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Un-American Conservative?

How traditionalists in the United States appropriated Edmund Burke's imaginative vision
Edmund Burke

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 In the 19th century writers such as the historian George Bancroft considered Burke an admirable, but outdated, opponent of tyrannical power not suited for emulation in democratic, egalitarian America; others labeled him a simple utilitarian.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 2013Conservatives 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.




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