The Founders and the Rising Generation
by T. Kenneth Cribb, Jr.
The Philadelphia Society Meeting
November 23, 1996
Alexander Solzhenitsyn once remarked that "A people which no longer
remembers, has lost its history and its soul." That profound insight underscores
the centrality of our deliberations this weekend. It is especially haunting when
applied to the theme of tonight's session: the Founders and the rising
It is appropriate that we gather this weekend in Williamsburg, a city where the mist of history surrounds us, to discuss ways in which to recover our historical consciousness. The alarming rate at which historical ignorance--and worse, apathy--are advancing in the ranks of our fellow citizens puts the future of the nation as conceived by the Founders at risk. Indeed, a recent symposium in a highly regarded journal has gone so far as to suggest that the experiment undertaken by our Forefathers in erecting a republican system of limited, representative government is in acute danger of failing due to a "long train of abuses and usurpations"--to use the language of the Declaration--by the courts and by big government. The question explored in the symposium by several distinguished writers in "whether we are reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime." That such a question is seriously posed by leading conservative thinkers is a sobering comment on the state of the republic.
How have we come to this pass? Certainly one of the principal reasons is the ever widening gap between the Founding generation and the rising generation. This chasm is a "generation gap" of a different sort than the kind commonly referred to by political pollsters. I mean here something much different than chronological distance--I mean a separation more in consciousness than in time. Today's high school and college youth exist, in an historical sense, a mere 220 years from the signing of the Declaration--but for most it may we well be 2020. Survey after survey confirms the basic fact that the rising generation is learning next to nothing about American history. What is at stake here is more than a lost acquaintance with names, dates, events, and figures, important as that acquaintance is. More significantly, the rising generation increasingly is being denied the acquisition of an historical consciousness and the cultivation of the discipline of historical memory.
The fact that most citizens today complacently accept the abrogation of power by governments and the courts at the expense of their own sovereignty is not surprising given the dramatic recession of historical understanding and memory among large numbers of Americans now coming of age. What is the significance of historical consciousness and its connection to our present discontents? Wilfred McClay, an historian of distinction here with us this weekend, put the connection this way in a recent, and poetic, address at The Heritage Foundation.
"Historical consciousness," McClay writes, "is to civilized society what memory is to the individual identity. One cannot say who or what one is--one can't say one is anyone, or anything, at all--without some selective retention of experience and source of continuity. One cannot learn, use
language, pass on knowledge, raise offspring, or even dwell in society without the aid of
memory....A culture without memory will necessarily be barbarous, no matter how technologically
advanced and sophisticated, because the daily drumbeat of artificial sensations and amplified
events will drown out all other sounds, including the strains of an older music."
What is it about the men of America's founding generation that makes them worthy of the memory of the rising generation? For some, the extraordinary extent to which large numbers of our forebears were prepared to sacrifice their fortunes and their very lives to preserve liberty is enough to merit historical distinction and commemoration. For still others, the extraordinary fact about the Founding era was the talent it generated. People seemed to notice from the beginning the shear number of planters and shopkeepers, men of the courts and countinghouses, coming together to fight a war and forge a nation. Silas Deane, a member of the Continental Congress wrote home in 1775 that "Times like these call up Genius, which slept before, and stimulate it in action to a degree, that eclipses what might before have been fixed as a Standard." And in 1789, David Ramsey of my own South Carolina noted that the heroic events of the war and the succeeding years of constitutional deliberation had "not only required, but created talents. Men, he said, "spoke, wrote, and acted, with an energy far surpassing all expectations, which could be reasonably founded on their previous acquirements. And, indeed, in our own day historian Edmund S. Morgan expressed a similar sentiment when he observed that "if one were to make a list of the great men of American history, by whatever standards one chooses to measure greatness, an astonishingly large proportion would be found whose careers began or culminated in the Revolution. It would be hard to find in all the rest of American history more than two or three men to rank with Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, or John Adams." When a society wishes to encourage right conduct, the ability of history to throw forward exemplars of right conduct is not to be underestimated.
