable. Were it not for Paine’s writings (primarily ‘Common Sense’ and ‘The American Crisis’) and his initiation and participation with Ben Franklin in a delegation to France seeking silver to help fund the Revolutionary War, the revolution may not have occurred. As John Adams said, “Without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain.”

    I mostly agree with you that ” the differences between Paine and Burke pale next to the divisions caused by money, greed and folly.” Though on these topics I would say Paine — with his belief in Equal Rights, early and vehement public objections to slavery, and position that those without property should have voting rights — would be in strong contrast with Burke. Burke was a subtle thinker and powerful writer, but underneath his eloquence I find a stronger desire for “order” than for “justice”. There seems to be a notion floating around FPR that Order is experienced reality and that Justice is an abstraction. I imagine (though I have no proof) that most who hold this view have not “experienced” Justice denied in a profound way, thus for them it is an abstraction. (Maybe most are privileged, not yet dead, white guys, like myself.)

    Paine’s religious beliefs were Deist. Though Judeo-Christian values permeated his world, he came to question the authority of religious institutions (tolerating them but dismayed at their hypocrisies), preferring to seek truth from the Bible and other sacred texts, Nature and experience. Many of the founders were also Deists or a personal hybrid of Deist/Christian, including Washington, Franklin… and Jefferson, who wrote scathingly (in personal letters) about Christianity:

    “The danger is that the cruel arts of their oppressors have enchained their minds, have kept them in the ignorance of children, as incapable of self-government as children. If the obstacles of bigotry and priestcraft can be surmounted, we may hope that common sense will suffice to do everything else.”

    “They [preachers] dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of 
    daylight and scowl on the fatal harbinger announcing the subversions of the 
    duperies on which they live.” 

    “The Christian priesthood, finding the doctrines of Christ levelled to every understanding and too plain to need explanation, saw, in the mysticisms of Plato, materials with which they might build up an artificial system which might, from its indistinctness, admit everlasting controversy, give employment for their order, and introduce it to profit, power and pre-eminence. The doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus himself are within the comprehension of a child; but thousands of volumes have not yet explained the Platonisms engrafted on them: and for this obvious reason that nonsense can never be explained.”
    — Thomas Jefferson in a letter to John Adams

    Their public manifestation of these perspectives was placed in the First Amendment to the Constitution and the strong demarcation between church and state. Later, Lincoln also identified with Paine’s writings. In this way, too, Paine influenced (if not captured) political traditions in ways that may not be so obvious.  

    Perhaps, the thread through all of this is that our traditions are complex, as our nation’s history is complex, and that it may be wise for the innate human need for Order to be judiciously balanced with the innate human need for Justice. There seem to be times when one or the other comes to the fore, but rarely do they dance gracefully together. Unfortunately, as Dr. King said, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed”. On this I suspect Burke, Paine, George Washington and Lincoln would all agree — though in some instances, Paine’s and King’s “oppressor” may be Burke’s privileged God-bestowed custodian of order.

    Fortunately, as we know, in the US and the UK, women, citizens without white skin and without property can now vote (though Republicans hack away); and the monarchy in Britain remains, with most Brits liking this continuity and order — though the queen does not rule, save at ribbon cuttings.

  4. Thanks, Ed. Well written again.
    In the context of the book it’s a neat concept, reviving Burke and Paine. And I do not dispute the importance of Paine, nor the fact that most of the founders were deists. But for the book – well, it’s flattery to say that our divisions are based upon something as substantial and informed as the debate between Paine and Burke, and to imagine that we are wearing our Rights of Man or Reflections t-shirts to rallies. We aren’t. But more than that, I think the idea of rights has been transformed to a degree that it makes sense to use more contemporary writers. But then even more than that it’s creating an oversimplified dichotomy. I think the thread here is that it is complex. We are all over the place, even on something as self-selecting as this website. We fall into two camps not because we generally fall in to one of two political philosophies but because we are forced to conform to one of two identities at every election. It’s an ill-fitting suit, for the most part. So many folks I know routinely hold their nose when they vote in national elections. And to me that is the big story that needs to be explained. Why the divergence? Money? Scale? What?

