Dr. John J. Ray, writing at Dissecting Leftism, enraged some Americans with two recent posts about America and leftism. I’m grateful to Dr. Ray for publishing, in a subsequent post, a message that I sent to him about the two posts in question. Herein, I elaborate on the points that I made in my message to Dr. Ray.
In “America Has Always Been Leftist,” Dr. Ray asserts the following:
As most Americans learn around the time of Thanksgiving, America was founded by fanatical communists. They forbad [sic] private ownership of land and insisted that all produce be shared communally. If that’s not communism, nothing is. They were such fanatics that a third of them had to starve to death before they decided that communism wasn’t such a good idea and went back to the way things had always been done in stodgy old England.
So what should we expect of a nation dominated by the descendants of fanatical communists? What we should expect is exactly what we actually got, I submit.
But before I get to that, let me ensure complete clarity about what the core of Leftism is. The content of Leftism changes from time to time. Before WWII, Leftists world wide were energetic champions of eugenics, for instance. Leftists now abhor it. So what is constant in Leftism? Anger. Leftists in all eras are so dissatisfied with the society in which they live that they want sweeping changes to it. And they thirst for power to achieve that. That is Leftism.
Pace Dr. Ray, it is well known that the “fanatical communists” of Plymouth Colony quickly abandoned their experiment in communism; for example, Jerry Bowyer writes:
…America was founded by socialists who had the humility to learn from their initial mistakes and embrace freedom.
One of the earliest and arguably most historically significant North American colonies was Plymouth Colony, founded in 1620 in what is now known as Plymouth, Massachusetts. As I’ve outlined in greater detail here before (Lessons From a Capitalist Thanksgiving), the original colony had written into its charter a system of communal property and labor.
As William Bradford recorded in his Of Plymouth Plantation, a people who had formerly been known for their virtue and hard work became lazy and unproductive. Resources were squandered, vegetables were allowed to rot on the ground and mass starvation was the result. And where there is starvation, there is plague. After 2 1/2 years, the leaders of the colony decided to abandon their socialist mandate and create a system which honored private property. The colony survived and thrived and the abundance which resulted was what was celebrated at that iconic Thanksgiving feast….
It is, moreover, an exaggeration to say that America is “a nation dominated by the descendants of fanatical communists.” First, as I’ve just pointed out, the inhabitants of Plymouth Colony were hardly fanatical. If they had been, they would have chosen the sure impoverishment (and probable death) of communism over the relative prosperity (and liberty) that came their way when they abandoned their infatuation with communism.
Second, only a small minority of today’s Americans — even of today’s white Americans — can count themselves as “full blooded” descendants of the inhabitants of Plymouth Colony or other early settlers might also have harbored socialistic delusions. There have been too many immigrants from continental Europe and too much “miscegenation” for that to be true.
Third, and fundamentally, it is meaningless to generalize about “Americans,” as I’ve explained at length here. There are and have been individual Americans of many political persuasions, most of them confused and contradictory.
That said, I do agree, generally, with Dr. Ray’s characterization of the motivations underlying the War of Independence. In his next post, “Has America Always Been Leftist?,” Dr. Ray says this:
I did learn something very important from [the critics of "America Has Always Been Leftist"]. It was vividly brought home to me how impressive fine words are to most people. When even patriotic American conservatives can be taken in by them, it shows why Leftists have so much influence. Leftists are nothing but fine words. To me fine words are only provisionally important. They have to be backed up by deeds and it is the deeds that matter.
An excellent example of how fine words impress even conservatives is the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. It is full of fine words and noble sentiments. Most political documents are. Stalin’s Soviet constitution also was a high-minded document proclaiming all sorts of rights for Soviet citizens — rights which were denied in fact.
So once you look past the grand generalizations of the Declaration’s introduction and get to the nitty gritty of what the Yankee grandees really wanted fixed, you see that it is very mundane, if not ignoble. What was really bothering them was restrictions on their powers to legislate. They wanted more laws, not less! Very Leftist.
And from THAT starting point you can see why the war was fought and for whose benefit. The grandees concerned had a lot of influence and were good at fine talk so they could muster an army — and they did. And who benefited from the war? Was it the poor farmers and tradesmen who died as foot-soldiers in it? No way! It was the grandees who started the war. They emerged with exactly what they wanted: More power.
I am sorry if that account sounds offensive to people who still believe the original propaganda, but if you ignore the fancy talk and just look at the facts, that is what happened.
