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Back to Burke

On the occasion of our revamped website’s debut, we re-present the editorial that accompanied our new print design in September — a restatement of The American Conservative’s principles.

The biggest loss conservatives suffered in recent years was not the election of Barack Obama in 2008 or the defeat of the last Republican Congress in 2006. It wasn’t the passage of the president’s healthcare reform or nearly $1 trillion stimulus package, nor any other legislative setback. Conservatives had already lost something far more basic—their moorings.

Edmund Burke was never more eloquent than when denouncing the Penal Laws that circumscribed the liberties of Ireland’s Catholics. That system, he wrote in 1792, was “as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement, in them, of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.” This was Burke’s opinion at a time when Catholics were synonymous with subversion—didn’t they owe highest allegiance to the pope? To fearful Englishmen, “papists” were “the apex of all evil” above “all Pagans, all Mussulmen.”

Burke demanded civil liberty—“a liberal and honourable condition”—for them anyway. He was not oblivious to minority dangers, nor indifferent to public orthodoxy. But who can imagine him alongside such Islam-baiters as Herman Cain or Pamela Geller, shouting about Sharia or boasting of plans to exclude an unpopular minority from public office?


A great imposture has taken place. Whatever else the likes of Cain or Geller may be, if Burke is a conservative, they are not.

What is true for civil liberties applies to foreign policy as well. From John Quincy Adams to Robert A. Taft, American conservatives have been realists, not in the Henry Kissinger sense but in their worldly understanding of the limits of power, both our own and our rivals’.

The ideological intensity of the Cold War muted this tradition. But even then Barry Goldwater fought wasteful Pentagon appropriations, while Ronald Reagan undertook no Mideast nation-building, notwithstanding the murderous bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon. What would Goldwater have made of the $388 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program?

The point is not to hold up any of these men, even Burke, as right in all respects. They illustrate rather than define conservative style.

In contrast, the latter-day right possesses what Michel Chevalier called the morale of an army on the march: no time for reflection, no room for dissent, there are liberals to vanquish.

Nine years ago The American Conservative took its stand athwart this mentality. From the beginning, the magazine reclaimed conservatism’s discarded patrimony while reaching out for new ground as well. Within the first three months, thinkers as disparate as diplomatic historian Paul Schroeder and Norman Mailer—a sometime “left conservative”—had graced these pages.

TAC is not libertarian or what was once called “paleoconservative.” It aspires to be conservative as Burke was, broad-minded but firmly rooted, with an emphasis on securing peace and a well-grounded liberty at home. One of our themes has been the local, not as an “-ism” but as the texture and matrix of civil life, urban as well as rural. The recovery of political economy too, in the face of liberal and neoliberal dogmas alike, is part of this. (The muse is Jane Jacobs, not Ayn Rand.)

For over 20 years conservatives have been denied their name and heritage, fobbed off with the counterfeit goods of partisanship and neoconservative ideology. Today the plight of the country is too grave to accept any substitutes; it’s time for conservatives once more to speak in their own voice.

— Ed.

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "Back to Burke"

#1 Comment By Insightful Ilias On August 30, 2011 @ 11:05 am

Burke, Locke, John Mills, and John Stuart Mills were all founders of a full fledged brand of anglo-saxon conervatism.
However, we should not forget Thomas Burke.
As this entry in Wikipaidia beautifully summarizes:
“Hobbes was a champion of absolutism for the sovereign but he also developed some of the fundamentals of European liberal thought: the right of the individual; the natural equality of all men; the artificial character of the political order (which led to the later distinction between civil society and the state); the view that all legitimate political power must be “representative” and based on the consent of the people; and a liberal interpretation of law which leaves people free to do whatever the law does not explicitly forbid”
Beginning from a mechanistic understanding of human beings and the passions, Hobbes postulates what life would be like without government, a condition which he calls the state of nature. In that state, each person would have a right, or license, to everything in the world. This, Hobbes argues, would lead to a “war of all against all” (bellum omnium contra omnes). The description contains what has been called one of the best known passages in English philosophy, which describes the natural state mankind would be in, were it not for political community.
Without strong but limited government there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
Strong government is prerequisite for capitalism, western civilization, and democracy, not its enemy
Burke had the conservative wisdom to grasp human nature. Man was capable of great good but easily led astray to do great evil if his self interest and desired were not directed to the worthwhile and useful and restrained from the narcistic and hedonistic .

