1776 vs. 1789

Books | Will a divided America choose the classical liberalism of its founding over the progressive liberalism rooted in the French Revolution?
by Os Guinness
Posted 5/25/19, 08:17 am

Os Guinness for decades has spoken and written articulately. He brings to bear honed discernment in noting, “The present obsession with President Trump, whether supporting or opposing him, is a massively distorting factor for a simple reason: Donald Trump is the consequence of the crisis and not the cause. … The crisis created the president. … Trump’s election was like a giant wrecking ball that stopped America in its tracks, and it allows space for Americans on all sides to consider where they see the republic now, and where they think it should go.”

Last Call for Liberty, which made WORLD’s short list for 2018 Book of the Year in the Understanding America category, ;uses that space: As Guinness compares the successful American Revolution with the murderous French Revolution and its Marxist progeny, he helps us see the importance of choosing “1776 and the classical liberal freedom of its founding” over “1789 and the Left/liberal freedom of today.” Please read the following excerpt, courtesy of InterVarsity Press, and see how those visions of freedom compete in many ways. For example, Christians believe in a created order (with male and females) while materialists believe in an always fluid, socially constructed order. —Marvin Olasky

A New, New Birth of Freedom?

With America bitterly divided and American public life sinking into chaos and conflict, may a visiting foreigner be permitted a word?

For admirers of America today, sleep has become fitful. The great American republic is in the throes of its gravest crisis since the Civil War, a crisis that threatens its greatness, its freedom, and its character. As with that earlier time of terrible, self-inflicted judgment, the deepest threat is not the foreign invader but the American insider. The problem is not America against the world, or the world against America, but America against itself, citizens against citizens, government against citizens, one president against another president, and one view of America in radical opposition to another. Americans have become their own most bitter enemies, and even the enemies of their centuries-old republic.

The stock market may soar for the moment, the big-box stores may be packed during sales, and the sports and entertainment machines may hum with their daily headlines. But no one should be deceived. Radical, violent, and antidemocratic movements are being fomented and funded on both the Left and the Right. The Left sees only the danger of the Right, and the Right the danger of the Left, so extremism confirms and compounds extremism.

Political debate has degenerated into degrading and barbaric incivility, and wild talk of spying, leaking, impeachment, governability, the Twenty-fifth Amendment, and even assassination and secession is in the air. American leaders and opinion leaders are at each other’s throats, intent on tearing each other apart. Careless with their insults and their incitements, many Americans are seething with rage over other Americans. America is locked in a mortal struggle for what each side believes is the soul of the republic. Heedless of the consequences, each side thinks the worst of the other, the once-visionary leadership of the free world has ground to an inglorious halt, and the suddenness of America’s decline is shocking as well as tragic to its admirers.

One index of a healthy, free, and democratic society is its ability to deal constructively with differences and disagreements. How then are we to understand America’s much-touted political shift from “loyal opposition” to “resistance,” as one political party opposing the other presents itself in a term used by the French patriots resisting the Nazi occupation, while it fights back in the style of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals? What we are seeing is not politics as usual but political warfare in a dangerously radical style and led by leaders who should know better. For when words break down, conflict and violence are never far away, and even careless talk of assassination is a diabolical form of violence.

What we are seeing is not politics as usual but political warfare in a dangerously radical style and led by leaders who should know better.

The world is witnessing the aggressive spread of a cancer in the constitutional republic that America was designed to be and has been for nearly two and a half centuries. But this deterioration into an extreme political warfare is simply one measure of the crisis of American democracy. Americans from the highest levels of leadership and mainstream press down are transforming George Orwell’s daily exercise of “Two Minutes of Hate” into a twenty-four hour barrage of negative headlines, ad hominem attacks, insults, abuse, threats, unsupported allegations, and wild conspiracy theories—all of which amounts to a political and cultural hysteria that, for a free society, verges on madness and self-destruction.

