The Power of Nationalism: A Defense

Why Nationalism is Not Authoritarianism 

Critics of the National Conservatism movement have found their voice and taken up their pens. In lieu of the June 2022 publication of the National Conservatism Statement of Principles and the subsequent third annual National Conservatism Conference in Miami in November 2022, condemnation has come pouring in: Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine accused National Conservatives of harboring Trump-like “despotic impulses” and of pursuing “semi-fascism” on the way to pure fascism; at The Bulwark, Cathy Young indicted the Statement of Principles as being “a document steeped in thinly veiled and … overt authoritarian ideology”; writing for the Acton Institute, James M. Patterson lumped National Conservatives in with the neo-integralists and implied that both contain an authoritarian strain in their preferred post-liberalisms. Previous articles had accused National Conservatives of killing off Reaganism and Thatcherism for good, and of openly celebrating authoritarianism. In general, the authoritarian anxiety over domestic nationalist movements have mirrored similar assessments in foreign policy to support democracy and counter authoritarianism.

While some of these critiques represent bombastic claims by shrill and anxious left-liberal pundits, other more even-handed criticisms arose from traditional Right voices and outlets. The complaint from movement conservatives, classical liberals, and libertarians goes something like this: At the core of the American tradition of democratic government is the belief that government must necessarily be limited. This is primarily due to the imperfect nature of man and the corrupting nature of plenary power, such that no one person or party can ever safely be entrusted with a degree of power requisite to destroy human life, liberty, and prosperity. Therefore, governments are instituted solely to protect the natural rights of man, and because these pre-political rights precede the establishment of governments they act as a check upon the scope and function of government. Political actors, as representatives of the people, are beholden to the people’s will (through elections and other means) but they must also respect the absolute rights of man—even the rights of your enemies—and even if you disagree with how these rights are understood and exercised by other citizens. Most of the problems America faces today come from government overreach: economic interventionism at home, protectionism abroad, public school indoctrination, and violations of the moral, religious, sexual, and personal rights of individuals in the private sphere. By embracing authoritarianism, National Conservatism has acquiesced to and adopted the statist tactics of the left that conservatism has long opposed.

The authoritarian concern has some truth in it: men are not angels for all are frail and fallen; no one can claim an absolute right to rule due to aristocratic nobility, divine right, or natural talent; political power can be corrupting and must be checked against abuses; government should be limited to certain ends and means (although in what ways is debated); and governments are indeed instituted (in part) to protect the rights of the people. Yet the problem with the authoritarian accusation overall is that it does not understand the National Conservatism movement because it does not understand the American founding and the political philosophy that animated it. 

The Original “Authoritarians”

Accusations of authoritarianism are not new in American politics. Those seeking to accomplish societal good through political means have long faced denouncements of this sort. In the wake of the Articles of Confederation (1781-1789) that had failed to reign in the abuses and anarchy of the states, the Federalists set out to create a more energetic (yet still limited) government in drafting the Constitution in 1787. James Madison, writing in Federalist No. 37, explained the necessity of a more robust government:

Energy in government, is essential to that security against external and internal danger, and to that prompt and salutary execution of the laws, which enter into the very definition of good government. Stability in government, is essential to national character, and to the advantages annexed to it, as well as to that repose and confidence in the minds of the people, which are among the chief blessings of civil society.

The Anti-federalists, unsurprisingly, charged the Federalists with attempting to reinstitute monarchy, aristocracy, and even tyranny: a unitary executive with veto power was the British Monarch redivivus (Patrick Henry, June 5, 1788), a senate elected by state legislatures (and not the people) that served for six years was condemned as a permanent aristocracy (Centinel Letter I; cf. Brutus XVI), and anything more than annual elections were a sure sign of encroaching tyranny (Pennsylvania dissent, #10; Federalist no. 53). To us, these charges seem absurd since we assume that the Declaration and Constitution are paradigmatic examples of a moderately democratic and limited government—the antithesis of aristocracy, monarchy, and tyranny. This demonstrates that authoritarianism, while definable in terms of moral and political principles, is more commonly predicated upon experience, popular sentiment and expectation, and circumstantial demands. This is not to say that tyranny is entirely relative: for the founders, tyranny was primarily the combination of legislative, executive, and judicial power into one body or magistrate (cf. Federalist no. 47) in order to rule for the sake of the private interests of a few at the expense of the common good of the many (see Brutus IV). Yet what seems authoritarian to some may in fact be an appropriate exercise of legitimate political power in order to secure societal and human goods.

National Conservatives are not authoritarians, but, just like the Federalists, claim that America needs an energetic government concerned with true justice and virtue in order to overcome the moral anarchy and administrative tyranny currently tearing the country apart. The power of nationalism is the power to once again restore an energetic government under a Constitutional system.

The Ends of American Government

Anti-authoritarians often claim that the end of American government is singular and strictly limited to protecting individual rights according to the moral principle of “no (physical) harm”: everyone must be allowed to exercise their rights unless it causes physical harm to others—then, and only then, can government intervene. Yet the purposes or ends for which the Founders instituted government in America between 1774 and 1789 are many and various. Consider the beginning of the 1780 Massachusetts constitution, which reads: “The end of the institution, maintenance and administration of government, is to secure the existence of the body-politic; to protect it; and to furnish the individuals who compose it, with the power of enjoying, in safety and tranquillity [sic], their natural rights, and the blessings of life.” Safety from foreign invasion or attack is the first and most urgent end of all societies, and as Hamilton argued, this is “the most powerful director of national conduct” that even liberty will yield to. No “limiting principle” can be placed upon national security: “the power of making that provision [of national defense and securing public peace] ought to know no other bounds than the exigencies of the nation, and the resources of the community.” Madison referred to “the great principle of self-preservation” that directs all societies to declare that the “safety and happiness of society, are the objects at which all political institutions aim, and to which all such institutions must be sacrificed.”

