Ep. 6 - Truth In Tension w/ Josh Lewis
Discussing self-evident truths and the tension of views that often leads to them with Saving Elephants host Josh Lewis.
Welcome to the sixth episode of Self-Evident, a podcast about first principles, hosted on Substack along with the Self-Evident Newsletter. In this episode, I was pleased to host my first guest on the podcast, Josh Lewis of Saving Elephants fame.
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Me: Hello folks, welcome to the Self-Evident podcast. Today's episode is going to be something a little different. For the first time ever, I'm going to have a guest on the podcast. My good friend Josh Lewis is here with us. He is the host of the Saving Elephants Podcast; he also writes on the Saving Elephants Blog, and he's also contributed to the Liberty Hawk from time to time. So, good to have you here, Josh.
Josh Lewis: It's great to be here. Hey, I feel very honored. I'm the first-time guest on the podcast.
Me: Well, you know I've been on your podcast what, three times? So, I felt like whenever I got around to deciding to have guests, you had to be the first guest. So, I'm pretty excited.
Josh Lewis: We might call it two and a quarter since the third time you were on, you were on there with three others.
Me: I guess that’s true, that’s true. I mean, if you want to bring it down to two and a quarter, then so be it.
Me: So, we're going to try something with my guests, and I'm going to use Josh as my Guinea pig here a little bit. My podcast’s name is Self-Evident. Most people would recognize that as coming from the Declaration of Independence when it says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” So, even though I talk a lot about the news of the day, I talk a lot about, you know, the political issues in the headlines, this podcast is ultimately about trying to get back to first principles and discovering what is self-evidently true about limited government and about the entire experiment of American governance. So, to start out this conversation, Josh. When you think about what self-evident means or what could be considered self-evident truths or even just what first principles might be, what's the first thing that comes to mind?
Josh Lewis: First thing that comes to mind is exactly what you read, 'cause it's the most famous phrase perhaps in all of American literature, if you will, as we hold these truths to be self-evident. Now, that being said, it being the first thing that comes to mind, I am a chronic overthinker, and sometimes you know I think through this is like well is that self-evident 'cause there's a whole heck of a lot of people it doesn't seem to be self-evident, you know, in their world. Let me start off by saying this: I believe the statement is true, right? I absolutely believe we are created equal that we are endowed with certain rights. I think that the big three, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, is a good way to summarize it. Is it self-evident? When I think of self-evident, I think of something like 2 + 2 = 4 or the famous “I think therefore I am.” You know, it's hard for me to doubt my own existence because there has to be a non-doubting that they exist. And again, maybe I'm overthinking this, and if I am, please let me know, but I guess that's where I'm trying to bridge the gap of how much of these truths that we hold as Americans are truly self-evident or what allows us to base our purpose as a nation on these truths.
Me: You know, and it's something that I've always wrestled with as well, 'cause I mean, my first love is history and then I kind of branched out from there and even though, you know, I agree with you, I totally agree with Jefferson’s statement, but for these things being self-evident, it's kind of interesting that in a lot of ways, that moment in time was a radical departure from the norm in history. The idea that people have rights and that, you know, the government isn't just there to allow those who are in power to rule, you know? So, how do we reconcile that reality? Can these truths be self-evident if they haven't been the norm in human society? Or, was Jefferson and the founding generation rediscovering something that had been lost along the way?
Josh Lewis: I think the question you just asked is what I would call conservatism. And I have no succinct answer to it. I really don't. And Justin, I think I'm not telling you anything you don't know here. I think between the two of us, you would be more Jeffersonian than I am. I think he was an incredible thinker, eloquent writer. I think he hit on some very valuable truths that's worth debating [and] discussing today. How do you reconcile that is hard. And, it's hard because I think sometimes the temptation from a classical liberal, say, framework, and I support classical liberalism, but I think sometimes the temptation is to try to say, well, this is something that's formulaic, right? This is something that is not only discernible and understandable to all people at all times, and it's completely reasonable, but it's something that we can document in a manner that's just from A-Z. We understand this thing completely. And I tend to be way more skeptical of that. Somehow, in the United States, I wouldn't necessarily say just through accident, but probably through a combination of accident and providential grace, we stumbled upon what Jefferson refers to as self-evident truths. This idea of equality. I don't mean that as the Left means it, of equal outcomes. But the idea that there's something about human nature that we are no greater or less than one another just by the raw material of what we are as humans, that from that we can derive all sorts of notions of duties and rights. And what is the purpose and the justice of a just society, of civil society? This is in my mind quite a group effort that really stretches over thousands of years in Western civilization, and I'm uncomfortable saying there's any one thinker or any one document that had it all right, but it was a very laborious, difficult trial by error that, to be honest with you, we still don't have completely right. We're still trying to figure out how to do this, and I think part of the problem is here, and this is a matter I suppose we would agree, we are a fallen creature. We're imperfectible, and we're trying to figure out how to fit the square peg in a round hole of how do we establish, you know, perfect justice, perfect truth on this Earth, and I don't know that we'll ever get there, but I think the struggle in that direction is what allows for these truths to be born out.
