American Conservatism and the Present Crisis

Claremont Review of Books, Spring 2003.


Roger Scruton, writing in the Wall Street Journal last December, declared that “September 11 was a wake up call through which liberals have managed to go on dreaming. American conservatives ought to seize the opportunity to utter those difficult truths which have been censored out of recent debate: truths about national loyalty, about common culture, and about the duties of citizenship.”

In the more than 200 years of our history, the most difficult of all truths, and the one most often and most profoundly subject to censure or misinterpretation, is that beginning, “We hold these truths to be self-evident….” In 1860-61, 11 states justified “secession” from the Union, and forming a separate government, on the ground that they were exercising the right, as set forth in the Declaration of Independence, to withdraw their consent to be governed. Yet the secessionists denied categorically the assertion of the universal equality of human rights in the same Declaration of Independence, which was the moral and logically necessary ground of consent. The doctrine of states’ rights—central to much of American conservatism in the 20th century—has from the beginning divorced political right from the equal natural rights of individual human beings, under “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” This was the principal ground of difference in the struggles against Jim Crow and for civil rights. Today, in the controversy over “affirmative action” in its many guises and embodiments we find the former leaders in the movement for civil rights—amazingly and paradoxically—demanding rewards and privileges, not as individuals but on the basis of their collective racial or ethnic identities. And we find conservatives (or at least some of them) on the other side—no less paradoxically—opposing affirmative action as contrary to the individual rights proclaimed in the Declaration! Clearly, precision concerning the real meaning of the Declaration of Independence, and its bearing on the institutions of government (especially the Constitution), is the most urgent order of business for us.

Claremont Review of Books