Russell Kirk as Historian
Much has been said and written this year about the sixtieth anniversary of publication of Russell Kirk’s Conservative Mind. The well deserved attention has, however, generally overlooked a critical facet of the public role of the book and, as important, of Kirk himself as history and historian. This is unfortunate because Kirk’s work, both in The Conservative Mind and more generally, is important to our understanding of conservatism, history, and the relationship between the two. After all, conservatism is in a crucial sense about history: tradition, custom, and prescriptive rights, all organizing facets of life for conservatives, are deeply historical in nature, rooted as they are in pre-existing institutions, beliefs, and practices. Moreover, while conflicts among these organizing facets of life tend to be resolved (even as new circumstances and conflicts arise), “creative” interpretations of events and traditions too often give historical interpreters power to distort the past, importing their own ideological prejudices into an existing way of life. My goal, here, is to examine briefly Kirk’s historical method in The Conservative Mind and in his other great historical work, The Roots of American Order, to show their consistency with the fundamental duty of a historian to help his readers understand the past as it was, rather than as the historian would like it to have been.
The Conservative Mind is seen as a classic of American history because it succeeded in forging a coherent conservative intellectual tradition. Yet “forging” a tradition might well be seen as writing bad history. To forge something is, in an important sense, to make it. “Making” something out of disparate materials involves changing the nature of those materials. A sword, for example, is a coherent, useful object forged from iron, carbon, and heat through the efforts of the blacksmith. It is forged from materials that were quite different in their natural form than their resulting shape, which is at the command of an independent actor seeking to make something useful for his given ends.
Historians, of course, are not supposed to make, but rather to find the past. Their job is not to be useful in any instrumental sense, but rather to be accurate. Thus, a historian who twists the past to serve his own ends, even if they are virtuous ends, is a bad historian.
Can one, then, “forge” a tradition and be an honest, good historian? Or is the very notion of an “American conservatism” a false construct, something made by certain ideological historians to serve their own ends? The question is asked quite often, and not just by liberals. Indeed, at the time The Conservative Mind was first published, the common view was that conservatism in America consisted of mere irritable mental gestures, an incoherent set of cranky rejections of inevitable progress. As important, many people who see themselves as conservatives see America as by nature a revolutionary nation and people.
On this latter view, America is a radically new nation, dedicated to principles summed up in the notion of equality; not equality of condition, for most, but nonetheless equality, in the sense of equal rights to individual self-mastery and the pursuit of individual desires and well-being. Such a view is rooted in the philosophy of John Locke—or, rather, a particularly individualistic reading of Locke—and in a Lockean reading of America itself. On this view, America begins, in essence, with the Declaration of Independence, struggles through the travails of slavery even as it spreads across the continent, and is set right by Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. To be conservative, then, is to work to preserve the revolutionary ideals of individualism, natural rights, and material progress.
This is not the place for entry into detailed arguments concerning the ideologies of Locke or Lincoln. Suffice it to say that one may value much that each said and did without seeing them as the focus, let alone the core, of America or American conservatism. And one may value much of what these figures said and did without holding a narrowly individualistic view of the implications of either their writings or of the American political tradition.
Kirk certainly did not believe America was a land of radical ideology. And The Conservative Mind was intended to spell out, not the principles of any ideology, but the story and the patrimony of a way of approaching politics and the relationship between politics and society. While most commentary on that book emphasizes the “canons of Conservatism” Kirk uses in introducing his history, it is important to keep in mind that the bulk of the book is the history itself. The canons are a useful, perhaps even a necessary, crib for readers to access conservative thought. But conservatism itself is the pith and substance of the book, the core its narrative intends to elucidate and illustrate, and the mode of thought it seeks to exemplify.
Kirk called this important book an essay in definition; but it is an historical essay. That is, it is concerned with a story of development—of great figures but also of marginal, not-so-great figures, and of difficult times. And here is where the connection with Kirk’s other great historical volume, The Roots of American Order, becomes important. For The Conservative Mind is not merely an American work. It is not concerned simply with American politics, but rather with the broad traditions of ordered liberty that flowered particularly in the Anglo-American tradition. Kirk is interested in context rather than any abstract essence, and this goes to his stories as well as his principles.