Me: Not to segue too quickly away from the topic that we started with, but you mentioned, you know, I'm definitely more Jeffersonian. You, not quite as much. Which of the founders would you say you associate with the most? My guess would be Adams or Hamilton?
Josh Lewis: (laughter) Yeah, yeah, you picked the big two I think I would throw in, I'm probably a trifecta: Adams, Hamilton, and Madison. I love Hamilton. Of the three, to be completely honest with you, If I put it on my purist conservative lens, Hamilton is probably the odd fit there. But he's just sort of dark enough and realistic enough that it kind of fits my kind of pessimistic nature at times, like sometimes you kind of need, you know, the wise guys in charge, sort of running the show. But you're right. It's more Adams and the Madisonian model I would look to.
Me: Yeah, the HBO miniseries John Adams is one of my favorites, not only because it really does a good job of showing who Adams really was, but they did such a good job of finding actors to represent all of the different Founding Fathers in ways that I really, really enjoy.
Josh Lewis: Yeah, and Adams, I think, was a terrible president.
Josh Lewis: He did some good things and was an amazing thinker, and I think I've read somewhere he wrote more than all of the other founders maybe combined, or at least pretty close to it.
Me: Well, I think Adams’ problem as a president was he thought his job was to govern in deference to so many other forces, especially Congress.
Josh Lewis: Uh-huh.
Me: I think, I mean, especially the Alien and Sedition Acts comes to mind because he wrote many, many times that he felt like they were wrong. But he felt like it wasn’t his place as President to veto a bill that was so supported by a majority of Congress. So, I think, if anything, Adams was part of the Presidency finding its place.
Josh Lewis: Yeah, and I would go one step further and, again, I'm a huge fan of Adams, [but] I don't think he had the temperament to be president. I, you know, if you look at Washington or Jefferson, they had a sort of stately mannerism about them, whereas Adams kept, I’m blanking on the name, the Hamilton book. It will come to me in a second. Ron Chernow. There we go. The historian Ron Chernow that wrote the definitive biography of Hamilton in a lot of ways, refers to Adams as a man who has an encyclopedic memory for slights. I thought that was just hilarious that he could not hardly forget when someone had wronged him or harmed him in some way.
Me: Well, I think you could almost say that most everything that Adams accomplished that was very good, he had Franklin whispering in his ear at some point, tempering down his short man syndrome.
Josh Lewis: Well, Franklin was known for his eccentricities also.
Me: (laughter) Oh yeah, yeah, just different kinds of eccentricity. Well, I guess back to the original question. I think there today are a lot of conservatives that view the founding as a genesis, that the Constitution, the Declaration, that's where all of the things that we believe in begin. And then they kind of look at politics as a scramble to try to get back to that near-perfect moment. But then you have on the other side of the equation, people on the Left who look at it as, you know, this murky beginning, the first amphibian crawling from the muck, and we have to build on it but looking back to it doesn't really, it's not really beneficial a whole lot. I think you probably agree with me that neither of those ways of looking at the founding is probably correct or healthy. So, what's your view? Where is the cross-section between those views?
