Republican Toryism

Note from the Editor

Originating from the Irish tongue as a somewhat disparaging term for Royalist rebels in the 1640s and 50s, the term “Tory” originally referred to those men who were opposed to the Roundhead faction in the English Civil War and supported the Stuarts before and after the Restoration. Despite the Hibernian etymology of the moniker, most Tories were English Anglicans belonging to the high-church party whose sympathies generally lay with absolutism and the divine right of kings. Over time, Toryism came to be identified in a very broad sense with traditionalism throughout the growing Anglosphere, and though it was for a long time a profoundly aristocratic movement, the movement was democratized throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries. This culminated in the Prime Ministership of Benjamin Disraeli, under whom the contemporary Tory philosophy of “one-nation conservatism” came into fruition. This essay explores Toryism as a distinctively republican worldview in North America.

Since at least the nineteen-eighties, Americans have had a fairly established pantheon of conservative thinkers and statesmen. Figures such as William F Buckley, Ronald Reagan, Leo Strauss, and Barry Goldwater dominate the minds of young Republicans and established intellectuals. A more historically minded conservative would add to this list John Adams and Calvin Coolidge, while someone with a fairly limited historical memory might add Michael Anton and Tucker Carlson. Except for the examples of Edmund Burke and Alexis De Tocqueville, very few Americans look beyond our own borders to understand the history of conservatism. Ron Dart’s recently published work, The North American High Tory Tradition, serves as a corrective to this nationalistic hubris through its brilliant account of Canadian conservativism and its divergence from the American right.

What Is High Toryism 

The major goal of Dart’s book is to show that until recently, Canadian conservatism was starkly different from its counterpart in the United States. This difference can be attributed partly to the fact that many loyalists fled from the United States to the Canadian frontier during the American Revolution, but also to the strong cultural and political ties that continued to exist between Canada and England well into the twentieth century. Dart argues that this means that while American conservatism was shaped by Locke, Jefferson, and Hamilton – all classical liberals of one form or another – Canadian conservatism was infused with a “tory touch” by thinkers such as John A. Macdonald and Bishop John Strachan.

In a short but insightful preface to the body of the work, Dart provides a brief outline of the political positions that make up the more modern Tory tradition. The contemporary Tory school of politics is usually painted as center-right on social issues and center-left on economic ones. Though this characterization is not untrue, Dart ably shows that this mindset oversimplifies Toryism. Tory thought traces its origin to the natural law theorists of Rome (in both its Republican and Catholic iterations), though this natural law is mediated through the innate moderation of the Anglican church.

At the heart of this political vision is a concern for the common good. This High Tory Canadian vision articulated by Dart argues that the only way to stave off societal decay is to ground politics in “certain immutable principles” and that both the state and society have an important role to play in instilling those principles[i]. In practice, this means a powerful, though still restrained, national government that emphasizes the importance of tradition, religion, liberal arts education, and the promotion of the economic welfare of all citizens.

The High Tory Critique of America 

Throughout the work, Dart juxtaposes the Tory vision with American liberalism. Latent in this comparison is a critique of the American model of politics. Rather than explain the Tory critique of liberalism in a long philosophic tract, most of the North American High Tory Tradition is dedicated to examining the political thought of various Canadian thinkers and their interlocutors in the Anglosphere. Foremost among Dart’s roster of Tory grandees is George Grant (1918-1988). Grant dominated the Canadian philosophic world for much of the twentieth century and his Lament For A Nation is one of the seminal tracts of Canadian nationalism. Concerned with the importation of American ideas to Canada, Grant’s tract is a work of resistance that seeks to show the problems with American liberalism and to highlight the virtues of a High Tory Canadian perspective.

Grant contrasted the common good vision of Toryism with the American idea of a republic, in which government has little say about moral issues and the fundamental questions of human life are handled in the private sector. Grant, and by extension Dart, argue that this view inevitably leads to a society consumed with individualism. A society where the common good is forgotten in favor of the accumulation of wealth and the spread of empire.

Is There An American Toryism? 