#2 Comment By Nathan Shrader On August 30, 2011 @ 12:54 pm

This is a splendid editorial commentary that ought to be read and reflected upon by all who describe themselves as “conservative” or place themselves on the right of the political spectrum. We cannot allow the radicalism of the faux-conservatives referenced in this piece to usurp a beautiful, proud tradition that is reflected in Aristotle, Burke, Hume, Oakeshott, Weaver, and more. Thank you TAC, for standing tall for these principles.

#3 Comment By marcus On August 30, 2011 @ 2:38 pm

not paleoconservative anymore, eh? ok, but how about a little bit of non-hateful, non-fanatical but politically incorrect consideration of the burning issues that our elites both left and right have decided are outside the boundaries of legitimate discussion? that is to say, let steve sailer write something besides movie reviews in your magazine.

#4 Comment By Kirt Higdon On August 30, 2011 @ 3:44 pm

“What was once called paleoconservative”??? What is it called now? TAC strikes me as both paleo and libertarian but delightfully non-doctrinaire and willing to consider new insights into reality. What it isn’t (thank God) is conservative in the Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Hannity, Palin, Bachmann, etc. sense.

#5 Comment By NJ Lawrence On August 31, 2011 @ 1:42 am

From the Wiki on Burke:

“Burke was a leading skeptic with respect to democracy. While admitting that theoretically in some cases it might be desirable, he insisted a democratic government in Britain in his day would not only be inept but also oppressive. He opposed democracy for three basic reasons. First, government required a degree of intelligence and breadth of knowledge of the sort that was very uncommon among the common people. Second he thought that common people had dangerous and angry passions that could be easily aroused by demagogues if they had the vote; he feared the authoritarian impulses that could be empowered by these passions would undermine cherished traditions and established religion, leading to violence and confiscation of property. Thirdly, Burke warned that democracy would tyrannize unpopular minorities who needed the protection of the upper classes.”

#6 Comment By tatosian On August 31, 2011 @ 9:12 am

It ain’t 1792 ladies.

If, as you blubber, the current right possess the morals of an army on the march, it’s because we’re in a fight for our lives. A fight you simpering dowager establishment conservatives just cannot join.

Indeed. Taking an establishment conservative to a fight is like going hunting with an accordion toting Frenchman.

To fearful conservatives, shouting about sharia is an insidious attempt to exclude an unpopular minority from public office? Which unpopular minority? Mussulmen or Perry?

Does the Khan/Norquist/Perry connect threaten the elevation of another faux conservative huckster to the throne upset you Vichy establishment types? Good.

The old, “Lead, follow or get out of the way” comes to mind here.

In your case, you’re shaking your pom poms at a game that ended and the bleachers are empty.

#7 Comment By JH Jensen On September 1, 2011 @ 10:49 am

It is not too difficult to spot rational thinkers. They tend to listen more than they speak. Reading this editorial, I found myself listening to many of my own societal and political beliefs, never really thinking that I held many sentiments very similar to Burke’s own. I have often looked for the words to express some of the misgivings I have with our current political climate, but you have expressed them well — astride Burke’s of course. I think it is now time to read some more 18th century philosophy. Thank you for your candid expression. At the least, you’ve made a difference in me.

#8 Comment By David Todd On September 5, 2011 @ 12:08 am

The following paragraphs are from Madison and Hamilton in the Federalist papers. Paraphrase their governing thought, that factionalism (extreme partisanship) is the single greatest threat to a democratic republic. Don’t reveal the source. Propose it to a strong Tea Party advocate or self-styled constitutional conservative like the gentleman who reminds all us ladies that it ain’t 1792. He will reject it. Yet it is the principal thought underlying our Constitution. (As to the “ladies” part: I used to do cold calls–I was a recruiter for a trade school–in the worst neighborhoods in Miami at night alone, the only white face within a radius of a mile. I’ve been threatened more times than I can remember and always faced it down alone and unarmed. Once a guy pulled a .45 on me and I told him to stick it up his backside, and here I am. And I would face down this blustering 1792 ladies guy just the same.) Anyway here we go:

