“It Can’t Happen Here!”
Gladden Pappin revisits an 1899 Catholic debate about whether liberalism threatens America
A common trope of American conservatism has long been that, unlike the Revolution in France, the American revolution was fundamentally “conservative,” perhaps not a revolution at all. This line of argument was initially applied by Burke to distinguish the Revolution in France from the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, which he said was not a revolution but rather the prevention of a revolution. In the American context, the argument can be sourced to Friedrich von Gentz (1764–1832), a translator of Burke into German, whose own work was translated in turn into English by John Quincy Adams in 1800, as The Origin and Principles of the American Revolution, Compared with the Origin and Principles of the French Revolution. Among other contrasts, Gentz draws the following:
2. The American revolution was from beginning to end, on the part of the Americans, merely a defensive revolution; the French was from beginning to end, in the highest sense of the word, an offensive revolution. . . .
3. The American revolution, at every stage of its duration, had a fixed and definite object, and moved within definite limits, and by a definite direction towards this object. The French revolution never had a definite object; and, in a thousand various directions, continually crossing each other, ran through the unbounded space of fantastic arbitrary will, and of a bottomless anarchy. . . .
In part because of these popular contrasts between the American and European situations, American readers in the nineteenth century were suspicious of claims that the liberalism of Europe would touch the United States in an adverse way.
Among Catholics, a key flash point for this debate was the adaptation, by Condé B. Pallen of St. Louis, of Fr. Félix Sardà y Salvany’s 1884 El liberalismo es pecado: Liberalism Is a Sin. Pallen was a publisher and editor in St. Louis, taking the helm of Church Progress in 1887 for a decade, during which time the magazine became known as Church Progress and Catholic World.
Pallen famously took certain liberties in adapting Sardà y Salvany’s book for the American reader, under the title What Is Liberalism? (St. Louis: Herder, 1899). But if adaptation is imagined to be any sort of compromise or dilution, What Is Liberalism? was certainly not that. Pallen’s translation defines liberalism as follows, without much accommodation for American ears: