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Un-American Conservative?

In the 1950s, American conservatives—then a scattered group of fugitives—sought an intellectual ancestor who embodied their principles and whose writings could be applied to the contemporary United States. Books like Peter Stanlis’s Edmund Burke and the Natural Law and, most famously, Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind repackaged the 18th-century Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke into an all-purpose conservative champion. Where Burke stood against Jacobinism during the French Revolution, conservatives could resist communism during the Cold War. As Burke had stood for eternal verities in 1790, so too he could now stand for the natural law against an emerging liberal relativism.

Although in retrospect seemingly obvious, this choice was not one everyone would have made. In his own day Burke was not a reactionary or even a conservative in our sense but a reforming Whig. Moreover, while he is eminently quotable, his words are just as suitable to support liberal causes as conservative ones. In the 19th century writers such as the historian George Bancroft considered Burke an admirable, but outdated, opponent of tyrannical power not suited for emulation in democratic, egalitarian America; others labeled him a simple utilitarian.

Russell Kirk forcefully rejected this interpretation, both in The Conservative Mind and in his later biography of Burke. For Kirk, the defense of tradition Burke mounted conveyed not some utilitarian calculus but rather an argument that customs that had developed over centuries—while perhaps also representing the greatest good for the greatest number—were at root an expression of enduring principle. This was the farthest thing from what Kirk derisively termed “Benthamism,” a utilitarianism that would change customs and tradition as soon as some abstract principle bid it to do so. Rather, Burke championed the principle of order, which Kirk described as “an anticipatory refutation of utilitarianism, positivism, and pragmatism, an affirmation of that reverential view of society which may be traced through Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, the Roman jurisconsults, the Schoolmen, Richard Hooker, and lesser thinkers.”

Burke, therefore, was for the ages. But not all conservatives agreed with the picture Kirk and others were painting. Libertarian-minded thinkers like National Review senior editor Frank Meyer rejected Kirk’s conservatism as an aristocratic collectivism. Richard Weaver, author of the seminal conservative work Ideas Have Consequences, wrote a famous essay arguing that Burke’s “argument from circumstance” was, from a conservative point of view, inferior to Lincoln’s “argument from principle.” Yet the view of Kirk and Stanlis has prevailed: Burke is now routinely considered a founder of American conservatism.

Drew Maciag considers why Burke’s stock has risen so high on the American intellectual right in this study of the reception and use of Burke in the U.S. since the Founding. Edmund Burke in America is a concise treatment of the many ways Americans have thought of Burke, and Maciag presents an important historiographical treatment of the emergence of a Burkean conservatism—even as he concludes it is something of an artificial growth on these shores.

Burke inspired ambiguous reactions shortly after the Founding. He had, after all, been the agent of New York colony prior to the Revolution, and he supported the colonists’ grievances through the 1760s and 1770s. In a telling detail Maciag recounts, the Continental Congress toasted to Burke’s health in 1775 as a friend of liberty. But his interest in the colonies lasted only so long as they were a part of the Empire; once that was no longer the case, it disappeared.

Not until 1791 did Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France reach America, and when it did his former admirers and friends, such as Thomas Paine, were disappointed by his fervent stance against the French Revolution. Burke’s relation to the new nation changed. By that time, according to Maciag, the die had been cast: America was a revolutionary nation, even if that revolution was qualified by respect for certain British political traditions. Burke’s devotion to a hereditary king and aristocracy, however, was bound to fall on deaf ears.

Burke became a controversial if not disfavored figure among the Founding generation. Maciag highlights this in a chapter comparing Burke to John Adams, who is sometimes considered a sort of American Burke. The Englishman himself understood his mission as being to “apply the brakes to the momentum of Enlightenment overreach.” But Adams was an American and sought to implement “Enlightenment thought in some workable, responsible manner.” The two were aligned in opposition to the French Revolution, but even there Maciag sees a difference. As the only Federalist president,


Adams fit the bill for the forces of order and continuity, as well as Jefferson did for the forces of innovation and progress. If the Republican-Enlightenment ideal was to become the dominant national vision, and so give rise to an ideology of liberalism and progress, then certainly a counter-persuasion, loosely defined as conservative, was needed in order for the dynamic progress to function.

Maciag also devotes chapters to Jacksonian America; the antebellum Whigs, who attempted a partial restoration of Burke’s reputation in reaction against the mob rule of “King Andrew” Jackson; the post-Civil War period and Gilded Age, when John Morley and E.L. Godkin identified Burke as a utilitarian; and Theodore Roosevelt, who alternately detested and admired a conservatism that owed less to Burke than “religious fundamentalism, monopoly capitalism, and ‘tory’ attitudes toward culture and society.” Roosevelt leads to Woodrow Wilson, who wrote substantially, and positively, about Burke in the 1890s. Wilson’s Burke was opposed to abstraction and favored responsible reform; he was getting closer to the postwar conservative’s vision.

The second part of the book, “Postwar America,” considers how and why Burke became the right’s intellectual standard-bearer. Maciag rightly focuses on larger intellectual movements, such as the revival of “natural law thinking” on Catholic campuses in the late 1940s, as well as on more concrete factors, such as the 1948 publication of Burke’s correspondence. The conservative reappropriation of Burke brings Maciag to his second theme: for Maciag, conservatism is a vital but junior partner in the American political culture. He writes that “American Burkeans quickly learned that they were unlikely to prevail. The exceptionalist environment proved too resistant to the innate traditionalism of the Burkean message. In reaction to this, the Burkean perspective became transformed into a perennial counterpoint that was played against the major themes of egalitarianism and competitive material progress.” In other words, conservatism is destined to play “the loyal opposition—strong enough to influence the agenda, not strong enough to set it.”

Maciag’s treatment of Kirk, whom he calls “the greatest postwar Burkean,” is sympathetic while focusing on a central problem. For Kirk, Burke represented the entire intellectual ancestry of the West sharpened to a point thrust at the heart of revolutionary France. Kirk clearly wants Burke to be the source of a tradition opposed to what he called “defecated rationality,” yet one still connected to the primordial wisdom of the natural law, about which Burke said little explicitly. But because Kirk took a “holistic and inseparable view of civilization,” he could not incorporate “the modern ideals of progress, equity, democracy, and the pursuit of happiness.” In that sense, Kirk was more reactionary than Burke ever was: “while Burke was a progressive reformer who defended British traditions that were declining but not yet extinct, Kirk condemned liberal reformers and sought to impose ancient, foreign, and vague traditions that had never really existed in the United States.” This is for Maciag ultimately a mistaken endeavor because Burke can never quite fit in America, and his resurgence in the 1950s was merely an opportune moment for a movement looking for a father.

Kirk never really explained—in the way, say, T.S. Eliot did for England—what traditions defined the nation. He wrote little, for example, on American creations like jazz or even baseball, often a go-to source of pop wisdom for right-wingers. Yet Maciag does not fully address what Kirk was doing with his invocation of Burke. Kirk was waging a battle of imagination, not only with liberalism and other strains of conservatism—a nuance Maciag notes but whose significance he passes over—but with what he saw coming after liberalism, what Kirk called the Age of Sentiment. Kirk, like others such as Daniel Bell, Marshall McLuhan, and Philip Rieff, saw liberalism and the rational Enlightenment that brought it into being coming to an end. What would replace it had the potential to be shaped by a powerful imaginative vision of human society, a vision Kirk saw in Burke. This was not a rigid aristocratic vision but one that recognized society as an interlocked union of communities. It’s a vision that caused one writer, Catholic University professor of politics Claes Ryn, to call Burke the first postmodern. In this, Kirk was Burke’s true heir: Kirk once went so far as to say that it “may be the conservative imagination which is to guide the Post-Modern Age.”

July/August 2013 [1]Conservatives are ever in the minority, for Maciag, because modernity has unleashed a power that can go in only one way: “you cannot turn back the clock.” But as Chesterton responded to that aphorism, since a clock is manmade, as is culture, the clock can be turned anywhere we like. Maciag notes the (in some ways) changing nature of conservatism but without addressing the changing nature of liberalism. A century ago, many liberals were eugenicist elitists who would no more have supported gay marriage or a liberal welfare state than does Rush Limbaugh today. To argue that conservatism must always be a junior partner, merely correcting liberalism’s excesses, implies that there is a definitive direction not only to liberalism but to history itself, a contention that, if it is not unfalsifiable, certainly has little to confirm it.

