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The American Tradition

by Clarence B. Carson for the Foundation For Economic Education

In a recent conversation with the president of a small college in the South I pointed out that I sup­posed I was what is most com­monly called a "conservative." Somewhat perturbed, he asked if I associated myself with a par­ticular group—one which has been given a bad reputation by the press. I answered that I knew of this group only by hearsay, and that I belonged to no organizations engaged in promulgating such ideas. I went on to explain briefly some of my central beliefs. But, he said when I had finished, that is simply Americanism. I agreed that I thought so myself. And thereby hangs a tale.

How pleasant it would be if the matter could be handled so simply, if one could say that he believed in the individual, in individual liberty, in limited government, and in free enterprise—and let it go at that. How refreshing it is to pass, if just for a moment, from the clouded atmosphere of com­peting ideas and ideologies into the clear air of simple agreement. There was a time in American his­tory when such general agreement existed that men seldom bothered to recur to principles. Such con-census no longer exists, though national leaders frequently try to make it appear that it does.

I suspect that it would have been easy, in the conversation al­luded to in the beginning, to have found that we were by no means of the same mind. It would only have been necessary for me to point out a few practical applica­tions of these American ideas to show that this has not been the trend of recent years at all. I did not do so, preferring for the mo­ment an illusion of harmony to the possibility of acrimonious debate. The point I would make is this. The American tradition has left a residue of live coals which still glow when breathed upon. Many Americans still respond positively when these ideals and ideas are called to their attention. There are, however, a great many clink­ers among the coals—these clink­ers being mainly the deposits from more recent accretions of ideas. It is not possible at the moment to build a fire upon the live coals of the tradition because of the inter­ference of clinkers. These latter must be separated and removed from among the coals before a healthy fire can be built.

A Multiplicity of Traditions

This metaphor, however, as­sumes too much. It assumes that there is or was an American tradi­tion, that it can be defined and de­lineated, and that it has continued value and validity. If, as I have al­ready said, there is no general consensus upon these things, then they must be demonstrated, not assumed.

Would it not be more correct to refer to a multiplicity of tradi­tions in America? One theory has it that America was a vast melt­ing pot, combining elements from many countries, cultures, and tra­ditions. The result of this, accord­ing to some accounts, is a pro­found antitraditional bias in America. In this view, Americans became a race devoted to the sloughing off of tradition, to per­petual change, to ever new move­ments in a framework of social mobility. Along with this, they de­veloped a pragmatic temper con­sisting of experimental adjust­ment to changing circumstances. Following this line of description, America is an open society; Amer­icans are casters-off of tradition, a people in constant rebellion against the fetters of established ways and patterns.

Of course, one can focus upon America in such a way that no tradition will come into view. That has been done in the above ac­count. Suppose, instead, that one begins in the belief that there is a tradition and searches for it. He may then be struck by the number of traditions which have been lodged here at one time or an­other. Depending upon the locale (and the point of approach), there has been an English tradition, a Southern tradition, a New Eng­land tradition, a Puritan tradi­tion, a Spanish tradition, and so on through all the cultural vari­ants that have had an existence in America. Or, to look at the matter from the widest possible angle, there has been only the Western (or Christian) tradition.

But, one may observe correctly, none of these is an American tra­dition; they are either too nar­row, too broad, or clearly non-American. The difficulty in locat­ing the tradition is twofold: in not being clear about what we are looking for, and in not having our sight correctly focused.

Tradition Defined

The first difficulty can be sur­mounted by a definition. A tradi­tion is a body of beliefs, customs, habits, ways of doing things which are handed down from generation to generation. The manner of its being taught would not seem to be essential, whether by schools, by parents, by associates, or by churches. It is not so much a mat­ter of law as of the manner by which laws are enacted, what is an appropriate matter for legis­lation, and wherein the authority resides for enacting it. Anyone who doubts that there is an Amer­ican tradition should observe a group of Americans organizing for some new undertaking. They will, predictably, adopt a constitution and by-laws, establish certain of­fices of which one will almost cer­tainly be that of a president, elect certain of their members to fill these offices, and so on. That they will almost certainly do just this speaks eloquently of the existence of a tradition. The above, too, gives us a hint of the American tradition, for it is certainly of that.