All of the founders also believed that government is instituted to protect the natural rights of man, as the Declaration of Independence eloquently declares. The 1784 New Hampshire constitution explains that “when men enter into a state of society, they surrender up some of their natural rights to that society, in order to insure the protection of others; and, without such an equivalent, the surrender is void” (Bill of Rights, Art. 3). Likewise, Theophilus Parsons, in The Essex Result of 1778—the precursor of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780—argued that men only part with the power of controlling their natural rights insofar as the good of society requires. These rights included the right to life, conscience, religion and worship, association, and to acquire, possess, and protect property.

Government has other noble ends as well. Madison is stark in Federalist No. 51, stating emphatically that “justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society.” The Declaration names happiness as one of the ends of government; so do Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. Madison (or perhaps Hamilton) later elaborates on this when he says, “A good government implies two things: first, fidelity to the object of government, which is the happiness of the people; secondly, a knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained.” New Hampshire’s constitution defines happiness in terms of the rights of the people (Bill of Rights, Art. 2). Since the natural rights of man were not endlessly adaptable or malleable but had a fixed content within a moral and religious understanding (i.e., classical natural law and Christianity), this meant that happiness was likewise not a subjective right to be determined by the whims or passions of individuals.

Yet there is more. The Antifederalist author Brutus, in Essay IV, names a more comprehensive (and more vague) end of government: free governments require that the people, either in their own persons or through their representatives, make the laws by which they are governed; and that this representation “be so constituted as to be capable of understanding the true interests of the society for which it acts, and so disposed as to pursue the good and happiness of the people as its ultimate end. The object of every free government is the public good, and all lesser interests yield to it” (italics added). The public good—or common good, good of the whole, the general good, or public welfare—is a hotly debated issue in our time. Yet it wasn’t for the founders. They were in agreement that the common good was the controlling télos of American government. Hamilton admits in Federalist No. 31 that regarding the objects entrusted to its care, the ultimate control of government is determined by “the public good” and “the sense of the people.” Madison, in Federalist No. 57, states undeniably that “the aim of every political constitution is … to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society.” Parsons, in The Essex Result, speaks of “the good of the whole” twelve times, and makes this the principle that determines what natural rights are surrendered and those which are retained (or when necessary, modified) when man enters civil society.

Of the earliest state constitutions post-1776, fifteen (New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Michigan) speak of the “common good,” “general good,” “public good,” or “general welfare.” What were the states saying about the common good? By far the most common sentiment was that the people have the right to assemble and deliberate on the common good for the purpose of instructing their representatives in how to govern them. Consider, for example, how New Hampshire’s 1784 constitution frames it: “The people have a right in an orderly and peaceable manner, to assemble and consult upon the common good, give instructions to their representatives; and to request of the legislative body, by way of petition or remonstrance, redress of the wrongs done them, and of the grievances they suffer” (Bill of Rights, Art. 32). The constitutions of Vermont (1777, 1786, 1793), Massachusetts (1780), Connecticut (1818), Pennsylvania (1776, 1790), North Carolina (1776), Kentucky (1792, 1799), Tennessee (1796), Ohio (1803), and Michigan (1835) have equivalent clauses.

This means that the legislature is bound to make law according to the common good: “The legislature ought frequently to assemble for the redress of grievances, for correcting, strengthening, and confirming the laws, and for making new laws, as the common good may require” (Massachusetts 1780, Declaration of Rights, Art. 22; cf. New Hampshire 1784, Bill of Rights, Art. 31). Precisely because representatives make law in accordance with the people’s common good, some constitutions make it explicit that the people are not bound by laws that violate that common good. Pennsylvania’s constitution (1776) is emblematic: “nor are the people bound by any laws but such as they have in like manner assented to, for their common good” (Ch. 1, sec. 8; cf. Vermont 1777, 1786, 1793). Delaware’s 1792 constitution articulates the relationship between the common good and republican government, making the former an essential and indispensable element of the latter:

Although disobedience to laws by a part of the people, upon suggestions of impolicy or injustice in them, tends by immediate effect and the influence of example, not only to endanger the public welfare and safety, but also, in governments of a republican form, contravenes the social principles of such governments founded on common consent for common good, yet the citizens have a right, in an orderly manner, to meet together, and to apply to persons intrusted [sic] with the powers of government for redress or grievances or other proper purposes, by petition, remonstrance, or address (Art. 1, Sec. 16; italics added).

Massachusetts (1780) makes it abundantly clear that republican government is established for the common good: “The body-politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: It is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good” (Preamble; see also the 1784 New Hampshire constitution, Bill of Rights, Art. 1).

The only question—and a critical and controversial question—that remains is, what exactly is the common good? The common good consists of basic human goods which cannot be diminished by a multiplicity of participation: all persons within a political community can partake and share in these goods without anyone or society in general being harmed, and without the need for mitigating trade-offs. Massachusetts’s 1780 constitution explicitly names some of these common goods. Article 7 of the Declaration of Rights states the following: “Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity and happiness of the people; and not for the profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men.” The common good, therefore, is identical to “protection, safety, prosperity and happiness” of all the people and not just a few. What do these terms mean? Safety was commonly identified with foreign policy, which was the first and most urgent order of business for any nation. National defense against hostile invaders required national finances to fund an army and navy in times of war, as well as foreign diplomats to negotiate and craft peace treaties.

Protection references domestic security, or the defense of life, limb, property, liberty, and reputation against the violence and abuse by those within your nation (i.e., civil and criminal law, including the judicial rights of due process, trial by jury, no ex post facto laws or bills of attainder, etc.). Prosperity refers to the right to acquire, possess, and protect property, industrious work and compensation for labor, and the need for consistent monetary weights and measures (a national specie, not paper money), punishing counterfeiting and providing for bankruptcy law, the regulation of interstate commerce and harmony among the states, providing patents and copyright law, and the like. Happiness incorporated all of the previous things mentioned (i.e., the necessary conditions for a complete and happy life), but also included social relations (marriage, family, children, friendship), moral rectitude and virtue, and religious worship and duties toward God.1 The common good is a genuinely happy and blessed life according to man’s natural, social, and spiritual nature.