The Roots of American Order traces fundamental elements of constitutionalism back to the handing down of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. It narrates the story of how the Western tradition was formed through the influences of Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London, pointing out the importance of institutions, beliefs, and practices prominent in each of these cities for constitutional development, including in the United States. Thinkers and statesmen interacted with ongoing customs and traditions to form and enrich a tradition of thought and action dominated, over time, by Christian Humanism. Love of God, belief in a natural, normative order of existence and in the duty of man to abide by that order in both public and private life became central aspects of a way of life that, among other things, brought forth ideals of constitutionalism and ordered liberty essential to our own self-understanding.
The story told in Roots is, in effect, the background for the story told in The Conservative Mind. For that latter book begins at the beginning of a more recent trend, one born in opposition to the French Revolution and its rejection of all that had gone before to make up civil, social societies dedicated to ordered liberty and virtue understood in relation to a permanent order of existence. Conservatism, of course, begins with Edmund Burke. And Burke made clear in his own writings, as Kirk makes clear in his treatment of Burke, that the thing to be conserved is, in essence, Christian Humanism.
Nonetheless, the purpose of The Conservative Mind is to show the coherence of the modern understanding of conservatism, and that conservatism, for most of us, is to be understood in American terms. Thus, what we have in Kirk’s book is a largely Anglo-American story. It spells out an approach to politics rooted in the Anglo-American tradition. The English and American traditions have diverged, of course. But they remain related and for much of our history were very closely related, such that our approaches to and assumptions regarding politics and public life have been closely linked.
Kirk points out, then, that Burke’s opposition to the French Revolution was not in contrast to but rather entirely consistent with his argument that England should make peace with America, saving her relations with that part of the world, even at the cost of firm control over it. America, he noted, was a land filled with people who had a prescriptive claim to substantial amounts of self-government that the British should treat with sympathy. The French, meanwhile, were engaged in a revolt against Christianity and civilized life itself in pursuit of wild ideological fancies and raw power.
Conservatism, then, was born in opposition, or at least opposition to revolution. But it also was born in affirmation—affirmation of a people’s way of life and that people’s prescriptive right to continue living as they were accustomed to doing. Kirk shows these origins in Burke, and their continuation in the life and work of figures like Sir Walter Scott, that great writer of historical novels who opposed so much of the utilitarian ethos that would destroy British civilization.
As shown by his treatment of Scott and others, Kirk did not set out to tell some story of the “winners” of history. He makes no attempt to appropriate popular figures for conservatism. Rather, he is intent on presenting conservatism as it was and is, as a voice speaking out against the mindless drive for a “progress” that means sacrificing our virtues and way of life for mere material well being. Thus, Kirk in an important sense begins his discussion of conservatism in America with John Adams. Adams has enjoyed a rebirth of interest and respect in recent years thanks to the biography written by David McCullough. But at the time Kirk was writing, Adams was looked down upon as a loser and a crank, who sought to stave off democratization in America, seeking to build an aristocracy in our republic. And this unjust calumny provides Kirk with the opportunity to point out essential aspects, not just of Adams’s thought and legacy, but also of the conservative mind. Adams’s conservative frame of mind is characterized by commitment to the moral imagination rather than blind faith in “progress,” to quality over quantity, to peace over expansionism, and to order over chaos, even where chaos is presented as freedom.
In telling his story of conservatism, Kirk also deals with a truly cranky New Englander in Fisher Ames, and with both sides of early American constitutional debates. Kirk is more federalist than democrat, recognizing the latter’s flirtations with French Revolutionary Jacobinism. But as a historian his goal is to find rather than to create consistent, American attitudes of appreciation for tradition, order, and moral imagination. And this means giving Jefferson his due, and following through on his narrative with a discussion of the old South. Here Kirk’s treatment is largely appreciative, though this appreciation is sometimes taken too literally by partisans of the old Southern cause. Still, Kirk highlights the conservative nature of cultures rooted in respect for valor, virtue, and love of one’s own.
