Some of you may know that I am still scribbling in my spare time (such as it is) on what may someday be a book length treatment of late 19th Century prairie populism and our current political predicament. 

(Word to the wise: anyone who harbors ambitions of writing anything worthwhile in your “spare time” … you are either delusional, you use the phrase “spare time” as a euphemism for “I have no life,” or you have a stubborn streak of idiocy–that is to say, you persist in the idiotic notion that telling the world what you think is in any sense a worthwhile activity.  I diagnose myself with the latter, but the matter could be put up for debate.)

Anyway, I have been refining a particular thesis designed specifically to accommodate one goal (see below) but which has the potential to bear fruit along a number of lines of inquiry, and I thought I’d put it to the Porch for some well deserved criticism and mockery which may result in a few valuable refinements here and there. 

I posit that there exists in the structure of our particular republic the necessity for a certain kind of struggle which leads to that uniquely American form of civic dignity which in turn produces that particular sensation of freedom which is so elusive and evades articulation through the established symbols of American political rhetoric.

This thesis has the benefit, or at least it is intended to provide the benefit, of describing a coherent and understandable affinity between and among my favorite American thinkers, writers, and statesmen–a thumb-nail sketch of whom would include: Jefferson, Whitman, Thoreau, early prairie populists, the southern agrarians, Taft, Rothbard, Lasch, Reagan, Abbey, and Berry.

If true, or even if helpful but false, the thesis produces the following possibly fruitful lines of inquiry:

1) How much of America’s shared angst and sense of being “hemmed in” (whether by the state, by traditional morals, by the conspiracy of the powerful, or whatever) arises from the relative success of government at eliminating legitimate arenas of struggle?

2) To what extent are substitute forms of conflict adopted in order to compensate for these lost arenas of struggle in order to maintain some sense of civic dignity?  (i.e., foreign wars, progressively destructive “civil rights,” rapacious and destructive acquisitiveness, etc.)

3) Is there a set of alternative symbols available in the repository of American political rhetoric that is sufficient to re-engender through struggle the particular under-articulated American sensation of freedom?

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. Cripes its about time dammit. This breads got a nice thick crust. I’ll chew and get back to you. Ehh, yeasty too.

  2. Mr. Stegall,
    I have the honor of being the first to state the obvious – the symbolism of our struggle with the land to wring from it our subsistence on an individual/family/community scale provides the necessary rhetorical construct needed to re-establish a sensation of freedom.

  3. Whoa–Caleb, your ambitions are much broader than I would have guessed! You are developing a thesis as challenging and as serious as any in the discipline of political philosophy. As D.W. says, this is going to take some real thought. (In the meantime though–I’d love to read whatever you have written, however incomplete it may be!)

  4. I was at a dissertation defense this afternoon where the discussion turned to how the striving necessary to virtue is comparable to the striving of the yeoman farmer earning his living on the land. Your thesis is of considerable interest, and I applaud you for working on it. The work of Willmoore Kendall on American political symbols might also be of interest to you for this effort. I must add that the young man passed, and I think he has a fine future ahead of him in political philosophy and scholarship.

  5. Well, it strikes me as singularly Voegelinian in nature and you are well qualified to present the argument in his terms. I look forward to the end result.

  6. Much to this, methinks.

    On one hand, there’s the universal aspect: that the poor, and presumably war and many other human curses, “you will always have with you.” The man of sorrows said that.

    The man of the Globe had some lowly servant characters of his say (Coriolanus, IV, 5) the following:

    2nd servant: This peace is good for nothing but to rust iron, increase tailors, and breed ballad-makers.

    1st servant: Let me have war, say I; it exceeds peace as far as day does night; it’s spritely, waking, audible, and full of vent. Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy; mulled, deaf, sleepy, insensible; a getter of more bastard children than wars a destroyer of men. …[peace] makes men hate one another.

    3rd servant: Reason; because they then less need one another. The wars for my money.

    Now a thousand 19th and 20th-century sophisticates spoke of the need for a “moral equivalent to war,” but with less honest verve than these creatures of the Bard. Not that I want war.

    My third and last universal witness, Mr. Pomocon himself, Peter Augustine Lawler: “The world still sucks, thank God!” I.e., the continuing arrival of challenges make opportunity for the active expression of liberty and heroism.

    Now as to the AMERICAN aspect to this, you’ve got a people protected by two oceans, blessed somehow by a Constitutional convention that actually pulled off the feat of republican liberty (an experiment too “ticklish” to try regularly, said Madison), and so once past the War and the (overblown by moral-equivalent-of-war types) closing of the frontier, you’ve got an unprecedentedly stable and successful society. But that could really suck! People (i.e., upper and middle class people) need a challenge! Many of the progressives say this in various ways: Jane Addams fairly sensibly (see her selection in the Atto and Pestritto Progressives Reader), and others rather nuttily. Unprecedented success brings with it unprecedented responsibility for even more unprecedented successes! To celebrate, to revere, to exhibit gratitude, is to invite complacent decadence.

    To see where the nuttiness merges with the seriously theoretical, no-one is better than Herbert Croly in Progressive Democracy. Early on in that book he insists that the American Revolution involved a heavy moral element, that is, a salvific belief, humanly understood, in what liberty would bring. A Republican City on A Hill. And that meant that reverence for the founding/constitution, and relative satisfaction with what had been accomplished by America, circa 1890-1910, perhaps also coupled with prudent worry about what more could be accomplished, was thoroughly opposed to the deep spirit of American democracy. The true Patriot had to be Progressive, had to find sucessive tyrants to struggle against. Love of the homeland had just been an excuse for struggle. Struggle, the life-blood of American democracy, had to continue. And unlike, say, the America of 1992 or 2008, there were still plenty of overtly unfair features of American life to struggle against in 1912.

    None of this is to put this all at the feet of Progressives. I know for many of you Iraq is exhibit A of a “conservative” crusade-longing(not for me–that is, for me it was about signficantly more than just that). I accept the idea that a part of many a conservatives’ soul really needed the Islamists, and now needs the spectre of Obama-socialism, to fill the gap left by the Reds of yesteryear.

    Hope this helps, Caleb, but I seem to hear you referring back more to the need for struggle at the local level–the sort of thing academics love to call ‘agonistic.’ Achilles is the best warrior of Greece, York is the best shot in Tenessee, and John Adams is the best lawyer in Boston. But I’m not sure you mean this, because agonistic competition often seems to have a more friendly aspect to it.

    I.e., you seem to be after the classic crusading spirit on one hand, and trying to articulate both legitimate arenas for struggle and legitimate objects of that struggle on the other.

    Oh, and James Ceaser’s stuff on Martin Van Buren rejecting the non-partisan era of good feelings might fit with what you’re after vis-a-vis the structure involved.

    P.S. Caleb, thanks for structuring my nearly “worthless activity” of “telling the world what I think” in a way that makes me feel dignified. Is that the feeling that keeps us coming back to this pixel-ated Porch? I’m serious…

  7. Mr. Stegall,

    I’m not sure if this is what you need, but I think the following comment is related to the general idea of conflict behind your thesis, though not to America in particular:

    “The contradiction undermining the modern world is the antagonism between the military virtues, which all life needs, and the state of technology today, which turns the exercise of military virtue into a catastrophe. Without the military virtues, society decays; with the military virtues, society commits suicide.”

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