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Beyond the social compact: Origins, vows, and the foundation of America

Posted by nouspraktikon on December 23, 2018

In search of an origin

There are certain schools of anthropology which seek out the origins of society in a “social compact” i.e., a primitive getting together of all humanity where the individuals comprising the species said something like, “We are tired of living in fear of one another, let’s invent an institution called civilization.  We will have laws, courts, good manners, and some method of dispute resolution superior to bludgeoning one another into compliance.”  Of course such a “primal scene” (as they call it) is a myth.

At least, it is a myth if we lump together the human species and try to assign an origin to “society” in general.  However it may not be a myth if we are willing to limit the concept of the “social compact” to the origins of nations.  Do we not have have a singular example of this in the foundation of America, on or about July 4th, in the year of our Lord 1776?  Well, yes and no.  Originalism, whatever its merits as framed by American judicial conservatives, cannot be expanded into a total outlook on society.

As much as I love the Constitution and the bill of rights, I was humbled by Tom Woods observation that “If you are going to be an idolator, one of the silliest forms of idolatry is the worship of a political compact.”  It struck me that Woods, though a great American, saw through many of the shibboleths of the conservative movement.  To be sure, if there can be such a critter as a “contractual nation” then America fits the bill.  Whether or not America is unique, it certainly had a time of inception, and a time prior to inception when it was not.  However wonderful the thought of Dr. Freidrich Hayek might be, the United States did not come about through the workings of what he calls the “spontaineous order”…rather, it came about through deliberation and prayer of a people being transformed from subjects of the British crown into patriots.  The nation, or at least this nation, is a creation, not an “evolute.”

Hence I will side with originalists over progressives every time.  If we are at the mercy of social evolution, every change in the editorial stance of the New York Times necessitates a trans-valuation of our fundamental morality.  This is worse than absurd, it is spiritually exhausting.  We need a baseline, not a “project.”  What and where is the baseline of American moral consensus?  Was it set at some privileged moment in the 18th century, or perchance earlier or later?  In search of it, we  must become intellectual archeologists, digging down into history until we find bedrock.

Origins, compacts, and peoples

The self-understanding of a “contractual nation” must be made expicit, since a contract is always signed on a particular date, and indeed without a recorded date no contract is valid.  America has not just one, but several candidates for its inception.  The constitutional convention of 1786 and the foundational documents which flowed from it are frequently made to bear excessive historical weight by theorists affiliated with the right wing of our political spectrum.  Yes, these documents formed a government, but did they actually found a nation?  One center-right line of thought (associated with Jaffre and Clairmont College) attempts to remedy this by expanding the contractual origins of the nation to the Declaration of Independence (1776) and even the Gettysburg Address (1863).  These are construed as supplying the missing philosophy, and even theology,  which is only implied in the text of the Constitution.  On this basis, what in anthropological jargon would be called the “ethnogenisis of the American nation” is thought to be secured.

Conservatives and libertarians are the only ones who continue to care about this line of inquiry.   Progressives no longer think there is any such thing as an American nation, only hoards of hyphenated tribes squabbling over the riches of a largish continent.  This train of thought has been gaining traction on the left since the publication of Nathan and Glassier’s The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics in the sixties, however it only became the undisputed progressive line in the past few years.    Here I’m not addressing progressives or the merit of their theses.  Rather, I’m wondering whether conservatives have put their understanding of American origins in the wrong basket.  They have become social contract theorists.  In other words, they have become Rousseuvians.  Now if you understand that J. J. Rousseau is the ideological fountain of leftward modernity then perhaps you will recognize that conservatives are resting their case on a treacherous foundation.  If you really want a social contract with teeth, then you should go past American statecraft and cross the Atlantic to view the tennis court oath of 1789 with its ensuing (First) French Republic.  That’s the one that came straight from Rousseau’s brain, bent on righteousness and vengeance.  The laws with teeth soon became more than a metaphor, as indeed the incisor of the guillotine began to chomp down indiscriminately on errant necks.

Even today the French are still working righteousness, and perhaps a new (would this be the sixth?) French Republic is in the offing.  We can only wish them luck.  Given the inability of social contracts to arrest the slide of the West towards bureaucratic domination and leftist lunacy, it is understandable that some conservative thinkers advocate placing the foundation of nations on some non-contractual basis.  That neglected luminary, Dr. Paul Gottfried, suggests that lip service to formal political contracts have become simply an item in the neoconservative toolbox to be put in the service of managerial globalism.   Against this background, he hints that it might be wise to reinstate, at least partially, a candid recognition that Western civilization did not arise in a vacuum but out of the historical experience of particular peoples.  This would constitute a strategic retreat from the sacred (at least in America) principle of lex soli, but none the less an inevitable counterfoil to the corroding influence of multiculturalism.  After all, if it works in Hungary, why shouldn’t it work in the United States?

For a variety of reasons, I hope this is not the path followed by conservative thought in the near future.  The most obvious, but ideally least important, reason being that this is precisely the avenue which has been mapped out for conservative ideology by the cultural Marxists.  For Marxists in general, Operation Barbarossa is the gift that keeps on giving.  Get their Hitler to attack your Stalin and, voala!, there you have your moral equivalence, if not moral superiority.  The same principle applies on the cultural level.  Even the smallest embrace of identity politics on the right would be seen as racism, not as a measured equivalent to the wholesale adoption of identity politics on the left.