The full measure of the crisis can be gauged by the vacuum of leadership at the highest level, for as yet there are many partisans and few statesmen. No Abraham Lincoln has stepped forward to speak on behalf of the better angels of the American republic. If anyone did, their task would be gargantuan, for the present generation has rejected both the vision and the manner of the sixteenth president as decisively as many have rejected that of the founders. There is too little statesmanship to match the gravity of the hour, and too little analysis that goes beyond supporting one side or the other, or that delves down to the real roots of the problem. For the deepest crisis touches on an issue more profound than almost all the present discussion, and as deep to America as the evil of slavery—a fundamental clash over the freedom and the nature of the American experiment that lies at the heart of the republic.

If nations are to be understood by what they love supremely, then freedom is and always has been the key to America. But the question facing America is, what is the key to freedom? The present clash is not simply between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, rich and poor, urban and rural, heartlanders and coastals, or even globalists and nationalists, important though these differences are. The deepest division crosscuts these other differences at several points. At the core, the deepest division is rooted in the differences between two world-changing and opposing revolutions, the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789, and their rival views of freedom and the nature of the American experiment.

It could be argued that the clash is simply between the old, classical American liberalism and the new Left/liberalism that emerged from the 1960s. But it is deeper than that. The fundamental clash is between the spirit, the heirs, and the allies of 1776 and the ideas that made the American Revolution versus the spirit, the heirs, and the allies of 1789 and the different ideas that made the French Revolution and seeded the progressive liberalism of the Left (with the later help of thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Antonio Gramsci, the Frankfurt School, and Michel Foucault).

The pressing clash is therefore a life-and-death conflict between two Americas, two revolutions, and two futures. Following the seismic sixties, when the chasm opened in its current form, a massive floodtide of philosophical, religious, cultural, and political disagreements has swollen into public disputes that now engulf the nation in a second civil war, though along very different lines and for the moment a cold civil war. The outcome is crucial for both America and the world. It calls into question the American republic as it was founded, and it calls into question the United States as the world’s lead society and the champion and exemplar of human freedom for the world. As history underscores, the way of 1789 (aided and abetted by the heirs of 1917, the Russian revolution, and 1949, the Chinese revolution) has led and will always lead to catastrophe for the cause of freedom and a liberal political order, whereas the way of 1776—for all its shortcomings—has led to some of freedom’s greatest successes, however much maligned today.

There is no escaping the coming showdown, for Americans are fast approaching their Rubicon.

Restore or repeal and replace? That is the question for the American republic as it was founded. There is no escaping the coming showdown, for Americans are fast approaching their Rubicon. Is 1776 to be restored (with its flaws acknowledged and remedied) or is it to be replaced by 1789 (and its current progressive heirs)? The outcome will favor one view of freedom or the other, or perhaps the abolition of freedom altogether. For the two main rival views are far more contradictory than many realize, and with their scorched-earth attitudes and policies, they cannot live with each other forever. The middle ground is disappearing. A clean sweep of the cultural landscape is what each wants, and neither will talk of compromise nor allow anything to stand in its way. Either the classical liberalism of the republic will prevail and 1776 will defeat 1789, or the Left/liberalism of 1789 will defeat 1776, and the republic will fail and become a republic in name only. The American republic divided in this way cannot stand. The United States can no more continue half committed to one view of freedom and half committed to the other than it could live half slave and half free in the 1860s.

This crisis is an American crisis. For those on one side, the classical liberals and the present-day conservatives, the American Revolution launched history’s noblest experiment in freedom, justice, and a liberal political order. The American experiment was undergirded by the Jewish and Christian faiths, and while never perfect and at times far from perfect, it represents an achievement of the human spirit worthy of celebration and emulation. For those on the other side, the Left/liberals, the progressives and the cultural Marxists, that vision of America should be castigated, not celebrated. America has shown itself to be hegemonic, inherently flawed and hypocritical, and at times racist, sexist, imperialist, militarist, and genocidal. These criticisms have been delivered along with an implacable animosity to religion as the enduring source of repression and the greatest remaining obstacle to full freedom, and delivered as part of the war cry of a very different revolution with very different assumptions and ideals.

