Edmund Burke in America: The Contested Career of the Father of Modern Conservatism

By Harp, Gillis J. | Anglican and Episcopal History, September 2014 | Go to article overview

Edmund Burke in America: The Contested Career of the Father of Modern Conservatism


Harp, Gillis J., Anglican and Episcopal History


Edmund Burke in America: The Contested Career of the Father of Modern Conservatism By Drew Maciag (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2013, Pp. xiv, 285. $29.95.)

This monograph examines how, from the Revolutionary era to the recent past, a diverse assortment of Americans have drawn upon Edmund Burke's thought and used his ideas for a variety of purposes. Drew Maciag's handling of this important and curiously neglected subject in Edmund Burke in America is thoughtful, subtle, and insightful. Although it was the invocation of Burke by post-World War II conservatives that drew Maciag's attention initially to this subject, he quickly discovered that this comparatively recent "conservative appropriation of Burke's legacy in America is only the latest chapter in a long, symbolic enterprise" (2). Since the Early National era, Burke has often been employed by cultural guardians concerned about social decline to criticize or check democratic trends and rebuke a naive confidence in reason. While the author frequendy acknowledges the dominance of Lockean and related Enlightenment ideas within the American political tradition, he observes that their central position has often been contested and that American Burkeans have sometimes played the role of a "loyal opposition" (230). Contrary to more recent popularizers, Maciag stresses how Burke himself never became a Tory and that his strongest traditionalist arguments were mostly the product of his later years. Even when he pursued a more conservative path in response to the radicalism of the French Revolution, Burke usually "sought change with continuity. He hoped to carry the best elements of the past into a better future" (21).

The two best-known English commentators on the French Revolution, Burke and Thomas Paine, met different fates in the newly independent American republic. Paine was (mostly) embraced by Americans, while Burke was initially shunned or ignored: he was viewed "as a one-time ally in the struggle for liberty who had deserted the cause" (32). Understandably, a backward-looking traditionalist would not gain a sympathetic popular hearing during a period of democratic enthusiasm. While John Adams has often been linked to Burke, the former was more thoroughly committed to Enlightenment ideals and democratic politics than Burke appears to have been, at least in his later years. While skeptical of democratic excesses, for instance, Adams never saw himself as the defender of a "bygone age" (38). The subsequent success ofjacksonian Democrats at the polls confirmed that the principles of Paine and Jefferson (rather than those of Burke or even of Adams) had triumphed in America. Meanwhile, some antebellum Whigs made extensive and imaginative use of Burke to develop their organic conservatism in response to an increasingly egalitarian culture. …

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