Seen in this way, the conservative reappropriation of Burke becomes more comprehensible. Burke’s mysticism and reliance on some form of natural law were not meant to convey a legalistic structure of metaphysics, with “ought” confidently derived from “is.” Nor is Burke’s common resort to “circumstance” a rejection of natural principles. Rather, it is a recognition that mystery—not reason—lies at the heart of each individual and the societies the human race creates, thus conservatives are enjoined to eschew social engineering and respect the bewildering array of ways in which we can organize our life together. There are enduring principles, but they must be sifted from particular facts, not theorizing.

Although Maciag defines Kirk and his supporters as premodern “antirationalists,” the reality is more complicated. Maciag is right that at times Kirk seems to be speaking from a world “that had already passed away.” But that is what makes the imaginative vision of Burke, as seen through the work of Kirk, the most formidable alternative to liberalism among the conservatisms vying for attention today.

Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman and author of The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk.


12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Un-American Conservative?"

#1 Comment By CK On July 3, 2013 @ 8:38 am

“But that is what makes the imaginative vision of Burke, as seen through the work of Kirk, the most formidable alternative to liberalism among the conservatisms vying for attention today.”

Actually, the most formidable critique, if not alternative to liberalism comes from the work of Alasdair Macintyre and earlier in the work of Cardinal Newman, each different sorts of unAmerican conservatives. Both slammed Burke’s traditionalism as dead or dying.

#2 Comment By Chuck Hicks On July 3, 2013 @ 12:10 pm

For Kirk, the man who best embodied Burkean principles was John Randolph of Roanoke. Kirk’s book on Randolph connects the dots. Well worth reading.

#3 Comment By Steve On July 3, 2013 @ 1:48 pm

Nathaniel Hawthorne was influenced by Burke. Take a look at how he depicts the violent mob in “My Kinsman, Major Molineux.” See also his remarks on revolution in *Grandfather’s Chair* and “The Old Tory.” Larry Reynolds notes that “in 1840, Hawthorne described Burke as ‘one of the wisest men and greatest orators that ever the world produced,’ and one finds a consistent Burkean conservatism underlying Hawthorne’s settings, symbols, and themes” (*Hawthorne’s Damned Politics,* 15).

#4 Comment By PC On July 3, 2013 @ 2:24 pm

Burke was much more open to the American Revolution than the French. In some ways, the American Revolution was a conservative revolution (aimed at restoring lost rights and privileges and resentful of tightening controls and a perceived subjugation by the mother colony).

The French was a top-down ideological revolution whereby the intellectual class basically had manipulated the public into destroying their traditional centers of power and authority without regard to the actual consequences, leaving brute force and state terror as the only way forward to fill the vacuum.

The American Revolution, on the other hand, was more organic for Burke. He felt that long separation from England had created in the American colonies a divergent people with aspirations and institutions that could not be clumsily trod upon by the English without consequence.

Although he couldn’t come out for American independence without losing his head, he was a voice of caution and liberality in dealing with the American colonies, and felt they deserved a high degree of independence and respect.

The French and American revolutions and their assumptions continue to inform Left/Right divisions in the US, so of course Burke the traditionalist and critic of social leveling and short-sited innovation is a natural father for American conservatism.

In this sense Burke is hardly un-American in his respect for the centrality of the desire for liberty preserved in property and respect for local custom as the motivating ethos of many Americans who call themselves conservatives.

#5 Comment By sickoftalking On July 4, 2013 @ 1:25 am

In the 19th century writers such as the historian George Bancroft considered Burke an admirable, but outdated, opponent of tyrannical power not suited for emulation in democratic, egalitarian America; others labeled him a simple utilitarian.

Maybe, but I’ve seen conservative-oriented writing in the 19th century that hits upon the same theme as Burke. For instance, you see the refrain that the American revolution was the right model, and the French revolution was the wrong model.

Towards the end of the century, you also increasingly see an argument that society and government needed to move forward and progress without abandoning tradition and conservative morality. The key point is that this sentiment was captured by Republican progressives, politicians like Theodore Roosevelt, who argued they were battling what they saw as a ‘reactionary’ element to their right and a ‘radical’ element to their left. They followed a very Whigish approach, just as did Burke. Lincoln was a Whig at heart, and TR emulated Lincoln.

Of course, ultimately their fate was that they would be consigned to being looked at as some sort of bastard child, and nothing but a stepping stone in the gradual rise of liberalism.