The present crisis is an American crisis for the obvious reason that it touches the heart of America. It is so in another sense too—there is a long tradition that when Americans are disillusioned with America, they look to European ideas that are fatefully different from the ideas and ideals of the American Revolution. Examples would include Thomas Jefferson’s fascination with the French Revolution in its early stages, John Reed’s attraction to the Russian Revolution, Ezra Pound’s falling for Mussolini and the rise of Italian fascism, and after the 1960s, the many on both the left and the right who have become enamored with ideas such as those of Friedrich Nietzsche, Antonio Gramsci, Herbert Marcuse, and Michel Foucault.

Needless to say, the issues between the different sides are for Americans to debate and resolve. But such are the stakes for all humanity, particularly when the debate turns to the future, that perhaps an outsider may raise some questions. What is freedom, and what are the terms of the American experiment? Which of the two rival views of freedom best serves the interests of human flourishing? Which of the two grounds the vision of a free and just society for all citizens, based on the dignity of every human person and allowing for disagreement and opposition? Which view allows a free people to sustain their freedom under the challenging conditions of the advanced modern world and the global era? How will the American experiment survive in the world of posthumanism? Statements about freedom are often deceptively simple, though profoundly consequential, yet they are the issues at the crux of the American crisis. The outcome of the struggle will determine the future of the American republic. It may also determine the future of humanity itself.

The outcome of the struggle will determine the future of the American republic. It may also determine the future of humanity itself.

But let one thing be clear from the start, or we will be sidetracked at once as a thousand discussions are now. The present obsession with President Trump, whether supporting or opposing him, is a massively distorting factor for a simple reason: Donald Trump is the consequence of the crisis and not the cause. The “Never Trumpers,” both Democrats and his fellow Republicans, and politicians, journalists, academics, as well as celebrities, have developed such a manic obsession about the president that they cannot see straight or talk of much else. Above all, they miss a crucial fact. The president did not create America’s present crisis. The crisis created the president, and the crisis is older, deeper, and more consequential than any president. Regardless of this administration, its opposition, and its outcome, what matters in the long run is understanding and resolving the American crisis itself.

It is true that character always counts in the presidency and unquestionably it will count in this one. Yet President Trump is not the real issue. He is not the cause of the crisis, as his critics assert. Nor will he be the solution, as his defenders hope. Donald Trump’s election was like a giant wrecking ball that stopped America in its tracks, and it allows space for Americans on all sides to consider where they see the republic now, and where they think it should go. For Americans who are willing to pause and understand, the present moment is an opportunity as well as a necessity. The most crucial issues have little or nothing to do with the president, and they will still be there after he has gone. It is these deepest issues that need to be faced and addressed while there is still time.

Another Time That Tries the Soul

Once again we find ourselves in times that try men’s souls and test the mettle of all convictions—and this time on the grandest scale of global affairs. The facts of our times are there for anyone to see. What matters are their meaning, the issues that they spawn, and the stakes that humanity is playing for as this generation makes its decisions and demonstrates them in its actions. Americans are debating on behalf of their own future, but Americans must never forget that today’s debate about America is also a debate about the future of the world.

The twenty-first century now summons the world’s two leading nations to their greatest hour—the United States and China. How and where will they lead the world in the first century of the truly global era? How will they relate to each other, and how will they avoid the “Thucydides Trap” (the disastrous clash between a ruling power and a rising power)? They are the world’s two greatest superpowers, both have been nations that are empires by any other name, but they now stand in a curious relationship to each other. By far the older nation, China is now the younger in terms of its entry onto the stage of the modern world, whereas the younger, America, now appears the older as its people and their society show signs of extreme fatigue and irresponsibility after leading the world for little more than a hundred years. In their significance for humanity and the world at large, America claims to stand for freedom and therefore carries the hopes of the world’s desired future, whereas China still stands for authoritarianism and the sort of past that much of today’s world desires to leave behind.

Freedom is one of the deepest and almost universal desires of humanity.