    That being said, in the context of equality generally, I know it’s a paradoxical stand but I do think that the most liberal ideals only make sense in the context of a religious society. Or will only work in that context. Otherwise, what operates is something more like a will to power. Yes, a part of the founders’ self-understanding (self-definition?) was their sense of contrast to the established religious orders. And that works generally, to say in part what I am is not that other. But I would say this also implicitly acknowledges that one’s identity is rooted in the context of the other. So, if I misapply Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development here I get this: their ideals of what’s best could only come out the ideals that had developed in Christian Europe over the previous several hundred years. Then the question for me is, is it possible to extract some concept such as liberty or fraternity and place it in a new environment and see it thrive? They obviously thought this was not only possible but necessary, and as you say, to such a degree that they encoded it into the founding documents. But I am not so sure.

    What is the meaning of self-sacrifice, anyway? How do we interpret that? If we are talking about equality, I think we first have to understand altruism/martyrdom. Even what we call it betrays our general inclinations towards power and cooperation.

    And I am definitely nearing the limits of my ability to reckon, so I’m stopping right here and going back to my chores. Thanks.

  5. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” said the man (Theodore Parker) who supported and financed a violent attack, ostensibly against slavery, in which one of the first men murdered was a free black man. I guess the quote is apropos, since it demonstrates the problem with “abstract commitments to ideals.” Sometimes one is so committed to his ideals, he is willing to commit terrible wrongs in reality in pursuit of abstract ideals.
    Heyward Shepherd was just a bump in the road on the way to social justice.

  6. John,

    Do you think the 4,000,000 freed slaves (and descendants, of which there are 40 million today) experienced/experience this comittment as abstract or concrete?

  7. Hello, Dave.

    Thanks, I’m grateful for the opportunity to discuss this stuff.

    Will you say more about your “paradoxical stand” with regards to liberal ideals only working in the context of a religious society? It seems to imply that altruism only happens as a result of religion. Work in Evolutionary Biology, particularily in The Evolution of Cooperation, seems to imply we humans will always be prone to construct an ethical system with altruism as a central value. Selfisness may benefit us in the short term, but cooperation benefits us over time.

  8. “Selfisness may benefit us in the short term, but cooperation benefits us over time.”

    Australopithecus knew this how?

    And whence comes the standard by which to judge what is selfish and what is altruistic?

  9. Ed,
    I’m sure it is very concrete for them.
    The hundred and four year history of race relations between 1861-1965 demonstrates amply, to my mind, the failure of the path the US chose.
    I would just argue that the US could have done much better, but the “Abstractionists” would not hear of it.

  10. Trying to say who is better, Paine or Burke is a rather farcical thing to do. They both gave voice to ideas that , combined in their time forced the final resolution on the backs of a lot of dead men and woman. The dead of any revolution are the most eloquent, if unfortunate statement of fact.

    The tendency of the current generation to forget the sacrifices of their forbears, and the encroachments upon their civil rights is remarkable. But then, these are rights the current generation is essentially oblivious of under the rubric of security.

  11. Ed, First off, I would say, let the Deep South go in 1860-61. It would have been the constitutional, democratic and genuinely anti-slavery thing to have done. Wherever the CSA-USA boundary ended up, a slave that escaped across it would have been free.
    Delegate Waitman Willey, in the Virginia Convention of 1861 put it this way: “Will it (secession) not, sir, make a hostile border for Virginia, and enable slaves to escape more rapidly because more securely? Will it not, virtually, bring Canada to our doors? The slave will soon be apprized of this. His motive to escape will be increased. He will know that when he reaches the line he will be safe; and escape he will.”
    Mr. Summers also of the Virginia Convention opposed secession because it would undermine slavery in Virginia: “we are to become, to use a homely phrase, the outside row in the corn field. We are to protect slave property in States south of us, but to lose our own. So far from secession rendering the institution of slavery more secure in Virginia, it will be the potent cause of insecurity.”
    Note that both men were opposing secession by arguing that secession would undermine and weaken slavery, a pro-slavery, anti-secession argument.