#6 Comment By Stephen Gould On July 4, 2013 @ 10:36 am

@PC: I’m aware that for reasons of political comfort it is nice, nay, necessary for some conservatives to argue that the American Revolution was in some ways a conservative revolution, because you cannot but approve of the revolution and founding principles of the US – but the approval is of decidedly non-conservative actions and principles. You cannot have a revolution which replaces a monarchy and established church (and largely unwritten constitution) with a secular republic (and a written constitution) and claim that as conservative, even if some of the specific grounds for the revolt are a return to prior rights.

I also think that the article elides between conservatism/liberalism as principles and conservatism/liberalism as heuristics. The distinction is obvious, but does occasionally need to be pointed out.

#7 Comment By REMant On July 5, 2013 @ 2:09 pm

To be sure Burke has been interpreted in several ways, but then so has Court Whiggery, of which he certainly was an exemplar. And so has Bentham. If Burke preached subsidiarity, he also embraced utilitarianism, and was not terribly different in that from his nemesis Tom Paine. We would I think liken this to the debate over neo-conservatism today.

#8 Comment By Reinhold On July 8, 2013 @ 3:36 pm

I’d agree with Gould here and say that the American Rev. was not so conservative, but it was obviously conservative in some respects, e.g. the notion that democracy is a right of property-owners. There is that tension between democracy, equality, liberty, &c., and privilege, institution, rule of law, &c….

#9 Comment By Reinhold On July 8, 2013 @ 4:00 pm

“customs that had developed over centuries….were at root an expression of enduring principle.”
Someone needs to explain this fundamental ‘conservative’ notion to me, because it seems, at face value, historically amnesiac and a priori stupid and absurd. Slavery is a custom that developed over centuries; its enduring principle is the slavishness and indignity of certain people or peoples. So it’s my assumption that no conservative will defend bad traditions; and if that’s the case, there’s nothing separating a conservative from anyone else, since it’s also my assumption that nobody will defend traditions which they consider bad, only those they consider good, and anyone is a traditionalist in that sense, and thus a ‘conservative.’ So why isn’t conservatism, embodied in this proposition, either trivial or self-defeating? (I’m genuinely asking here for a defense, not just trying to dig at conservatives.)

#10 Comment By Benjamin David Steele On November 5, 2013 @ 5:46 pm

I tend to follow the interpretation that America has no conservative tradition. There are just various kinds of liberals. There are progressive liberals like Paine which is the most liberal of liberal traditions, but is liberal in the sense of not being left-wing. There are also the conservative-minded liberals who in modern politics identify as moderates, independents or almost any other label, including Democrats and liberals. Then there are the unconservative-minded reactionary liberals such as the Tea Party and some libertarians along with increasing numbers of the Republican leadership.

#11 Comment By Benjamin David Steele On December 21, 2013 @ 4:38 pm

I was reading more of Maciag’s book. I honestly can’t see how, after seeing the evidence, anyone can claim Burke as a conservative. You can call him inconsistent or complex, but not conservative. The only way to make a case for a conservative Burke is by cherrypicking the evidence, putting the emphasis on some quotes by Burke while ignoring context and ignoring other contradictory quotes.

It is unhelpful or even dangerous when one attempts to conform history to one’s ideological beliefs. That is the role of political speeches and state propaganda, not scholarship.

Maciag was wise in not making the same mistake in arguing in the opposite direction. Maciag notes that Burke had both proto-conservative and proto-liberal facets, and he offers a massive load of quotes by Burke to demonstrate this simple insight. We need more honest scholars like Maciag who can present complex subjects and people with breadth and nuance.

#12 Comment By Benjamin David Steele On December 21, 2013 @ 4:52 pm

“But that is what makes the imaginative vision of Burke, as seen through the work of Kirk, the most formidable alternative to liberalism among the conservatisms vying for attention today.”

Few Americans support the specifics of Burke’s main political positions grounded in monarchy, aristocracy and state religion. But if we are to Americanize the Burkean predisposition, the odd thing is that Burke’s legacy is closer to how is perceived mainstream liberal Democrats rather than mainstream conservative Republicans: situational ethics (AKA moral relativism), utilitarianism, defender of status quo, supporter of the role of big government, progressive reformer against revolution, flip-flopping over his political career, criticism of negative liberties, etc. Everything that is opposite of movement conservatism today and for quite some time now.

I don’t really have any desire to claim Burke as I side more with Paine. Nor am I a fan of the Democratic Party and I question the claim that most Democratic politicians are genuinely liberals. But if we are to consider Democrats as liberals, Burke is closer to that kind of moderate status quo ‘liberalism’ than to the Tea Party.