The matter of correct focus is more difficult. If a tradition is un­derstood as being prescriptive, there are many aspects of life and human activity which lie outside the American tradition. One may doubt that there is an artistic tradition, or a religious tradition (though there is a tradition of having a religion), or an aristo­cratic or class tradition, or, in many ways, a social tradition. The tradition, in America, may define attitudes toward these things but it does not prescribe them. It is, or was, the very essence of this tradition that it was limited. The very existence of these United States has depended upon limited prescription. In fact, there have been, and still are to some extent, many traditions in America, but they are local and regional in character. The American tradition must generally be, then, one which lies above these and does not or­dinarily intrude upon them. It is in this restricted area that we should look for the American tradition.

Three Major Developments

If we focus our attention upon the restricted public arena in which there has been an Ameri­can tradition, this is what we should discover. Historically, in that period since the English be­gan to come in numbers to Amer­ica, the outlines of not one but three traditions can be described in the course of our history. They are—to give them names—the authoritarian, the American, and the collectivist. I call the second the American because thus far it has been the central tradition to emerge here. Other names have been applied to it, but they have been subjected to such distortions that I prefer a more neutral ter­minology until I have delineated it more fully.

There was an attempt to trans­plant the authoritarian tradition from Europe to America in the seventeenth century. By authori­tarian I mean the tradition of authority being vested in a man or men. It carries overtones, too, of reference to some external co­ercive authority. Those who prefer semantic arguments to clarity of thought may argue that men have always lived under some ex­ternal authority, and that it only changes its name from time to time. The distinction, however, is that implied between subject and citizen. The subject clearly recog­nizes the existence of the author­ity of a man over him; citizen im­plies an equality of condition in regard to the exercise of author­ity.

At any rate, America was ini­tially settled by men accustomed by law and tradition to hierarchi­cal authority. Authority over vari­ous colonies was vested in joint-stock companies, proprietors, or in some body by charter. In turn, these were grants stemming from the monarch. Everyman’s rights and privileges were either con­firmed or tacitly granted by the king. But the whole tradition was permeated by authoritarianism. Puritans, who doubted the king’s authority in matters of religion, did not doubt that authority over men had been vested in the lead­ers of church and state. The emerging economy of the time—mercantilism—was authoritarian. Individuals engaging in economic activity frequently procured charters, grants, and monopolies from the crown. The state exer­cised extensive authority over commerce by way of tariffs, bounties, and regulations of quality and quantity. In the home, au­thority was vested by law and usage in the father, who exercised it not only over minors in the home but also over women of whatever age.

But this transplanted authority withered in the American soil. Re­bellions against it were numerous, even in the seventeenth century. Virginians took unkindly to the derivative authority over them, and soon they established a legis­lative assembly. The Puritan oli­garchy was soon under pressure to extend the franchise and to yield up its exclusive control. The economic controls established by the early companies soon gave way to a great deal of private and relatively free trade. Roger Wil­liams and Anne Hutchinson would not bow to the Puritan orthodoxy. The Old World class structure hardly took root in America at all. Religious toleration and represen­tative assemblies were increas­ingly used as lures to draw set­tlers to the newer colonies. Those who would hold settlers found it advantageous to offer land which could be acquired as private prop­erty. The vestiges of Old World authority were maintained well into the eighteenth century, but another order was clearly emerg­ing. One might almost say that the American colonists tolerated the theoretical claims of the older authority until George III and his ministers attempted to effectuate it.

Animated by Liberty

We can discern almost from the beginnings of American settle­ment the making of an American tradition. This emerging tradition was one of individualism, volun­tarism, constitutionalism, repre­sentative government, govern­ment by law, equality before the law, the recognition of a moral order in the universe, natural rights, and personal independence. It was, in essence, a liberal tradi­tion, despite the semantic difficul­ties which the use of the phrase introduces. It was liberal in that it was animated by liberty as an ideal, embraced means consonant with liberty, and limited that authority over men which might intrude upon their liberty.

There are at least two difficul­ties in the way of calling the cen­tral American tradition liberal. One is that the term has been taken over in the twentieth cen­tury by those who are trying to graft collectivism onto the Ameri­can tradition. The other is that "liberal" gained a partisan con­notation in English-speaking countries in the nineteenth cen­tury. It was used to refer to the followers of Jefferson, Jackson, Mill, and Gladstone. It became as­sociated with the opposition to es­tablished ways and traditions.

When I refer to the American tradition as liberal, I intend to convey neither the collectivistic nor partisan meaning. By liberal tradition, then, I refer to the institutions by which liberty was established, the beliefs which sup­ported liberty, and the customs, habits, and folkways that pro­moted liberty. So conceived, the liberal tradition was not the pos­session of a party but of a peo­ple, not a political program but a way of life, not simply a thrust for change but a means of main­taining order and continuity. It was the American tradition. It be­gan to emerge around 1650, gained sway and was instituted between 1760 and 1800, and was maintained virtually unchallenged until around 1900.

