Our American Political Tradition - A Response to Aaron Renn

From Washington and Hamilton to Lincoln and McKinley, from Federalism to the American School to the America First Committee, the American Political Tradition has been Nationalism in everything but name.

Our American Political Tradition - A Response to Aaron Renn
The First American, George Washington, sails to defeat the British at the Battle of Trenton.

When thinking about the problems which America is confronted with today, invariably every single issue can be traced back to a common root crisis: a crisis of American identity. What is America? What was the nation founded upon, what common truths do we all hold as self evident, what are our uniquely American social and political traditions, and what resonates with and is identifiable to the American people?

The potential solutions are perhaps the only things more abundant than the problems themselves. In recent times, a multitude of political camps have established themselves, each with their own view of what America was, is, and should be, each with their own ideological preferences and core values. Some propose a sort of Catholic Integralism, baptizing America into the tradition of the Papacy and Catholicism, and governing the nation according to Catholic doctrine and dogma. Some on the Left propose a vision of America as a progressive, socialist nation, wherein all men are absolutely equal, and America's world-historical project is to equalize mankind. Some simply call themselves "Post-liberals", as they are attempting to create a national identity for what comes after liberalism.

What all of these groups are lacking, and perhaps they themselves never asked the question; what did the Founders and the subsequent keepers of the American nation believe? What exactly was their political tradition, and what ideas, loyalties, and projects motivated them? Maybe the most effective way to solve our own national identity crisis is to identify the American political tradition of our forefathers, diagnose where and how exactly it was lost, and what we can do today to revive and bolster this American tradition.

Aaron Renn, writing for the American Mind, suggested in his piece that Nationalism has never been apart of, nor was ever even in the vocabulary, of the American tradition. In reading his piece, I found that much of what Mr. Renn classifies as the American political tradition is infact just that, Nationalism, however it is not presented as a unified body of political thought spanning our nation's history, moreso isolated examples of past policies which could be thought of as Nationalist. What I believe he is missing, and what could be provided as something of a framework, is a concrete narrative which links these historical policies into a unified body of American tradition which is as Nationalist as it is American. So let us take it back to the start and work our way to today.

The American Revolution was the fire that America was forged in. With George Washington at the helm, the American tradition was born in these trying times and in the image of those who proved themselves instrumental to its success. General Washington had this to say about the cause that animated his soldiers to carry on during the harshest years of the war:

"Nothing short of Independence, it appears to me, can possibly do … To see men without Cloat⟨hes⟩ to cover their nakedness—without Blankets to lay on—without Shoes, by which their Marches might be traced by the Blood from their feet—and almost as often without Provisions as with; Marching through frost & Snow, and at Christmas taking up their Winter Quarters within a days March of the enemy, without a House or Hutt to cover them till they could be built & submitting to it without a murmur, is a Mark of patience & obedience which in my opinion can scarce be parallel’d." - George Washington, May 28, 1780

And so it was. The struggle for independence was America's first and most important uniting cause. The formerly English citizens in the American colonies found that their loyalties lay primarily with those of the New World, with the American colonies, and not with the crown. These colonials chafed under the British Empire, something which was stunting the growth of an incubating, newly born American nation. The cornerstone of the American Revolution, and the value which the Patriots held dear to their hearts, was not lower prices for goods, equality for all of mankind, but to be an independent nation.

The strategic genius of General Washington, the diplomatic prowess of men like Benjamin Franklin, the heroism of countless others, and ultimately the Divine Hand of God delivered a victory to the American nation. Their yearning for an independent state of their own had been achieved. However, the political future of the American nation was entirely called into question. Would America remain a single unified nation, or would it be split into various the smaller states and local entities?

In keeping with the initial, newly born political tradition of Independence, the Federalist party quickly rose to power and asserted a vision of a strong and unified American nation, free from foreign influence, oppression, and able to assert its own will in the affairs of the world. Alexander Hamilton would come to embody this Federalist program, today understood as Hamiltonianism. Hamilton laid the foundation for how to keep a nation independent, much of which had to do with the logistical considerations of economics. Hamilton instituted a program of import substitution and an export-led economy. To do this, protective tariffs would be erected to protect America's fledgling economy, and improvements to the land and growth-oriented development would be carried out by the federal government, these projects being directed and financed by a national bank.

