WASHINGTON, July 3, 2014 — The modern American conservative movement began with the publication 60 years ago of Russell Kirk’s landmark book, “The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot.”
Kirk wrote it originally as his doctoral dissertation at the University of St. Andrew’s in Scotland in 1952. When it was published, Time Magazine devoted its entire book section to “The Conservative Mind.”
The president of Kenyon College, Gordon Keith Chalmers, reviewed the book in The New York Times and called it “brilliant, even eloquent.”
Kirk told the world that there was an Anglo-American conservative intellectual tradition that stood apart from its liberal counterpart. For all those who knew him, this writer among them, Russell Kirk was a gentleman and scholar, always seeking to understand how men and societies work and interact and to carefully delineate which things are permanent and must be preserved and which are temporal and can, and often must, be altered.
“The Conservative Mind” was a best-seller when it appeared and has not been out of print since. Speaking at a testimonial dinner in Kirk’s honor in Washington in 1981, President Ronald Reagan said, “Dr. Kirk helped renew a generation’s interest and knowledge of ‘permanent things,’ which are the underpinnings and the intellectual infrastructure of the conservative revival of our nation.”
To those who argued that it was primarily liberal ideas that defined the American experience, Kirk, through extensive discussion of Edmund Burke, John Adams, James Fennimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Benjamin Disraeli, Herman Melville, T.S. Eliot and George Santayana, presented readers with a different intellectual and moral tradition, one with deep roots in the past, the Judeo-Christian tradition, the experience of Greece and Rome, the tradition of democratic self-government as it evolved in England from the years of Magna Carta.
It was Kirk’s view that our nation, if it is to remain free, must understand and remember the historical roots from which it grew.
In his 1992 forward to a new edition of “The Roots Of American Order,” he noted that, “Lacking a knowledge of how we arrived where we stand today, lacking the deep love of country which is nurtured by knowledge of the past, lacking the apprehension that we all take part in a great historical continuity, why, a people so deprived will not dare much, or take long views.
With them, creature comforts will be everything; yet, historical consciousness wanting, in the long run they must lose their creature comforts too.”
The roots of the American order, Kirk showed, went back to the ancient world , to the Jews and their understanding of a purposeful universe under God’s dominion, to the Greeks, with their high regard for the uses of reason, to the stern virtues of Romans such as Cicero, to Christianity, which taught the duties and limitations of man, and the importance of the transcendent in our lives
The roots of our order, in addition, include the traditions and universities of the medieval world, the Reformation and the response to it, the development of English common law, the debates of the 18th century, and the written words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
The beliefs which motivated the Founding Fathers, Kirk pointed out, were ancient in origin: “From Israel…America inherited an understanding of the sanctity of the law. Certain root principles of justice exist, arising from the nature which God has conferred upon man; law is a means for realizing those principles, so far as we can. That assumption was in the minds of the men who wrote the Declaration…and the Constitution. A conviction of man’s sinfulness and of the need for laws to restrain every man’s will and appetite, influenced the legislators of the colonies and of the Republic. Thomas Jefferson, rationalist though he was, declared that in matters of political power, one must not trust in the alleged goodness of man, but ‘bind him down with the chains of the Constitution.'”
In four major fashions, Kirk points out, the British experience, for more than a dozen generations, has shaped the U.S. He notes that, “The first of these…is the English language and the wealth of great literature in that language. The second…the rule of law, American common law and positive law being derived chiefly from English law.
This body of law gives fuller protection to the individual person than does the legal system of any other country. The third of these ways is representative government, patterned after British institutions that began to develop in medieval times, and patterned especially upon ‘the mother of Parliaments’ at Westminster. The fourth is a body of mores, or moral habits and beliefs and conventions and customs, joined to certain intellectual disciplines. These compose an ethical heritage.”
The very language of our current discussion about law, the “rights” of the accused, the “right” to privacy, the presumption of innocence, “equality” under the law, all are derived very specifically from the British experience, and can be found in no other legal tradition. In European civil law, Kirk points out, “the accused person was presumed to be guilty as charged by a prosecutor; the judge determined the issue to be settled in a case of law.
But under the common law of England, the plaintiff and the defendant, or the prosecutor and the defendant, are regarded as adversaries on an equal footing, the judge remains neutral. A defendant in a criminal case is presumed to be innocent unless the evidence proves him to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The rights we take for granted go back to the Magna Carta. In his “Commentaries On The Laws of England,” an American edition of which was published in 1771-2, William Blackstone found in the Magna Carta the expression of three absolute rights: life, liberty and property. He traced back to the Great Charter the doctrine of due process of law.
The ancient right to trial by a jury of one’s peers was closely examined by Blackstone. American colonists cited Blackstone for authority that no tax might be imposed upon them, constitutionally, without the act and consent of their own legislature.
The fact that the majority of present-day Americans cannot trace their individual ancestry to England bears little relationship to the nature of American culture, Kirk argues: “Two centuries after the first U.S. census was taken, nearly every race and nationality in the world has contributed to the American population, but the culture of America remains British…The many millions of newcomers to the U.S. have accepted integration into the British-descended American culture with little protest, and often with great willingness.”
Too often in the modern world, he lamented, “the expectation of change seems greater than the expectation of continuity. Yet, in any order worthy of the name, men and women must be something better than the flies of summer, generation must like with generation.”
Russell Kirk’s notion of conservatism rejects the “ideological purity” of some present practitioners. It stands for the concept of moral order and confidence in the U.S. Constitution, as well as the underlying unwritten constitution of custom. Kirk believed in smaller government, but he did not think it would solve all our real problems. He wanted Americans to search not for a perfect political order but for their spiritual and intellectual roots.
His advice to us is summed up in these words:
“Fulbert of Chartres, in medieval times, declared that we moderns, that is, the people of his own age, are dwarfs standing upon the shoulders of giants; we see farther than the giants, but merely because we are mounted on their shoulders. Those giants are the wise men of classical and early Christian epochs. From them Americans have inherited the order of the soul and the order of the commonwealth. If we think to liberate ourselves from the past by leaping off those giants’ shoulders, why, we tumble into the ditch of unreason. If we ignore the subtle wisdom of the classical past and the British past, we are left with a thin evanescent culture, a mere film upon the surface of the deep well of them past. Those who refuse to drink of that well may be drowned in it.”
Sixty years ago, when “The Conservative Mind” first appeared, both Time and Newsweek described Russell Kirk as one of the nation’s most influential thinkers. He often quoted the 1843 speech of Orestes Brownson, given at Dartmouth College: “Ask not what your age wants, but what it needs, not what it will reward, but what, without which, it cannot be saved, and that go and do.”
During his life, this is precisely what Russell Kirk did. The sixtieth anniversary of “The Conservative Mind” is an appropriate time to reflect upon these things. He has left a legacy from which all of us who treasure the values upon which our civilization is based will draw upon again and again.