An American Tradition: Constitutionalism

Does an “American tradition exist? And if so, what does it entail? The great Tom Fleming at the Fleming Foundation posted several paragraphs on social media over last several days about tradition.

This was a Socratic exercise in finding value to words such as “conservative” or “traditionalist.” Dr. Fleming argued that “conservative” has no meaning in modern politics and that the “ism” or “ist” attached to “tradition” hijacks the importance of the word. In short, tradition, real tradition, cannot be an ideology.

This is an undeniable truth. Tradition cannot be held as a belief system where “the past is good, so long live the past,” for as Fleming points out every tradition has its less than savory aspects. Livy’s contention that history was “the best medicine for a sick mind” concedes that all traditions have their avoidable elements. But wholesale rejection of tradition presents an entirely different and more dangerous situation, one that leads to the cult of reason and ultimately the destruction of civilized man. The modern tension between men and women is a direct result of decades of social engineering that has destroyed beneficial social stiffness and formality between gentlemen and ladies. Or more to the point, the experiment has eradicated both the gentleman and the lady from modern society.

He was also correct about “conservatives” having no real philosophical meaning in modern politics. It can only be used as a placeholder in order to speak to the masses in common political vernacular.

But the portion of his posts that I found most interesting was his ruminations of why different peoples find tradition appealing, or more succinctly why history is valuable. He wrote:

“C.S. Lewis says somewhere that moderns pride themselves on their humanity and kindness and condemn Medieval men for their lack of compassion, but if a man of the 12th century could be brought to the 20th, he would be struck immediately by the lack of courage. Sartre, not a writer I often cite, observed shrewdly that modern man is obsessed with freedom because it is what he most lacks. (For similar reasons, the Greeks were always talking about moderation and self-restraint.) The Romans, at the height of the social and political revolution that culminated in the dictatorship of Julius Caesar, were constantly appealing to the mos maiorum—the time-honored practices of their ancestors. Unfortunately for us, we are so estranged from ourselves and our traditions that we only rarely pay even lip service to Tradition.”

This raises the question, does an “American tradition” exist, and if so, what does it entail? For example, certain Americans, like the Romans, are interested in the “mos maiorum” because men like Washington or Lee are so alien to modern society that their virtues are a needed antidote for the modern political and social cesspool that we call “society.” Were Washington and Lee uniquely “American” or were they just a continuation of an older tradition?

And if Dr. Fleming is correct, then the veneration for the “Constitution” among some is a direct result of decades of failure to adhere to any portion of the American constitutional tradition. Americans, more than any other people in Western Civilization, developed a tradition of written constitutional models, but in the process we have lost both the reason the founding generation considered a written instrument so important and the original intent of the Constitution for the United States.

I discuss this and more in Episode 129 of The Brion McClanahan Show.

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