Josh Lewis: Yeah, I often say that conservatism is, well, conservatism is a lot of things, but one of the things that it is is the ability to hold ideas In tension. Not contradiction but in tension. And, I think both of those two views certainly have truth to it. And, I think if you hold either of those two views, you can look at the historical record and find, you know, let's take the first one, for instance. Conservatives, I think, will rightly say we need more limited government if we could just get back on the path of how the Founders had originally set this up. In terms of statecraft, say, in terms of this sort of notion of a citizen legislature that we're getting back to first principles, that we really took a wrong turn, you know, we could pick any moment history, but oftentimes conservatives will pick FDR, or maybe the neocons will say LBJ, where the feds were getting a little too involved in our lives. And that has brought some good things with it, federal intervention, but it also brought a lot of problems and complexities to our society. And so too, I would also agree with the progressive view that you can trace a sort of a barbarism, if you will, from most of human history, on up through the enlightenment period, on up through the United States. And there's a sense of progress. There's a sense of industrialization. There's a sense of the civilization, in effect Western, what we think of today. And I really think the truth is somewhere in between those two. I don't think humans truly progress in the same [way], that we're not actually made out of better stuff than, say, our ancestors, but that civilization itself does have a progressing influence, say, maybe working within generations. I don't know if I'm answering your question or not. Am I getting a little far afield of it?
Me: Oh no, I guess the best way to ask the question is, right now, we kind of have a 1776 versus 1619 moment where the founding is almost held up by some conservatives as this penultimate moment in human history. I'm not saying I necessarily disagree with that because I do believe that the founders were wise men. I believe they were raised up by God for the purpose that they accomplished. But a lot of people who call themselves conservative don't have an understanding of their philosophical heritage beyond the founding.
Josh Lewis: Right.
Me: You and I have talked before about how, you know, you kind of trace your roots to Burke. I kind of trace my roots to Locke, but we find agreement in the founding moment and what came out of it. And then we can even go further back. I mean, a lot [of what we’re] even talking [about], we're approaching upon themes that go all the way back to Plato. You know, what is a just society? And a lot of people on the right, right now, don't have that sense. They don't. And they've gotten so lost in the weeds. They don't even really understand what the underlying principles of the founding were in some cases. And so, we have this 1776 project which I believe could have had a lot of beneficial things, but because it was built by all these different voices and forces that don't really have that intellectual grounding, Biden and others were able to dismiss it, fairly easily. But then on the other hand of the coin you have this 1619 project that is essentially arguing that the original founding was when slaves were first brought to the country and that the 1776 founding was not as pure as some people would consider it to be, because they neither lived up to those principles before, during, or afterwards. And so, I guess people like me and you that don't agree with either of these dueling arguments necessarily, where do we find ourselves within that dynamic? How do we project what we believe and how do we, you know, assert that there are self-evident truths, what those self-evident truths are, and how do we champion them?
Josh Lewis: There's a lot there.
Me: I know, there is.
Josh Lewis: I think the 1776 project, and I agree with the premise, but I think it suffers from the same problem that almost everything on the Right today suffers from, which is much of it is just reactionary. Which, weirdly, is the problem, I think, much of the Left suffers from, other than I disagree with much of the Left, is that it's also reactionary against whatever the Right’s doing. You know, occasionally you read a book like Frank Meyer, for instance, who you, Justin, pointed me to and thank you for that.
Me: No worries.
Josh Lewis: Or Russell Kirk where they’ll try to distill down, well, what are these core principles that you will recognize? There's a lot within the conservative world, that there's a lot of disagreement or tension held in there, but what exactly is the common themes that keep us together? And it occurs to me, one of the things that show up often is sort of a revere of the Founding Era and the Founding Fathers in those ideas. Now that can take on a lot of different flavors, and you're absolutely right. I think there's something very problematic, not only wrong but something very dangerous or problematic where if what we're doing is sort of, what is the phrase of Parks and Rec Ron, oh, good grief, my mind is blanking on who is the main character from Parks and Rec Ron...
Me: Oh, Ron Swanson.
Josh Lewis: Thank you.
Josh Lewis: I don't know why I'm blanking on that.
Me: No worries.