In contemporary debates, the natural rights of man are often pitted against the common good of all. Such antagonism is misguided. Natural rights refer to moral action in pursuit of human goods that we discover, receive, and cultivate as part of God’s creation (life, marriage, worship and religious observance, property, association, reputation, justice, happiness, etc.). The common good defines these human goods that all can share in; thus, the common good simply is the good ends for which natural rights aim. This means that without the common good, rights are aimless—they become focused subjectively (and often selfishly) on the individual possessor and not on the objectively good end. When this happens, rights can easily become substantively reinterpreted according to the disordered whims of individual judges, legislators, or the people; or, a multiplicity of “rights” can be added to natural rights until citizens supposedly have a “right” to just about anything (housing, healthcare, education, “dignity,” affirmation, chosen identity, etc.). In these ways, natural rights apart from the common good become perverted, weaponized, and turned into wrongs. These ills have plagued America for close to a century.

While natural rights and the common good can and almost certainly will conflict in the rough and tumble of imperfect political life, the founders did not view them as mutually exclusive elements of their moral and political philosophy. In the state constitutions, natural rights exist alongside the common good without a hint of competition or conflict. In Federalist No. 10, Madison states that the goal of popular government is to “secure public good, and private rights,” against the dangers of political factions (italics added); and in Federalist No. 14 he says that due to America’s “manly spirit” her posterity “will be indebted for the possession, and the world for the example, of the numerous innovations displayed on the American theatre, in favour of private rights and public happiness” (italics added).

To understand how natural, private rights are made compatible with the common good and public happiness, we turn to Alexander Hamilton. In his 1775 pamphlet, The Farmer Refuted (written against the Rev. Samuel Seabury), Hamilton corrects Rev. Seabury’s Hobbesian misunderstanding of the natural rights of mankind, saying:

The fundamental source of all your errors, sophisms, and false reasonings, is a total ignorance of the natural rights of mankind. Were you once to become acquainted with these, you could never entertain a thought, that all men are not, by nature, entitled to a parity of privileges. You would be convinced that natural liberty is a gift of the beneficent Creator to the whole human race, and that civil liberty is founded in that, and cannot be wrested from any people without the manifest violation of justice. Civil liberty is only natural liberty, modified and secured by the sanctions of civil society. It is not a thing, in its own nature, precarious and dependent upon human will and caprice, but it is conformable to the constitution of man, as well as necessary to the well-being of society. (Italics in original.)

What Hamilton is saying—and what is also clear from Parson’s Essex Result—is that when men enter political society via the social compact (or covenant), their natural rights are transformed into civil rights. The only difference between the two is that while the former is bound only by the law of nature applicable to man’s individual, familial, and social setting in the state of nature (in the absence of the body politic or civil government), civil rights are natural rights modified by human law to conform to the common goods of political society. In this way, a healthy political society will help actualize the common good télos of natural rights.

Take the example of property and the right to bury one’s own dead. Prior to political association, property rights were predicated upon the claim to fallow land that one worked and cultivated as far as one could use without spoilage (roughly following John Locke’s analysis of natural property rights in chapter five of the Second Treatise). When a family member died, the surviving kin would usually bury the dead on their own land. However, once men associated politically and advanced beyond small kinship or tribal arrangements, they discovered that burying the dead under one’s house or in the backyard created a hazard for one’s neighbors (i.e., it poisoned the land and water), especially as population densities increased. Thus, while one had the natural right to use one’s property as one wished by burying the dead on it (i.e., this is in keeping with the law of nature), one does not have the civil right to do so because of how it harms the common good (i.e., the well-being of others). This is why we now bury our dead in dedicated common plots on the outskirts of town that simultaneously honors the dead without being harmful to the town’s inhabitants (an example of a legal case on this issue is Austin v. Murray, 33 Mass. 16 Pick. 121 (1843); cf. Commonwealth v. Alger 61 Mass. (7 Cush.) 53 (1851)).

All of the natural rights preserved by men in political society that are not necessarily delegated to political authorities are transformed into civil rights. In fact, technically speaking, once men join the political compact they no longer retain any of their natural rights in their pure or absolute form (except, perhaps, for the rights of conscience).2 The priority of the common good of the political community demands the transformation of natural rights into civil rights in order to preserve both our rights and the well-being of society.3

The power of nationalism is the power to once again govern for the common good of all Americans according to their natural, social, and spiritual nature as the founders envisioned.

American Nationalism is American Federalism

What political mechanism was supposed to accomplish the common good of the American people? By the power of federalism as construed by the Constitution. While some want to draw a sharp distinction between nationalism and federalism (either in theory versus practice or philosophy versus history), in America, nationalism is federalism. Originally, in the Articles of Confederation (approved by the Continental Congress in November 1777 but not ratified by the states until March 1781) the relationship of the states was conceived as “a firm league of friendship” for the sake of the common defense, security of their (i.e., the states’) liberties, and for their mutual and general welfare. The states believed that they were sustaining the “perpetual Union” that they had established earlier under the Articles of Association (Oct. 1774) and the Declaration of Independence (July 1776). This was a confederation in the historic sense: thirteen independent and sovereign nations (the states) entering a mutually binding and reciprocal treaty—each state with the other twelve states—in which each state retained its sovereign rights and duties but cooperated with the other states for the sake of their collective security and welfare.

