Tea Party Tories: How the Right Hijacked the Founding Fathers

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The Right and the Tea Party like to think of themselves as freedom fighters in the mold of the Founding Fathers, but a closer look reveals that their revolution is really devolution, because at its core, conservatism is about returning to the past. Upon examination it turns out the Tea Party has more in common with King George, than the Founding Fathers.

Conservatism is the most common attitude in the history of mankind. Conservatism is the desire to maintain the status quo – both with regards to the customs and the institutions of the past. The reason is simple: most people are not comfortable with new ideas or their application.

Conservatism is not about change but about stasis (from Greek στάσις “a standing still”).

As the Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1967) has it, “Conservatism is…the preference for what has grown up over a long period of time in contrast to what has been made by deliberate human contrivance.” (2:195).

The United States of America is undeniably the result of “deliberate human contrivance.”

Lord Hugh Cecil wrote in 1912 (Conservatism 25) that “Before the Reformation it is impossible to distinguish conservatism in politics, not because there was none, but because there was nothing else.” Since that time there have been those who are for change and those who oppose it. While the conservative attitude has always been with us the name “conservatism” itself only developed in London and Paris around 1830 (2:195) and by 1835 was in use by British Tories.

“Conservatism most precisely denotes a hostility to radical social change, particularly social change that is instituted by the force of the state and justified by an appeal to abstract rights or to some Utopian aim.” (Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2:195)

The ideas of the Founding Fathers can reasonably be characterized as Utopian and seen as justified by an appeal to abstract rights.

The Declaration of Independence can be seen as the high point of the European Enlightenment, enshrining as it does the liberal principles of the time.

And these were liberal principles. Not conservative. They were liberal then and they are liberal now. The idea put forward by modern conservative “thinkers” that the opposite is true is without foundation. Revolution cannot come about from a conservative mindset; it can only come about as a result of liberal thinking. Any conservative revolutionary movement will be a counter-revolutionary movement, designed to restore the status quo in the wake of drastic change.

Liberalism on the other hand stresses change. The very original ideas of the Enlightenment turned the world upside down. Humans are rational animals it was now said, and they could prosper without the old demands, promises and threats of religion. Happiness became paramount: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Life. Liberty. Happiness. Not heaven. Not salvation. And faith was now a faith in science, faith in humanity and in progress, in reason and in education. At the heart of the Enlightenment lay the ideal of social justice, as enshrined in the above quote from the Declaration of Independence.

“In the revolutionary situation there was general support for the polemics of Jefferson,Paine, Joel Barlow and others who argued that “natural rights”(life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) constitute the foundations of social justice. Governments are artificial contracts designed to protect these inalienable rights.” (Encyclopedia of Philosophy 1:84)

Our American government was based not on conservative biblical principles but on those of the Enlightenment, on a trust not in God but in humankind. It was optimism that fueled America’s experiment in liberty and democracy; it is fear of the mob and its demand for change that fueled, as it has always fueled, conservatism.

It has been claimed, of course, that the revolution was not a revolution at all, but a “war of independence” but that claim is belied by a simple appeal to the literature of the time.

Rip Van Winkle didn’t wake up shocked because the world had stayed the same, because the status quo had been maintained. He was shocked by change, by the results of liberalism. In the Washington Irving story, Rip Van Winkle falls asleep before the French Revolution and sleeps for over twenty years. An entire generation has passed:

“The very character of the people seemed changed. There was a busy, bustling disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquility.” There are new terms and ideas: “rights of citizens – elections – members of Congress – liberty…and other words which were a perfect babylonish jargon to the bewildered Van Winkle.”

As historian Gordon S. Wood observes, “In a few short decades Americans had experienced a remarkable transformation in their society and culture, and like Rip and his creator, many wondered what had happened and who they really were.” (Empire of Liberty 1)

Yet we see conservatives writers like Thomas E. Woods, author of the “Politically Incorrect Guide to American History” (2004) make claims like this of the colonists: “They were not revolutionaries seeking the radical restructuring of society.” The chain of logic here (if it can be called that) is that “The Americans who protested against British encroachments on colonial liberties wanted to preserve their traditional rights.” (Woods 11).

