The Need for Renewal: Nathaniel Hawthorne's Conservatism

By Trepanier, Lee | Modern Age, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

The Need for Renewal: Nathaniel Hawthorne's Conservatism


Trepanier, Lee, Modern Age


IN A CHAPTERIN The Conservative Mind titled "Transitional Conservatism: New England Sketches," Russell Kirk cited John Quincy Adams, Orestes Brownson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne as figures in whom the "conservative instinct struggled for successful expression" in a period of rapid innovation that was sweeping aside the ancestral institutions of nineteenth-century America. (1) Confronted with mass democracy, industrialism, and Transcendentalism, these New England conservatives either had to re-ground their beliefs in individuality, hierarchy, and reverence for transcendence on new intellectual foundations, or else they had to devise new social arrangements that might protect conservative thought and practices in the emerging modern world. Whereas Adams failed in politics by flirting with radicalism and Brownson rejected traditional New England Protestantism for the "foreign" religion of Rome, Nathaniel Hawthorne in some large measure succeeded in conserving the best of America's heritage by returning to the country's native religious soil in his study of Puritanism.

For Kirk, Hawthorne's chief accomplishment was his ability to impress "the idea of sin upon a nation which would like to forget it." (2) By reminding Americans of the power and influence of original sin, Hawthorne maintained that real reform must be first and foremost moral reform, and such reform is not possible until one had remembered original sin. This position placed Hawthorne in direct disagreement with the increasingly influential Transcendentalists, whose optimism about human nature had erased sin as a check to man's appetites and behavior. Although Hawthorne would eventually lose his battle with the Transcendentalists--to the extent that he failed to make the doctrine of sin "popular" in the American political conscience--he nonetheless

  ... left a good many people uneasily or resentfully aware that
  possibly it is true. This is his powerful conservative achievement. A
  lurking consciousness of sin has haunted American letters ever
  since. (3)

Hawthorne believed that progress in society is possible, but it must be the slow progress of conscience instead of the "whirlwind of fanaticism, which wailed onward to Sumter, and then raved triumphant to Appomattox." (4) Given this understanding, one can make better sense of Hawthorne's reply to Emerson that no man was more justly hanged than John Brown. For Hawthorne, slavery could not be removed by federal legislation or by coercive enforcement measures; rather, "being contrary to the economical and moral convictions of the future, slavery ultimately would fade away without governmental interference." (5)

But after the defeat of the South in the Civil War, New England conservatism, especially Hawthorne's, became a conservatism of negation:

  [N]ow burdened with the necessity for affirmation and reconstruction,
  the New England mind shielded and groaned and cursed at these
  perplexities.... Their conservative instincts were bewildered by the
  passion of this moral crusade and by the influence of
  Transcendentalism; they scarcely remembered, any longer, where to look
  for the foundations of a conservative order.... (6)

New England conservatism had forgotten its roots, and therefore could only critique instead of proffer an alternative vision to progressivism for America. Beneficial as it may be in its criticism of the progressive movement, New England conservatism failed to provide either a new intellectual foundation or social arrangements to preserve the country's past values of individuality, hierarchy, and reverence for transcendence. We are reminded here that Kirk's original title for the book that was published as The Conservative Mind was: "The Conservatives' Rout."

Kirk seems to suggest that partially responsible for the negative character of New England's conservatism was its Protestant foundation. According to Kirk, Protestantism underwent three stages of development, with the third and final stage being individualism: individuals could select their own religious beliefs and forms of worship and suffer no restraints except those that were self-imposed. …

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