When the Articles of Confederation fell apart because the states were only bound by their good faith and word to keep the respective parts of the treaty and were under no compulsion to respect the commands of Congress, the Constitutional Convention of 1787 sought to form a new constitution predicated upon a different confederal political philosophy. As Hamilton argued in Federalist No. 15, the “great and radical vice” of the Articles was that the national powers of Congress depended entirely upon the state legislatures acting in their corporate or collective capacities. Since the states were independent sovereign republics, they could treat Congressional dictates as recommendations only, effectively ignoring the Continental Congress’s pleas for tax monies, repayment of debts, respect for citizens’ rights, honoring of boundaries and treaties, or sending men and supplies to arm the Continental Army in its fight against the British. The result was “anarchy in the members”; there was no true power behind the national political institutions to compel state loyalty to the constitution, nor was the idea of a beautiful confederate republic enough to overcome individual state interests.

To surmount these challenges, the Federalists proposed a constitution that would effectively split political sovereignty between the states and national governments—with both basing their authority in the sovereignty of the people (not state legislatures, but conventions of the people). The result was a mixed regime that avoided the extremes of a league of republics (a confederate nation) on the one hand but also prevented a total consolidation of the states that would have completely destroyed their independence on the other hand. As the Antifederalist Federal Farmer nicely put it in his first letter,

We may consolidate the states as to certain national objects, and leave them severally distinct independent republics, as to internal police generally. Let the general government consist of an executive, a judiciary and ballanced [sic] legislature, and its powers extend exclusively to all foreign concerns, causes arising on the seas, to commerce, imports, armies, navies, Indian affairs, peace and war, and to a few internal concerns of the community; to the coin, post-offices, weights and measures, a general plan for the militia, to naturalization, and perhaps to bankruptcies, leaving the internal police of the community, in other respects, exclusively to the state governments; as the administration of justice in all causes arising internally, the laying and collecting of internal taxes, and the forming of the militia according to a general plan prescribed. In this case there would be a compleat [sic] consolidation, quoad certain objects only.

This arrangement of “partial consolidation” was “the only one that can secure the freedom and happiness of this people,” and ended up being the plan that was ratified under the U.S. Constitution. The “great and national objects” or “permanent and aggregate interests” of foreign policy—war and peace, treaties and international commerce, imports and exports—as well as a limited number of domestic affairs, such as ensuring harmony among the states, would be delegated exclusively to the national government. All the rest of the “local and particular” (i.e., domestic) matters, including “internal police” (moral and religious laws and regulations) would be left to the sovereignty of the state legislatures.

The power of foreign policy is the power of sovereign nationhood that distinguishes one nation from another under the Law of Nations (jus gentium).4 Since the individual states were stripped of this power under the Constitution, they were stripped of their independent nationhood status. Under the Constitution, no state has the right or power to negotiate independent treaties with other nations of the world, to raise an army or navy of its own in order to wage war on its own, to regulate international commerce, fight maritime piracy, or set tariffs or export rates. These matters were now the domain of the national Congress and the Presidency.

At the same time, the states under the U.S. Constitution were still “independent republics” but “as to internal police generally.” While the national and foreign policy aspects sound awesome and expansive, they actually account for little of the day-to-day governance. Domestic policy occupies most of the tasks of government, and thus significant power and independence were reserved to the states under the Constitution. This was especially so regarding the states’ duties of internal police. The police power of the states was the power to regulate private rights, interests, and behaviors for the sake of the “public health, safety, morals, and peace.” These powers were considerable. Consider the 1810 blasphemy case in New York of People v. Ruggles, 8 Johns. R. 290. In that case, Judge Kent ruled against a man who had uttered the “false, feigned, scandalous, malicious, wicked and blasphemous words” that “Jesus Christ was a bastard, and his mother must be a whore.” This kind of language was unacceptable in public, for it was an offense against public decency, it reviled the religion of the community (Christianity), and was “injurious to the tender morals of the young.”

State police powers helped create and protect cultural, moral, and religious homogeneity, public virtue, and loyalty to the nation well into the twentieth century. However, with the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 and the use of its privileges and immunities, due process, and equal protection clauses to incorporate the national Bill of Rights to the state legislatures (starting with Gitlow v. New York 268 U.S. 652 [1925]), the states were gradually stripped of their domestic responsibilities and police powers. These were transferred to the national government—creating the kind of total consolidation that both Federalists and Anti-federalists had sought to avoid—but under the rubric that the Bill of Rights prohibited political restriction of individual rights. National police powers are no longer used to restrain destructive tendencies among the people or cultivate virtue and piety, but have encouraged avarice, licentiousness, and godlessness while harshly punishing any person or corporate power that sought to reign in these vices. Without the proper restraint of the people’s passions and self-interests by the state police powers, individual “rights” have been twisted, grotesquely expanded, and completely divorced from the common good, with the result that an unaccountable and autonomous libertarianism and moral laxity has now overrun the community. With the breakdown of “dual sovereignty” under the Constitution, both an irresponsible individualism and overweening statism have emerged—both of which mutually reinforce and prey off the other.

Originally, however, American nationalism simply was federalism. The people were the sovereign; they delegated their sovereign power to two forms of government, the states and the national. This dual political structure meant that each level of government complimented the other: state governments alone were incomplete without the national, and the national was incomplete without the states; each needed the other to have a total government and thus a complete nation.5 While nationalism in America requires this national-state federal arrangement, before this—before the social compact that formed a union among the people or the acts of making constitutional government—there existed in America a people (as the Declaration of Independence’s Preamble clearly implies). This people, John Jay tells us, were “one united people, a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established their general Liberty and Independence.” The people are the living and breathing “matter” that constitutes the spirit, mind, heart, and substance of the nation. The People precede the Nation, which precedes the Government. American nationalism seeks to restore American federalism, which would restore to America her peoplehood.6

The total consolidation of the states into an all-powerful, bureaucratic, and disordered post-constitutional national political apparatus is the manifestation of pure authoritarianism and arbitrary government. On the other hand, the power of nationalism is anti-consolidation: it is the power to reconstitute American federalism and the dual sovereignty of state and national governments, and so renew the American people in their spirit and in national purpose. Understood in the American context, nationalism is anti-authoritarian.

