28 May 2022

John Randolph of Roanoke & the Formation of a Southern Conservatism

We often forget that the American South developed its own conservatism, less influenced by the liberalism of the Northern variety. 

From The Imaginative Conservative

By John Devanny

One of the great issues of American political history is whether an authentic American conservatism exists. This is a crucial question for Southerners, as the South is historically viewed as the most conservative of the regions of the United States. Louis Hartz, a prominent political theorist during the middle of the twentieth century, answered no, American conservatism does not exist. His seminal work, The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), viewed the American political landscape as definitively shaped by a Lockean, liberal consensus. According to Hartz, this liberal consensus resulted from the lack of a feudal heritage in America, the vast resources and vast spaces available to anyone with a mind to escape their geographic locale or their class, and the middle-class origins of most of the Europeans who colonized America. Though Hartz does not mention it, the initial peopling of British North America happened at a time of grave religious, political, and economic strife in the British Isles. The role of the monarchy, the emergence of a modern financial and commercial order, the structure and role of the church, and the forms of Christian worship were ferociously contested in the 1600s. With so much turmoil and institutional change in the British Isles, the idea of America as a land of new beginnings with a Lockean clean slate seemed to make sense.

Russell Kirk, one of the seminal conservative thinkers of the twentieth century, answered Hartz before Hartz’s book was published. A couple of years before Hartz published The Liberal Tradition, Russell Kirk published The Conservative Mind, wherein Kirk argued for the existence and continuity of a modern Anglo-American conservatism, whose main influence was the British statesman Edmund Burke. Kirk emphasized the contributions of Anglo-American statesmen and literary figures to the non-ideological defense of a received social and political order. Some evidence for Kirk’s scholarly influence may be inferred from the shift in the conversation regarding the place of conservative thought in the American social and political order. Scholars on the left identified what they believed was a paradox operating in American conservative thought. To wit, how could American conservatives embrace free market economics and its “creative destruction,” and at the same time hope to preserve anything? As concerns Southern history, the late Gene Genovese wrote the most effective criticism of conservatism along this tack. In his book, The Slaveholder’s Dilemma, Genovese argued that Southern slaveholders were caught in a dilemma whereby they were defending slavery, an essentially pre-modern institution, and were advocates for freedom, especially in the economic and political realms. While Genovese had considerable respect for the intellectual ability of the South’s master class, he remained skeptical concerning the ability of these men to square the circle. Whether intended or not, Genovese’s argument gave considerable support to Hartz’s earlier conclusions that, by and large, the American political order was and is liberal.

Two deeply flawed assumptions were embedded in what we might call the Hartz/Genovese thesis. First was the tendency to ignore or downplay the successful transmission by the early settlers of British North America of their political, social, and cultural institutions and practices. No matter the tumult they were fleeing, the first settlers were intentional in their attempts to replicate and imitate in the new world what had been left behind in the old, and often with great success. The second flawed assumption was to equate capitalism with the free market. Capitalism, defined as behavior where a person deploys capital with the purpose of realizing a profit, certainly does exist in free markets, but it can also exist in other political and economic systems as well. It existed in the late feudal/early modern period as the activities of French textile magnate Jacques Coeur and the powerful Fugger family’s international finance enterprises suggest. It flourished under various forms of mercantilism, social democracy, and even today in the officially communist states of China and Vietnam.

Studies of capitalism devote copious amounts of ink to the profit motive, as they should, but relatively little to the risk management activities of capitalists undertaken by the state on behalf of capitalists. Such practices as tariffs, subsidies, state granted monopolies, banker bailouts, government contracts, tax exemptions, publicly financed infrastructure, and liability exemptions, are all examples of risk management undertaken by the state throughout the history of capitalism to benefit certain private enterprises, often at the direct expense of taxpayers and those enterprises not so favored by the government. This suggests that risk management is as important as the profit motive in capitalist societies, and that capitalists are quite at home with rent-seeking and risk management activities undertaken at public expense.

Indeed, we might posit that the owners of large amounts of physical and financial capital seem to prefer cozy relationships with the state to the hurly-burly of a free market. The reason for this is simple. Deploying large amounts of capital entails large amounts of risk, thus the larger capitalists have the greater temptation to turn to the state. State supported enterprises are large and their effects go beyond the economic realm. Political and social transformations result from these practices; so much of the “creative destruction” in a capitalist economy results from the partnership of consolidated capital united to consolidated government, not the free market. Truly free markets with their concomitant risks often result in more modest and cautious investment activity. United States history illustrates well the snow ball effect involved in the marriage of large capital and large government. In the post-bellum era, corporations and financial institutions have grown exponentially in size and power, but so too have both the federal and state governments, and massive social and cultural changes. All of this suggests that the union of large capital with large government is a powerful force for radical changes in society, and that the presence of risk in free markets suggests that free markets and free societies can be ordered to the conservative end of the preservation of a received political and social order.