Yet does America still really stand for freedom? And if so, what sort of freedom, and how is America standing for it? That is the issue. Freedom is one of the deepest and almost universal desires of humanity. Lord Acton, the great historian of freedom, claimed that “the development of liberty is the soul of history.” But there are profound disagreements over how to pursue it. Philosophically, freedom raises the deepest questions about humanity, about our human differences from the animals and the rest of creation, and our responsibility for our fellow humans and for the rest of the universe. And practically, freedom raises the immense challenges of building and sustaining societies that respect human dignity and create freedom for all human beings, whatever their race, religion, ideology, language, gender, culture, or political philosophy—one of the rarest and most challenging achievements of history.

The task before America is therefore plain. America must make clear what it now means by freedom, and which of the two visions it now chooses: 1776 and the classical liberal freedom of its founding, or 1789 and the Left/liberal freedom of today. Along with the gravity of its own internal crises, America also faces a world on fire, the decline of Western civilization, a faltering search for a new world order, a slate of global problems that are unprecedented, and the uncharted waters of the human future troubled by such challenges as artificial superintelligence, singularity, and posthumanism. With such monumental items on the agenda, is America still prepared to shoulder its historic task on behalf of freedom, or is that a luxury it can no longer afford? Will the torch of freedom be handed to someone else or extinguished altogether?

There is no question that for all their shortcomings, Americans have written glorious earlier chapters in the story of freedom. This was supremely so in the generation of George Washington and his fellow founders, who dared to fight for and build such a free republic; in the life and work of Abraham Lincoln that was spent to preserve the republic from tearing itself apart over the evils of slavery that contradicted the founders’ freedom; in the achievements of such leaders as Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, who staved off the menace of totalitarianism in the twentieth century; and in the countless voices of preachers and prophets, such as Martin Luther King Jr., who over the generations have kept on calling America back to its high ideals and noble mission whenever they were slipping or betrayed.

Yet lofty as these accomplishments were, they all fade into the past as the present challenge looms. This challenge does not come from America but from within. It represents a threat that may even surpass the menace to freedom of twentieth-century Soviet communism or Hitler’s National Socialism, and a domestic radicalization as dangerous to the republic as the radicalization of Islamic extremists. Hitler was defeated in World War II, but the spirit of Nietzsche still lives on in the American Right. Stalin’s successors capitulated at the end of the Cold War, but the spirit of Marx still lives on in the American Left.

Does America still have the will and the strength to rise to the demands of the present hour, or has its success made it complacent and its power made it corrupt, and have America’s exertions left it tired and unable to carry the torch of freedom as today’s challenges require? Have Americans divested themselves of their historic mission on behalf of freedom, and are they now merely content to live out their brief chapter in history and guarantee their mention in the grand annals of freedom’s past? Do enough Americans even care today, and do they understand what freedom is and what freedom requires? Have they faced up to the deadly double threat posed to America from outside—the post-truth climate of contemporary ideas, and the posthuman rights conditions of brutal conflict on the ground in many parts of the world? And do Americans so take freedom for granted that it is already halfway to being lost?

Do enough Americans even care today, and do they understand what freedom is and what freedom requires?

Such questions abound, for the emotions and attitudes that have flickered across America’s face recently have left even its admirers in dismay. America needs a second Mayflower, it is said, to sail for tomorrow’s new world, but where is this new world to be found? The nation needs another Paul Revere to raise the alarm about today’s clear and present dangers, but how would such a voice be distinguished from the surrounding cacophony of fear and alarmism? It is time for a twenty-first-century Publius to pick up the mantle of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, and set out where their great endeavors have brought us, but how is such seasoned reflection to be heard in the age of the sound bite and the angry blog? America needs an Abraham Lincoln in our day to review how the republic is faring nearly two and a half centuries after its founding, and what it requires to heal its divisions and lead the nation forward, so that its best days truly lie ahead. But is there a Washington, an Adams, a Madison, a Jefferson, a Lincoln, a Roosevelt, a King, or a Reagan in the land?