Federalist No. 10 (James Madison)
AMONG the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice. …the public good is [often] disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties…
By a faction I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community…
The latent causes of faction are…sown in the nature of man…

Federalist No. 14 (Madison)
WE HAVE seen the necessity of the Union as our bulwark against foreign danger, as the conservator of peace among ourselves, as the guardian of our commerce and other common interests, as the only substitute for those military establishments which have subverted the liberties of the old world, and as the proper antidote for the diseases of faction, which have proved fatal to other popular governments, and of which alarming symptoms have been betrayed by our own.
Federalist No. 15 (Alexander Hamilton)
Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint. Has it been found that bodies of men act with more rectitude or greater disinterestedness than individuals? The contrary of this has been inferred by all accurate observers of the conduct of mankind; and the inference is founded upon obvious reasons. Regard to reputation has a less active influence, when the infamy of a bad action is to be divided among a number than when it is to fall singly upon one. A spirit of faction, which is apt to mingle its poison in the deliberations of all bodies of men, will often hurry the persons of whom they are composed into improprieties and excesses for which they would blush in a private capacity.

Federalist No. 65 (Hamilton)
… it ought not to be forgotten that the demon of faction will, at certain seasons, extend his sceptre over all numerous bodies of men. [Hamilton had legislatures especially in mind.]

Federalist No. 81 (Hamilton)
The members of the legislature will rarely be chosen with a view to those qualifications which fit men for the stations of judges; and as, on this account, there will be great reason to apprehend all the ill consequences of defective information, so, on account of the natural propensity of such bodies [legislatures/DT] to party divisions, there will be no less reason to fear that the pestilential breath of faction may poison the fountains of justice. The habit of being continually marshaled on opposite sides will be too apt to stifle the voice both of law and of equity.

#9 Comment By Michael Santomauro On September 17, 2011 @ 11:53 am

“Many rabbis and professionals have told me recently that they fear for their jobs should they even begin to articulate their doubts about Israeli policy–much less give explicit support to calls for an end to the occupation.” – Rabbi Michael Lerner April 28, 2002 in the Los Angeles Times

#10 Comment By Aaron On May 15, 2012 @ 3:31 pm

Re Burke, subversives, and Catholics: Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to find the Muslim analogy not in Burke’s thought towards Catholics, but in his “Speech on the Petition of the Unitarian Society”? At the time, Unitarians were “not confined to a theological sect, but are also a political faction.” They had “designs to subvert the State.”   Like it or not, Burke in that speech sounds a lot more like Pamela Geller (minus the shrillness) and Herman Cain than you might like to admit.

#11 Comment By Sean Nelson On May 15, 2012 @ 9:51 pm

TAC is not libertarian or what was once called “paleoconservative.” It aspires to be conservative as Burke was, broad-minded but firmly rooted, with an emphasis on securing peace and a well-grounded liberty at home. One of our themes has been the local, not as an “-ism” but as the texture and matrix of civil life, urban as well as rural. The recovery of political economy too, in the face of liberal and neoliberal dogmas alike, is part of this. (The muse is Jane Jacobs, not Ayn Rand.)”

Keep this kind of thing up, and one of these days I might again self-identify as a “conservative.” (But good luck getting me to cut my hair.) 

#12 Comment By Mitchell On May 17, 2012 @ 8:28 pm

The difference between the Irish Catholic situation and today’s situation with Muslims is obvious — the Irish Catholics were there, and had been there, before the British invasion. Muslims in the US and the West in general are, overwhelmingly, and entirely new phenomenon brought about by mass immigration. 

Sure, once admitted, the members of that community must be accorded the rights of all others. But there is no ‘right’ for them to continue to be admitted from abroad. Indeed a healthy Western society might find ways to encourage many to leave, as they have only been present in our societies for a generation of two.

And you might have noticed the ‘Irish Question’ was ultimately solved by political partition. Just as the UK was (partially) rendered asunder, it might be time for the US to follow suit.

#13 Comment By proudpaleo On August 27, 2017 @ 11:25 pm

What do you mean “what used to be called paleoconservatives?” We ARE paleoconservatives, in contradistinction to “neoconservative,” and proud of it! I can’t imagine what in the world would even provoke you to say such a thing.