Summary and Critique of Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition

The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition, herein referred to as “Basic Symbols,” is a book first published in 1970, that recognizes its own timeliness within its first pages. The concept of necessity might initially evade the reader who assumes that the text would cover a narrative of simple historical facts. Rather, the book’s theme is a questioning of the authenticity of what modern American political realms teach us about early American history, and a challenge so suggestive that an unsuspecting reader might well accept premise and theory as part and parcel of something he had been ignorant of until meeting the tangle of ideas therein presented.

Kendall and Carey (1995) explain that the concept of an American political tradition used to be something that “Americans did not raise question about,” because everyone knew about the “traditional American way of doing things politically” based on “principals that Americans ought to cherish…bequeathed to us by our forefathers” (p. 4). However, because symbolism is becoming more utilized in the American mainstream and in the study of politics and the modern American public often does not know what it does not know, identifying and examining the American political tradition and its symbols, particularly the differences between those that have been carried on through history and those that have seemingly sprung from ether, has become an important endeavor. (Kendall & Carey, 1995)

Basic Symbols posits questions that seem elementary on their faces, but leave the reader feeling unexpectedly grateful for fleshing out elements of American history never previously considered. For example, Basic Symbols asks the reader what the American Political Tradition is and when it began. (Kendall & Carey, 1995, p. 17) The lay person considering the question for the first time, likely resorts to thoughts of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. However, Kendall and Carey declare through a muddled recollection of documents created west of the Atlantic, that America’s beginning was not truly at the point of either of those documents.

They consider the Mayflower Compact, written in 1620 just before the Pilgrims disembarked the Mayflower to settle on North American land in Virginia. This document was written in the name of God, by signers who identify themselves, state their purposes, seek just laws that are “thought to be” meet and convenient (rather than those that actually are), and state nothing about individual rights or equality. (Kendall & Carey, 1995, p. 31-39) They next consider the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, adopted in 1639. This document, while also a compact, was absent of the notion of being a “covenant,” of “glorification of God,” and of “advancement of the Christian faith.” (Kendall & Carey, 1995, p. 43-45).

However, this document introduced two new purposes that had not been explicitly expressed in the Mayflower Compact: first, to “maintain the peace”; and second, to “maintain union.” (Kendall & Carey, 1995, p. 43) One might critique portions of this chapter firmly, in seeing how Kendall and Carey (1995) claim that the writers of the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut used the terminology “we the inhabitants” as a way of identifying themselves as “God’s people” (p. 45), whilst incredulously and with seemingly less than a complete understanding of Christian settlers’ reasons for coming to America (Mundy, 2018), say that the political tradition is “believed without regard to its historicity.” (Kendall & Carey, 1995, p. 43) In short, Kendall and Carey jump to many conclusions without providing what this reader would see fit as a logical or academically evidenced basis for each part of their theory, while at other times drawing the reader into meandering and painful expositions of otherwise valid ideas.

Basic Symbols next explores the Massachusetts Body of Liberties, which provides a new symbol not previously noted: “liberties,” or “immunities and privileges” that each person is entitled to. (Kendall & Carey, 1995, p. 50) While expanding to this new concept of an individual right, Kendall and Carey (1995) warn us that the people of Massachusetts are concerned only about traditionally understood justice, and not equality, which is wholly unrelated (p. 50). The document also provides for other legislative concepts familiar to Americans today, such as relief from double jeopardy, and safety from involuntary servitude.. (Kendall & Carey, 1995, p. 43) Finally, Kendall and Carey (1995) introduce The Virginia Declaration, which provides for “rights” (p. 61) and demonstrates that governmental power is clearly granted by the people (p. 67).

In addition to providing the reader with this new look at old history, Kendall and Carey (1995) provide succinct and logical answers to troublesome issues that come up in the examination of such history. For example, on questions of freedom of religion and freedom from religion, they explain how America is to be a “Christian society with a secular…form of government,” and while this allows for freedom of type and style of religion, it in no way creates a right for atheists’ “free exercise of irreligion.” (Kendall & Carey, 1995, 73-74) They also provide a logical argument for those who dislike American government: if one doesn’t favor American government, he can leave; if he can find no better place to leave to, then American society is clearly better; thus by staying, one must acknowledge that American systems are not so comparatively “unreasonable;” and on the contrary, if one chooses to stay and is still dissatisfied with the American system, the Constitution can be edited and revised in ways that are no more rigid than the methods of its original creation. (Kendall & Carey, 1995, p. 87)

Kendall and Carey do seem to miss latching on to something else, however, that would better compliment a historical consistency in balancing the importance they place on early documents, with American’s modern understanding of the answer to their big question on the timing of America’s origin. July 4, 1776, the date Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, is often referred to colloquially and in through-the-ages meaning as “America’s birthday.” If such a case can be validly made that the nation’s origins predate either its legal independence, or its creation of a constitution, (as the case is aptly made in Basic Symbols), then could not this span of time and significant developments be compared to the development of a fetus in the womb, not yet self-aware that it is preparing for birth?

Medical science shows that a baby is created at a point in time, and is dependent on its mother for a time as it develops its heartbeat, its brain, its spinal cord, and other key growths; and eventually grows to an incubated state in which it is possible to self-sustain but has not yet left the womb, but when it does, and takes those first true breaths, whilst its umbilical cord is severed forcing a separation that can never be rightfully undone, it embarks on something else colloquially comparative: its birthday and future as a legally-recognized person. While separate from those early stages of development, and not possible without them, the birthday is key. Could we not consider the documents, symbols, and ideas that Kendal and Carey so wistfully embrace as correctly essential to the development of our nation, while not needing to reduce the importance of the nation’s birthday to its “date of conception”, the arrival of a “heartbeat”, or its “first moment of potential independence?” To expound on this type of a theory would have brought Basic Symbols’ primary arguments full-circle and perhaps even added a layer of credibility to them.

Finally, Kendall and Carey (1995) posit that President Abraham Lincoln, with his wording of the Gettysburg Address in 1863 – “committed a very serious error”, causing a “derailment” in public knowledge, or if one will, mythology, that lead to the very need discussed at the opening of the book: understanding America’s symbols and political traditions, (p. 89). What follows in Kendall and Carey’s analysis and critique of Lincoln’s choice of words is interesting from a scholarly perspective, but frustrating from a logical position.

For example, they claim that Lincoln is erroneous when he “fixes our beginning as a people either at a point after our beginning or before it,” yet everything aforementioned in Basic Symbols leads the reader to believe that Kendall and Carey believe just that; they hypothesize alternative “start dates,” including most predominately, the dating of the Mayflower Compact; yet they settle on none. (Kendall & Carey, 1995, p. 89) They question Lincoln’s believe that the Declaration of Independence established America’s independence as a nation, yet provide little proof that it did not. They argue that it actually only established sovereignty for the colonies, which while partially correct due to the fact that they were already separate (albeit unofficial) entities in agreement with each other in declaring independence, also seems partially wrong: had a single colony, prior to the creation of the Constitution, been attacked in an act of war, would not each of the other colonies have dove into despair that “they all,” were under attack, potentially expressed as a collective “we?” Whether Kendall and Carey are right to call out Lincoln’s alleged erroneous recollection of history here, or whether is they who have it wrong, is not something that can be determined by the short review that they allot to fleshing out the allegations, and nonetheless, seems to amount to a rather frivolous argument that is inconsequential to the larger picture when noting the feasibility of a tertiary point of view in comparing the pre-1776 dawning in America to the prenatal development of any other God-created being.

Finally, Kendall and Carey (1995) draw on their other accusations against Lincoln to argue that his statement of “all men are created equal” breathes life into a long-lasting and vociferous-yet-today political concept that the “Basic Symbol of the American Political Tradition,” and primary purpose of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were to establish recognition of an inalienable right of equality, (p. 90). In this notion, Kendall and Carey are, if not spot on, at least closer to right than any other statement they assert about Lincoln and his impact on the 20th century.

However, again, Kendall and Carey flesh out ideas, but fail to bring them full-circle into confidently adoptable premises. They might be very right in asserting that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address impacted a distortion in future American thought leading to a progressive rather than a conservative public myth, but as shown by Harry V. Jaffa (1975) in a critical review of Basic Symbols, Kendall and Carey never discuss slavery in their consideration of equality, nor ask what “the Founding Fathers” thought “entitled the American people to consider themselves as sovereign.” (Jaffa, 1975, pp. 491-493) “The answer,” Jaffa (1975) claims, “is Equality” (p. 493).

This analysis makes no aim to promote an antithesis of Basic Symbols’ wider theories, such as those proposed by Jaffa, especially in light of the teachings of Tocqueville on the errancy in allowing equality to run to its natural extreme end in despotism. (Tocqueville, 2006, pp. 504-505) Nonetheless, recognizing and praising Kendall and Carey for intriguing theories, interesting historical accounts, and fleshing out of things not prior known by the average 21st century American to be concerns, does not preserve their analysis of the issues from critique and the broad suggestion that any reader of Basic Symbols does well to acknowledge inconsistencies in logical methods used in their exposition, and the need for consideration of alternative theories prior to conceptual commitment.