10/22/20

The Founders’ priceless legacy

 

 

   November 2020
The New Criterion’s Visiting Critic delivers the second annual Circle Lecture.

Editors’ note: The following is an edited version of remarks delivered for The New Criterion’s second annual Circle Lecture on September 30, 2020.

However unfashionable to say so at the moment, the American Founding is one of the noblest achievements of the Western Enlightenment. It created something breathtakingly new in history: a self-governing republic that protects the right of individuals—not serfs, not subjects, but equal citizens before the law—to pursue their own happiness in their own way. Who could have imagined that such a triumph would come under the violent attack that now seeks to deny and besmirch it? Whether it flies the banner of The 1619 Project, Black Lives Matter, or Critical Race Theory, the new anti-Americanism condemns the Founding Fathers’ project as conceived in slavery, not liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that we can never be equal citizens with equal rights.

It is a militant anti-Americanism, too. Like the iconoclasm of the most violent English Puritans, who smashed the faces off the carved saints and angels in one sublime medieval church after another, or of the French sans-culottes, who dug up and desecrated nine centuries of royal bodies from their tombs in the Abbey of Saint-Denis, defacing for good measure the statues of the Old Testament kings on the façade of this first great Gothic building, today’s anti-Americanism seeks to pulverize and obliterate our national past as something too offensive and obscene to have existed.

The current upheaval is the latest paroxysm of a cultural revolution that has gained momentum for half a century or more, and its trajectory from the universities to popular culture is too well known to need repeating. What I want to discuss here is the precious value of our inheritance from the Founding Fathers that today’s vandals want to destroy. If they succeed—since history, even our own, doesn’t always go forward and upward, despite the claims of the so-called “progressives”—we will find ourselves in a new Dark Age of constraint and superstition.

At the heart of the Founding was a thirst for liberty. In announcing our national freedom from imperial domination, the Declaration of Independence began by asserting our right to individual liberty. For the Founders, that liberty was not some vague abstraction. They understood it concretely, as people do who’ve suffered its opposite. They grasped it like those Eastern Europeans who once lived under Communist tyranny, for instance, or like Jews who survived the Holocaust.

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07/10/20

On Thomas Jefferson


He trusted to the advance of the Enlightenment to end
slavery
JULY 27, 2020, ISSUE

Nobody embodies the paradox at the heart of the American
founding more vividly than Thomas Jefferson, the slave
owner who penned the American creed of liberty in the
Declaration of Independence and who, with a slave as his
concubine, would “dream of freedom in his bondsmaid’s arms,”
as Irish poet Tom Moore jeered during Jefferson’s second
presidential term. As young vandals torch our national heritage,
in an infectious delusion that America was conceived in slavery,
not in liberty, take a good look at our third president, warts and
all. You’ll find, despite his undeniable flaws, one of history’s
great men who helped build history’s greatest nation. He is
especially relevant now, when the qualities he placed at the
center of our culture are at once so beleaguered and so
essential. Continue reading

07/22/17

“Let Right Be Done!”

A classic film’s lesson in liberty

July 21, 2017

May I recommend one of my candidates for the Ten Greatest Movies list—The Winslow Boy? What the 1948 British film (not David Mamet’s 1999 remake) has going for it is a brilliant director, Anthony Asquith—who ranks with such luminaries as Carol Reed, Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, or Jean Renoir—and a stellar cast, which includes some of the most skilled actors in movie history, from Cedric Hardwicke on down, all at the top of their form. But above all these advantages, the movie’s animating spirit is its script, by Terrance Rattigan and Anatole de Grunwald from Rattigan’s play, which grippingly dramatizes a principle at the very heart of Anglo-Saxon liberty—a principle that today’s America badly needs to relearn.

The Winslow Boy–and his father

The story, set in 1912—when director Asquith’s father, H. H. Asquith, was Britain’s Liberal prime minister, and World War I was brewing—is simple, and it won’t spoil the movie for you if I sketch its outline. Twelve-year-old Ronnie Winslow gets expelled from Osborne, the prestigious boarding school for cadets headed for Royal Navy commissions, for allegedly stealing five shillings. Though the sum is trivial, the alleged breach of the code of officers and gentlemen is not. His father, Arthur, a newly retired Wimbledon bank manager played by Hardwicke, solemnly asks him if he is guilty—twice—and when the boy twice asserts his innocence, his father, who raised him to tell the truth, vows to vindicate the boy’s honor, whatever the cost.It proves immense. In his quest, which lasts until after Ronnie turns 14, Arthur sacrifices his health, much of his savings, and the happiness and future of his solidly respectable and eminently likable upper-middle-class family. He meets obstacles at every point. The school’s commandant tells him that, as he had no doubt of Ronnie’s guilt after hearing the details of the theft, he has no second thoughts about summarily expelling the boy, without any formal procedure or even someone to advise Ronnie or speak in his defense. He won’t reconsider the evidence or say what it was. A visit to the Admiralty Commission to threaten a lawsuit gains Arthur only a haughty declaration that he needn’t bother: a subject of the king can’t sue the king’s representatives, for the law holds that the king can do no wrong.

True enough, his solicitor tells him; but nevertheless Magna Carta, the thirteenth-century charter of English liberties, declares that “no subject of the King may be condemned without a trial,” so perhaps Arthur should ask his MP to denounce the wrong done to Ronnie in Parliament. Good advice: for the MP, seeing a chance to win favorable press as a defender of justice, is glad to oblige. Reporters readily take the bait and make the Winslow case a national cause célèbre.

The uproar catches the interest of Sir Robert Morton, England’s most eminent—and expensive—barrister, masterfully played by Robert Donat as a complex mix of eloquence, cold hauteur, ruthless intelligence, and deep but hidden feeling, a legal version of Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester. Morton drops in at the Winslows’ house on his way to dinner with a duchess, politely introduces himself, and mercilessly cross-examines Ronnie, until the boy stammers with confusion and his family (along with the audience) wonders if he’s been telling the truth. But after such browbeating, the great man abruptly announces that he’ll take the case, for he thinks Ronnie is innocent. Continue reading

07/4/15

The Vision of the Founding Fathers

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What kind of nation did the Founders aim to create?
By Myron Magnet — July 3, 2015

Men, not vast, impersonal forces — economic, technological, class struggle, what have you — make history, and they make it out of the ideals that they cherish in their hearts and the ideas they have in their minds. So what were the ideas and ideals that drove the Founding Fathers to take up arms and fashion a new kind of government, one formed by reflection and choice, as Alexander Hamilton said, rather than by accident and force?

Signing of the Declaration of Independence, John Trumbull

Signing of the Declaration of Independence, John Trumbull

The worldview out of which America was born centered on three revolutionary ideas, of which the most powerful was a thirst for liberty. For the Founders, liberty was not some vague abstraction. They understood it concretely, as people do who have a keen knowledge of its opposite. They understood it in the same way as Eastern Europeans who have lived under Communist tyranny, for instance, or Jews who escaped the Holocaust. Continue reading