  12. Thanks Ed. I’m not going too far into the woods here – really, folks who follow me around regret it after a pretty short time. So, forewarned. I do not mean altruism only arises in religious groups. Let’s start over this way: Robert Putnam describes two types of social capital, bonding and bridging. I think any sort of latent or biological altruism is only going to be operational in bonding social groups, which, Putnam said, is what existed there in Beirut and Belfast. There was no bridging social capital. (The gaps in his examples are both religious and social. That religion can bridge groups does not mean it does not also operate as a divider.)

    Our society is very complex and it happens all the time that individuals contemplate ethical systems and come to some rational decision about cooperation and when we meet them we say well they are nice we should invite them over to dinner sometime; it is also true that we don’t teach ethical systems outside of philosophy and cultural anthropology, which is to say we only learn at a distance, objects of contemplation not agency.

    Which means to me as we move through time our bridging social capital will generally decrease and society will cease to function. In order to maintain bridging social capital we need to either teach citizenry and ethics or, as in the case of the founders, be able to take for granted the secondary associations of the citizenry. A liberal, postmodern ethics does not, in my opinion, exist to be taught, outside of if you do X you will be arrested. (Wilson was posting a triptych on the Universality of the Church and Localism. That’s him grappling, in my opinion, in part with the question of how religion can serve both types of social capital. The question of the universal and the local comes up in several disguises on this site. I don’t know if he ever posted the third one. I miss things.) Anyway, religion is something that both contains a hard-wired ethical system and can bridge diverse groups; further, if it does divide socially it can still operate in an individual as a brake or goad.

    Which brings me to a second overlook: Generally, I think there is a difference at a personal psychological level between acting out of obligation versus acting from prerogative, i.e., Reiff’s VIA. We have a religious obligation or we have an ethical prerogative. One of these can be superglue, one, not so much.

    Moving on, a theoretical liberal society becomes ever more diverse and atomized and at the same time loses bridging social capital, and therefore loses the ability to confront and solve any sort of complex and divisive issue. In a complex society there are not many simple issues. So that’s it, all that writing and we’re in a briar patch.

    I fear I’m not doing too good of a job explaining myself here, and further I’m trespassing on the lands of the bishop, so I will stop and press on with the daily round. It’s interesting for me to think about, but ultimately I think we are left with something that’s experiential. Let’s see – take Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence, and one thing to think about is how this works out operationally if a majority are internalizing Caussade versus…-is it Pinker who just published something on ethics? Yes, Pinker. It’s not a simple thing, one way or the other.

    Putnam wrote Bowling Alone and more recently co-authored Better Together. There’s a website – let’s see:
    You won’t find my riff there. Thanks again.

  13. Jonathan,

    Are you saying that allowing for legal slavery would eventually have lead to the voluntary ending of slavery, when the economy and traditions of the south were built upon it? (If so, how?)
    Or, are you saying that, today, there would still be slavery in the deep south? (Is this what some mean when they use the word “localism”?)

    In either scenario, would it have lead to “better” race relations?