Josh Lewis: Where that phrase he says, and you'll see this sometimes on memes on Twitter, “History began in 1776, everything before that was a mistake.” I think that's sort of how oftentimes bumper sticker conservatism presents itself these days, [is] this is the golden era we start with, where in reality I think if we just reflect about it for a moment, something had to happen before 1776 to even get us to that point. I mean, if you know just anything about the Founders, they were drawing on a wealth of Western civilization literature to get there, and quite frankly, drawing from people like Rousseau and some other Enlightenment thinkers, I was like, well, they mostly got stuff wrong, but they were able to benefit from even some of those wrong teaching sometimes. So, I think, and maybe this is kind of repeating what I was saying earlier, I think it's necessary to hold thing's in tension. 1619 is truth. Or, at least there's elements of truth to it, and I think we're very wrong, or it's very problematic if we start our view that 1776 is all there is to say about America and that we deny the fact there was anything wrong. Or maybe better put, oftentimes what they'll do is, we'll say, 1776 was kind of, in some metaphysical sense, perfect. And then we acknowledge the problem of slavery, but with something that happens afterwards rather than these things existed simultaneously. Now what I would say as a conservative, I think we need to be careful of is, while there is room to critique the Founding and while there is room in a certain sense to say improve upon that model, in reality, what conservatives are trying to do is saying these are timeless principles the Founders were elevating to the conversation. This is not sort of the starting point, and that from here, we develop new principles, or we come up with new values or new virtues that were previously undiscovered. Now that's not the same as saying things like abolishing slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation was a huge step forward for the country, but that wasn't a new principle. That was the application of an old principle that the Founders just failed to realize. And I think for me, oftentimes, that's what as a conservative it means to say the 1776 project is the more correct view, is that this is where we took a leap forward. This is where we happened upon, again, accidentally or providentially, possibly a combination of the two, what I would say are still today not only true principles, but are no less true today than they were in 1776, and they will be no less true hundreds of years from now. And that what we as Americans can do is to continue to try to build upon those principles.
Me: OK, now, I'm going to ask a loaded question because I know you're more on one side of the coin, and I'm more than on the other. Are self-evident truths more to be found in prescription or reason?
Josh Lewis: (laughs) Prescription, but again it's a tension, right? It has to be a little of each. You know, it's interesting these days because I think sometimes there's a certain quarter of the Right, the name that's coming to mind is Ben Shapiro. You know, he's famous for his catchphrase, “Facts don't care about your feelings.” And the Left does this too. I mean, they practically worship science sometimes, in the way they speak, but there's almost this competition between the Left and the Right that, “We have the facts, you guys are the ones who are mistaken, we’re the reasonable people, right? We're the ones who lead by reason, by facts, by science. Not just a squishy sort of internal stick your finger in the wind. Here is where we want things to go.”
Josh Lewis: What's weird is if you go back to the enlightenment period, it was really, you know, the old, the Burkean model, say, was not anti-reason. Now from a certain lens, I think you can read Burke as if he's almost anti-reason. He was certainly very skeptical of our ability to apply reason. What he was was very, I say, he was very cautious about how far does reason get us. And prescription, which is really a really hard concept for me to define. I've never found, like, a succinct way of saying this, but it's almost a more, say, evolutionary process. I don't mean that in the secular Darwinian sense necessarily, but sort of Burke wanted to craft a scenario where, via the stream of virtue, say, that we hold to these principles and that we allow for the trust that providentially we can stumble upon the truth. But that if we try to do it from a purely rational framework that it is, in a sense, denying our fallibility as humans. Now, neither of these are completely true, right? In a completely exhaustive sense, I would not say that reason has no place. It absolutely has a place. I mean, why would the good Lord endow us with reason if he doesn't intend for us to use it to, you know, to butcher a familiar quote. But I guess if I'm having to hold these things in tension, I would come out more on the side of prescription.
Me: Oh, and I, and even though we're on different sides of the coin, we're not very far from each other because we both agree on that principle of tension.
Josh Lewis: We share the same coin. Some people want to throw the whole coin away.
Me: Right, exactly. In fact, I've long talked about how one of the big differences between the American Revolution and the French Revolution was, even though the American founding created something new, they did so based on solid foundations found throughout history, from the Greeks from the Romans from all the different Enlightenment thinkers, and they actually built a lot on English common law, even though they were leaving England. Whereas the French Revolution, they kind of tried to do something entirely new without taking into consideration the realities of human nature, and it didn't turn out...as good as it could have, we’ll say that much.