Kinds of Political Power

A government that is ordered toward the substantive and common goods of human life—life and safety, liberty and virtue, natural rights and duties, prosperity and happiness—cannot, in principle, be authoritarian. Power is not merely a monolithic force that varies only by degrees. Power also comes in different kinds: the ability (power) to speak is not the same ability as that of worship or association. A particular kind of power is defined in relationship to the end of its subject. If the purpose of speech is communication, then the power to speak is not the ability to make noise with one’s mouth, but to make intelligible sounds that communicate a range of human intentions and ideas that can be understood by others. Political power is the art of governing oneself and others in a community toward the good ends inherent in human nature—considered both in terms of private right and public good (cf. Madison in Federalist no. 10).

As Socrates wisely tells the young and ambitious Alcibiades (124a-135e), to rightly rule others requires that you first know yourself and what it means to be human—namely, that humans ought to seek excellence in justice and moderation and eschew personal license, which requires that they become good; and that politics is the art that makes men better by inculcating concord and friendship among them as they seek common goods together. Yet this enterprise requires that legitimate political rule be for the advantage of others—for the advantage of all—and not merely for oneself. Knowing human nature by knowing oneself and the need for moderation and virtue is especially important in a republican government where the people are the sovereign and political power and authority derive from them (Federalist No. 49). Where political officials truly represent their constituents, the character and ability of the people to rule themselves first and foremost ultimately determines the nature of their national character and the stability and prosperity of their political regime.

On the other hand, a tyranny or oligarchy, where the ruling element governs for their own private ends by taking advantage of the people, represents a different kind of political power altogether. This kind of rule Aristotle calls unjust and deviant because it involves despotism and mastery—one or a few claiming to be the masters over the many who serve them as slaves (Politics 1279a18). While mastery is one kind of rule, Aristotle had previously distinguished it from other types of rule: the rule of the father over his household, the rule of a king over his subjects (for their good), and political rule which involves a community of free persons who rule and are ruled in turn (Politics 1252a8-24; 1255b17-20). What qualifies individuals to take part in political rule was their capacity for rational deliberation and virtue. Without these, the political community could neither be free nor good. We see, then, that what distinguishes legitimate use of political power to rule a community for its good versus authoritarian despotism is nothing less than what distinguishes justice from injustice.

Critically, the American founders agreed with this assessment, in that elective legislatures must engage in deliberation over the most prudent means to achieve the unchosen ends of the political community (cf. Aristotle, Ethics 1112b10), and that to stave off tyranny of all kinds the American people as a whole—as well as their representatives—must be virtuous. As Article 18 of the Declaration of Rights of the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution explains,

A frequent recurrence to the fundamental principles of the constitution, and a constant adherence to those of piety, justice, moderation, temperance, industry, and frugality, are absolutely necessary to preserve the advantages of liberty, and to maintain a free government: The people ought, consequently, to have a particular attention to all those principles, in the choice of their officers and representatives: And they have a right to require of their law-givers and magistrates, an exact and constant observance of them, in the formation and execution of the laws necessary for the good administration of the Commonwealth.

Lest one complain that this text is taken from a state constitution and not the national Constitution, consider again what James Madison says about the character of national representatives in Congress at the beginning of Federalist No. 57:

The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first, to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous, whilst they continue to hold their public trust (italics added).

Thus under the federalist system, both state and national governments were responsible for maintaining virtue among the people and their representatives—a necessary condition for political (not masterly) power of ruling and being ruled in turn. For example, a Federalist author writing under the pen name “A Pennsylvania Farmer” in the Philadelphia Independent Gazetteer on September 27, 1787, decried the anarchy of those states who were ignoring the constitutional authority of Congress (under the Articles of Confederation) and determined that the weakness of the national government was to blame. His conclusion was that “liberty becomes licentiousness” and that “want of energy in government will be followed by disobedience in the governed.” In other words, the national government—in addition to the state governments—had a responsibility to instruct the American people in virtue and vice, order them toward their common goods, and protect their civil rights and liberties. These things were not in tension, for rights and liberties properly understood were not excuses for license and moral degeneracy. They were human goods, which means they partly made up the content of the “common good” (i.e., protection, safety, prosperity, justice, and happiness).

The essence of authoritarian, arbitrary, despotic, and unjust government is that it rules for the advantage of those in power and against the good of its subjects or citizens. Authoritarian regimes embrace the political approach of Thrasymachus, Carneades, Lucretius, and Machiavelli (ch. 15), namely, that there is no natural or divine justice that men can know or that can guide and constrain political life. Instead, politics and government consist of pure conventionalism, or positive human law, that proceeds by the will of man alone and the power that man can harness toward the ends that he chooses for himself. In this scheme, the key element that creates law and government is not properly ordered reason, but raw coercion (as necessary for the advantage of the stronger): without coercion and punishment, law would not be law, government would cease, and anarchy would triumph (so the argument goes). From the perspective of the conventionalist, the creation of the state is purely the result of human artifice, and thus government becomes an external, artificial, and impersonal power that dominates the lives of its citizens. There are no goods or rights that come from God or nature; the totalizing state determines what is good by utilitarian fiat, assigns rights to some, and denies rights to others according to its arbitrary (and selfish) standards.

For the founders, however, the “state” (i.e., civil government) was not synonymous with the body politic. The political community (the “people”) came first, and were created through common language, religions, custom, ways of life, and loves—resulting in genuine friendship and concord. Long before 1776 or 1789 the American people had rejected the political conventionalism of tyrants, and had organized themselves into political commonwealths according to nature and divine revelation. Government was not an artifice, but both a divine and human institution: immediately (i.e., ultimately) from God, but mediately (voluntarily) from men in keeping with their social and political nature. From this common history, peoplehood, and understanding of government American nationalism emerged during the founding era. American nationalism is thus fundamentally contrary to political conventionalism—and so authoritarian tyranny. It was an attempt to ground national political life and government in nature informed by religion (i.e., Christianity).

