Magazine article The American Conservative

Un-American Conservative?

Magazine article The American Conservative

Un-American Conservative?

Article excerpt

Edmund Burke in America: The Contested Career of the Father of Modern Conservatism, Drew Maciag, Cornell University Press, 285 pages

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 In the 19th century writers such as the historian George Bancrot considered Burke an admirable, but outdated, opponent of tyrannical power not suited for emulation in democratic, egalitarian America; others labeled him a simple utilitarian.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

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.