Thomas E. Woods might think so. Washington Irving (April 3, 1783 – November 28, 1859), who grew up in the wake of all that change Woods insists the colonists did not want, saw things more clearly. The attempt made by Woods and others like him to relegate “innovation” to simply unwanted new taxes is a specious line of reasoning which would make the revolution a conservative reaction to the encroaching evils of liberalism, a complete inversion of historical fact.

Mr. Woods’ book might indeed be politically incorrect; it is certainly historically incorrect. If Woods’ “conservative revolution” would have materialized the king would have stayed and we’d be singing “God Save the Queen” rather than the “Star Spangled Banner.”
Amusingly, Woods appeals to the Magna Carta (1215), the Petition of Right (1628) and the Bill of Rights (1689) in defense of his arguments (and presumably of the colonists), but these documents were themselves innovations raised in opposition to the status quo.

In point of fact, taxes are as old as prostitution. Kings have always imposed taxes. It was part of the old conservative fabric of society. The idea that a government would not be able to tax the populace is a liberal one. Opposition to taxes, not taxes themselves, is the true innovation.

If we follow Woods’ reasoning to its logical conclusion, he overturns his own thesis.

As should be obvious by now, it is a logical impossibility that the American revolutionaries who gave us the United States were conservatives. American Tories, or Loyalists, those who supported the king against the revolutionaries, were conservatives. Their math was simple: change=bad, stasis=good, kill the rebels and restore royal rule – obey the king and keep things as they were.

The American conservative movement today is of a counter-revolutionary nature, a reaction to and against the liberal principles of the Enlightenment, and an attempt to turn the clock back to pre-Reformation days when God, not humankind, was the center and focus of human endeavor, when not natural rights but divine restrictions were the order of the day – a retroactive attempt to turn America into something it was never designed or created to be, indeed, could not have been before the Enlightenment.

15 Replies to “Tea Party Tories: How the Right Hijacked the Founding Fathers”

  1. Welcome and well written Hrafnkell! I am looking forward to reading more of your posts.

    I believe you are correct, there can be no conservative revolution unless it is a revolution that goes back in time instead of forward. I also believe that the Constitution is written of liberal ideas and based on the rights that a person has or should have. People having personal rights as against the conservative thought process. There is a vast difference between personal responsibility and personal rights. The conservative mind can’t deal with both at the same time.

    The conservative mind embraces a process that leans towards requiring a king. In line with your comment about taxes, taxes are also imposed to make sure that you understand who you owe your allegiance to.

    Life liberty and the pursuit of happiness are most certainly liberal traits. There is nothing conservative about them because under a conservative mind there is no pursuit of happiness unless it is for the conservative only.

    I don’t want a static society. the Constitution says nothing about a small government nor does it say anything about what it would be like 250 plus years later in the United States. the government of this country has grown starting the day after the Constitution was signed.

    Conservatism is built on fear. Fear of progress and fear of change. in my mind is like religion, religion is fine as long as you keep it to yourself. Conservatism is fine as long as you can keep it to yourself and not try to drag our civilization down with you

  2. Absolutely, Shiva, and thank you. I think many people fail to realize that our government was not “established” but developed over a period of time. Conservatives like to complain about the “living Constitution” but it is living and the Founding Fathers understood that it had to be.

    They like to quote Paine (or rather, misquote) and they like to quote Jefferson, but they ignore the parts they don’t like. They ignore Jefferson’s embrace of government when the Burr-Wilkinson conspiracy came to light and therefore ignore that the views of the Founders were also not static, but developed over time.