The power of nationalism is the power of a free, virtuous, and Christian people to rule themselves according to reason and justice through both state and national governments, for the sake of private rights and the public good, and not be overcome by either a tyranny (will to power) of the few or a despotism (licentiousness) of the many.

Virtue, Morality, and True Religion

The distinction between liberty and virtue on the one hand and license or licentiousness on the other was replete among the leading statesmen of the eighteenth century. Consider just one example: George Washington, in his 1783 “Circular to the States,” proclaimed that without national union among the states “we shall be left nearly in a state of Nature, or we may find by our own unhappy experience, that there is a natural and necessary progression, from the extreme of anarchy to the extreme of Tyranny; and that arbitrary power is most easily established on the ruins of Liberty abused to licentiousness.” Note his words carefully: arbitrary power (i.e., authoritarianism) is the result of the abuse of liberty that leads to licentiousness.

This is the state of American society today. National Conservatives who seek to reign in licentiousness and reestablish true liberty and virtue through the proper use of political power are, according to Washington’s logic, the exact opposite of authoritarian. In fact, the rise of arbitrary government in this country—an unelected and unaccountable administrative state, two tiers of justice that favor the political elite while prosecuting political enemies (i.e., Trump and “deplorable” Americans), government support and sympathy for anarchy and rioting, systematic election fraud, the rise of the COVID biomedical security state, and the persecution and denial of Fifth Amendment and constitutional jury rights to January 6 defendants—is the direct result of moral depravity and godlessness, both in terms of individual and national character. As Hamilton reminds us, we must never forget that men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious, and that peace, justice, and happiness in society necessarily depend upon moralizing customs, religion, and good government (both in terms of its design and those who govern). As John Dickinson rightly concludes his third Fabius letter (1788), “History sacred and profane tells us, that, CORRUPTION OF MANNERS SINKS NATIONS INTO SLAVERY.” Disorder of the soul and gratification of the body will lead to authoritarianism, both in the form of political rule and the necessity of despotically ruling a slavish people.

The Founders believed that liberty and virtue could not be achieved or sustained apart from the influence of religion, supported by state and national governments. This is why the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 (one of the four organic laws of the United States) states in Article 3 that “religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” States during the Early Republic were not shy in establishing schools that sought to teach virtue, morality, and the Christian religion. In his 1818 Report of the Board of Commissioners for the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson claimed (among many other things) that public education ought to “develope the reasoning faculties of our youth, enlarge their minds cultivate their morals, & instil into them the precepts of virtue & order.” Benjamin Rush, in his 1786 “Plan for the Establishment of Public Schools” in Pennsylvania remarked that “the only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in RELIGION. Without this, there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.” In his Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789, George Washington used his public office to implore the “great Lord and Ruler of Nations” to “render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed,” and that God would “promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue” among the people.

It is true that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment forbade the establishment of an official Church (i.e., a favored Protestant denomination) at the national level, but this was by no means forbidden to the states. In fact, there was no need to establish a national religion in the Constitution precisely because this responsibility was left to and assumed by the states: six states—Georgia, South Carolina, Maryland, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire—all established their own churches post-1776. Nor did the First Amendment forbid the national government from supporting and encouraging the Christian religion where it was securely rooted or looking to grow. For example, between 1774 and 1789, the Continental Congress issued twenty resolutions for national days of thanksgiving, fasting, and prayer to the Christian God. This pattern was followed by the Washington, Adams, and Madison administrations and continued throughout the nineteenth century, well into Lincoln’s presidency.

Even those who most vociferously opposed religious establishments of all kinds often did so from the desire to see the spread of Christianity in America, not its demise. For example, James Madison, famous for his Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (1785) and for helping pass Virginia’s “Act for Establishing Religious Freedom” in 1785 (that had originally been proposed by Thomas Jefferson in 1779), wrote to Robert Walsh in 1819 that “an increase of religious instruction since the revolution can admit of no question,” and that “the number, the industry, and the morality of the Priesthood, & the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the Church from the State.” While the religious skepticism of Madison, Jefferson, and Franklin was the minority view at the founding, they were not atheists, secularists, or deists who desired the death of religion or the separation of virtue and morality from republican government.

From the view of the majority of the founders, for the state and national governments to explicitly inculcate and teach virtue and either establish or strongly support organized Christianity, was not only an appropriate and expected role for the political authorities, but was considered absolutely necessary for the maintenance and prosperity of American republican government.7

The power of nationalism is the political power to teach morals, lead men to virtue, and support Christianity as the public religion of the American regime.

Objections and Rejoinders

The typical conservative response to these arguments comes in two forms. The first is the fusionist refrain: the moral ends of government are indeed good (e.g., virtue), but they cannot be accomplished without according humans expansive freedoms to pursue these goods voluntarily because political imposition or coercion toward the good is itself bad; therefore, governments ought to be as limited, non-coercive, and liberty-minded as possible. While such political freedom necessarily incurs risks and concomitant evils, these are unavoidable consequences that we must tolerate for the sake of the greater good. Liberty and virtue must be balanced, but since freedom is a condition of virtue, in practice liberty must be prioritized in the art of governance. The second objection is that the kind of political power embraced by National Conservatism is not only dangerous in principle, but especially in practice since the power to accomplish great goods in the wrong hands can be used for great evils. From this observation, a supposed “principle” is frequently articulated: if you wouldn’t want this power to fall into the hands of your enemies and be used against you, then you shouldn’t invest such power in government in the first place. Ipso facto, conservatives must adhere to strictly limited government (i.e., according to the hands-off “no harm” principle) at every level.