  14. Ed, I’ll try not be a little more explicit.

    Assume peaceful secession of the Deep South, which would have been, as I stated earlier, the moral, democratic and constitutional policy for the Federal government to adopt in 1861. Assume further that the US did not enter into a treaty with the Confederate States for the extradition of fugitive Confederate slaves (such a treaty would seem unlikely in a US that consisted of twenty non-slave and eight slave states).
    Given these two assumptions, any Confederate slaves (say, for the case of argument Alabama slaves) escaping into the US (say, into Tennessee) would be free. Slaveowning in Jackson, Madison, Limestone and Lauderdale Counties Alabama would quickly drop to zero as slaves in those counties would avail themselves of their proximity to freedom and run off, and slaveholders would manumit, or “sell south,” the remaining slaves. Next, slaveholding in Colbert, Laurence, Morgan, Marshall & Dekalb Counties would experience similar pressures. Eventually, there would be no “south” to sell slaves to. And who would be to blame for the demise of slavery? Secessionists that brought this state of affairs into being.

  15. Jonathan,

    Thanks for your explicitness. Fascinating.

    However, I find your assumptions to be unlikely and your orderly attrition to be even more so. By my very scientific calculations, I reckon slavery would still exist in the nether regions of Texas and Florida, from which we all would benefit from with cheaper citrus and tourist destinations during the cold months.

    More likely seems to me, a moat or wall — how’s the ‘Yankee-Dixie Wall’ sound? — built with slave labor, akin to having someone dig their own grave before whipping them to death… or perhaps near death, because unfettered market forces (and liberty) would dictate they wouldn’t want to kill their investment.

  16. Which assumption is unlikely? The Union allowing peaceful secession. That is the question at hand. If you do not agree to accept this assumption, what are we discussing?
    By disagreeing with the second assumption, you are, in effect, arguing that the United States, with a Republican controlled Senate and, after 4 Match 1861, a Republican in the White House would negotiate and sign a treaty with the Confederate States to return escaped Confederate slaves to their Confederate slaveowners. That argument, my friend, is somewhere between ludicrous and insane.
    As for the wall, which polity would build it and on which side of the border?
    Who would pay for a moat or wall 800 miles long? Would it be guarded? If so, then who would pay for the guards?
    Finally, are you arguing that, in the event of the Federal authorities accepting peaceful secession in 1861, that slavery would exist in 2013?

  17. “This may be above the pay grade of a lowly U.S. historian, but when I teach early national history, pay any attention to the Constitution or restrictions on suffrage, I don’t see equality as the “defining” commitment of American political life.”

    It is the defining commitment in the sense that it was the defining justification for the colonists starting a violent insurrection, demanding independence from Britain and starting their own country. It was the rhetoric that motivated revolution and has been the ideological justification for American society ever since. Of course, the commitment to such ideals, like most political rhetoric and propaganda, has been less manifest in practice.

    The point is that American politicians have had to use such language in arguing for why they should have power. In the good old days, the aristocracy didn’t even need to pretend to believe in such ideals.

    “But that commitment is so capacious and vague that egalitarian Americans love the hierarchy (even downstairs) of Downton Abbey and rise at ungodly hours to watch royal weddings.”

    Being fascinated about people with power and wealth is just normal human interest. Even hardcore communists in communist countries will be interested in those who hold or control the power and wealth in society. Also, part of our fascination with such things as royal weddings is that it is a remnant of a bygone era, sort of like going to see an animal at the zoo that is extinct in the wild.

    “Would he really argue that Fresno State is equal to Stanford? Would he relinquish perks to make it so?”

    For most Americans, the ideal of equality has been about opportunity, not results. But in practice, we fail on both accounts and fail horribly. Still, it is the ideal we strive for or like to think we strive for. It’s the justification for our entire society, anyway. Its our belief system, as much the foundation of Social Darwinian meritocracy as progressive egalitarianism.

  18. Thanks, Dave.

    As always, you cooked up some good food for thought. I apologize for not responding sooner… I chew slowly, and then there is the digesting.

    I’m familiar with Putnam as I heard him speak 15 years ago, though I’ve not immersed myself in his writings. I have friends who on a community level attempt to encourage both sorts of social capital as a result of his observations.

    There is so much to respond to, and as I attempt to balance my activity in our local community with this, relatively, more “global” one, I have yet to find the time to adequately respond, but I will.

    Thanks, again.

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