An Introduction to North American High Toryism

January-February 2018By Charles A. Coulombe

Charles A. Coulombe, who writes from Los Angeles, is the author, most recently, of The Pope’s Legion: The Multinational Fighting Force That Defended the Vatican (St. Martin’s Griffin), the e-book The Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI (Diversion Books), and an updated edition of Vicars of Christ: A History of the Popes (Tumblar House).

The North American High Tory Tradition.  By Ron Dart. American Anglican Press. 337 pages. $28.



This past presidential election revealed how deeply divided these United States are, not merely in the campaign leading up to the quadrennial ritual itself but in the protest- and riot-riddled aftermath. Division, broadly speaking, is nothing new. But the fact that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were presented as our best and brightest may well cause some to wonder whether the nation’s problems run deeper than mere infighting between what we Americans call “liberals” and “conservatives.” I say what we call advisedly because those elastic terms mean something quite different in continental Europe and Latin America than they do here. Those whom we call liberals would be considered “socialists” in those foreign climes; our conservatives would be what they call “liberals.” What they have traditionally called “conservatives” were altar-and-throne-loving opponents of the ideas of the French Revolution, the likes of which we have not seen here as an organized body since 1783 — though these days there are few on the ground in Europe and Latin America as well.

In Great Britain and its daughter countries of the Commonwealth (e.g., Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and northern Germany), the Protestant revolt created state churches, whose leadership and members have oscillated between what the changes of the conflict that brought them into being wrought upon them, the wishes of the dominant classes they were started to please, and whatever they have preserved or revived of their Catholic origins. In this latter effort, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI pointed out in his apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus (2009) establishing the Anglican ordinariates, the Anglicans have been foremost — indeed, he characterized the “Anglican Patrimony” as “the liturgical, spiritual, and pastoral traditions of the Anglican Communion within the Catholic Church,” which are “a precious gift nourishing the faith of the members of the Ordinariate and…a treasure to be shared.”

Just as Anglicans maintained and developed “liturgical, spiritual, and pastoral traditions,” so too did they develop traditions in philosophy, culture, and politics — and these, in turn, are cognate to much of the Catholic social teaching that emerged from the continental conservatism mentioned above. (This is lacking in most of English-speaking Catholicism; centuries of persecution tend to have a damaging effect on the creative impulse. What there is of it among us has often been generated by converts from Anglicanism such as Newman and Chesterton.) At any rate, motivated initially to a great degree by the Cavaliers and Jacobites, there developed in England what has been called the “High Tory” tradition, in many ways the political and cultural side of the same phenomenon that would eventually produce Anglo-Catholicism. As with traditional continental Catholicism, it saw altar, throne, and cottage as intimately linked in a divinely ordained manner intended to benefit the body politic in this life and help its members toward Heaven in the next.

Deeply rooted in the Catholic memory of England, the “High Tory” tradition is what the Puritans rejected when they killed King Charles I and settled New England; it was what the U.S. jettisoned along with allegiance to the Crown in 1783. But those Americans who refused to do so — the losers in our first civil war — went north; with them they took the principles of church and state for which they had sacrificed everything. Thus was born the subject of this book: the North American High Tory tradition.

Ron Dart, a professor at the University of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia, Canada, has given us a masterful account of an ideology about which most Americans know nothing. He shows how the Toryism of such as Samuel Johnson developed on its own in Canada, and he introduces us to such figures as John Strachan, the first Anglican bishop of Toronto; Sir John A. MacDonald, Canada’s first prime minister; humorist Stephen Leacock; political philosopher John Farthing; and, above all, George Grant, author of the far-too-little-known masterpiece, Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (1969). Dart presents Canadian High (or “Red”) Toryism as not merely a political ideology but an entire philosophy of public life, rooted in scholastic (primarily but not exclusively Platonic) philosophy, pre-Reformation English Catholicism, and the beliefs of the Caroline Divines and Cavalier Poets, as developed through the Loyalist experience on Canadian soil. Rather than seeing church, state, and society as checks on one another’s excesses — the view of classical liberalism, which furthermore tends to drop the first-named of the triad completely as any kind of independent societal force — High Toryism sees them as colleagues that ought to work together for the common good.

Canadian history, in Dart’s view, begins with High Toryism’s coming to Canada with the Loyalists and working in tandem with the conservative and Catholic nationalism of the French-Canadians (as they were then). While this partnership created Canada on the one hand, the High Tory element was always under attack by Anglo-Canadian liberalism, which historically has looked to the U.S. for inspiration. Dart sees Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s defeat in 1963 at the hands of Canadian liberals, in tandem with John F. Kennedy’s influence, as a major turning point in the decline of Canadian nationhood. In this he shares the view of Grant, who, in his epic work mentioned above, places this political debacle in a much larger philosophical and historical context.

