Tradition Needs Preservation

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living — Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”.

All the past we leave behind;

We debouch upon a newer, mightier world, varied world,

Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march, Pioneers! O Pioneers! — Walt Whitman

It is a great pleasure to participate in this forum and to respond to some of the ideas in Russell Arben Fox’s essay. I have been a fan of his work since the early days of the Front Porch Republic, and I always look forward to reading what he posts both there and at his personal website, In Medias Res.

It seems that before we can think about the role that “tradition” plays in the modern world, we must have some sense of what we mean by the term. Unfortunately, tradition is a rather slippery term to define. Historian David Lowenthal, in his masterful book The Past is a Foreign Country, writes: “The word’s very meaning has changed: ‘tradition’ now refers less to how things have always been done (and therefore should be done) than to allegedly ancient traits that endow a people with corporate identity. And the ‘tradition’ nowadays invoked on behalf of earlier ways is seldom alive; more often it signals a sterile reluctance to change.”[1]

Lowenthal’s definition of “tradition” reminds me of Jaroslav Pelikan’s distinction between “tradition” and “traditionalism.” Tradition, Pelikan wrote, “is the living faith of the dead.” Tradition lives in “conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide.” On the other hand, traditionalism “supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.”[2] I do not think that Fox is advocating some form of “traditionalism” here. He is clearly on the side of “tradition,” or what he calls “adaptive remembering.”

I do, however, wonder why Fox is so bothered by Eric Hobsbawm and the “invention of tradition” argument. Does it really matter whether traditions are products of modernity? Does turning to holiday celebrations or longstanding religious beliefs as a way of coping with modernity or social change make the role of tradition in people’s lives any less powerful?

Whether tradition is invented or not, it has, and always will, shape our lives. This is particularly the case in the United States. Though I am probably dabbling too much in Hobsbawmian analysis here for Fox’s tastes, it does seem that tradition plays such a powerful role in American society because the meaning of America is so tied to progress. The United States was the first nation to be born out of the Enlightenment. Tom Paine called upon American patriots to “begin the world anew.” Americans have always pursued self-betterment through education and career advancement. They have been willing to fight and die to keep this idea of progress—as often defined by liberty and freedom—alive.

The ongoing tension between progress and tradition is strongest in places like America. Even as Americans pursue self-betterment and individual pursuits, they also, paradoxically, long for passion, love, faith, ritual, and other kinds of prejudices that we associate with tradition. They search for roots as part of attempts to connect to particular pasts or places. They also cherish unlimited progress—both for themselves and for society—even as they prepare themselves for death. These tensions define the American experience. Tradition is a brake on progress. The way of improvement leads home.

Traditions come in many forms. Personal or interior traditions will always play an important part in people’s lives, but I am particularly interested, as a historian, in the civic traditions that help to define our lives together. This is the kind of collective memory described by historian Wilfred McClay: “communities and nation-states are constituted and sustained by such shared memories—by stories of foundation, conflict, and perseverance. The leap of imagination and faith, from the thinness and unreliability of our individual memory to the richness of collective memory, that is the leap of civilized life; and the discipline of collective memory is the task not only of the historian, but of every one of us.”[3]

The power of these traditions cannot be ignored. And Americans have a habit of clinging to them even when they are based on faulty memories. Let me offer an example.

In a 2005 essay in The American Scholar, historian Adam Goodheart described his courageous attempt to explore the history of the Chestertown Tea Party. Every May tourists arrive in the Chesapeake Bay town of Chestertown, Maryland to commemorate the action of the local Sons of Liberty who, in 1774, supposedly boarded a British brig and dumped boxes of East India Tea into the Chester River. I call Goodheart’s efforts “courageous” because he was attempting to bring the eye of a critical scholar to a cherished local tradition that draws thousands of visitors to Chestertown each year. After extensive research, Goodheart concluded that the Chestertown Tea Party never happened. He could not find a scrap of evidence to suggest that the yearly celebration was based on historical fact.