A Non-Revolutionary Growth

In view of certain historical controversies, the point needs to be emphasized that the American tradition was not revolutionary. There are in American history no parallels to the revolutionary hap­penings of the French and Rus­sian revolutions, no abolition of calendars and starting anew, no wholesale changing of street names, no reconstruing of the whole social system nor attempts to remake man in the image of some ideology. On the contrary, Americans took gladly from their own past experience and practices, and from those of other people as well. The posture of the Founding Fathers is not that of men who know better than anyone ever has how to do things; it is rather one of attempting to build upon both the successes and failures of the past a little better edifice for pro­tecting liberty within a frame­work of order. This made it more of a tradition because it rested on other traditions.

By calling it the American tra­dition, then, I have not meant to imply that it took its whole shape and substance from America, or that Americans broke entirely from their European past. Far from it! There is a sense, of course, in which Americans have consciously sloughed off a part of the European heritage. But much more evident is the fact that they built upon it.

The concept of natural law up­on which American liberty was based goes back at least to the time of Cicero. The debt of Amer­icans to John Locke, Montesquieu, and Edmund Burke, to Athens and Rome, to Medieval France and Renaissance Italy, and to the whole Old World Heritage is be­yond measure. Regarding the classical influence upon the founding of the American republic, a recent scholar has said: "In no field were Greek and Roman sources more often invoked; and at no time were they more fre­quently cited than during the pre­liminary discussions, the debates on the Constitution, the ratifying conventions, the Federalist papers and such publications as John Dickinson’s Fabius Letters. The framers of the Constitution did not merely echo or imitate this ancient material: they applied it to the task in hand and trans­muted it into workable form."’ The imprint of the English heri­tage is writ large in the forms of American institutions. Moreover, there has been continual interac­tion between Europe and America from the outset.

Yet for all that, the tradition is peculiarly American. Even when the form is derivative, the articu­lation is American. Thus, the form for the office of President may have been derived on the one hand from monarchy and on the other from colonial governors, but the President is neither the one nor the other. The concept of right was fostered in America by a knowledge of privileges which monarchs granted, but the rights which Americans came to prize had no basis any longer in mo­narchical grants. Such a strictly limited government as they con­ceived had no precise model any­where. How aptly it was designed for the American condition, not to bring unity out of diversity but to achieve sufficient unity for pro­tective purposes while permitting the greatest diversity and liberty. Beliefs and practices on this con­tinent acquired their own peculiar turn.

The Past Is Prologue

That the tradition which I have been describing is by right called the American tradition should be apparent. It was neither liberal nor conservative in partisan senses of those words. Rather, it was conservative in that it pre­served from and was builded upon the past; liberal in that it was de­signed to protect liberty. It was in this frame that the state gov­ernments were constituted and the United States government in­stituted. It is American in that it grew out of the American situa­tion and took shape in American conditions. There is, in fact, not even now any other tradition which can be called American.

That the central American tradition was erected around the goal of liberty is manifest in the great documents of our history. It was explicitly stated in the Declaration of Independence and im­plied in the structure of govern­ment provided for in the Consti­tution of 1787. Liberty was de­clared to be the object of the Massachusetts Body of Liberties of 1641, and was undoubtedly the purpose of the first ten amend­ments to the Constitution. The writings of Americans for two centuries are filled with declara­tions of devotion to liberty. This is true of Roger Williams, John Wise, Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, James Madi­son, Andrew Jackson, and Henry David Thoreau.

Of the "Colonial Mind" just be­fore the American Revolution, one historian has said: "Rarely if ever in the history of free government has there been so unanimous a `party line’ as that to which the colonists pledged their uncritical allegiance. And rarely if ever has the party line been so easily re­duced to one comprehensible con­cept, even to one wonderful word: Liberty…. One of the authors of the Independent Reflector spoke for almost all colonial thinkers when he adopted as his ‘principal Design… opposing Oppression, and vindicating the Liberty of Man.’ "2

Massive Departures During the Twentieth Century

There have, however, been mas­sive departures from this tradi­tion in the twentieth century. Around 1880 thinkers began to lay the intellectual foundations for a new direction—that of collectiv­ism. From the late nineteenth century on, elements of this new way were inserted piece by piece into the American frame. The most dramatic movement in that direction was made in 1933, but it has been gaining ground for most of the century.