There are ample responses to these objections. To take the second objection first, the mere fact that a self-interested politician might use legitimate political power for their own devious ends in order to harm others is not a sufficient reason to abdicate the appropriate use of political power. If this principle (abuse invalidates use) were true and consistently applied, we ought to abandon government altogether and become anarchists. The founders understood that the abuse of a good thing does not negate its proper use (abusus non tollit usum: “abuse does not cancel use”). Commenting upon this phenomenon, Alexander Hamilton opined that “whatever may be the limits, or modifications of the powers of the union, it is easy to imagine an endless train of possible dangers; and by indulging an excess of jealousy and timidity, we may bring ourselves to a state of absolute scepticism and irresolution.” Other Federalists, like John Dickinson (“Fabius” Letter III) agreed. 

In addition, the twisting of legitimate political power toward despotic ends is just that, a twisting; it is not actually the use of the legal power delegated to governments, but the intentional disordering of that power towards injustice. It is therefore incorrect for the objector to claim that the same power is being used against those who originally established it. Instead, a foreign and ill spirit has transformed genuine political power (ruling and being ruled in turn) into masterly rule or despotic power—turning justice into injustice. The founders took many steps to safeguard against this happening easily—all of which cannot be outlined here—yet in this they did not waver from their belief that political power still had to be wielded by energetic national and state governments that ruled for the good of all.

Regarding the fusionist objection, it is certainly true that virtue cannot be coerced by government—or for that matter by parents, teachers, or even God. Virtue is moral excellence whereby one willingly chooses good, beautiful, and noble actions for their own sake (even if there are useful consequences). Yet humans do not do this instinctually or automatically; even though we are all naturally ordered toward what is good, we are frail, fallen, and easily seduced by false loves. Moral excellence must first be exemplified and imitated, then developed through habituation and practice, and finally taught through reason and instruction so that the soul can discern the good and know how to prudentially achieve it in each circumstance. Aristotle calls this moral process the “work” (energeia) of the human qua human that leads to an “active condition” of the soul (hexis) in which one is properly ordered in one’s desires and reason that consequently forms one’s character (êthos) into a stable and virtuous condition of the soul. While this kind of moral character formation happens first and foremost in the family, it also necessarily happens in public life since man is, by nature, a social (i.e., political) animal.

All laws are moral, for every law seeks to preserve or change the conditions of society on the basis that it would be better or worse to do so. Law is also necessarily pedagogical, for law is an ordinance of reason that instructs the human mind (i.e., rational soul) in what it ought and ought not to do. Therefore, governing bodies, political institutions, laws, and those who serve in office cannot avoid inculcating virtue or vice among the people. Since republican regimes depend upon the people as a mediated source of political sovereignty, the moral quality of the people and their representatives is an urgent concern. Because humans are imperfect and are easily tempted toward ambition, selfishness, and the pursuit of destructive desires, the first thing a republican government must prevent is rampant licentiousness and the wanton pursuit of bodily pleasures and undisciplined passions. Aristotle scornfully declares that men who live only for pleasure are “completely slavish” and compares them to fattened cattle (Ethics 1095b20). Since slaves and cattle cannot form self-governing communities, a people who live only for pleasure and material gain must abdicate republican government and be ruled despotically by others. Republican government requires both the private and public restraint of the passions, which cannot happen apart from a robust public morality that is grounded in religion and supported by law.

Thus, while virtue cannot be externally forced, it also cannot be maintained exclusively by private society where it can easily devolve into license. What the fusionist objection misses, then, are two points: first, the essence of liberty is not freedom from constraint (or the freedom to do whatever you want), but the ability to prudently do what is good in every situation (an act of moral excellence or virtue). While this kind of liberty may be termed “ordered liberty” because it is freedom used for good ends, it is not, as some believe, the singular and exclusive télos of the American regime. Instead, “ordered liberty” is one of the means to the end of the common good—safety, protection, prosperity, justice, happiness, and yes, even liberty itself (i.e., well-ordered liberty encourages and inculcates more well-ordered liberty).

Second, the fusionist fails to recognize that virtue can be taught by politics without necessarily resorting to criminal law and punishment—even though this is surely needed in instances where the political community and those within it are threatened (e.g., harm to bodily life, property, public morality, religion, etc.). Law in its various kinds is always a moral teacher. Civil law can direct citizens to its source in the natural law and eternal law, while also pointing to civil law’s own perfection in the divine law. Just as philosophy is a handmaid to the queen of the sciences—theology—so too politics is a handmaid to the ministry of the Christian Church. Citizens and representatives alike thus learn that just civil law is grounded in true religion and sacred law, and therefore it is incumbent upon them to keep the law in order to love their neighbor and honor God.8

Additionally, civil law is supposed to lead citizens to virtue gradually—not all at once at the end of a gunpoint. Wise and mature legislators and statesmen must be willing to “refine and enlarge the public views” by discerning the “true interests of their country” and weigh these against the fashionable passions of the unruly crowd. This requires, Madison tells us, political leaders who are patriotic and who love justice and the public good. Finally, there always exists a law of opinion or fashion (Locke, Essay II.28.7-13) that functions as an authoritative custom, and that employs honor and shame to direct people (often subconsciously) to engage in certain behaviors and avoid others. Political officials and governing bodies can directly shape and support laws of fashion using public rhetoric and speeches, national symbols and liturgies (national holidays), patriotic verse and hymns, flag pledges, national ceremonies honoring veterans, and also through public education.


National Conservatism is not merely an abstract or theoretical re-articulation of American political principles. Instead, it is a response to the growing moral anarchy, political dystopia, judicial maltreatment, and civilizational decline in America. These challenges cannot be confronted, defeated, or transformed by three (or four) cheers from the stands for a “free and virtuous society.” Saving America requires a reinvigoration and reorientation of political power in this country, primarily at the level of state governments that will aggressively pursue substantive and common goods for the sake of protecting the lives, liberties, and rights of the people properly understood. Nationalism is not authoritarian, but instead is the power to revive an energetic, constitutional, and federal government that rules for the end of the common good of the people by means of inculcating virtue, teaching morals, protecting civil (natural) rights, and supporting the Christian religion. This is a just government, not despotism.