But when we attempt to unveil these, and other, ways in which the Founders are worthy of a central place in the individual and collective memory, we are met by formidable obstacles. One is the reigning utilitarian approach to history, which is surely one overwhelming reason why such a large historical generation gap currently exists. A utilitarian view of historical studies is not a new problem; since the early decades of this century conservatives have waged a sustained offensive against the progressives and John Dewey, objecting principally to the transformation of the educational mission of one of "social efficiency." Transmitting the legacy of the Founding Fathers will never be a central concern of historians chiefly occupied with constructing a program directly "relevant" to their students interests, and in concert with their students' personal and professional goals. The extreme of this view was best expressed thirty years ago by radical educator Edgar Wesley in an infamous essay entitled, "Let's Abolish History." In it, Wesley argued that students need a history they can "appreciate." "No teacher at any grade level," he confidently asserted, "should teach a course in history as content. To do so is confusing, unnecessary, frustrating, futile, pointless, and as illogical as to teach a course in the World Almanac, the dictionary, or the Encyclopedia. [History should be] utilized and exploited--not studied, learned, or memorized." Needless to say, such ardent utilitarianism, and even milder expressions of the same view, had proved disastrous for the study of history generally, and the cultivation of an historical appreciation for our American forebears in particular.
A corollary view to the utilitarian approach to history is the scourge of moral relativism which, in the modern academy, cloaks itself in the garb of multiculturalism.
Relativism has stalked the corridors of the academy for years, but the echoes of those footsteps resound as never before. Of the strains of academic relativism, two of the most virulent are relativism as among cultures and relativism as among standards. The transmission of culture depends on the assumption that there is in the body of Western thought truths that are worth preserving through the ages, truths that justify the immense effort and cost of the educational establishment traditionally entrusted with transmitting the culture. but what if there is no truth? Or mores specifically, what if the traditions and institutions of the West, and the moral order that these imply, are neither more nor less valuable than those of other cultures? Well then, concern for transmitting an inherited body of learning does not matter, because the culture of the West itself does not signify.
Once the leveling scythe of relativism has cut the higher achievements of civilization down to size, we are exempted from thinking through such fundamental questions as What is the good? What is just? What deserves the allegiance of duty and of honor? Why do civilizations rise? Why do they fall? For relativism also attacks any notion of standards that proceed from a moral order and that form the basis of right conduct.
Forrest McDonald has observed that the Framers themselves were not strangers to this notion of moral relativism. But, McDonald notes, the Founders "put it to their use, with their understanding that a regime must be suited to the manners and morals of a people if it is to endure." "They would [however] have been appalled," he argues further, "at the modern idea that Western civilization is no better than other civilizations, that the heritage of The West is not superior to as well as different from that of The East, that the Judaeo-Christian tradition is not morally superior to as well as different from that of Islam or paganism or tribalism, that one so-called life-style is as good as another. Such thinking, if it can be so described, is a rationalization for being unable to measure up to the duty of living in accordance with and transmitting the higher values." Political correctness and identity politics are the practical manifestations of this relativistic approach to academic inquiry.
There are of course trends other than utilitarianism and moral relativism which make it difficult to advance the Founders as a group worthy of study, appreciation, and placement in a broader "community of memory." But I want to turn finally to a brief consideration of some hopeful developments in recent years that can perhaps serve to embolden us in our efforts to close the ever widening consciousness gap between the rising generation and our Founding generation.
The first cause for tempered hope is the proliferation of idea-mediating institutions dedicated to redressing the woeful neglect of our Founding principles among the rising generation. Frank Chodorov, the man who founded ISI as many of you know, once noted that "what was done can be undone if there is a will for it." That will has been "institutionalized" in the form of organizations like our own ISI, and like Jim Taylor and Ron Robinson's Young America's Foundation, Ed Feulner's Heritage Foundation, Gene Meyer's Federalist Society, Larry Arnn and Charles Kesler's Claremont Institute, Father Sirico's Acton Institute, and many, many other organizations like these now dotting our cultural landscape. Such groups exist to put ideas into action, and serve as vital mediators between an establishment treading heavily on the intellectual tradition of the West, and students wearied of politicization and in search of the historical truth and the roots of their own cultural order. And so an infrastructure now exists that was but a dream even three decades ago. Scholars, books, journals, seminars, reprints, tapes, fellowships, and similar resources are now available in abundance to provide intellectual substance for young minds. The plenitude is so great that the main problem is organizing what is available and bringing it to bear where needed.
