ISI Conference Part Three: More British Than the British!

This is the final installment my three part report on the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s one day conference on The Roots of American Order. So here is part two of mine titled Lift a Glass to the Past: America Rooted in Tradition or a New Covenant? (Click for parts one and two)

After a break for lunch, Mark C. Henrie took up America’s Britishness. Henrie wrote the ISI’s A Student’s Guide to the Core Curriculum that explains the value of a traditional core of studies in Western civilization and his session reflected that study.

Capitalizing on Birzer’s citation of Edmund Burke who praised the colonist’s essential Britishness, Henrie made the point that America is best understood not as a break from tradition but as the culmination of a long series of continuous ideals that range back through Western history, specifically through England.

Henrie says that we get four essentials from England.

  1. The English language and literature
  2. The common law and a respect for the rule of law
  3. A desire for self government
  4. Manners and a social order

One of the questions that researchers have often wondered is why American English and British English are essentially the same? Why didn’t America reinvent English for its own purposes in the same way the Dutch altered German, for instance? Henrie says that the reason is that the focal point of language in the colonies was contained in the King James Bible and that pervasive reliance on a single source of language arrested any development of a widely diverging American version of English. We Americans inherited the English language through the Bible.

Next Henrie talked of our ideals of law. As an example of the American focus on the law, Henrie notes that Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Common Law was more popular per capita in the colonies than it was in England. He also said that it was likely that the ideals of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” came from Blackstone.

Our ideals of self-government are also a British idea. Accordingly, Officials in Parliament were initially elected from their own local areas and sent to Parliament to represent the nation just as we continued to do in Congress.

In the Q and A afterwards, though, I noted that one of the reasons that the Crown couldn’t understand our point of view on representation in Parliament was because we took our representation a tad farther than the British did.

In England, once elected to Parliament it was expected that those that took their seat were to stop worrying about representing their home turf and consider themselves as representatives of the whole of Britain. On the other hand, since we in America were so geographically isolated and since we did not initially have here a national body in which to sit, we had a higher expectation that our local representatives would go into colonial government to represent the views of those that elected them. In many cases, Americans bound their representatives to the voters and allowed them little room for maneuver while members of the House of Commons in Britain had no expectation at all that their constituents back home would control their efforts in Parliament in any way.

So, when Americans expected to have an actual seat at the table in Parliament where our own officials might sit to represent us, British officials deemed such a thing unnecessary because all of Parliament sat in virtual representation of the whole of the Empire. The Crown simply saw no reason for Americans to sit in Parliament but this was an abrogation of their right to self-government as far as the colonists were concerned.

As an outgrowth of this expectation of self-rule all the way down to the local community, federalism was born and this was an entirely new idea.

Finally, as Burke noted, America was bequeathed a particularly British sense of manners, comportment, and a social order that also saw us more like the British than unlike them. The Britishness that undergirded our entire culture in all parts of the colonies was strong enough to stave off the various other European influences (French, German, Spanish, what have you) and maintain our status as the true heirs to British sensibilities.

Once again we see that we are beholden to our traditions.

Finally we heard from E. Christian Kopff on The Philadelphia Miracle.

Reflecting the religious theme of the day’s events, Kopff recalls how nearly every founder termed our founding as a miracle born of divine intervention and that our efforts were not just efforts for us but for all mankind.

But he noted that Machiavelli said that every nation must be forced back to its first principles at some time or lose itself and that we are today at such a crossroads.

Here I think another Machiavelli quote is pertinent to the discussion:

Princes and republics who wish to maintain themselves free from corruption must above all things preserve the purity of all religions observances, and treat them with proper reverence; for there is no greater indication of the ruin of a country than to see religion contemned.
— Niccoló Machiavelli, The Discourses. 1517.

I might also stretch this to include civil institutions along with those religious. We are today in a state of eschewing our civil and religious traditions and this has led to our current discontent as far as I am concerned.

Kopff discussed how he thinks the conventional wisdom on the Constitutional debates states that there was some unknown shift during the debate of the Constitution from the one-state-one-vote plan to the current system of proportional representation. Kopff thinks that the delegates were actually persuaded by arguments of proportionalism as opposed to cajoled by some corrupt bargain as some historiography has led some to believe.

Kopff notes that during the debate, John Dickinson of Delaware said that experience should be “our only guide” because rationalism may “lead us astray.” (see the quote I started this piece out with above) Not only does Kopff think that the delegates were persuaded by Dickinson’s argument here, but he thinks there was a realization by the delegates that tradition and history should serve as their bedrock.

He rejects that the Enlightenment influence was as pervasive as many argue it was. He points out that rationalism — as espoused by Rousseau, for one — as a thing that is born free of past encumbrance is impossible. Kopff asserts that rationalism can only be built on tradition and past experience, he posits that tradition validates rationalism.

To my mind, he makes a good point. After all fans of rationalism seem to imagine that at its inception rationalism represented an anti-religious ideal and a breaking from tradition, a new way of thought. Yet, these same people accept that rational thought can be born of nothing, not based on past experience? Isn’t that the same thing as divine revelation? I mean, divine revelation insists that it is born of God’s word and not of earthly traditions and man’s efforts. And here comes rationalism divorced from man’s tradition to be born as if from a miraculous revelation? It seems to me that the rationalists merely exchanged the idea that God is divine with the idea that the individual human’s mind is divine.

Without experience and tradition, rationalism most certainly can lead us astray. We are seeing that today with a left-wing wishing of what could be if only…! With the left’s insistence that our traditions and systems are useless, corrupt, or need the panacea of “change” to “fix” them, we are truly seeing the “rational” going uninformed by tradition and experience in America today.

We are all too often rejecting our American principles as venal and broken. We have for fifty years told the world that we are wrong, even evil. And now we have a president that has made it his duty in nearly every single speech he’s given to say that we have been wrong on everything. Is it any wonder that we have an enemy in radical Islamists that have taken our word for it and decided to punish us accordingly?

The truth is, we are not a nation that needs to be remade. We are a nation that needs to get back to first principles. Are there some problems with our early ideas? Certainly. But to throw the baby out with the bathwater is a fool’s action. The fact is, we are a great nation because of our traditions and principles, not despite them and we need to retrain our citizenry in those principles.

I was glad to have gotten the chance to attend this ISI conference and look forward to its future efforts. In the mean time, if you’d like to see a whole series of video and audio lectures on American exceptionalism, history, and traditions some that stretch back some 40 years, visit ISI’s lecture series on its website. There you’ll see some great lecturers from folks like the four I met this weekend (and including them). ISI also has an interesting blog called First Principles that is worth visiting.

Part One: Lift a Glass to the Past: America Rooted in Tradition or a New Covenant?

ISI Conference Part Two: Christ in Our Soul

Warner Todd Huston

Warner Todd Huston is a Chicago-based freelance writer, has been writing opinion editorials and social criticism since early 2001 and is featured on many websites such as Andrew Breitbart's BigGovernment.com, BigJournalsim.com and all Breitbart News' other sites, RightWingNews.com, CanadaFreePress.com, and many, many others. Additionally, he has been a frequent guest on talk-radio programs across the country to discuss his opinion editorials and current events as well as appearing on TV networks such as CNN, Fox News, Fox Business Network, and various Chicago-based news programs. He has also written for several history magazines and appears in the book "Americans on Politics, Policy and Pop Culture" which can be purchased on amazon.com. He is also the owner and operator of PubliusForum.com. Feel free to contact him with any comments or questions : EMAIL Warner Todd Huston and follow him on Twitter, on Google Plus , and Facebook.

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