John Randolph of Roanoke, one of the great exponents of the Southern political tradition, was certainly one who believed that liberty was a bulwark against the creative destruction of what one might call state sponsored capitalism. On the surface, Randolph seems to embody the Southern conservative paradox identified by Genovese: a socially conservative slaveholder who was also a great advocate for economic liberalism and limited government. A closer view reveals the method in Randolph’s madness.

Richard Weaver once described John Randolph’s view of individualism as “social bond individualism.” This species of individualism recognized that the rights of the individual are secured within a “social context.” It is the “social bond” that is of most interest. In his speech on retrenchment and reform, speaking of the relationship between him and his constituents, Randolph used familial language,

When I was first honored with their confidence, I was a very young man, and my constituents stood in an almost parental relation to me, and I received from them the indulgence of a beloved son. But the old patriarchs of that day have been gathered to their fathers . . . I now stand to them, in “loco parentis,” in the place of a father, and receive from them a truly filial reverence and regard. Yes sir, they are my children . . .

Not only Randolph spoke this way, but so too did other Virginians. After debating Patrick Henry in his first campaign for political office, Henry called Randolph aside and said to him, “You call me Father. My son, I have somewhat to say unto thee . . . keep justice, keep truth, and you will live to think differently.” Henry not only called Randolph “son,” Henry used the form of familial address when speaking to Randolph. Yes, Virginia was republican, agrarian, slave-holding, socially and racially stratified, and paternalistic, but many of its leadership class viewed Virginia as a family. In a real sense there was a good deal of truth to this conception, as so many of the old families of tidewater and piedmont Virginia and Maryland were related by blood and marriage. The law in Virginia treated patricide not as murder, but as treason. There is something here of the old Roman way, not surprising as the literate people of Randolph’s time were quite familiar with the old Latin classics. Part of that inheritance reinforced the Virginia prejudice that the power of the state had very real limits, one of those limits being the threshold of one’s home.

Given Randolph’s familial and paternal view of Virginia society, his support of the practice of entailing estates to the eldest son is not surprising. The practice of entails was not required by Virginia law; it was not unheard of an estate being entailed to a daughter. Nevertheless, both Thomas Jefferson and George Wythe advocated the abolition of these voluntary entails in the hopes of achieving their vision of a commonwealth of small farmers through the forced division of great estates. Randolph viewed Jefferson’s and Wythe’s perspective as abstract social engineering, to use a modern term, and short-sighted in its effects. Entails had advantages. Estates in Virginia that were entailed could not be confiscated for the payment of debts. Land in Virginia equated to political power, and the assault on entails would weaken all landholders by undermining the connection between land and political power. If landed property was diluted and divided, the rise of other forms of property seeking political power became a real threat to the existing order. Landed property was jealous of liberty, suspicious of energetic government, and concerned with the preservation of the good order. Other forms of property were not so inclined. Speaking of merchants seeking tariff protection in the years after the War of 1812, Randolph said of the men of capital and finance that he “feared and loathed” those men “for they are the citizens of no place.” In his disgust regarding the abolition of entails in Virginia, John Randolph remarked, “Well might old George Mason exclaim that the authors of that law never had a son!”

Randolph possessed a unique insight into the nature of the relationship between property and power. Any attempt to separate power from property, universal suffrage comes to mind, is doomed to failure. As Randolph observed, “the moment you have separated the two, that very moment property will go in search of power and power in search of property.” Randolph’s fear of the manufacturing class and the banking class was based on this principle. If landed property was separated from power, then the financiers or the owners of physical capital would come to power. In a striking metaphor, Randolph quoting Genesis stated, “’Male and female He created them’; and the two sexes do not more certainly, nor by a more unerring law, gravitate to each other, than property and power. You can only cause them to change hands.” It was this changing of hands Randolph fought to prevent. The landed gentry had a real and concrete interest in the country, the financier and manufacturer, Randolph’s “citizens of no place,” the globalists of our own day, do not.

Randolph’s familial view of society shaped his view of law and the ability of the law to shape and enforce social norms. In Randolph’s view, passing laws to regulate social behaviors was counter-productive, and often had the opposite effect than was intended. He saw custom, tradition, and duty as more effective moral restraints than legislation. In large part, this was due to Randolph’s view of people as free moral agents whose behavior was best shaped by customary restraints, as well as familial and social bonds, and very powerful social penalties, such as ostracism, that Virginia’s local societies could impose. He opposed state laws against public drunkenness because such laws weakened the local community’s traditional moral prohibitions. Randolph contended that moving the regulation of public drunkenness into the realm of law resulted in even more instances of the proscribed behavior as the members of society deferred their duties of moral and social regulation to the state.

