Protestant Francophiles?

Franco, Anacyclosis, and the American Founding

“Basically, what we’re going to need is a Protestant Franco.” With that tweet, American Reformer Executive Director, Josh Abbotoy, induced much angst on Christian Twitter. Mark Tooley called it “Christian Dictatorship Chic” in a piece at Providence. A post on the History News Network hysterically wondered why the online right is “so thirsty” for Generalissimo Franco. Various bloggers, occupying their permanent posture of concern, warned that, with a single tweet, the dark underbelly, the true authoritarian intent of Christian Nationalism had been unveiled.

In due time, Abbotoy released an explainer piece at First Things. The effect of his response was not so much to set the record straight, as if an apology for an online sin was in order, albeit he had certainly run afoul of liberal political assumptions that govern the contours of discourse. Rather, the point of the response was to, as I recently put it, invite would be interlocutors to the adult table, as it were. The new Christian right (NCR) is not “thirsty” for dictators, nor are they drunk on power lust. Consternation, however, is instigated by the willingness of certain NCR commentators and theorists to question the status quo, not just culturally and socially, but politically, and that at a deep structural level. Of course, the Franco tweet and the resultant article were not so much taken up with reassessment of possible modes and means of governance as they were with predictive analysis. That is, anacyclosis or regime cycle theory (or “cycle of constitutions”).

Is this seditious and fanciful or thoroughly American and, more importantly, engagement in robust political thinking?

In the sixth book of his Histories, Polybius introduced anacyclosis, a process or predictive theory of constitutional change. On a sufficiently long timeline, such change is basically inevitable given that all regimes are finite and, generally speaking, a finite range of regime types exist (i.e., monarchy, aristocracy, democracy). The analysis considers the corresponding threefold mode of degeneracy of each type (tyranny, oligarchy, ochlocracy) and the typical transition between one constitutional form, and another based on the starting point in view and the kind of degeneracy in play. Polybius’ theory is not mechanical. He considers at length the contributions of individual or group political behavior and their relevancy to constitutional changes.

Briefly, with the basic state of nature as the backdrop, most regimes begin under a monarchical constitution, digress into tyranny, progress next into an aristocracy either through deposition of the monarch or a siphoning of his sovereignty. That arrangement then degenerates into oligarchy—the presence of a merchant middle class does not prevent it—and democratic, what we might now call “populist,” movements emerge. Democracy, which, until yesterday, was considered something akin to profanity by astute political writers, usually devolves into mob rule quickly. Chaos, economic, social, or otherwise, precipitates the rise of a monarchical power to restore stability and order.

That’s the theory in a nutshell. It is decidedly empirical, not proscriptive. Anacyclosis is a realist outlook in that it is, as the label indicates, cyclical in its historical outlook rather than linear. Society is not capable of progressive evolution, only circular movement through myriad stages of political-constitutional life, and each stage possesses a certain lifespan; the cycle is perennial, but any given stage is not permanent.

In any case, detailed assessment of the veracity of Polybius’ so-called unified theory of political history and action is out of scope here. It can be complicated by the inclusion of Plato’s fivefold governmental forms—timocracy is my favorite, for obvious reasons—and parallel Aristotelian (or Machiavellian) insights but whatever wrinkles are introduced, the basic theory of anacyclosis remains, as does the classical preference for either monarchy, aristocracy, or a mixed form of government.

The question in play here with “Protestant Franco,” is whether acceptance of, and participation in, such predictive analysis is as outlandish as the Evangelical concerned class says.

It goes without saying—or should go without saying—that a predominate, but by no means singular, stream of thought and influence on the American founding generation (and their ancestors) is owed to classical texts, perhaps especially those of Polybius, Seneca, Cicero, and Aristotle. That’s a general, demonstrable observation. More particularly, given said influence, anacyclosis-type analysis should be expected from statesmen of the late eighteenth century—this stuff was not just window dressing to them, as Forrest McDonald and Richard Gummere have both shown. But it also crops up in more unexpected places (see below) and should be conditioned by an attitude, a bleak sobriety about the then-nascent American regime that will surprise some. Dennis Rasmussen’s new work, Fears of a Setting Sun, charts how the household name founders (i.e., Washington, Hamilton, Adams, and Jefferson) were, for diverse reasons, rather depressing in their outlook and predictions for the new republic they had established.  

Consider Abagail Adams in a 1783 letter to her husband— special thanks to Pavlos Papadopoulos for pointing me to this one:

“There is a position in Machiavel says a late elegant writer that a country should sometimes be without order, and over run with all sorts of calamities, that Men of great Genius may distinguish themselves by restoring it. We certainly see a country sufficiently disorderd [sic], and embarrassed to satisfy any speculator in the utmost wantonness of his imagination. But where and to whom shall we look, for a restoration of internal peace and good order, so necessary for the preservation of that very freedom for which we have so long and so successfully contended.”

Of course, John Adams, like Washington and others, had warned in his famous address to the Massachusetts Militia (1798) of the fragility of the American constitutional order. Most commentators like to cherry-pick the bit at the end about the necessity of a “moral and religious People” for said order. As a soundbite, this misses the whole point. Should the preconditions for the liberality of the American regime be eroded all would surely collapse, for there was nothing, no failsafe, inherent in the constitutional arrangement that could prevent it. Its dissolution would thereby follow swiftly.