Questions like these explode in a thousand forms. But anyone pursuing the logic of their thrust will confront a stunning surprise: America’s deepest crisis lies at the point of what has always been America’s greatest strength—freedom. What has long been America’s most stirring ideal, its earliest passion, its noblest and most widely shared value, and today perhaps America’s only nearly universal point of appeal is also the ideal that is at the heart of the American crisis. America’s genius for freedom has become its Achilles’ heel and a leading source of America’s divisions and potential destruction.

Much of the way Americans now think of freedom is unrealistic and unsustainable. And worse, certain movements launched in the name of freedom represent a political and cultural counterrevolution that openly breaks with freedom as the American republic has known it. They claim they are righting wrongs and expanding freedom to ever-new levels, but in the eyes of their critics their “total” or “absolute freedom” is nothing less than “the destruction of freedom in the name of freedom.” Which side is right, and which should Americans follow? Those are America’s decisions, but the significance of the question is plain. The chaos of American politics is the outworking of the real conflict of our times—America’s profound clash over fundamental differences about what constitutes freedom and, therefore what constitutes humanity, justice, social change, and the human future.

President Wilson called for “a world safe for democracy.” President Kennedy called for “a world safe for diversity.” Such are the confusions and contradictions surrounding freedom in America today, and its damage to the cause of freedom throughout the world, that it is time to consider what it would mean to call for “a world safe for liberty,” and whether there is an American leader with the courage and wisdom to sound that call and set out that vision.

From Last Call for Liberty: How America’s Genius for Freedom Has Become Its Greatest Threat by Os Guinness. Published by InterVarsity Press. © 2018. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Os Guinness

Os is an author, editor, speaker, and social critic, and a senior fellow at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics.

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  • PaulC
    Posted: Mon, 05/27/2019 12:03 am

    I agree that Os Guiness is insightful, and that this article is well written.  But I think it is also fair to say that this article as written is aimed at the intelllectuals and the well educated.  We also need the substance of this message in more simple English for those who can't understand all the big words.  And he is asking the question Where are the modern Washingtons, Madisons, Lincolns, Roosevelt, King or Reagan?   Who will articulate this message where a great many will hear and understand?  Whenever there has been something like a great movement (as in the Great Awakenings) God has provided the statesmen needed.  The Lord provided Guttenburg and the invention of the moveable type before the appearance of Luther.  Brothers and sisters in Christ:  Call out to God for America, her leaders (including President Trump, May 2nd) and for her people.  Let the city on the hill shine brightly once again.  

  • Walter
    Posted: Tue, 05/28/2019 11:36 am

    I agree with the previous comment that while the underlying message of this article is clear, there is much that will only be appreciated by those educated in history and philosophy.  Mr. Guinness’ warning is vital for all Americans to hear.  The question is whether others will carry this warning to the general American public so that they too can appreciate the gravity of the crossroads this county now faces.  Whether they will act on it, however, it will be up to history to reveal.

  • mel
    Posted: Tue, 05/28/2019 07:50 pm

    As I read this excerpt, 2 Chronicles 7:14 played over & again in my mind: "IF ...MY people who are called by MY name [1] humble themselves, and [2] pray and [3] seek MY face, and [4] turn from their wicked ways, THEN ...I will [1] hear from heaven and [2] will forgive their sin and [3] heal their land." I'll be 65 this year, and the thought of my grand-children (and yours)... well, LORD, have mercy, and grant your church REPENTANCE and heal our land! Amen!

  • Mike MS
    Posted: Sun, 07/07/2019 11:55 pm

    Great article! Os Guiness has done all he can do by proclaiming the truth. Regarding one’s understanding of the words, we can chew up the chicken, but spit out the bones. I think the words are simple enough to understand (for those that will read them), and I appreciate his comments about historical facts and people that we heard about in public grade school in Mississippi and later learned more about on our own. If we have read The Book, we will agree with Thomas Deraps’ quotes from 2 Chronicles 7:14. I think Mr. Guiness would also agree.