With the nation's independence secured through Hamiltonian economic programs and a healthy dose of Washingtonian realist foreign policy, what was America to do with its independence? What was the next step in the world-historical American project? American statesmen and fellow Federalist John Adams filled in the blanks. Adams had this to say of America's purpose:

"The destiny of America is to carry the gospel of Jesus Christ to all men everywhere."

To Mr. Adams, America's interactions with the wider world, apart from the practical considerations of commerce and diplomacy, would take on the character of a missionary. National independence, delivered and sustained by proper governance, would allow for America to partake, and aspire to a lead role, in the Great Commission laid out by our Lord Jesus Christ.

The story of America and the American political tradition does not end with the early Federalists, however. A decent stretch of time inhabits that between the reign of the Federalist party and the foundation of the Republican party. This interim period is a time of near constant political restructuring. The fate of the Federalists after the assassination of Alexander Hamilton, and the collapse of its electorate, was not exactly certain. Some Federalists, like John Quincy Adams and Danu, sought refuge in the dominant Democratic-Republican party as it was the only viable electoral vehicle to win elections. These were termed the "Adams Men", and would rather quickly go on to establish the National Republican party in opposition to the populist, egalitarianism of the Jackson administration. Others would found the Anti-Masonic party, an expression of the nativism inherent in the Federalists and their founding vision for America. These two parties would merge with in the 1830s into the Whig party, which would carry on the ideas of the Federalists and their programs.

The most enduring legacy this interim period were the contributions made by men such as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. The economic nationalism of Hamilton was codified into a concrete school of thought - the American School of Economics. This school would emphasize the same tenets of economic policy that the Federalists did and contribute some concepts relating to national unity. Henry Clay proposed in the Legislative his "American System" plan, which emphasized protective tariffs, a national bank, and targeted internal improvements. Clay ensured a string of tariffs were passed during his time as the Speaker, protecting American industry and financing numerous domestic improvements.

An interesting aspect of American politics at this time was the impulse in American society for expansion. President James Monroe would establish the Monroe Doctrine, which held that America was to be recognized as the protector of the American states, and that both North and South America would become part of an American sphere of influence. The early American Founders had held a similar belief about the inevitability of an America sphere in the hemisphere, although they were much more preoccupied with more practical concerns of national survival. President John Quincy Adams was a defender of the American sphere in the New World, and played a central role in establishing relations with the South American states and threading the needle towards their independence whilst not entering into a costly war with Spain as a result.

Another similar phenomena would arise in the middle of the 19th century: Manifest Destiny. The Americans believed it was their destiny to settle the entirety of the North American continent, and there was a concerted push towards the West which saw much of the remaining uncivilized land fall under the jurisdiction of the American government. Whilst the motives behind the push towards the West were different according to region and political party, notably the Southern supporters believing more states would benefit the slaveholding cause, the American political tradition is decisively expansionist. Whigs and Republicans, whilst opposing the expansions out of political expediency and opposition to slavery, supported the eventual American empire which was to come, potentially absorbing all states in the North American continent. Whilst not every claim was acted upon, such as the early desire to annex Canada or the All Mexico Movement, these lands would be brought into an American sphere which performed much of the same role as an annexation would.

America would face its most serious crisis since the Revolution in the 1850s and 60s. The regional tensions between the North and South were proof that America was lacking national unity. The South, with its agrarian economy and Englishesque planter aristocracy, found itself at times more loyal to British economic interests than American national ones. The tariffs passed by Henry Clay were met with harsh Southern opposition. This divide was exacerbated by the British, who wished to divide the American nation into smaller, weaker parts. The new generation of keepers of the American political tradition formulated themselves into the Republican party.