Tourists come to Chestertown each year, as Goodheart puts it, “with little more sense of history than a glimpse of tea crates and tricorn hats floating in the river.” For the locals, he adds, “it’s been simply an opportunity to do some hearty drinking and carousing, as well as perhaps make a bit of money…The true past slumbers through these festivities undisturbed.” Yet, whether the Chestertown Tea Party happened or not, the tradition of celebrating it is a part of the collective life of this town. If for whatever reason the Tea Party ceased to be celebrated, it would no doubt result in a deep sense of loss among the town residents. As a result, Goodheart concludes that the Tea Party has its own “innate authenticity” because it provides meaning and a sense of identity to the people of this community.[4]

Critical historians may call attention to the myth of the Chestertown Tea Party and may even have some influence on how the event is celebrated, but it is unlikely that the tradition will die anytime soon. As historian Gordon Wood has reminded us in a recent review in The New York Review of Books, tradition may be a “worthless sham, its credos fallacious, even perverse,” but it will always be essential to fostering “community, identity, and continuity.”[5]

How will citizens of the United States preserve their storied traditions? Lately, government funding—both at the national and state level—has been cut drastically for historical sites, museums, and other heritage programming. The assault on history, memory, and tradition in America has been severe. Some have said that this is a good thing. Government should not be in the business of preserving local and national traditions. I beg to differ. Traditions, as Fox notes, are constantly evolving and changing to meet the needs of the people who invoke them. The preservation and reinterpretation of these traditions—whether they conform to the standards of critical historians or not—need support in order to survive. Do we will really want to trust the treasured traditions, stories, and markers of our collective or group identities to a capitalist market? While the grand stories of our national identity have a good chance of surviving under such privatization, the local stories that give meaning to everyday life in small places will likely all but disappear, creating nothing short of a cultural holocaust. We all have a responsibility to make sure that this does not happen.


[1] David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 370.

[2] Pelikan, interview with U.S. News & World Report, July 26, 1989.

[3] McClay, “The Mystic Chords of Memory: Reclaiming American History,” The Heritage Foundation.

[4] Adam Goodheart, “Tea and Fantasy,” American Scholar, Autumn 2005.

[5] Gordon Wood, “,” The New York Review of Books, January 2011.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, communitarian political theorist Russell Arben Fox considers the role of tradition in orienting, or perhaps even in fashioning, the individual. Tradition is under assault, we are told, by market forces, global integration, and the ubiquitous media. Marxist and postmodern thinkers have even suggested that under such conditions, all traditions must be somewhat inauthentic — the product of conscious fashioning, and, thus, not really a tradition at all. At times, traditionalists have called for group rights and group protections in an attempt to prevent commerce from eroding tradition, and thus, they hope, they can avoid the postmodern critique entirely.

    But traditions have always been subject to re-invention and re-interpretation, Fox argues. The supposedly new challenge of liberal commercial society is neither new nor even much of a challenge. Traditions are and always have been opportunities for creativity, appropriation, and self-conscious cultural critique. The political implications of traditionalism may be considerably fewer than traditionalists or their critics appreciate.

Response Essays

  • Eve Tushnet argues that liberalism has tended to strip away traditions in a very troubling fashion. “One of the most challenging cultural tasks we face now,” she writes “is to put flesh and costume back on traditions which have been stripped almost to the skeleton.” At the very least, she argues, traditions fill an important gap in the liberal project. Where liberalism values reason, material comfort, and autonomy, tradition helps us make sense of life’s more senseless and painful aspects. Tradition helps us to understand and, yes, to obey deserving authority. Given that it is human nature to experience frustration and constraint, tradition promises solace, connection to others, and even transcendence.

  • John Fea notes the peculiar place of tradition in American political culture. The United States was the first country self-consciously founded on Enlightenment principles. As such it called many traditions into question. Tom Paine urged his fellow citizens to “begin the world anew.” As a result, progress and tradition are constantly in tension in American political culture. To preserve national traditions from a “cultural holocaust,” Fea defends government funding for historical sites, museums, and other aspects of our heritage.

  • James Poulos argues that what’s eroding tradition today isn’t commercialism or secularization. It’s equality. The democratic ideal of equality is also in some senses a Christian ideal, too. But it often calls into question traditions that presuppose social hierarchy. Traditions emphasizing inequality or privilege have fared badly, while traditions emphasizing equality have flourished. Poulos draws on Friedrich Nietzsche and Alexis de Tocqueville to ask a very large question: Does the vital core of traditional Christian social thought survive? Or is God really dead in the age of equality? Traditional marriage is offered as an example.