Josh Lewis: I was gonna add to it, my hesitancy with, say, reason, with the other side of the coin, while I am very much pro-reason and I think that it's right, is sometimes the Left can take reason and run with it. Because the danger you can have with reason is you can assume that reason gets you as far as you need to, and therefore you can chuck everything behind that's come before you. In other words, you step outside this notion that we're fallible humans. Sometimes what the Left will do is they actually elevate those who are younger and less experienced because they're not tainted by the traditions of our broken, terrible, awful culture that we're just all trying to get out of. Now, I know you well enough just to know you don't subscribe to that idea at all. I'm not in any way accusing you of that. What I'm suggesting is that this is where I hold that kind of tension, as I recognize that while it is truthful that going too far down that road can play into sort of a Leftist framework.
Me: Yeah, and we actually have talked about this before about how certain segments of libertarianism have so thoroughly abandoned the mooring notions of tradition that they've actually morphed to the Left, even though they might not realize it.
Josh Lewis: Yeah.
Me: And, I think that, you know, we've talked a lot about how one of the difficulties of the Republican Party, of the conservative movement, is that after the Soviet Union fell, anti-communism was no longer holding together these two notions in tension and that a lot of libertarians and a lot of more traditionalist type conservatives have gone their own separate ways. And now, they're no longer holding each other together in healthy ways.
Josh Lewis: Yeah.
Me: So, I think it's important for people like me, people like you to demonstrate, you know, hey, we might have different flavors to how we think, you might lean different ways, but we're in this project together, and it needs to be more that way. You know that I'm a huge advocate of fusionism, so...
Josh Lewis: Yeah.
Me: So, I guess going back to our discussion of, you know, self-evident truths [and] what they are, do you see Burke as kind of your genesis of political philosophy? Do you go beyond Burke, further back? Do you recognize that there's more there, but you just haven't delved into it? What’s, kind of, your thoughts there?
Josh Lewis: That one. (laughing) Yeah, I haven't exactly read everything Plato's written, hardly anything. I would, you know, I have strayed away from using the phrase, I used to say this all the time, that Burke was the “father of modern conservatism.” Usually, when we say modern, we think of 1950s onward, I actually mean the last several centuries. Yuval Levin, he has more conservative intellectual know-how in his little finger than I do in my entire body. He straight up says that Burke is not the father of conservatism, that Burke would actually object to this phrase, and I think that it's probably a more healthy way to look at it, that this is something that these are truths that Burke did not develop. All he was doing was articulating something that was already there. Now, I personally often will call myself, say, a Burkean-Kirkian conservative. Russell Kirk, being because that's sort of the American variety, say of this. While I’ll still acknowledge, I think that conservatism is incomplete with just those two individuals. What I often mean by that is that Edmund Burke, for me, articulated and wrote down these principles and pulled together these truths of the past in a way that, prior to [him], say, you couldn't get just in one individual. And I don't mean that the truth is contained within Burke, say, but he did so better than anyone else I know of who came before him. And so that's kind of what I mean by Burke would be my founder, in a sense. I certainly hope that the more I delve into this, the broader I can...I'm actually currently reading through a lot of Leo Strauss’s works, though sometimes he was critical of Burke. It's difficult, Strauss was German, and Burke was English, so I kind of made a joke: It's like the difference between reading Dietrich Bonhoffer [and] CS Lewis. You know, Lewis, with Lewis and Burke, you feel like you're in a [room] smoking a cigar and in front of a warm fire in [the] English countryside. With Bon Hoffer and Strauss, it’s very German. It's exhausting. It's very matter of fact. But in reading him and reading Strauss, it's like this is a, I don't know if I'm gonna be able to capture this or not, but this is a completely different stream of thought that in some way feeds into the same river that we're all kind of swimming in, and that's, and I'm not, I am a Burkean, you know, I'm not Straussian. But I hold my Straussian brothers, say, in very high regard. I, you know, when it's in a certain sense, I would say Lockean classical liberalism could be viewed as part of the same stream, and so, just, it's hard to describe these things 'cause they’re in tension. And it is kind of our starting point where we put a stake in the ground, say, you know, I don't have the ability to comprehend all of reality, but here is something, some text, some individual, some founder that I can recognize that helps me navigate this thing so that I can swim in this greater ocean.