But the will that animates institutions like those mentioned above had to come from some source: and for most of them, the direct source has been the intellectual legacy of a broad ranging group of conservative intellectuals who for the most part put aside their differences in emphasis and approach and came together as a movement at a critical moment in our history to strengthen the faltering institutions of the West. This fact is the second reason to be mildly sanguine about our prospects for recovering our past. Because while intellectuals on the Left have for decades been working to tear down the cultural bridge that extends from one generation to the next, thinkers on the Right have been laboring heroically, and I think successfully, to extend that bridge unto the next generation. While after the last great war, the circle of those concerned with the recovery of our patrimony was a small one, it has with every decade been enlarged--creating a kind of concentric development of conservative-leaning scholars that is slowly extending itself outward into the most hostile cultural venues, poised, perhaps, one day to envelop them. One need only recall the names of Kirk, Niemeyer, Weaver, Burnham, Voegelin, Kendall, Meyer, Tonsor, and Strauss; and then consider those who picked-up their mantle, more numerous and diverse, Evans, McDonald, Carey, Liggio, Edward McClellan, Campbell, Kesler; and then consider their students, still more numerous and more diverse.
And, indeed, it is this last group which represents the third reason why I believe we can be reasonably cheered by our prospects for recovering an historical consciousness among the rising generation. For there is now in place in the university classroom a generation of young faculty members who are friendly to at least the broad strokes of the above analysis and are working in the "trenches"--often against serious odds and at risk to their careers--to transmit our Founders' intellectual, political, and cultural legacy to their students. And the numbers and quality of their graduate students--those who will succeed them--are truly impressive. The most striking testament to the truth of this proposition is this assembly itself. Present in this room is a representative sample of young scholars that prove, I believe, that our hope is not misplaced. This conference is the perfect analogue to the question at hand, senior scholars learning from and refining the energies and insights of the ascending generation; and both together looking to a previous generation--our Founding generation--for the new perspectives on the issues we confront today. This is historical consciousness at work, and we are to commend Stan Evans and Bill Campbell for seeing the need and importance of such an event.
As I mentioned, Stan and Bill have told me that their source of inspiration was a program near and dear to my heart--the ISI Richard M. Weaver and Henry Salvatori Fellowship Programs. This may be the ISI program with the smallest number of participants, but it probably has had the highest multiplier effect and the greatest impact. Both are awarded to promising students intent upon pursuing a career in the academy--with the Salvatori program focusing specifically on young thinkers with a demonstrated interest in the principles of the American Founding. Well over 400 total ISI fellowships have been awarded since 1964, with most of the Fellows now teaching or writing, as well as pursuing careers in politics and public policy. This weekend we have all had the privilege to see first-hand many products of this particular ISI program. ISI Weaver and Salvatori Fellows present please stand. Four of the other young speakers have not held fellowships from ISI, but work with us closely, and are certainly poised to make their mark on the academy and the world of affairs.
It is not inevitable, then, that our collective memory be totally lost. With the human and institutional resources such as the ones just mentioned, we should have good reason to hope that what has been done to sever the historical connection between our Founders and ourselves can be undone, in Chodorov's phrase, and repaired by this most promising generation with us tonight.
Burke, at the moment of his most bitter parliamentary defeat, still had the confidence in the young to say: "I attest the rising generation." And why should the rising generation listen to us?
Put yourself in the place of an undergraduate of keen mind and superior preparation, a student who likes to read and dispute and flex the muscles of his mind. What does the Left offer him? Turgid Marxists tracts. The straight jacket of the closed system. The politically correct jargon of a welter of splintered interest groups. A false compassion that is but thinly disguised lust for power in
the people's name, but notably without the people's participation.
And what do the conservators of the great tradition offer him? They offer a rich and various story that Russell Kirk called a tale of four cities. Jerusalem, of the one God and his Incarnation; and Athens, the birthplace of democracy and of that school of philosophy to which all other philosophical inquiries are a series of footnotes; and Rome of the stern republican fathers of the rule of law; and London, the mother of parliaments and of the chartered rights of Englishmen; and this weekend our young scholars have recommended to our attention our own Philadelphia, where just over two hundred years ago our Founding Fathers taught that self government could be preserved from the eventual corruption of power, by dividing power against itself.
And you offer not just analysis, but allegiance born of a love of the truths that our founding tradition embodies. That which has made your lives rich, you wish to share freely with those students whose life of the mind is before them. You offer them your hands, to boost them onto the shoulders of the giants of the West. And from there they will see farther than any of us.
Let us believe with the faith that abided in Burke, that the best of the new generation will clasp your proffered hands--and that they themselves, in good time, will offer theirs to those who follow.