As an American engaging with Dart and the Canadian Tory tradition two questions immediately spring to mind: how fair is the Tory critique of America, and does America have anything like a Tory tradition? Dart and Grant’s critique of liberal republicanism rings true of certain brands of America’s republican tradition. Hamilton, Madison, and other key framers followed the lead of Montesquieu and Hume in creating a commercial republic whose motivating force was personal gain and individualism. This principle which Grant sees at the heart of the commercial republic was succinctly and boldly summarized by Alexander Hamilton who stated in Federalist 23 that “money is, with propriety, considered as the vital principle of the body politic.”[ii] Even the structure of the federal constitution is designed to turn the ambitions of officeholders upon one another in the hopes that this produces efficient government.

Dart and Grant’s condemnation of commercial republicanism is somewhat fair. A republic built on selfishness can only ever hope to create a selfish people with little regard for the common good[iii]. However, it would be wrong to think that America does not have its own distinct Tory tradition. Commercial republicanism is not the only vision that has shaped American politics. With the rise of Jacksonian populism – and the selfishness it encouraged – figures such as John Quincy Adams brought a different kind of republicanism to the forefront of American political life.

For Adams, the heart of any republic must be virtue. Departing from modern commercial republicanism he argued that “Virtue is the oxygen, the vital air of the moral world. Immutable and incorruptible itself.”[iv] Though monarchies, aristocracies, and dictatorships can survive without virtue Adams’ contended that republics are different – they rely almost totally upon the character of public officials and private citizens alike[v]. Without virtue, republics are doomed to sink into hopeless despotisms consumed by avarice and corruption. He also merrily jettisoned the liberal notion that to be free was to live one’s life as one wished and instead advocated a vision of freedom that meant living one’s life in accord with truth and goodness (as long as one had freely chosen these things). In essence, to be virtuous was to be free.

In order to encourage virtue, Adams argued that republics must downplay the role of individuals and focus instead on the common good of all and create an educational system that encourages selfless generosity and public service through the cultivation of tradition and religion. This required a powerful but restrained government willing to spend money on social programs and overcome sectional divides. The idea of such a republic became one of the core ideas of the Whig Party and was carried into the Republican Party by figures such as Lincoln. Ever since Adams’ idea of a virtuous republic has become a persistent theme among some American thinkers and politicians. One only needs to look to the political thought of figures as diverse as Calvin Coolidge, Thomas Dewey, and Franklin Roosevelt to see the continuing influence of this vision in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

This republican vision has a great deal in common with High Tory political thought. Both emphasize the common good as the foundation of the regime and both emphasize tradition, religion, and education as some of the surest paths to securing that foundation. Much of the former is rooted in the same sources as Tory thought – Christian thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas and Roman moral philosophers like Cicero. In short, America has its own High Tory republican tradition. One not fully recognized by Dart or a plethora of modern conservative academics. This is not to say that the idea of a virtuous republic is identical to High Toryism, but there is no denying that it has a strong Tory touch. In our contemporary moment – one consumed with selfishness, individualism, and a dangerous disregard for tradition – it seems more important than ever that we capitalize on this Tory touch and revive Republican Toryism in America. Reading the work of Ron Dart is a great plan for a citizen to begin this journey.

[i]  Ron Dart, North American High Tory Tradition, pg. 124.

[ii] Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 23.

[iii] Though even this vision of American politics is disputable. While some founders wished to build a republic on low but sturdy foundations, most thought morality and piety were every bit as important as rights and institutions in encouraging human flourishing. John Dickinson’s first act as Governor of Pennsylvania was to issue a proclamation encouraging pious virtue, and in the Constitution of Massachusetts John Adams argued that without reverence for a higher being, humans could not gain wisdom. Just two examples among many that the liberalism of the American founders is not so easily vilified as some may think.

[iv] John Quincy Adams, Lectures on Rhetoric and Oratory: Delivered to the Classes of Senior and Junior Sophisters in Harvard University, Vol I. Printed by Hillard and Metcalf, 1810. Pg. 65.

[v] September 26th 1786 and March 12th 1795 in the Diary of John Quincy Adams.