Old Roots of Order 

A primer of the American founding that revives mainstream nineteenth-century narratives is Russell Kirk’s Roots of American Order. Now in its fourth edition, Roots is “simply one of the finest surveys of the classical, religious, and European influences on American political thought ever composed” (Lee Cheek). In his masterpiece, Kirk traces key cultural elements of four great civilizations and the cities that defined them — biblical Jerusalem, classical Athens, ancient Rome, and medieval and early-modern London. So:

  • Jerusalem is the seedbed of the West’s moral and spiritual roots.
  • Athens is the seedbed of the West’s philosophical and ethical roots.
  • Rome is the seedbed of the West’s legal and political roots.
  • London — developing out of ancient German tribes — is the seedbed of the West’s rootedness in liberty and the institutions of self-government.

When I lead seminars on The Roots of American Order, it is easy to prove to American audiences that very few of our most foundational thoughts arise out of American culture. For spiritual comfort and moral guidance, many Americans consult the Bible — a product of ancient Jerusalem. For methods of sound thinking and right reason, many American college students are taught Plato and Aristotle — the product of classical Athens. For the concepts of natural law vis-a-vis positive law, as well as oratory, many American legislators still grapple with Cicero and his students — the product of republican Rome. For an appreciation of representative assemblies, many American citizens still tip their hat to the British Parliament — the product of feudal London. For understanding free markets and free trade in modern economies, we Americans still refer to Adam Smith — a product of early modern Glasgow and Edinburgh, which by the late 18th century were intellectual satellites of London.

Is it not remarkable? Not one of these traditions originated in American soil. In all of these basic areas of thought, Americans look to “foreigners” from the distant past to recognize and interpret their world. Even the Federalist Papers, while written by Americans, are thoroughly informed by the political experience of classical Athens, ancient Rome, and early modern London. In significant ways, we Americans stand on the shoulders of giants.

The Tension between Order and Liberty

And yet, these old roots of order are not the whole of the American story. There would be new shoots of freedom throughout the nation’s history. This tension between the old shoots of order and the new shoots of freedom is what makes Americans such an interesting people. To embrace this tension is to comprehend the essence of American history.

In the 16th century, the world was thrust into a new era when Europeans encountered the Western hemisphere and began planting their ambitions in its rich soil. On American ground, between the 1490s and the 1790s, various strands of cultural DNA in the West combined to make a remarkable new nation. The creation of the United States was organically related to previous civilizations, to be sure, but not a clone of any of them. Culturally our early republic represented a unique grafting of key elements — from the monotheistic promise of Jerusalem, to the unfinished philosophical quests of ancient Athens, to the civic republican inheritance of ancient Rome, to the evolving political institutions and common law of London. Politically the Anglo-American errand into the wilderness was producing a new species of polity that began to blossom in Philadelphia in the mid 1770s.

On the one hand, the early republic represented “a revolution not made but prevented,” as Burkeans would characterize it. (See Edmund Burke’s Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, in which he discusses the principles of 1688.) On the other hand, as Alexander Hamilton reminds us, the new polity was the result of self-conscious reflection on American resistance to British tyranny. (See his opening to Federalist Paper Number 1.)

So the establishment of the United States was a unique mix of old and new, fulfillment and promise. It did not exactly represent a novus ordo seclorum — a new order of the ages — as some American boosters claimed. (The phrase is still on our paper currency.) In reality, each of the four “root cities” provided the cultural stock from which America’s founders, framers, farmers, and forward-trekking pioneers would draw sustenance. These early Americans went about their daily lives with their Bible, Aesop, Plutarch, and Blackstone in hand. But on the frontier something new was grafted into their worldview.

New Shoots of Freedom

As the title of his book implies, Kirk emphasizes continuity over change — old roots over new shoots. And yet, new shoots there were. The first major new shoot appeared, if we are to believe John Adams, in a Boston courtroom in 1761, when James Otis asserted one of the radical ideas of the early modern age — that human beings are not born to be subjects of a monarch or servants of a dynasty; that there should be a new relationship between the people and their government; that the rulers should be a people’s servants. Adams reported being riveted by the speech Otis delivered. Its content was different, revolutionary, even disconcerting. Adams recalled Otis saying that

“every man, merely natural, was an independent sovereign, subject to no law but the law written on his heart, revealed to him by his maker in the constitution of his nature, and the inspiration of his understanding and conscience. His right to his life, his liberty, no created being could rightfully contest; nor was his right to property less incontestable….” Adams added: “Young as I was, and ignorant as I was, I shuddered at the doctrine he taught, and I have all my life shuddered and still shudder at the consequences that may be drawn from such premises.”