“While our Country remains untainted with the Principles and manners, which are now producing desolation in so many Parts of the World: while she continues Sincere and incapable of insidious and impious Policy: We shall have the Strongest Reason to rejoice in the local destination assigned Us by Providence. But should the People of America, once become capable of that deep, simulation towards one another and towards foreign nations, which assumes the Language of Justice and moderation while it is practicing Iniquity and Extravagance; and displays in the most captivating manner the charming Pictures of Candor frankness and sincerity while it is rioting in rapine and Insolence: this Country will be the most miserable Habitation in the World. Because We have no Government armed with Power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by morality and Religion. Avarice, Ambition, Revenge or Gallantry, would break the strongest Cords of our Constitution as a Whale goes through a Net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Other examples from Adams can easily be mustered. His letter to Benjamin Rush in the same year as his militia address is one:

“I also, am as much a Republican as I was in 1775. — I do not “consider hereditary Monarchy or Aristocracy as Rebellion against Nature.” On the contrary I esteem them both Institutions of admirable Wisdom and exemplary Virtue, in a certain Stage of Society in a great Nation. The only Institutions that can possibly preserve the Laws and Liberties of the People. and I am clear that America must resort to them as an Asylum against Discord Seditions and Civil War and that at no very distant Period of time. I shall not live to see it—but you may. I think it therefore impolitic to cherish Prejudices against Institutions which must be kept in View as the Hope of our Posterity. — I am by no means for attempting any Such thing at present. — Our Country is not ripe for it, in many respects and it is not yet necessary but our ship must ultimately land on that shore or be cast away.”

(I have pointed out before Adams’ recognition of the monarchical element of the constitutional order.) The point is that the Adams couple was not ignorant of the way politics works, nor were they ideologically squeamish about addressing reality.

One more citation is in order, viz., Benjamin Franklin’s speech, delivered by James Wilson on Franklin’s behalf due to the latter’s ill health, at the close of the Constitutional Convention. Franklin registered his sobering reservations about the constitutional regime then just enacted but supplied his consent nevertheless in terms less enthusiastic than people might expect: “because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best.” He went on to add,

“I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other.”

As my friend and American Reformer contributor, Ben Crenshaw, likes to say, let’s be adults about this, please. Perhaps, the loss of American political virtue is best demonstrated by our paralysis, our inability to think as the founding generation did instead of simply and selectively parroting what they said. The conservative impulse for filial piety is noble and needed, but it must be properly directed. The NCR is regularly accused of cosplay or live-action role-playing (LARP), as if we’re all running around in Templar costumes in Luddite patriarchal towns. Anytime the nature, function, and trajectory of the standing regime is questioned, these accusations are slung our way. This includes considerations belonging to anacyclosis analysis.

When Josh Abbotoy suggests that, given the degeneracy and increasingly anarchic mood of our republican mixed constitutional order, a possible if lamentable future is the emergence of a genuine dictator, and that, if such be the case, a Protestant one would be preferable, conservative howling only exposes the political unseriousness that has prompted such reassessment in the first place. But at bottom, there is nothing less honoring to the founding generation—some of the most politically learned and capable men to live—than to thoughtlessly chant truisms curated by a professional class that hates most of what the founders were.

A better exercise for republic keeping is to think as the founders thought, or at least try to. And the founders, ambitious as they were, were not Pollyanna idealists in the colloquial sense in which they are usually portrayed. They were practical and realist statesmen. As our own curation of quotes above suggests, they (especially the Adams Family) engaged in Polybius’ analysis; they recognized, with increasing despondency, it seems, the predictable possible future of the constitutional order they were then constructing.

Again, this does not mean, of course, that tides cannot be turned. Political agency is not hereby denied. Rather, political sobriety is encouraged. Noteworthy, for purposes of socio-political focus here, is that Rasmussen distinguishes between the reasons for the lack of optimism, we might say, of each of his chosen subjects. Washington cited emerging partisanship. Hamilton bemoaned a weak national government. Jefferson attributed the potential dissolution of the republic to sectional divisions. Many observers warned that the scope of the republic was too excessive. In some way, all of those concerns have been addressed since, which is not to say sufficiently addressed. However, Adams feared that the American people lacked the requisite civic virtue (morality and religion) appropriate to the chosen constitutional order. It is Adams’ worries that have never been directly approached in earnest. Instead, the morality and religion of the people have been permitted to continually degenerate. The NCR is acutely aware of this oversight and is interested in its rectification.

Simultaneously, America has experienced constant socio-cultural agitation and, at least on this front, a “rapid succession of revolutions” (Federalist 9) which has compounded or born out Adams’ fear. To boot, Adams lamented early that his assumption that America had a mixed constitutional order, the Aristotelian ideal, was proven unfounded. In reality, the “Virtue, Spirit and effect” (Adams to Benjamin Rush, 19 September 1806) of the regime have tended toward the democratic, an abysmal result to any classically minded political theorist. These realities present regime-constitutional level problems that true statesmen must recognize and address, but solutions cannot be formulated outside of clearheaded trajectory charting. Some on the NCR are starting to do that and it, apparently, bothers people. Perhaps, because it presents them with an admittedly unfavorable but real assessment of our current position. Who knows? But it speaks to the ineptitude of “conservative” Christian leadership that merely noticing things—something of an American pastime in this regard—is an unwelcome activity.

Image Credit: Unsplash A Bronze plaque at the base of the statue of Benjamin Franklin, Boston, MA

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Timon Cline

Timon Cline is the Editor in Chief at American Reformer. He is an attorney and a fellow at the Craig Center at Westminster Theological Seminary and the Director of Scholarly Initiatives at the Hale Institute of New Saint Andrews College. His writing has appeared in the American Spectator, Mere Orthodoxy, American Greatness, Areo Magazine, and the American Mind, among others. He writes regularly at Modern Reformation and Conciliar Post.

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