I only mention the left because the their strategy is so easy to see.  It is never good to adopt a policy out of either consideration or antagonism to one’s enemies.  The real reason to make land, not blood, the basis of American citizenship is spiritual.  When I mention “spiritual” I am using the term in its broadest sense.  You don’t need to stop reading at this point just because you don’t meditate or speak in tongues…although if you do either I wouldn’t be one to object.  I would call the social contract theory spiritual.  Conversely, I would call the theory that nationality should be based on ties of blood non-spiritual.  I don’t want to see membership in the political community based on their DNA.  Some people do, they are called eugenicists.   On the other hand, I don’t want membership in the political community to be open to everyone.  Membership should be limited to those who are spiritually in agreement with the foundational principles of the political community.  If you aren’t in spiritual agreement with the foundations of the community, then you are either a traitor or a spy…or at the most charitable, very ignorant.  Those types of people are not good for the community.

Vows, Contracts, and Prayers

In spite of its fundamentally spiritual quality, I have been casting doubt on the efficacy of social contract theory as the foundation of American nationality.  Is there any other spiritual bond which might have formed the basis of the American union?  Again, I am using “spiritual” in the technical sense of an act of deliberation and will.  For example, what about the common possession of the English language?  No, because being born into a language community is not an act of will, although choosing to use that language might be.  Interestingly, during the 17th and 18th centuries there were English speaking expatriate communities in the Carabbean Sea and the Indian Ocean who formed independent, “buckaneer” republics, based on social contracts.  In spite of similarities in race and language, they were not the same nation as that formed by the thirteen English colonies on the eastern coast of North America.  They had their own separate “spiritual” foundations, based on values quite different from their linguistic cousins.  Out of deference to fans of Johnny Dep I won’t go into further description of their values.  Not to say that the American colonists were angels.  This is not an apology for their morals, it is just an attempt to identify the essence of their political identity.

That political identity was never grounded specifically on the French enlightenment theory of social contract.  Prior to independence, the British colonists were not citizens but subjects.  Directly, they were citizens of the British crown, but through that king, as head of the Anglican church, they were subject to the God of all Christians.  When  the ties with the crown were dissolved, the middle man, as it were, was cut out, and the American states came directly under the sovereignty of God.  Since the early days of the republic, there have been strong forces which have sought to obscure this point, and to conflate the origins of the American nation with social contract theory.  No doubt some thinkers, Thomas Jefferson comes to mind, were explicit in their allegiance to what might be called the Franco-American theory of American origins.  However Jefferson was an eccentric.  If there was any “general will” among the American people at the moment of separation from the British crown, it was a “general will” which was in direct contradiction to “general will” in the sense given to that term by J.J.Rousseau.    The general will of the American people was a collective surrender to the will of Divine Providence, a transcendental covenant, in stark contrast to the mutual compact of the French people among themselves during the same revolutionary epoch.

One reason why so few people recognize this covenantal basis of American nationhood is the benevolent, but mistaken, myth of constitutional origins.  I say “constitutional origins” advisedly, since I don’t want to dissuade anyone from constitutional advocacy.   None the less, the American nation was not founded by any one sheet of parchment, however right-thinking and venerable.  It was founded by the inner vows and aspirations of countless patriots at the time of political separation, vows which more often than not took the form of formal, public, prayer.  Furthermore these vows transferring direct political sovereignty from the British crown to the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob are not just rumors from oral history but were the subject of ample and official documentation.   One major reason contributing to contemporary ignorance of these facts is the prestige of the constitution and the bill of rights in contrast to the obscurity of  many documents where the proclamations and enabling legislation pertaining to the divine sovereignty are recorded.  I urge readers to investigate this subject on their own, and to see what the public documents the era (not private political pamphlets, whether by Paine, Jefferson or whomever) have to say on the subject of sovereignty, and whether it is based, ultimately, on the will of God or of the people.  Then, I think, you will have a solution to the enigma of American nationality, that it was forged in common through allegiance to a common God.

As a significant example of a public declaration of divine sovereignty during the transition from colonial to independent America, consider the following document proclaiming a collective desire “to seek God in time of war” issued by the Continental Congress on November 1, 1777.  This states,

“That with one Heart and one Voice the good People may express the grateful feeling of their Hearts, and consecrate themselves to the service of their Divine Benefactor; and…they may join the penitent Confession of their Manifold Sins…and their humble supplication that it may please GOD through the Merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive them and blot them out of remembrance; that it may please him Graciously to afford his blessings on the government of these states respectively, and prosper the public council of the whole…to secure for these United States the greatest of all blessings, INDEPENDENCE and PEACE.”

This is not a document of political federation.  None the less it is evidence that at some point a spiritual bond of unity had been forged, through a common allegiance to God.  It is not a mutual and direct unity, such as described in social contract theory.  Rather, the political community is brought about through a mediated and transcendental unity, with God replacing the British crown as the common fountain of sovereignty among the states.  Here a word of caution is in order, this theocentric unity did not establish a theonomic regime.  The “good People” recognized the sovereignty of God working through Providence, but they did not in any way replace secular law with a system of ecclesiastical courts.  On the contrary, such ecclesiastical courts as were already in existence were speedily abolished, at least in the paradigmatic state of Virginia.  In that regard the “good People” of 1777 were acting more like common sense products of the Enlightenment age than Puritans, albeit their “common sense” was more pious than that attributed to Thomas Paine.   But common sense and the fear of God were enough.  Enough to accomplish what the modern mind would deem an impossibility, forming a nation on a basis which is neither biological nor contractual, but spiritual.

 

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