Looking back, Adams believed that the start of the American Revolution was not at Lexington and Concord, but 14 years earlier in that courtroom. It was not so much on battlefields, as in minds and hearts that the revolution occurred. As Peter Mancall explains, “the change in the sentiments of Americans toward government … constituted the real Revolution…. As a result of the Revolution, Americans were citizens of a republic, not subjects of a monarch. The people at large had become sovereign, and they created state and national governments to meet their needs…. [Thus] the Revolution … redefined the nature of politics in the western world.”* A new shoot indeed.

So What Changed?

An exciting beginning to a new world order, this — but it was only a beginning. The hundred years from the 1760s to the 1860s was the first Time of Trial in American history. This Time of Trial saw significant challenges: the American Revolution, War for Independence, birth agony of the new republic, and wars — a war against aboriginal Americans, against the French, against Barbary Pirates, a second war against Britain, a war against Mexico, and a civil war that brought to a head the unresolved paradoxes at the founding. As a result of these pressures, American politics and culture began to change significantly. They diverged in key ways from European politics and culture. After the tumult of that one hundred years, what had changed?

  • Politically and constitutionally: By the 1780s, a large republic was created in a world of settled monarchies. It took two attempts to get the new republic right — first in the Articles of Confederation, then in the U.S. Constitution — but it happened. Sovereignty now resided in citizens, not in monarchs, and politics in the Western world was forever after redefined. 
  • Ecclesiastically: There would be no national church. At the start of the War for Independence, only five states had an established church. A half century later, there were no more state supported or established churches in the land.
  • Socially: Successful revolutions are usually about radical social upheaval. The French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions turned their worlds upside down. The American Revolution did not. As John Willson has argued, the most remarkable thing about the American Revolution is what did not occur, as opposed to what might have occurred. The more radical reformers — Thomas Paine comes to mind — were kept in check; social engineering never became part of the program. The relative modesty of our revolution was due in no small part to the fact that there was no entrenched aristocratic order to overthrow. Besides confiscating a few Loyalist estates, revolutionary era governments did not redistribute property. Moreover, to make sure no government-sanctioned aristocracy could arise on American soil, titles of nobility were outlawed in Article I, section 9, of the U.S. Constitution. Socially, formal deference to one’s “betters” began disappearing. The literal whipping boys of princes in English courts were unheard of. Equality became an actionable political idea, and the democratic principle would increasingly assert itself. 
  • Culturally: Noah Webster and other chauvinists endeavored to create a distinctively American language, architecture, and culture that reflected their belief in the superiority of the “new world.” 
  • Geographically: The presence of a large frontier in the West renewed the possibility, again and again, of equal opportunity and upward mobility (mostly for white males). 
  • Economically: The world’s largest, continuous, free-trade zone was coming into existence.
  • Civil society: In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that America’s network of voluntary associations was the world’s most developed, by far. It was spurred by the fact that pioneers on the frontier outpaced government’s reach. People had to solve their own problems.
  • Morally: The U.S. was hardly the first nation to get rid of slavery. In fact, in light of the Declaration of Independence, the founders were embarrassingly slow to rid the nation of its glaring contradiction. But by 1865, as a result of the Civil War and passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, race-based chattel slavery was finally abolished on American soil. It resulted in the largest, uncompensated transfer of private property in human history; four million men and women of African descent were liberated from the shackles of the peculiar institution. This was revolutionary. Yet it is important to remember that social attitudes did not necessarily change with the Thirteenth Amendment. Abraham Lincoln wanted the nation’s four million blacks to emigrate and colonize Honduras, Liberia, or other tropical areas — anyplace away from the U.S. so they would not mix socially with whites.
  • Psychologically: Americans with a physical frontier could also experience something of a psychological frontier. They could choose not to carry forward the burdens of the past. In fact, Americans could be indifferent to the past, and look only toward the future, and reinvent themselves again and again if they wanted. Innovations all, from the perspective of Old Europe’s conservatives defending their anciens regimes.

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*For John Adams’s 1818 retrospective on James Otis in 1761 and the true beginning of the American Revolution, see Peter C. Mancall, Origins and Ideologies of the American Revolution, vol. 4 (Chantilly, VA: Teaching Company, 2005), pp. 194, 206-07.]
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