Me: You know, I agree, actually. Right now, I am taking a political philosophy class, and I'm having to read through Plato's Republic. Very difficult considering it was translated from Greek and it's thousands of years old. And there's a lot of things within Plato's Republic that initially, I recoil at. I'm like, whoa, you know, some people even argue that Plato gave philosophical permission thousands of years later for totalitarianism, for even communism, and things like that, but my professor kind of said something that put things a little more in context for me. He, and it kind of is related to your idea of a river and things flowing into that river. He said, you know, if you look at history as a string movement, or, you know, as a symphony, and at different periods of history, there are going to be crescendos that help guide the movement. Because people are connected to their times, not everything that they say is going to be 100% of value, but they help nudge us in a better direction. And he said Plato was a good place to start because he was essentially the earliest political philosopher and his whole goal was to...how do we create a just society? What is justice? How do we find that? And then the people that followed him took up that question. And I guess as I look at all of this and as I've learned more about this, I'm growing concerned that there are certain efforts, temporary efforts that look back at these things that we might call crescendos, and instead of taking what is of value from those moments, they want to discredit those moments entirely because of the negative things that accompanied it. And I guess that's my big problem with the tension between the 1776 project and the 1619 project is, it takes this great injustice, slavery, something that has existed from the foundations of humanity, something that was written about in our earliest documents in history as, “well this is normal, this has been around for a while.” And then they try to discredit something that was new and tried to make things better and ultimately allowed for us to move beyond slavery, you know. And so, they're essentially saying, oh, slavery discredits the American Founding, 1619 is the real founding in these things. And to me, it's like, well, how do we proceed forward in trying to find justice, trying to find freedom, trying to find the best way to govern a society, if we can no longer look backwards and find what's good because it's all discredited by what we consider as discrediting and terrible and bad?
Josh Lewis: Yeah, and so much of what you're saying, it touches on, say, I’ll invoke his name again, a Burkean model, say, of change, right? It's, what is the value of the past? Is it something we build upon? Is it all wrong? Like, how do we progress as a species? And I think there's a certain faith, say, and I mean that in a very literal sense, a certain faith, on a progressive path or a Leftist notion of reality that humanity is always advancing, and that therefore we're actually furthering that process the more we can, even if it's in a civil sense, deconstruct what came before us. Whereas a conservative has a very, very different view of that. It's not whitewashing the past, it's not even, you know, I’ll even go further than that [with the] 1619 project. Because, what you said is absolutely true, and it is a common critique, say of the Right toward the Left, in the United States anyways, to point out rightly that slavery existed, and every civilization that we know of and every period of time that we know of, really the only question was whether or not one civilization or nation or people were stronger than the other. And that, it's incomplete to just tell the story that this happens in the United States because the real story is it was Western civilization, largely the Anglophile, the English-speaking people that eliminated this horrible blight on humanity. And that is true. But there are also other things that are true about it, which is there are different versions and flavors and severity of slavery. I'm not saying that some slavery is OK and others [aren’t], but I do think it's also incumbent upon us to recognize that sometimes things are more evil or barbaric, that in the United States, in particular, we have, more so than other parts of the world and other times, slavery can be a problem between races, right? White versus black to the point that in the South there was that slavery was equipped and fueled by this idea of racism, but there's actually something superior about those of us who are white versus those who are black. There's a difference in the sort of barbarism and tasks that come with slavery pre or post cotton gin. You know, or when slaves were allowed to be brought to the continent versus when the, fortunately, the founders at least had the foresight, say, well, let's at least stop any more from coming here and have the very wrong idea that eventually this will just go away, right? Eventually, we're going to kind of evolve our way out of this, and unfortunately [they] couldn't foresee inventions like Eli Whitney and the cotton gin, which just kept it going. Anyway, the point being, I think there's a temptation on both sides. One is to paint the picture as all dark, all black in the past, and that we’re constantly progressing forward, but the other is too literally white-wash, and I realize I'm using terms like black and white-wash, I don't mean that in a racial sense, to make the past look better than it actually was, and to kind of swallow it up in this “all people have done wrong things at all times and hey, look at us. We actually got this one right.” And that is true and worth celebrating. But I think it's also true that there's a particular uniquely American ugliness to slavery that it's hard to see how we progress beyond this if we're unwilling to acknowledge that, and I think sometimes it's honestly a conversation the Right is very uncomfortable having.