Collectivists have not yet estab­lished a tradition in keeping with their ideas in America. Indeed, they have displayed a tendency to draw back in horror before actual examples of a more thorough carrying-out of their ideas, as in the Soviet Union. Collectivism be­gins with a conception of social unity which when carried through to conclusion leaves no room for diversity of practice or custom. Collectivists conceive of the pur­pose of society in such a way that common action must pervade every area of life. The society must be homogenized, as it were, in order that it have only com­mon needs which can be met.

The accomplishment of this tre­mendous purpose requires a co­ordinated central authority which is greatly hampered by the separation of federally distributed powers. Congress is a continual affront to collectivists because it will not act with that unanimity which all-pervasive collective ac­tion requires. The natural institu­tions of collectivism are totali­tarianism and dictatorship. The natural (or unnatural) tradition of collectivism is the homogenized society, the centralized authority, the collective (i.e., government) ownership or control of the means of production and distribution of goods, and the merging of all in­dividual, local, and regional au­tonomy with a vast social whole, in which it will be submerged and lost.

Changing the Meaning

American collectivists (at least those called "liberals") shrink from many of these implications. Rather, they have attempted to achieve collectivism within the American tradition, however much they might stretch it in doing so. Their collectivism they call by the generic name of democracy, and their programs they advance in the name of the general welfare of the people. They have, of course, wrenched these words out of the context of the earlier American tradition and distorted their meaning. But this has been a usual tactic, whether wittingly or not, to distort the American tradition and to make it appear to fit the collectivists’ ideas.

A frequent tactic of historians has been to describe the making of American tradition within a purely temporal and environ­mental framework. Thus, earlier practices were in keeping with the American environment and conditions. But these conditions, they say, have changed. Thus the American tradition must be re-construed to fit changing needs and conditions. Individualism, they tell us, was appropriate to an earlier day, but its day is past. The state divisions were all very well in a more primitive America, but the growth of "urban com­plexes" has made of them silly an­achronisms. The real American tradition, they add, has been one of pragmatic adjustment to new and changing conditions. Thus is collectivism advanced.

By these methods the real American tradition has been ob­scured, much of its meaning lost, and its vitality drained off into collectivism. My purpose in this and the ensuing articles is to try to recapture some of the central features of that tradition, to de­scribe how they emerged and were instituted, and to call atten­tion to their rapid submergence in the twentieth century. It is not my contention that back there somewhere was a perfect tradi­tion, pure and undefiled, waiting to be discovered. Our ancestors were fallible men, even as we are. Let it not be forgotten that the justly revered Founding Fathers recognized and accepted human slavery in the Constitution. They fell short of their ideals in prac­tice even as we do. All too often they compromised and bartered away liberty. Yet they conceived the noblest experiment in individ­ual liberty that has yet appeared on this continent, or perhaps any­where else, and if those live coals which are the memories of the tradition they bequeathed to us can be made to glow in such a way as to kindle a new flame, we shall have been repaid for recur­ring to that earlier tradition.

Federal Aid: Bane or Blessing?

This paternalistic idea of what government should be always involves an elite of bureaucracy which actually is no different from you and me, but imagines itself divinely commissioned to decide what all of the rest of us should do with our lives.

I should not really confine this elite to officeholders, by any means. There are many all around us—ministers, professors, club women, businessmen, social workers, who have the notion that everybody else, except them, doesn’t know the score, can’t earn enough money for a living, can’t use what he earns intelli­gently for himself and his family, can’t understand the simple rules of health, can’t organize his leisure time, so must be putty in the hands of those who are blessed with these special insights—especially those who have control over tax money. Whatever its source, it is an utterly false notion that the mass of people have to be looked after by a few, not only utterly false but de­grading to the personality of those who are the intended bene­ficiaries. To help people, yes; but to help people help themselves is the only help that really helps. The idea, therefore, that the federal treasury is both inexhaustible and a resource for per­sonal advantage is a weakening force upon our national and in­dividual character.

This article was originally published by the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in The Freeman on April 1963 • Volume: 13 • Issue: 4.

About The Author

Clarence B. Carson The late Clarence Carson was a prolific historian and Freeman contributor. The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), one of the oldest free-market organizations in the United States, was founded in 1946 by Leonard E. Read to study and advance the freedom philosophy. FEE's mission is to offer the most consistent case for the "first principles" of freedom: the sanctity of private property, individual liberty, the rule of law, the free market, and the moral superiority of individual choice and responsibility over coercion.

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