This new party quickly fell in line under the leadership of Abraham Lincoln, the standard-bearer of American nationalism in the 19th century. Lincoln occupies a Caesarlike position in American history. At a time of existential crisis, a single man held the nation together through administrative genius, industrial might, and personal charisma and willpower. Lincoln's administration featured prominent American school statesmen, notably Henry Charles Carey and William Seward. Carey would carry on the American School of economics, and contribute his own "Harmony of Interests", which held that America is a nation of diverse and competing interests, and that American economic policy must be to unify these towards the common national interest. Once again national unity was the central theme of Carey's work, and he would serve as the chief economic advisor to Lincoln's cabinet. William Seward served as the Secretary of State to Lincoln, and during his time he ensured that England and France would not intervene in the Civil War on behalf of the Confederates. After the Lincoln administration, Seward negotiated the Alaska Purchase in an effort to expand the reach of the American state.

Almost every faction or political group in American politics today lays claim to being the successors of Abraham Lincoln. A president of such monumental importance understandably warrants such a reaction from his descendants. However, most Americans do not actually understand what Abraham Lincoln actually stood for. Some on the Left believe that Lincoln was the harbinger of equality and the coming equal rights granted to all races. Some on the Right believe, quite similarly, that Lincoln was the chief exponent of a civic nationalist American identity that emphasized the values found in the Constitution and his own Gettysburg Address.

Fewer still can see through the ideological fingerpaintings stamped on the historical portrait of Lincoln that he was the upholder of an American political tradition that began four score and seven years before his Gettysburg Address. Lincoln embodied a single, strong, unified American nation, assuming Executive powers hitherto unseen in the American presidency. The greatest tragedy of the time was Lincoln's assassination, ensuring his postwar plans of a Greenback currency and American Colonization Society never came to fruition.

The Republican party more or less dominated American politics until the first World War. Under President McKinley, the United States reached its cultural, world-historical pinnacle. Economic nationalism propelled the United States to the status of a great economic world power, and it could now pursue what it had only dreamt of in the past: an American Great Space. McKinley pursued an expansionist, outward looking foreign policy. McKinley presided over the Spanish-American War, winning America a colony in the Phillippines and a protectorate in Cuba. America was not just the dominator of the American continents, but ever increasingly it presided over a great empire of trade interests that sprawled across the globe.

The 20th century saw the downfall of this aforementioned American political tradition to all sorts of pretenders and recent arrivals. Throughout much of the first half of the 20th century, holdout groups and individuals still articulated this original vision, albeit with much less institutional support. The immigration laws of the 1920's are one example of this original vision. The late 19th, early 20th century saw unparalleled immigration into America, and a much of the political discourse at the time was aimed at figuring out what American identity actually was. Men like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh took the "America First" position, believing that America was a European nation and must remain so, lest it lose its unique character. These men would also be instrumental in the creation of the America First Committee, an organization dedicated to articulating an America First foreign policy based on national interest.

So, all of these historical examples being established, what can be characterized of the American political tradition? Three common themes show themselves in the deeds of our forefathers. The first is national independence and self reliance. American School economic nationalism leads to a truly independent nation, a nation that is markedly European in character. The second is expansion and continental domination. A strong, independent American nation can and should exert its influence over its neighbors, and should not hesitate to create a global empire of commercial interests. An American Great Space is our destiny, encompassing the entirety of our home continent. The third is our Christian faith and world-historical project. American was founded on Christian beliefs by Christian men. In keeping with the Great Commission given to us by Christ himself, American statesmen have affirmed time and again that it is America's great destiny to lead in the evangelization of the world, spreading the Word of God to those who do not know Him, and teaching the nations of the world how to conduct themselves, both on a national and individual level, in a Christian manner.

Mr Renn has argued that Americans have seldom referred to themselves or their political tradition as Nationalism or being nationalistic. This is true. However, a fish swimming in the sea would seldom refer to himself as a sea dweller much for the same reason. America has, until most recently, been governed on unshakably nationalist principles. One need not look much further than our own founding or key figures of our history to come to this truth. Perhaps it is more efficient when dealing with the American public to call ourselves something other than Nationalists in keeping with our tradition. All of this being considered, removing the word "nationalist" from our vocabulary doesn't fundementally change our program or beliefs. What becomes obvious to someone steeped in American nationalist historiography actually is not so to many others. Nationalism has largely been swept under the rug here in America, replaced with a historiography of civic nationalism, classical liberalism, or progressivism. By revising our beliefs about America's past, we can justify our nationalist political solutions for tomorrow in that they are in lockstep with those which would have been offered up by the likes of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln themselves.