Me: Yeah. I mean, in fact, I've actually had interesting conversations in the past about whether eliminating the slave trade without eliminating slavery possibly compounded the problem because, now it made slaves a greater commodity, and the South had to create a rationalization for allowing generational slavery. And it allowed it to be more connected into race and a lower sense of humanity. You know, 'cause if you go before the Revolutionary War, you know, you go into the traditions of slavery in Roman and Greek society, and a slave was just a certain level of class that you could rise from. You know, and that is one of the problems in America is that we made it generational. We made it so that you cannot rise from this. And the effects of that have lingered to the present day. And, of course, you know, then there's the whole discussion of, OK, how do we bring things back into balance without pushing it out of balance further the other way?
Josh Lewis: Well, and it's interesting you say that because I think, you and I, if we were setting in a, say, coffee shop in 1776, we're having this conversation, right, and we've just declared independence with Great Britain. Or, maybe afterwards, we’ve won the war. We're trying to figure [this] out. We don't hold any political power, but we’re having this conversation [about] where should we go from here? And we both acknowledge that slavery is wrong. It would also seem like a radical opinion to suggest a course that we now know killed 600,000 Americans to eventually put this back together, and that is not in any way to say slavery was OK or that we ought not to with an equal breath of revering the Founders, hold some of those responsible who were unwilling to take a stronger stance in trying to abolish slavery. But I think that's part of the problem, is when you have a distorted view of history, either from making things look too good or too bad, it makes it difficult to truly appreciate what were the actual facts on the ground. What were they trying to do? Because I think you can see a lot of instances in which even the Founders that held slaves were trying to find ways to set it up so that eventually this could eventually just fade. They didn't want hundreds of thousands of dead Americans, which, sadly, is what it ultimately took. They just wanted this to sort of peaceably, eventually, kind of make its way out. And I'm sure there were some Founders that would have been fine it for the rest of their lives, you know, slavery existed just as it did. But I think that's kind of where it's a complicated story, and I think we try to simplify it to our peril.
Me: Yeah, wrestling with difficult facts is difficult.
Josh Lewis: Yeah.
Me: I've often posed the question, and there's not an easy answer: Could the North have beat the South pre-Industrial Revolution?
Josh Lewis: Well, that is interesting, 'cause in the election of 1800, there was actually some talk in the North of seceding from the Union, which is weirdly hilarious when you think about our history. It might have been an interesting question, could the South have kept the North in? '
Me: ‘Cause, I mean, you know, if more Founders had put their foot down on the slave issue and forced the conflict to a head. How could that have turned out? I mean, there's no easy [answer] to that, but it's an interesting thing to think about. In a lot of ways, by the time we got around to Abraham Lincoln, by the time we got to that point in American history, the North had progressed so much more than the South, and it allowed us to have that outcome, and who knows if that outcome would have been as beneficial moving forward if that conflict had begun at any point in history before that. I don't know.
Josh Lewis: It is an interesting question. I mean, the traditional response that's given as to why, say, the Constitution is written the way it is, why it contains some overt, very offensive racist ideas within it is because that is what was necessary, or at least believed to be necessary, in order to form the Union. Is that true? I don't know. I mean, I'm sure there's enough constitutional historians out there who could probably definitively answer that question. But it's an interesting thought experiment. What would have transpired had the Union never formed? Would we have had two separate countries? And if so, does that mean slavery ultimately was never going to be abolished in the South? None of this, of course, answers the question [of] whether or not what those individuals did was right. It's just, it's interesting to think. It's amazing how difficult it actually was to rid the world of something that, in reality slavery still exists, just not like it once did, but to rid the world of something that today, it's just...you would be hard-pressed to find someone who thought that was OK, that there was a time we actually enslaved people in this country. That's just such a revolting, abhorrent thought to us. And yet, how much it cost in blood and treasure to get to the point we are today.
