Irving Babbitt on Lincoln and unionism.

Author:Seaton, James
 
FREE EXCERPT

Surveying American politics, culture and society in Democracy and Leadership, Irving Babbitt found little to admire and much to criticize. (1) Against the notion that "the people" could be trusted to choose worthy leaders, he reminded his readers that "Millions of Americans were ready not so very long ago to hail William Jennings Bryan as a 'peerless leader'"--while in the present "Other millions are ready apparently to bestow a similar salute on Henry Ford" (308). Babbitt was willing to acknowledge that "Judged by any quantitative test, the American achievement is impressive" (265), but he was quick to add that "qualitatively it is somewhat less satisfying" (266). The understatement of this latter evaluation is surely to be taken ironically rather than literally, especially in the light of Babbitt's considered judgment that "The American reading his Sunday paper in a state of lazy collapse is perhaps the most perfect symbol of quantity over quality that the world has yet seen" (269). Although Babbitt was awa re that there were "many other countries besides America" in which "vulgarity and triviality are more or less visible" (267). he couldn't help feeling that "we in America are perhaps preeminent in lack of distinction" (267-68). There was little in the contemporary scene that promised sustenance for the "moral imagination" to which Babbitt, drawing on Edmund Burke, turned in hopes of bringing "the experience of the past . . . to bear as a living force upon the present" (127-28). Babbitt did, however, find at least one element of American culture worthy of respect, one tradition shared by many Americans to which he could give his approval and on which he could base his hopes for American democracy. Babbitt holds up what he calls "our great unionist tradition" as the crucial "offsetting influence" (299) to all the temptations to which democracies are particularly vulnerable.

Babbitt argues that American history may be seen as a struggle between "two different views of government that have their origins in different views of liberty and ultimately of human nature," an "expansive" view promoted most vigorously among the Founders by Jefferson and a "unionist" view that "has its most distinguished representative in Washington" (272). For Babbitt the results of the "American experiment in democracy" would not become finally clear "until the irrepressible conflict between a Washingtonian and Jeffersonian liberty has been fought to a conclusion" (273). Babbitt's key objection to Jefferson's outlook is his "faith in the goodness of the natural man" (272), a faith, Babbitt suggests, that lends itself all too easily to a belief that a country founded on "the natural man" can do no wrong and in fact owes it to the world to expand and dominate as much territory and people as possible. Shrewdly, Babbitt notes that "A democracy . . . is likely to be idealistic in its feelings about itself, but imperialistic in its practice. The idealism and the imperialism, indeed, are in pretty direct ratio to one another" (293-4). Those familiar with Babbitt's critique of Rousseau's affirmation of "the natural man," what Babbitt calls in Democracy and Leadership Rousseau's "glorification of the instinctive and the subrational" (97), and with his critique of Romantic expansiveness in general will not be surprised at Babbitt's criticisms of Jeffersonianism. It is not so obvious, however, why Babbitt should turn to "unionism" as his chosen alternative to Jeffersonian expansionism. Some objections suggest themselves at once. Isn't "unionism" as a political slogan the sort of justification of centralized power that one would expect Babbitt to oppose? Doesn't "unionism" imply, or might it not easily be twisted to imply, a kind of nationalistic worship of the state? Besides Washington, Babbitt cites John Marshall as "our most eminent unionist after Washington himself" and Abraham Lincoln as "the true successor of Washi ngton and Marshall" (275). In thus fleshing out his conception of "unionism," Babbitt raises additional questions. He praises Marshall for his insistence on judicial review, but it is just those who have been influenced by Babbitt who are most likely to feel that the abuse of judicial power requires curbing. Lincoln himself was not remarkable for deference to the authority of the Supreme Court. Likewise, followers of Babbitt are among those most likely to be troubled by the suspicion that support for "unionism" involves giving one's approval to the centralization of power in the federal government that occurred during and after the Civil War. (Russell Kirk, who admired Babbitt greatly, does not discuss Lincoln in The Conservative Mind, although there are chapters on John Adams and on "Southern Conservatism: Randolph and Calhoun.")

In considering these objections, it would be well to first understand what Babbitt himself means by "unionism." Babbitt's core conception of unionism does not assert the federal government's superiority to states and individuals but rather the need for the...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP