Mandeville, LA – Exclusive Transcript – Brad is a professor at Hillsdale College. He is the author of the book about Charles Carroll of Carrolton, American Cicero, a great book about a forgotten founding father. He is also the editor of The Imaginative Conservative website, which we had Winston Elliott on yesterday and talked about. Brad is part of what I like to call the conservative revival. Check out today’s transcript for the rest…
Begin Mike Church Show Transcript
Mike: Dr. Birzer is — I promised I wasn’t going to call him Dr. Birzer. Brad is a professor at Hillsdale College. He is the author of the book about Charles Carroll of Carrolton, American Cicero, a great book about a forgotten founding father. He is also the editor of The Imaginative Conservative website, which we had Winston Elliott on yesterday and talked about. Brad is part of what I like to call the conservative revival. Brad, how are you?
Brad Birzer: Good morning, Mike, it’s great to hear from you. I’m doing well, thank you. I hope you are, too.
Mike: I am. What do you think about this Pennsylvania case I was just discussing?
Birzer: That was new to me. I’ve been traveling. I just got back and didn’t know that was going on. I was listening intently to everything you were saying thinking: I hope he doesn’t ask me about any of this.
Mike: You do know the stories of how many in the Catholic faith that are recognized as saints today and many that were martyrs, obviously, were martyred, right?
Birzer: Absolutely. What a beautiful story you told this morning. That was great.
Mike: Are we approaching a day when martyrdom is returning?
Birzer: Mike, I don’t know. There are going to be so many things, I think, that are going to have to be challenged and we’re going to see how this is all going to play out in the courts, what the government is going to do, what kind of advantage certain pressure groups are going to take and make. It’s going to be chaotic, I think, for the next several years, there’s no doubt about that. Whether we come out, meaning those of us who want to defend the faith, come out on the good side or if we come out on the wrong side of the law, it’s going to be scary and interesting in all kinds of ways.
Mike: Let me ask you a follow-up question on that. You had written last Independence Day, just a week ago or so, you issued a challenge to conservatives. First of all, you laid the gauntlet down that you’re tired of the term conservative being used to describe commercial activities and those that have hijacked it. You issued a challenge saying: I’d like to see conservatives start doing — explain what your challenge was about.
Birzer: I had a great time writing that. That’s something I’ve been thinking about. I’ve been very inspired recently by Winston Elliott at The Imaginative Conservative and some of the things you’ve been writing, especially with the way you’ve been looking at the founding. It strikes me, as conservatives we really have a problem, and that problem is we are so good at criticizing but we’re rarely good at trying to promote what needs to be changed. As Russell Kirk said, constantly conservatism is not nearly the continuing of what was. We have a duty to examine and decide: Is this thing that we inherited good? If it is good, does it need reform or do we just pass it on? Or if it’s not good, how do we get rid of it?
Kirk loved to say, especially in the 1950s, a conservative in ancient Egypt or in Peru under the Incas would be a radical. Of course, the last thing they would want to do is preserve much of anything. I wonder if we’re at that situation where for 60 years the conservative movement, and I mean true conservatives here not those who just want to use the military to change the world, but real conservatives who are concerned about preserving the best of the Western tradition. That’s fine. Let’s criticize what’s wrong, but at the same time we’ve got to start putting forward ideas, things that matter, maybe past things that need to be recovered. I think that’s where we’re at right now, Mike. I hear you doing it and I hear Winston doing it. I think that’s great. To me, that’s the model. We have got to start thinking about that. Stop me any time, Mike…
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What I was thinking was traditionally the conservative reformer, the person has gone back, whether it’s Augustine or Charlemagne or Sir Thomas More, one of the things they’ve always done is harken back not just to the faith — obviously we live in a pluralistic society. We can make all the appeals we want to fellow Catholics or fellow Christians, but in a lot of ways that’s only going to be speaking literally to the converted. What about the others? How else might we reach people who don’t come out of that religious background, especially now where a lot of people just don’t? Not necessarily through any fault of their own, they just don’t. We’re moving towards a post-Christian society. It struck me that one of the things that Roman Catholics have done so extremely well is they have created a body of thought revolving around natural law. I think now we have to do something similar. In addition to appealing to those of faith and with faith, we have to find something that really transcends all of humanity, something that allows us to connect every person past, present and future.
One of the things I think the founders did extremely well is they understood natural rights. That is something that I think we as conservatives have a duty to reclaim, not natural rights in the sense that neocons talk about the idea of here it is rooted in every person and we have to make everybody look like us, and certainly not in the way that liberals mean it that everybody has rights all the time. I think there’s a natural right that has to be understood. That’s what I think we have a duty perhaps to reclaim.
Birzer: Yeah, and it may be the fundamental one. Certainly that’s what Russell Kirk argued in the ‘50s and ‘60s, that if there were to be a recognition of natural rights, property would be the one that we would recognize anywhere. What he meant by that was not he who dies with the most stuff wins or he who has the biggest property or house wins. I think in our culture, even those of us who love property and property rights, we’ve kind of perverted it towards a lustful acquisition. What Kirk meant, and from what I read of the founders, especially people like James Wilson and John Dickinson, what they meant by property was that you had ownership of self, and nobody had the right to interfere with the very development of who you, Mike, or I, Brad, or any of the listeners or anyone else, no one has a right to interfere with that. We only have a right to leaven it, to make it better, but not to interfere with it. Property is not meant to be some greedy thing of acquisition. It’s really almost synonymous with life and liberty, that is I have ownership of self. That’s my right. God made me and he gave me conscience and freewill and a soul, and I’m meant to develop who and what I am. I can use it poorly, of course. I can do terrible things, but I also have the right to do right things.
Kirk and Edmund Burke were both very leery about abstract natural rights. That is if I, Brad, or I, John Locke, or I, Thomas Jefferson, just said: These are it right here; we’ve got three of them and that’s it. Kirk thought that’s presumptuous on the part of the person declaring that. If they really are natural and universal and they do transcend the immediate, who is Jefferson, no matter how great he is, or Locke? Who are these guys just to declare those are the rights? They may have gotten it correct, but then again they might not have. That’s what we have to worry about. When I put that up, and Winston graciously published it, it wasn’t here’s a program or platform that we have to adopt. It was more here’s a philosophical principle that maybe we need to reconsider.
Mike: Dr. Brad — forgive me for calling you doctor but you do have a title. One time Randy Barnett, a professor of law at Georgetown University at our little Article V Amendment convention we did at XM back in April 2010, he said: Mike, whether you like it or not, you’re an elite. You’re here hosting this forum with all of us. You’re an elite. Just deal with it. That’s why I say you’re a doctor, Brad, just deal with it.
Birzer: His work influenced me a lot, especially back in the early ‘90s. He was one of the main speakers at the Institute for Humane Studies conferences that I went to. I don’t think he’s quite as radical, from what I can tell, of what he once was. Regardless, I always found him an amazing speaker with all kinds of great ideas and doing really interesting things.
Mike: I’ll tell you how radical he was and how good he was with his radicalism. The great Raoul Berger acknowledged him in the final edition that he had anything to do with the republication of his book Government by Judiciary. He wrote a new foreword to that book. He said: Twenty years have passed since I wrote this and some things have happened. He acknowledged Barnett as being: There’s a new school of young incorporationists out there led by the likes of Randy Barnett.
Back to the subject of natural rights, you mentioned Dickinson. I was just reading today that on this day in 1776, the dust was blown off of the copy of Ben Franklin’s Articles of Confederation. Most Americans do not know that the first draft of the Articles of Confederation was almost solely Franklin’s work. This was Ben Franklin’s doing. It’s in his hand. It’s part of his papers. He introduced it around 1775, about the same time the founders were trying to still reconcile with the king. Dickinson was insisting that this petition known as the Olive Branch Petition: Instead of forming our own new government, Mr. Franklin, we should be prostrating ourselves before our king and begging for his mercy and making peace with him. They tabled Franklin’s Articles of Confederation. Today, after independence had been declared one week ago today on 4 July 1776, the dust, as I said, was blown off the Articles of Confederation. They were reintroduced and of course Dickinson immediately seized upon them and wanted to control the debate, and he did as he usually did.
One of the things that I think in the vein of natural rights, if we’re going to tie this to a founder, that made Dickinson who he was — he was one of the great unsung heroes. Most people don’t know about John Dickinson and you should. What made Dickinson the man that he was is that Dickinson was a Quaker. Dickinson did not believe in the concept or practice of war unless it was a just war. For a Quaker, that was a really high bar to cross. If you’ve studied Christian just-war theory, to make a guy like John Dickinson say it’s time to go to war, this bar was almost insurmountable. You would have had to have been viciously, violently, actually attacked on your property. Life would have to have been taken and it had to be clear evidence that more would be taken. Then and only then would a guy like Dickinson have signed off on or said it’s okay to go to war.
The intriguing thing about that is, this is another one of these things we’ve lost in what Claes Ryn calls our new Jacobinism. Brad, we’ve lost humility. At the end of the day, what Dickinson was being was humble. In his speech against Adams before the Declaration was passed, he said: You guys need to listen to yourselves. You’re trying to make yourselves part of history instead of actually being part of it. Of course, they were trying to change history. Dickinson’s point and what he was defending there was that we must always approach all things we do with humility. I don’t hear anyone talking about humility any longer, do you?
Birzer: No. Can you imagine? That’s such a great point, Mike. Let me second, I think Dickinson is profound as well. I think if we as those who love the founding ignore him or even try to box him into some kind of category, we’ve already lost our argument. He is so essential. You can see that very clearly in Madison’s notes on the debates in the constitutional convention. Dickinson is always there, and I think making some of the most beautiful speeches possible. Even Madison’s recording them, I think, was some kind of respect. You can see that. This is something my friend Winston Elliott reminds me of all the time. Yes, let’s talk about rights, but never without talking about duties as well.
That, to me, is where Dickinson is so important. Dickinson understood that a republic had to be built on humility, that the moment the republic becomes something beyond just accepting humility, it will start moving towards an intense power structure that wants to recreate the world in its image. In fact then it’s really no longer a republic at that point. He even makes the shocking statement in the constitutional convention where he says: I’ve never understood freedom as a way to gain stuff. I’ve understood freedom as a way to attain virtue. This is what allows us, gives us the space to do what’s right. Then he goes on to say that most people who are virtuous tend to be poor. That’s not quite the image I grew up with of the founders. I don’t mean this to run down Jefferson in any way, but I say to my students when I teach the founding — I have the great blessing of being able to teach it about every other year here at Hillsdale — we often, and especially in the musical 1776 Dickinson is seen as this pompous fool and arrogant.
Mike: He’s a party pooper.
Birzer: Right. This is what I say to them, and again this is not to knock Jefferson in any way, Mike. I have profound respect for him. Here’s Jefferson who’s willing to sign the Declaration, of course. He’s the main author of it. Then the moment British troops move into Virginia, he flees. Then you have someone like John Dickinson who doesn’t want to sign it because he thinks it’s too early, it’s too quick of a move to sign it. Yet the moment British troops are in Delaware, he’s out fighting. Which is the guy who’s actually living out what he’s proclaiming? Again, not to knock Jefferson, but just to think about Dickinson’s manhood and bravery at Brandywine is stunning. We can’t, as historians especially, not that we only focus on the words of someone, but we also can’t ignore their actions. Those actions speak loudly. Dickinson will always forever be a great hero of mine for that.
Mike: In the Federal Convention as you’re citing John Dickinson, Dickinson cared so much about these things that not only did he make the speeches that Brad is talking about, in early July of 1787 while the convention is going on, Dickinson is troubled by the advancement of what was known as the Virginia Plan. It was a scheme for a national government, for a national, very powerful central government. Dickinson is so alarmed by this and is becoming paranoid for what was conserved — notice I didn’t say won — what was conserved with the victory at Yorktown and the end of the hostilities with Great Britain, that he sits down and basically pulls an all-nighter and writes his own constitution. It’s got branches, rules, clauses, enumerations of power, everything you see in today’s constitution. Dickinson goes in there the next day and as they’re getting ready to vote says: Just a second here. You can see Madison’s notes say: Mr. Dickinson then introduced his plan of government and it was taken under consideration by the committee of the whole.
This is just such a beautiful part of the story that few people know. It was Dickinson combined with the great Luther Martin that stopped this train. Dickinson, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and Luther Martin are the ones that you have to thank that for a while we had a republican form of government. They’re the ones that said no, and they loudly said no. That’s what turned the convention and turned the attention — I don’t believe the Virginia Plan would have escaped that convention anyway, but that’s what turned it to refocus our attention and do a combination of what we were sent here to do, which was amend the Articles of Confederation and present a new plan of government that is in keeping with the spirit of ’76. That’s why I called my movie about it Spirit of ’76 because that’s really what Dickinson was trying to do. That’s what George Mason was insisting on and others that didn’t go along with Madison.
You know, Brad, if we’re going to talk about conserving things and about founders and about the real lives they lived and their works, Madison left Philadelphia and went to New York. He was despondent, depressed. He’s writing letters to Jefferson about how he got his butt kicked, how he doesn’t think this new scheme of government is not going to work because it’s not strong enough and they didn’t put the things he wanted in there. Of course, he ultimately proves himself wrong. If we’re going to go back to first cases here, the things we’re talking about here are very important.
We’re almost out of time with Brad Birzer here on the Dude Maker Hotline. Before I let you go, I want you people to read Brad’s challenge so you can go see it for yourselves. It’s posted in a Pile of Prep from a week ago. Or you can go to The Imaginative Conservative website and search for Brad’s name and you’ll find it. Before I let you go, though, we have to discuss one final point, and that is the existence of this phenomena that I have observed called the Birzer Effect.
Birzer: I knew you were going to bring that up.
Mike: Since I have Birzer on the line, I can actually discuss and maybe flesh out in the moments we have the Birzer Effect. I want you to just comment on it. Here’s what I say is the Birzer Effect. Whenever I bring up anything that is not red meat political discourse of the day, if I ask anyone to consider John Dickinson as a humble founder and maybe we ought to be more virtuous in our actions; or if I start talking about the simpler points of Western civilization in our education, through the Trivium and Quadrivium of how people were educated for almost a millennia and what great men that produced; or if I start talking about how we have to have a transcendent, and that doesn’t mean all of us do, but there has to be an acknowledgement that there are people that have a transcendent and they believe in it and guards their life. Even if you don’t believe in it, you still get the benefit of it.
This is what my message is to people that want to call and scream and holler at me, [mocking] “I’m an agnostic or atheist, how dare you bring up this transcendent crap on your show.” My answer to them should be I’m not asking you to believe or to follow in my footsteps, but you will reap the benefits of them. Talk for just a moment here about when the Birzer Effect is in effect, what happens is all communication between me and the outside world ceases. Phones don’t ring, emails don’t come in, tweets aren’t posted, Facebook people go and hide. Have I or have you through me gotten to them and made them go: I never thought of it like that; I suck?
Birzer: Well, I don’t know, Mike. I’m glad to have something named after me. I’m not sure this is what I want it to be. It’s funny, Mike, I always get, after I’m on your show — and I love being on your show and love what you’re doing — I always get quite a few emails and correspondence afterwards talking about it. I certainly know guys up in this area like Ben Cowen and TJ Connelly are huge fans of yours. I got into contact with them because of being with you and talking with you. There seems to be, at least from my standpoint — if it’s bad for you, Mike, it’s been good for me. Russell Kirk always talked about this.
There are always going to be a set of ideas that probably are going to be talked about when George Will is writing or when Mike Church is speaking. Then you’re going to have those ideas filter down when the editor of the Oklahoma Daily News is going to write an editorial. I think that’s probably part of this. You’ve got someone like Winston or Gutzman who are writing at a level that tends to be at such a high academic level that I think we have a whole area of things going on. Those ideas become a little bit more real and a little bit more real.
I think a lot, Mike, when you and I talk, especially because you always spark a lot of ideas on my part, I think a lot of this is that where the public is, this is what needs to be talked about. Religion hasn’t been talked about seriously in the public square for a very long time. I think people automatically think: Is this how we’re going to deal with this? If I’m going to try to talk to my neighbor about why he should support the Constitution, do I want to start it with “God said”? It would probably be a turnoff for a lot of people. If I’m answering you at all, Mike, I do think there’s a lot of discussion going on. I think the things that we’re all doing at different levels are critical.
Mike: He is Brad Birzer. Read him at The Imaginative Conservative website. You can find several articles almost every day in my Pile of Prep. He is a professor of history and other things at Hillsdale College. He is also the author of the great book American Cicero, The Life of Charles Carroll which is a fantastic read. Brad, I have to go, old friend, but it’s great having you. Thank you.
Birzer: It’s great as always, Mike. Thanks for doing what you’re doing for the republic. It means a lot.
End Mike Church Show Transcript