    It’s a shame their own views can’t develop along with history. But then I suppose if they pretend history never happened none of that matters…

  3. No one likes change, but it is inevitable, so you can fruitlessly fight it, or accept it, embrace it, adapt to it. What kills me about conservatives is that they expect you to adapt to THEIR ways, but they feel that being intolerant towards others they disagree with is AOK. Take for instance sculptures of the 10 Commandments being posted at the entrances to many American courthouses; those courthouses were probably built 50-100 years ago and that was the custom then, and America WAS more white and more Christian at the time, so IMO those particular courthouses are “gradfathered in” and shouldn’t be touched, and if someone doesn’t like it, too bad! Simple. As far as new courthouses being built, I don’t believe that a sculpture of the 10 commandments should be placed at the entrance out of respect for other religions and cultures since America HAS grown and changed. If conservatives don’t like it, too bad, that was then, this is now; things change and you’d better get used to it.

  4. Great job Hraf. So nice to have you back!

    I’ve been rereading some English history lately, so these thoughts have been rattling around in my brain, untethered:-) It’s great to have it laid out like this.

    It would be so cool if you could do some sort of series on this.

  5. I agree, Nikolai. Change is inevitable. They want to take the conservative push of the 1950s (Pledge of Allegiance, new national motto) and pretend this applied in 1787. A lot happened between 1787 and the 1950s and their logic is about as flawed as it can be. There was a conservative reaction against the principles of the founding and then we went to the left beginning in the 60s before swinging right again. But things get consistently more liberal, closer to the ideals of the Enlightenment, as time goes by, regardless of the little right-shifts along the way (the courthouses are a good example, along with the Pledge and motto).

  6. Thanks, Sarah. I’m trying not to make too many come-backs in the same year but we’ll see. It would be intriguing to do a series of articles like this.

  7. “Come senators, congressmen
    Please heed the call
    Don’t stand in the doorway
    Don’t block up the hall
    For he that gets hurt
    Will be he who has stalled
    There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’
    It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
    For the times they are a-changin’”
    – Dylan

  8. The Tea Partiers strike me as people who are unable to cope with the ever-changing world we find ourselves in today. They long for a simpler life, but seem to overlook the fact that the changes they deplore were and are designed to improve the quality of life for all. Instead of accepting the inevitability of change, which has been a constant since this country was founded, they lash out and demonize those who disagree with them.

    Other than their resistance to change, the only other thing that seems to unite them is their hatred for
    President Obama. There is no way I can take people seriously when they brandish misspelled signs that are nothing but personal insults. They talk about their freedoms being taken away, and I always want to ask them,
    what freedoms? No one has denied them the freedom to make fools of themselves, which they do quite well on their own. Their behavior, and the blunders of both Rand Paul and Sharron Angle, should be more than enough to table the notion that they have anything worthwhile to contribute politically. All they do is provide examples of what we DON’T need.

  9. Anne,
    The rights you so blatantly disregard as NOT being under fire are listed in a document titled “The Bill of Rights.” Go read it.
    Do you not think (if not any other) the 2nd amendment is not under attack f being dissolved?

    I am for progress, life, LIBERTY and the pursuit of happiness. I am NOT for hindrances placed so that that part of society that wishes to not participate in being productive (or at least attempting it) can be provided for with no responsibility or contribution.

    I can only assume you are not a supporter of the 2nd amendment nor the right to self defense.

    I say as I always have; change is fine, so long as it is not change simply for change sake and to take power from society and create dependency on government. That creates a monarchy.

    Do a little homework, what does every democratic republic change into once it ceases to exist?

  10. What on earth are you talking about? My post did not mention anything about the 2nd Amendment, partly because it is not in danger of being repealed. In fact, the right to bear arms has been expanded.

    I stand by each and every word I wrote, because all of the movements I mentioned above helped to level the playing field for countless Americans and enabled many more to have access to the American Dream. I am one of the people who admits benefiting from each of them.

    Apparently, you read something into my statements that I did not put there, because you have your own agenda that has absolutely nothing to do with what I was talking about.

  11. Ann, I am in agreement with you. I can’t imagine where Robert gets the idea that the second amendment is under attack, let alone in danger of being dissolved. I realize that conservatives today feel that if they endlessly repeat the same charges that they will somehow become true (or at least seen as true by the base). I know through a conservative friend of mine that the NRA repeated the same old claims in the south that they made during the Clinton era, namely that “Obama will give your guns to the n*****s.” Despite it not happening then, they are more than willing to believe it will happen now.

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