It has been argued, perhaps most notably by George Nash, that American conservatism as an intellectual movement became articulate only after World War II. Prior to the war, it seemed that the most prominent conservative thinkers were European émigrés and refugees whose lives were personally affected by the Nazi tyranny—e.g., F. A. Hayek, Heinrich Rommen, Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin. It is noteworthy that Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind was not published until 1953. It would be mistaken, however, to deny the existence of important American conservative voices during the mid-nineteenth century. As proof of this, editors Lee Cheek Jr., M. Susan Power, and Kathy B. Cheek have done a great service in compiling representative essays from the American political scientist Francis Graham Wilson (1901–1976). In addition, they provide an excellent introduction that guides the reader through Wilson’s life and legacy. The essays span a wide range of topics from human nature, organic theory, conservatism, Cicero’s de officiis and the American political mind.
Wilson was a convert to Roman Catholicism who taught at the University of Illinois. He would serve as Wilmoore Kendall’s dissertation advisor. In Wilson’s works, one hears a distinctly American conservative voice confronting the moral and intellectual crisis of liberal democracy and the threat of totalitarianism. Indeed, Wilson’s early, prewar essays contain a forthright condemnation of the twin evils of German fascism and Soviet communism prior to the arrival of many of the prominent émigrés mentioned above.
Much like Reinhold Niebuhr, Wilson defends a “conservative realism” that appreciates both the dignity of human beings as created in the image of God and their depravity as egocentric, fallen creatures. He contrasts this “dualistic” view of human nature—one that recognizes man’s capacity for both good and evil, to utopian distortions that consider human beings to be naturally good or infinitely malleable.
Wilson’s political thought is informed by the moral and intellectual heritage of Roman Catholicism. His political ethics is therefore theocentric or God centered. His analysis of politics is imbued by the natural law, a defense of the Christian and classical virtue of prudence, and an appreciation of the limits of politics. Reiterating the teachings of Tocqueville for his own time, Wilson boldly affirms that, “Christian morality was the foundation of all political morality.” And in the Political Philosophy of Conservatism, he observes a close connection between conservatism and Christianity in western civilization:
In the West, the conservative has discovered the code of measure through religious inquiry, and theology and religious philosophy have made their contribution. The conservative has been generally a Christian and he has taken his theism seriously, while revolutionary minds have turned to deism, pantheism, and atheism. For the conservative, man’s relation to the cosmos is an adventure in practicalities of theism. It has been the great religious literatures that have indicated the truth of existence.
Moreover, Wilson’s views on capitalism seem to have been deeply influenced by the Vatican’s teaching on work, human dignity, and social justice in Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno. Though he repudiated socialism, Wilson nonetheless consistently emphasized that American conservatism cannot simply be equated with unbridled, laissez-faire capitalism. The common good is not necessarily served through the sum total of egocentric interests. Thus, on the question of an unfettered free market and free trade, Wilson presages arguments made in our own day by social or paleo-conservatives.
This collection also provides an illuminating window into the discipline of political science in mid-nineteenth century America. Wilson acknowledges the important contribution of the German émigrés Strauss and Voegelin make to political science. However, he criticizes the former for omitting “Christian thinking, believing apparently that the Christian political inquiry and its theory of reform can be subsumed as part of classical.” Of the latter he states, “It is Eric Voegelin, more than any other, who has in recent times in Order and History insisted on the basis of knowledge about a human, and prudential order.”
As an American himself, Wilson paid greater attention to the tradition of American political thought than did the German émigrés. As one intimately familiar with this tradition, he was passionately involved in preserving his own nation’s intellectual and political heritage. Indeed, his speech On Jeffersonian Tradition is one of the finest and most interesting essays in the volume. Here Wilson provides a nuanced analysis of Jefferson’s political thought, recognizing both its flaws and contributions. Wilson treats Jefferson, who is often seen as the nemesis of American conservatism, with balance, reverence, and needed sobriety. Perhaps this is because Wilson—himself a proud Texan—sees Jefferson as part of the wider tradition of southern conservatism and states’ rights. Wilson subscribes to the Calhounian view that the Union is a compact between free and sovereign states. Yet this commitment seems to be somewhat inconsistent with his praise of Roosevelt and the New Deal, though perhaps Wilson saw in Roosevelt’s program a level of correction to capitalist excess.
Finally, this book is valuable in revealing Wilson’s appreciation that conservatism is more than a way of thinking; it is a way of living. Wilson maintains that conservatism is anchored in an orientation that both acknowledges and reveres the order of existence. He poignantly explores conservatism as an aesthetic, an affective response of gratitude, reverence and love for those “permanent things” that are truly good, true and beautiful. Most provocatively, Wilson believes that, at bottom, the conservative shares much in common with the romantic:
The love of tradition comes from knowledge of the immensity of human experience; it arises in the valorous struggle for an accepted cause. When one’s Invincible Armada is lost, love runs deeper, and in suffering one begins afresh. To be loved, tradition must mean something to the spirit, and in it there is always something of the garb of romanticism, the love of sacrifice . . . .
Indeed, these are words to ponder for each generation of American scholars who like Wilson must do their part to defend the precious, yet fragile cultural inheritance of western civilization and its New World progeny—the American regime.
Joseph R. Fornieri is assistant professor of Political Science at the Rochester Institute of Technology and author of Abraham Lincoln’s Political Faith, a work which explores Lincoln’s religion and politics.
Posted: March 21, 2007
Did you see this one?
From Tradition to ‘Values Conservatism’
Volume 46, Number 4 (Winter 2008)