National Conservatism is as much a prudential use of political power as it is a principled one. While its vision of American political order and governance is fully compatible with the principles of the founding, its application of those principles might look very different today than it did at the founding. We face our own set of unique challenges. What is the same is the common good as the end of government, then and now: to secure the safety, protection, prosperity, justice, and happiness of the people—and thus the very life and character of America—by whatever means necessary.

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Show 8 footnotes
  1. John Adams, who authored the Massachusetts Constitution, had this to say about the end of government in his short treatise Thoughts on Government (1776): “Upon this point (what is the end of government) all speculative politicians will agree, that the happiness of society is the end of government, as all divine and moral philosophers will agree that the happiness of the individual is the end of man … All sober inquirers after truth, ancient and modern, pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity, consists in virtue” (in The Revolutionary Writings of John Adams, ed. C. Bradley Thompson (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000), 287-88). Like Aristotle, Cicero, Aquinas and many others, the founders believed happiness was the end of man and of society at large and that happiness consisted in intellectual and moral virtue (i.e., excellence in character). Yet they would not have disagreed with Aristotle and Cicero that one can neither be virtuous nor happy without external, material goods—for a man who is poor, impoverished, in constant pain, or oppressed cannot be truly happy (Aristotle argued that happiness requires living a complete life (Ethics 1098a18-21; 1100a10-1101a22, esp. 1101a15) and necessarily avoiding some pains while enjoying certain pleasures (ibid., 1147b25, 1153b25); Cicero, in his contest between the Epicureans and Stoics, argued that goods of the body and soul are both necessary for true happiness (De finibus Book V)). Therefore, for the founders, “happiness” was a summary term that encompassed all the common goods of man—material, moral, and spiritual.
  2. Gouverneur Morris expresses this sentiment in his “Political Enquiries” (1776): “Natural Liberty absolutely excludes the Idea of political Liberty since it implies in every Man the Right to do what he pleases. So long, therefore, as it exists Society cannot be established and when Society is established natural Liberty must cease. It must be restricted. But Liberty restricted is no longer the same. He who wishes to enjoy natural Rights must establish himself where natural Rights are admitted. He must live alone” (in To Secure the Blessings of Liberty: Selected Writings of Gouverneur Morris, ed. J. Jackson Barlow (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2012), 9). Morris does not mean that “political liberty” (which he had earlier defined as “the right to assenting to or dissenting from every Public Act by which a Man is to be bound”) is completely severed from natural rights and liberties, merely that the natural liberty of man qua man must be converted in political liberty of man qua society in order for man’s happiness to be secured (which Morris defined as the final end of government). Political liberty takes nature as its guide, but it is now “restricted” to conform to the good of the whole.
  3. The civil rights I speak of predate the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that significantly expanded and transformed the older notion of civil rights. That older notion is what Hamilton referred to: civil rights are intrinsically connected to and reflective of man’s natural rights as derived from natural law and divine law. In contrast, modern civil rights are a form of neo-pagan conventionalism or positivism, in which God and nature are jettisoned and mankind’s will to power—through technology, wealth, and the conquest of natural limitations—determines “human rights” in the present and future.
  4. The Law of Nations stipulates that nations are “moral persons” each with a “particular will” to itself and with corresponding rights and duties. Since the natural law directs nations to care first and foremost for the well-being and happiness of their people, and since the power of magistrates and representatives is delegated from the people, a nation cannot unilaterally abdicate its particular political responsibilities in favor of international bodies or global governance. There is no legitimate sovereign that can bind nations under a single, global polity; nations remain in state of nature with each other—independent, but (hopefully) amicable, cooperative, and upright in their dealings.
  5. In his excellent study, The Origins of American Constitutionalism, Donald S. Lutz points out what most modern interpreters of the Constitution completely miss: that the U.S. Constitution refers to the pre-existing thirteen state constitutions more than fifty times in forty-two sections, meaning, that the national constitution was dependent upon and could not be understood apart from the state constitutions (p. 2). This means that every American is a dual citizen: they are simultaneously a citizen of their state and a citizen of the nation. At the time of the founding, America was governed by fourteen constitutions; today, it is fifty-one constitutions. Modern authoritarians who support state consolidation into the national government would prefer that we forget this fact, and instead conceive of America as having only one, national Constitution (which itself is now a hollow and dysfunctional shell that houses the administrative state). National Conservatives desire to restore America’s multi-constitutional political structure, once again balancing state and national constitutions by returning to the states their original, constitutional powers.
  6. Part of the reason why federalism is able to restore the American people is because the core of American federalism is covenantalism (“federal” comes from the Latin foedus, which means “covenant”). Covenants create a people by binding them to each other through moral oaths and promises made before a higher divine power. From the colonial period through the founding and into the nineteenth century, covenantal politics was the essential political tradition that defined the American way of life. For reflections on this tradition, see Daniel J. Elazar, Covenant and Constitutionalism: The Great Frontier and the Matrix of Federal Democracy (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1998). For a documentary history of American political covenants, see Donald S. Lutz, ed., Colonial Origins of the American Constitution: A Documentary History (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998).
  7. This is not an argument that government can compel Christian faith; such is not possible. The objection to government’s role in supporting and encouraging religion due to its inability to compel belief falls prey to the political conventionalism discussed above: only by falsely reducing politics and government to the power to coerce can religious pluralists and advocates of “neutrality” claim that government must be religiously non-cognizant. But if political rule is reasonable and virtuous first and foremost, and if it works in cooperation with other civil institutions (the family and church), then governments can play an indispensable and critical supporting role in helping the natural family and true religion flourish.
  8. To see how this was believed and practiced in eighteenth and nineteenth-century America, read and study the rhetoric of political sermons, especially “election sermons” given before state governors and legislative representatives.
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Ben R. Crenshaw

Ben R. Crenshaw is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Declaration of Independence Center at the University of Mississippi. He is a Ph.D. candidate in Politics at the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College. You can follow him on Twitter at @benrcrenshaw.

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