When Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn delivered a brief address to a town hall meeting in Cavendish, Vermont, where he had lived for eighteen years with his family, in exile from Communist Russia, he paid poignant homage to “the sensible and sure process of grassroots democracy, in which the local population solves most of its problems on its own, not waiting for the decisions of higher authorities.” He declared also that, while “exile is always difficult,” he “could not imagine a better place to live, and wait, and wait for my return home,” than that little town. He expressed his gratitude for its respect for his privacy, and spoke warmly of its neighborliness. For his children, “Vermont is home,” for they have grown up “alongside your children.”
With a “God bless you all,” the great Russian finished — to a hearty ovation from those snowbound New Englanders.
That “sensible and sure democracy” is the American political tradition in summary. Solzhenitsyn, like Tocqueville before him, readily perceived the importance of this self-government of the township in American history. But the most striking thing about it, which stands in defiance of so much else in America, is its essential smallness. It is not grandiose but rather modest; it does boast of its expansiveness, but takes pride in its limitation, from which it takes its form.
There is much in America that is big and bulky and boisterous; and the paradox is that the foundation of our political tradition is indelibly small and unobtrusive: self-government on the scale of an organic community of freemen. In The Federalist the very smallness of our system, by a feat of theoretical genius, is conceived as the ground upon which to construct what Jefferson later would call an empire of liberty. Thousands of sensible but sure democracies, organized together into larger communities of the several States, would together unite into a vast Republic, and stand free and brave among the nations of the earth.
It is a very fine ideal. But even as an ideal it was always tightly tethered to the continual hubbub and practice of self-government. More than that the Republic was consecrated by sensible and sure statesmen in many of her formative years. Few were pure “idea men.” They were mostly well-educated, thoroughly introduced to the classics of human thought; but at base men of action. And of virtue.
Nor should we deceive ourselves that such men were really the norm in that age — or any age. In truth the early Republic was crawling with adventurers and charlatans, with opportunities and energumens. Duels were a common sight. The “wild unknown country” beckoned the ambitious, the delinquent, the nefarious. Finance was erratic and ungoverned. Burr and Wilkinson, the latter in the pay of the Spanish, conspired at insurrection in Louisiana. Burr conspired with British and Spanish agents to carve out an autocracy in Mexico. They had accomplices, stoolies, mountebanks, swindlers, bankrupt capitalists, mercenaries and the like all swirling around them like flies. The Republic fought a war against pirates.
The fact that Burr was Vice President and not Autocrat; and the fact that Wilkinson’s prudence impelled him to betray the former to Jefferson; and a dozen other such facts with which I am not familiar — only demonstrates what a miracle the United States of America has been.
So even in this bare sketch we see that the “idea” of America is bound down or anchored in (1) sensible and sure small democracies, that is, a lived tradition of self government, (2) wise and prudent statesmen, (3) the virtue of her rulers, and (4) good fortune. By my count that is one abstraction set against four real facts or practicalities.
What then should we make of the school of thought which would construct in our minds an America that is made up of abstractions only, or ideas foremost? What should we make of the theory that what is best, most memorial, admirable, great, unique, etc., about America is the idea alone; a theory often advanced so fervently, not to say feverishly, that not rarely does in tend toward derision or haughty dismissal of the facts or practicalities?
I think we should make of it that it is false and pernicious.
To me, though the ideas forming our abstractions, our “abbreviations of traditions,” in Michael Oakeshott’s phrase, are certainly admirable and interesting, what is really more interesting are these facts or practicalities, and the Providence which brought them together here on our shores. What great good fortune it is that our high and noble ideals — ideals which with some variation became monstrous in the hands of the French — were infused by the grit and experience of all those sensible and sure democracies! How the hand of Providence blessed us by our leaders! And so on.
Moreover, the ideals are rather easy to replicate — as abstractions. Any merely competent wordsmith with a bit of learning may write up a constitution for a republic. Any fool may declare his love of democracy.
What is rather more difficult to replicate, however, is a lived tradition of self-government. There is indeed still some puzzle and consternation over the most reliable way to raise up virtuous leaders. There is no abstraction by which we may discover the secret to grasping and holding capricious Fortuna. And only by terrible pride or crippling flippancy would we dare to force the hand of Providence.
This is my challenge to all the Propositionalists, the Creedal Nationalists, the Ideological Patriots, the Abstractors of America:
Now and then, fellas, set aside the abstractions and ideals; or if you must discuss them in earnest, make sure your discussions are grounded emphatically in the American tradition and not in some alien accretion brought in by the Liberalism that has dominated our academics for 60 years.
Instead, focus your attention now and then on the practicalities, the facts, the Providence or Fortuna which grounded the American Republic. Discover how and why Abraham Lincoln developed his rhetorical genius — that “Lincoln music,” as Shelby Foote calls it — not from the abstractions of theorists but the rough realism of the backcountry, and the King James Bible. Study The Federalist carefully, read it as a unity, as you would a great work of statesmanship and philosophy, which it is, and report on what you learn. Purchase this magnificent volume, offered at a remarkably low price, and immerse yourself in political tradition of America, unfiltered by the machinations of academia. Try to recover for yourself something of our tradition at the art of Rhetoric, that quintessential political art which alone can appeal to the dual nature of man: as a creature who reasons and who feels. We were once a nation of great orators, you know. H. L. Mencken, who was not a man given to inordinate praise, wrote that “The American, from the beginning, has been the most ardent of recorded rhetoricians.” Investigate the fundamental smallness of American self-government, which caught the eye of penetrating observers like Tocqueville and Solzhenitsyn. Realize the important of limitation and self-discipline in this way of life. Come on, boys: I dare ya.
I’ll be right there with you — for this is the true work of conservatism that our country needs.