Me: Yeah. So, I guess my final question that we can discuss a little bit before wrapping things up, going back to the tension between the 1776 and the 1619 ideas: [are] the truths, is the path forward to be found in finding the tension between 1776 and 1619 or is it to be found just in understanding 1776 as it actually happened? You know, for better or worse, the Founders had to choose their priorities, you know, and they don't come out and address it within the musical, Hamilton, but it's there because Hamilton is close friends with an avowed abolitionist, and he seems to be an ally of abolition for a good portion of the play, but then, the musical, sorry, gotta be correct, it's a musical, not a play, but then near the end, you know, I can't remember at what point off the top of my head, but someone tries to remind Hamilton of that, of his support of that abolitionist who died and wasn't able to see his vision [come true] and Hamilton kind of just brushes it aside and says, we have other things to focus on right now, you know? So, I guess that’s my question is, is the path forward finding a place where both the 1619 project and the idea of the 1776 project should be allowed to, you know, go and then find the tension between those two different things, or is it just more about properly understanding what happened in 1776, what happened in 1787, you know, what happened in the founding period?
Josh Lewis: Well, and again, I'd say it's maybe a little of both. You know what I was saying earlier is, as a conservative, I would say that 1776, the value of that is that is we stumbled upon or providentially were provided some principles that we can still uphold to this day. Principles that ultimately allowed us to, you know, got us to the point of the Emancipation Proclamation. I think the value of 1619 is more an awareness of the darkness of our past. I don't think that these things are held in tension in the sense that there, somehow in between them, is the correct course of action. And part of which, I'm being a little hesitant, because part of what you're getting at is, or at least what I'm hearing, is kind of this notion of prudence and trade-off. And, this is again, a conservative, not necessarily a progressive vision, and that, I think it was Thomas Sowell that said, “The Left looks for solutions, the Right looks for trade-offs.” Now from a certain perspective, neither of those are right or wrong positions. They’re just different. But I think there is missing in this era this kind of, the wisdom and the courage that is necessary to understand the moment we're in and where to go from there. And in giving you such a highbrow answer, such a pie in the sky answer, I know that I'm not being very specific. Although granted, this question wasn't extremely specific either, but I think this is something that you know harkening back to Burke, and this isn't a direct quote, but just sort of a combination of some things that are written was kind of this notion that what was needed in their moment. You think about that Burke was around this era, right? Around the American Revolution, the French Revolution. In a certain degree, these were new revolutionary moments, and I think most statesmen recognized, here is something that has never happened before. And I think, and I'm not trying to elevate the moment we live in, but I think you'll know what I mean when I say there's a certain sense in the air that we're in this ground shifting moment. Not the same as the American Revolution, say, but the sort of post-World War Two, post-Cold War, maybe post-fusionism moment of where do we go from here. And history is extremely valuable, but unfortunately, it's also extremely limited because we're not going to be able to find in the pages of history the solution for our exact moment. We might get partway there. What's really needed is prudence and wisdom. And the unfortunate understanding that we're going to get this wrong. Not all the time, not exhaustively, but we’re not going to have the correct answer all the time, just as those Founders didn't know how do we actually abolish slavery, those who wanted to. And I'm not saying Hamilton was justifiable, say, in sort of saying it's not that big a deal, but you have to pick your priorities, and you have to recognize that in so doing, there are tradeoffs, and they can be very painful sometimes.
Me: Yeah. I would add that a big part of moving forward is having the difficult conversations, breaching the difficult topics the way that we have done today. And you're right. Sometimes these discussions can be painful. Both me and you look at the founding generation, you know, as great wise men, we have put them on the pedestal and arguably, you know, for good reason. But it's important to recognize their humanity, to grapple with their difficult decisions, and possibly to discuss when we might need to make small corrections. You know, you look at the founding generation. They were making corrections to the Constitution within 10 or 20 years because they were trying to improve upon what they had created. But I think it's important to do that within the vision of what the overall goal is. Did you have any final points or anything you'd like to talk about here at the end of this wonderful, wonderful episode?
Josh Lewis: I have never known how to answer that question, to be honest. So not necessarily, not necessarily. I'll just say again, I am thrilled and very honored I would be your first guest on the show, and I hope it was a good experience for you such that you will have other guests on.
Me: Perfect, well, hopefully, we'll have you again. You know, before too much longer because I've always really liked our conversations. I think that the tension of our viewpoints really leads to excellent places.