As shown by Kirk’s treatment of the South, which includes both individual figures (e.g. John C. Calhoun) and larger traditions, The Conservative Mind is history of the same kind he practices later in Roots. It is intellectual history, but not a hermetically sealed history of ideas. It is a study of a body of political thought, engaging in definition; but that definition is given its necessary context and story. This methodological concern with narrative, and with treating both individuals and broader movements, leads Kirk next to discuss the rise of utilitarianism and even of industrialization, that great leveler and enemy of human variety. This is a sad, even a depressing story, and one that plays out, in large measure, over the next century as told by Kirk. There are bright spots, of course, including the struggles for a rapprochement between classical liberalism and conservatism exemplified by Alexis de Tocqueville and the great novelist James Fennimore Cooper. But Kirk’s emphasis is on the well based fears of the time—of soft despotism and the degradation of manners and virtue—and on the failures of imagination, such as that Adams’s own son, John Quincy.
No doctrinaire proponent of a night-watchman state, Kirk deals sympathetically with those, such as British Prime Minister Disraeli, who sought to humanize capitalist industry even as he dismisses the vague religion of humanity put forth by American Transcendentalists. Again, this is no ideological cookbook, demanding specific political programs, but rather a story of the ways in which individuals and groups have fought (or failed to fight) to preserve permanent goods crucial to the common pursuit of virtue within ordered liberty. Faced with a new underclass and a general loss of appreciation for faith, beauty, and order, conservatism requires principle and compromise, practicality and vision, and a willingness to both recognize and serve the real, permanent needs of mankind.
Most of Kirk’s story is one of failure, or at least the steady loss of ground in the face of forces hostile to humane living. His last two chapters are more hopeful, and certainly more appreciative of the conservative figures whose thought he discusses. Yet those figures are critics and poets. Babbitt and Santayana (and, later, Eliot) were not politicians; they sought to enliven the conservative mind. From this, we might expect an eventual renewal of politics in a humane vein, but cannot expect grand political programs to “take back” society.
Were Kirk seeking a “useful” history of conservatism, he was capable of doing much better than a story he originally titled The Conservatives’ Rout. Indeed, even the last chapter of his book, regarding the “promise” of conservatism, is largely negative in tone, focusing on the inevitability of the failure of liberalism. Liberalism is an ideology—a false, second reality some seek to impose on the natural order. As such it must fail over time as reality makes itself felt, though many may die and much may be destroyed in the revolt against nature.
It will be for the conservative to seek to rebuild from the rubble left by liberalism. In the end, after all, one is not a conservative merely because one seeks to preserve what happens to exist. Indeed, as our government moves to complete the construction of a social democratic state, in which people of faith are forced to support its policies of contraception, abortion, and family breakdown, it is no sure thing that our culture will survive. T. S. Eliot noted that cultures may, in fact, die. In that case the result will be potentially centuries of cultural boredom. There will be an impoverishment of the common mind that will damage our souls for generations to come. Even then, however, the job of the conservative remains the same—to remind people of the goods they once had so that they may, some day, build upon deeper truths, rebuilding a civilization worthy of the name.
Kirk’s work does not, in fact, “forge” a fully coherent ideology of conservatism. Rather, it shows that, while individual conservatives have been very imperfect in understanding their own philosophy, and conservatives as a group often find themselves a small minority facing a hostile cultural mood, that which conservatives recognize and value is permanent. We may have to look back many centuries for the fonts of ideas and institutions necessary to a good life for our people. But those fonts always will be there, feeding the broad tradition of Christian humanism within which our more particular national, religious, and philosophical traditions must exist. Kirk’s story of conservatism, by showing the ups and downs, the heroes and the failures, the successes and the worsening problems of our tradition, makes it possible, even decades from now, for Americans to connect with something real, something potentially alive and vital, in rebuilding a culture sick, but we hope not sick unto death.
Such a purpose makes his work highly useful, in the very impractical sense of helping us lead better lives. But its utility rests on its truth. For, only if there is, indeed, a normative order of existence we can know in its broad outlines is it worthwhile for use to seek higher, permanent goods in this life and the next.
A version of this essay was given at the Hauenstein Center at Grand Valley State University at a conference on The Conservative Mind. Bruce Frohnen is a Professor of Law at Ohio Northern University School of Law.
Posted: December 15, 2013 in Essays.
Volume 47, Number 3–4 (Fall 2010)