Dr. Ray’s sweeping use of “Leftist” aside, his main point is well taken. I made a similar observation in response to a post by Timothy Sandefur, who was then guest-blogging at The Volokh Conspiracy. Sandefur, writing about his book The Conscience of the Constitution, asserted that “The American founders held that people are inherently free—that is, no person has a basic entitlement to dictate how other people may lead their lives.” I responded:
Did they, really? All of them, including the slave owners? Or did they simply want to relocate the seat of power from London to the various State capitals, where local preferences (including anti-libertarian ones) could prevail? Wasn’t that what the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation were all about? The Constitution simply moved some of the power toward the national capital, mainly for the conduct of foreign policy and trade. Despite that, the Constitution was a “States’ rights” document, and remained that way until the ratification of Amendment XIV, from which much anti-libertarian mischief has emanated.
In response to Sandefur’s next post, I wrote:
Why can’t you [Sandefur] just admit that the Declaration of Independence was a p.r. piece, penned (in the main) by a slave-owner and subscribed to by various and sundry elites who (understandably) resented their treatment at the hands of a far-away sovereign and Parliament? You’re trying to make more of the Declaration — laudable as its sentiments are — than should be made of it….
In sum, the War of Independence isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.
And there’s no doubt that liberty suffered in the long run as a result of the North’s victory in the Civil War. I return to Dr. Ray’s “America Has Always Been Leftist,” where he says this:
“Only” half a million men died [in the Civil War]. And for what? EVERY other country on earth abolished slavery without the need for a war. Does that not tell us something? It should. In his famous letter to Horace Greeley [link added], Lincoln himself admitted that slavery was not the main issue. The issue was the dominance of central government. V.I. Lenin call your office. Lincoln didn’t call it “dominance of central government”, of course. He called it “the union” but the result is the same.
And just about everything Lincoln did was without a shred of constitional justification and in fact breached the constitution. Hitler at least had the grace to get an “enabling act” passed by the German parliament. Lincoln just marched on regardless. He destroyed the liberty of the press (there goes your first amendment) and locked up thousands of war opponents (there goes your 4th amendment). But most centrally, Lincoln’s whole enterprise was a defiance of the basic American constitutional dispensation that the states are sovereign, not the federal government. Lincoln turned that on its head. The feds now became the main source of power and authority. There is no doubt that Lincoln talked a good talk. He even used to persuade me once. But his deeds reek of Fascism.
A good example of the large gap between his deeds and words is that masterpiece of propaganda, the Gettysburg address. Goebbels admired it for good reason. In case anybody hasn’t noticed, Lincoln claimed that his war was to ensure “government of the people, by the people, for the people” — which was exactly what he had just denied to the South! Only Yankees are people, apparently. Hitler thought certain groups weren’t people too.
Overwrought? Perhaps, but if Lincoln wasn’t a left-statist, he at least set an example for extra-constitutional activism that inspired Theodore Roosevelt’s hyper-activism (e.g., see this and this). TR, of course, set an example that was followed and enlarged upon by most of his successors, unto the present day.
Another anti-libertarian legacy of the Civil War is the false belief that it “proved” the unconstitutionality of secession. Balderdash! Secession is legal, Justice Scalia’s dictum to the contrary notwithstanding. (See this, this, and this, for example.) And the ever-present threat of secession might have helped to keep the central government from overstepping its constitutional bounds.
I must conclude, however, that the American Revolution and Civil War have little to do with “left” (or “right”) and much to do with human venality and power-lust, which are found in persons of all political persuasions.
The genius of the Constitution was that it provided mechanisms for curbing the anti-libertarian effects of venality and power-lust. The tragedy of the Constitution is that those mechanisms have been destroyed. If Dr. Ray were to say that Americans have gradually lost their liberty through successive and cumulative violations of the Constitution, I would agree with him
And if Dr. Ray were to say that Americans have become the captives of a leftist state, and are likely to remain so, I would agree with him.
* * *
FDR and Fascism
The Modern Presidency: A Tour of American History
An FDR Reader
The People’s Romance
The Near-Victory of Communism
A Declaration of Independence
The Constitution: Original Meaning, Corruption, and Restoration
I Want My Country Back
Our Enemy, the State
The Left’s Agenda
The Meaning of Liberty
The Southern Secession Reconsidered
The Left and Its Delusions
A Declaration and Defense of My Prejudices about Governance
Society and the State
Why Conservatism Works
Liberty and Society
Tolerance on the Left
The Eclipse of “Old America”
A Contrarian View of Universal Suffrage
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Conservatism as Right-Minarchism
“We the People” and Big Government
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)
How Libertarians Ought to Think about the Constitution
Romanticizing the State
Libertarianism and the State