But as both Dart and Grant hurry to point out, this is not merely a question of Canadian cultural independence but of whether church, state, and society shall exist for higher ends or merely as tools for individual ambition. It is here that Dart places the roots of the moral and religious decay of our time — not merely the collapse into madness that characterizes political life on both sides of the border. He points out that in the end, appeals to individualism result in either monopoly capitalism or socialism, or both at once, in what C.S. Lewis called “the Abolition of Man.” Indeed, Lewis and T.S. Eliot make several appearances in Dart’s book, as paladins of the allied British High Tory tradition.

The importance of The North American High Tory Tradition cannot be emphasized enough, partly because of the current political situation in the U.S. and Canada. Nothing shows the ultimate bankruptcy of classical liberalism more than the complete utilitarianism that dominates all realms of life in both countries, reaching far beyond our sacralizing of infanticide. The book is also key at this time, when members of the Anglican ordinariates are re-examining their traditions — cultural and philosophical — to see which of their treasures they may bring to the Church as a whole. Indeed, chapter 24, “The Tory Anglican Way and the Anglican Church of Canada,” could stand by itself as a primer of the “non-liturgical” aspects of the Anglican patrimony for Catholics of the ordinariates.

What shall no doubt make many of us Americans uncomfortable is that Dart sees in the U.S. the absolute incarnation of classical liberalism, as do those surviving continental conservatives referenced above. Even Edmund Burke, and by extension his later disciples like my late acquaintance Russell Kirk, is tarred by the liberal brush of rampant individualism, distrust and hatred of government, untrammeled free trade, and banishment of religion to the private sphere — and that is only the right wing! The result of such an ideology, in Dart’s view, has been the creation of an imperial colossus astride the earth that loves to bomb whatever it cannot exploit; moreover, it is an empire with a savage case of self-delusion. If you open this book at the beginning, this is what will hit you between the eyes — and it has caused some readers to close the volume in disgust.

Such reaction is a tragedy because Dart’s book needs to be read as widely as possible. My advice is to begin not with chapter one but chapter 16, “The Matrix of Liberalism: A Seven Act Drama.” Read this chapter through to its end, and then go back to the beginning of the book. The truth of the matter is, if one allows oneself to rise above national prejudices and grasp it, Dart’s argument is very compelling and solidly based. If there is naught here for our comfort, the truth may well set us free. Certainly, historians are beginning to look at our foundational myth of the Revolution in a very different light, as being indeed our first civil war.

Moreover, as Catholics, we have an obligation to try to bring the teachings of the Church to bear on public and social life. With some honorable exceptions, such as the Catholic Worker and the National Catholic Rural Life Conference (and post-1973 pro-life efforts), there has been little attempt to do so. Part of the reason has been the intense pressure and desire to conform to the rest of American society, but part is sheer ignorance of what the Church has traditionally taught about what the “Good Society” should look like. The High Tory tradition as explained by Ron Dart lies deeply rooted in the same theological and philosophical milieu, and it could well help in the evangelization of this continent — especially as mediated through the Anglican ordinariates. Beyond that, the reader will be introduced to exciting thinkers whom he has quite possibly never met before. Discovering George Grant alone makes the book worthwhile, to say nothing of Leacock and the others.

None of this is to say that the book is without flaws. There is little description of the “Roman” Catholic approach to these things, especially as held until the “Quiet Revolution” by most French-Canadians, though it is glancingly referred to as a sort of partner ideology to High Toryism in the formation and development of Canada. Despite the descriptor North American in Dart’s title, there is no mention of similar thinkers down here south of the border — though admittedly, with such glaring exceptions as Ralph Adams Cram, Ross Hoffman, some of the denizens of The American Review and all those of Triumph, they were few and far between. But given the fact that very few Catholic Americans know much about Cram and Hoffman, it’s a bit much to expect such knowledge from an Anglican Canadian. Instead, one is simply grateful for the new vistas Dart has revealed.

A second problem is one of organization. There is a somewhat scattershot feel to the book, and the various chapters come across to some degree as thematically linked but essentially independent essays. As mentioned, the average American — ignorant of Canadian history, as we tend to be — would be well advised to start with the historically based chapter 16 in order to understand Dart’s analysis.

But these are minor cavils. Dart has performed an enormous service by opening up the treasure of political thought that lies to our north, and by, in turn, linking it to figures such as C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot. It may well be that the eruptions we are feeling today in the American body politic are the beginning of the terminal stage of our national liberalism — an ideology that, having consecrated itself to sterility in every form, quite literally has nowhere to go. If this is true, we shall have need of prophetic voices such as those Dart has uncovered for us in this book. But more than that, we shall need to study such as these carefully, and be ready to try to bring their thoughts to bear on the tempestuous times that await us.



DOSSIER: America

DOSSIER: The Anglican Communion



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