What was proper to the state of Virginia, or any state government was the preservation of the received order. The duty of the citizen of the commonwealth was to resist any legislative or constitutional changes to the received order, and to grant a broad field to custom and tradition to preserve the received order. As this pertained to Randolph’s Virginia, it meant the preservation of the birthright of liberty bequeathed to all free born, free holders of property in the commonwealth. Since Virginia society was familial in its essence, it was also naturally hierarchical as well. Equality was a legal artifice, and no better a legal artifice than the awarding of titles of nobility by legislative or monarchial fiat. The landed gentry exercised power and authority in Randolph’s Virginia, holding the crucial political offices of sheriff, justice of the peace, and surveyor; it was customary and traditional that this class hold political power on both the county level and state level. The elevated status of the landed gentry in Virginia came with responsibilities. Independence, self-sufficiency, mastery of self were expected. In a letter to Thomas Marsh Forman of Maryland, Randolph stated his opposition to the idea of hereditary offices, the gentry of Virginia held their political offices on the tenure of “Good Behavior.” Many of these local offices and their duties were brought over from the south and west of England. William Fitzhugh, writing to Ralph Wormley in 1684, described the political offices in Virginia as a “continued usage and practice” of “the laws and customs of England.” Those adaptions to the duties and practices associated with these offices, made necessary by the unique conditions of America, only reinforced the prescriptive nature of Virginia’s political order.

When significant innovations in the commonwealth’s political and social order were proposed at the Virginia State Convention of 1829-30, Randolph opposed them. In particular, he resisted attempts to end freehold suffrage, lifetime tenure for county magistrates, and ending the practice of judicial nominations via the county courts for the popular election of county judges. His reasoning was eminently conservative. The old constitution of 1776 was imperfect, but it served well the commonwealth. The changes proposed would fundamentally alter the old order, Randolph warning that, “Change is not reform.” The fountainhead of change was the “lust for innovation,” fueled by passion unbridled by virtue, and blind to the unforeseen consequences of setting dangerous precedents for continuous change and turmoil, what has become in our own time perpetual revolution and its hideous attendants, political, social, and cultural degradation.

The change agents of Randolph’s Virginia, dangerous though they were, were not the gravest threat faced by the old commonwealth. The federal government held this distinction. Randolph viewed the American political system as an imperium in imperio, a system of shared sovereignty between the states and the federal government. The federal government came from the very “breath of the nostrils of the States.” The states, in Randolph’s view, were not mere political units under a sovereign national government, but unique societies possessing their own distinctive cultures and interests. The federal government was the agent of these sovereign societies for the accomplishment of certain common goods, but at the same time it was also an ominous threat to these unique societies. First, the federal government had a lack of “common interest with the governed,” so limiting the scope of federal authority was crucial to curbing tyranny. If once these limits were crossed, Randolph believed there was no turning back. Second, the evil of loose construction, or in a more specious form of cant, the “living constitution,” set loose what Randolph called “vagrant powers” in search of some clause of the constitution to which they might attach themselves. Drawing upon his antifederalist heritage, Randolph decried the elasticities in the commerce clause, the supremacy clause, and the general welfare clause that lend themselves as most effective tools to the aggrandizers of federal power. Since the constitution was not prescriptive but positive, its abstract nostrums merely required interpretation to justify plunder and tyranny, with the power of the positive law as the basis for the usurpation of state and local prerogatives and rights. Randolph once said of written constitutions in a speech, “I have no faith in parchment sir, I have no faith in the abracadabra of the Constitution.”

To preserve the integrity of the various states, minimal and limited government was necessary. Randolph’s actions as a congressman, his speeches, and his letters demonstrate that he was among our most consistent statesmen championing limited government. Randolph opposed protective tariffs because they plundered one section of the country, the South, for the benefit of the other sections. Randolph opposed standing armies because of the direct threat to liberty they always pose, and because of the armies of contractors and lobbyists they brought in their wake. He detested the national banks because he knew them to be the bed where the marriage of government and creditor was consummated, and the citizens disinherited. If the old order of the American states was to be preserved, then the free market must reign. The manufacturers would have to find someone else other than the taxpayer to underwrite their risks. The bond financiers would be banished from the temple, there being no public debt to purchase, and consequently no influence over the counsels of the country, and no taxpayer to underwrite the public creditor’s risks. A federal government where the power of the sword and purse were strictly limited meant the states would be left alone, a masterly inactivity would reign in government, and political objects at rest would be allowed to remain at rest. This was Randolph’s stated wish, and it is eminently conservative. Such was not to be. Let us not, however, lay the blame at the feet of the free market. Randolph well understood the old adage that capital is timid, and in its timidity, capital would seek to unite itself to political power to control its risks and achieve its ends. The recent financial history of the United States is a powerful testament to this fact. Land has long since been abandoned by power, but let us have no nonsense, the “people” have not taken its place. As Randolph observed, property and power seek each other out; it is financial capital that now rules the day and it is not a conservative power. Large government, the standing military, and large capital have been engines for massive political, social, and cultural change in these United States since the surrender at Appomatox. Financial capital married to consolidated political power, the great evil hatched by the adversary, Alexander Hamilton, is the primary temporal source of chaos in the American polity. Authentic Southern conservatives have fought valiantly through history against this hideous strength, recalling by their actions the teaching of Randolph, “Change is not reform!” Neither is it conservative; those with ears, let them hear.

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