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Kirk wrote the following piece while an undergraduate at Michigan State College. His second published academic article, he considered it his first foray into political analysis. As with much of what Kirk wrote, though, it is really a literary analysis of several figures during the New Deal who claimed the mantle of Jeffersonianism. Kirk argued none of them held a proper claim, even Mencken.

H.L. “Mencken comes nearest to being a Jeffersonian. He denounces the encroachment of the federal government upon the rights of localities and individuals; he is an aristocratic libertarian, surely. But he is not of Jefferson’s stamp, even though he implies loyalty to the Virginian’s banners. He is filled with the disdain of the common man; Jefferson trusted in the ultimate righteousness of the masses. He sneers at the farming classes, at rural life; Jefferson based his political theories upon the existence of an agricultural economy. He scoffs at the Anglo-Saxon heritage; Jefferson believed that a democracy could not exist without that heritage. He disparages popular education; Jefferson was its leading proponent. He professes atheism; Jefferson was a deist. He lashes Puritanism; Jefferson was a Puritan by training and inclination. He may acquiesce in Jefferson’s conclusions as to the ideal government, but he refuses to accept the premises upon which Jefferson established the foundations of that government. Such lip service to Jeffersonianism is no more real Jeffersonian democracy than is the reign of Boss Pendergast in Kansas City. We cannot recognize H.L. Mencken as a follower of Jefferson.” (223–224)

“Real Jeffersonianism requires enduring confidence in the common man, an optimistic soul, a deep and clear vision, and an understanding of that old spirit called Americanism.” (224)

“To the surprise of some, the modern left and the modern right are not so far apart; the differences between the Fascist right and the Marxist left seem to be more factional than doctrinal.” (225)

“May not all history be said to consist of a record of man’s struggles for individual freedom, struggles prolonged by a million defeats?” (225–226)

“Some of us have turned our faces away from that democracy—that aristocratic libertarianism, if you will, for to the Jeffersonian every man is an aristocrat—in 1932, looking for greater benefits and collective action. We have seen, since then, that really effective collective action cannot exist without democracy and freedom. We have seen how a people can place their trust in government and refuse to struggle and to think for themselves. We have seen how centralization breeds corruption and waste, and how local government, long declining, can be incompetent to bear its burdens. We have seen how indolence and inertia can take the place cooperation is supposed to occupy in any scheme of collective action. We have seen how independence is changed into class and party bickering, not into collective endeavor. We have seen how a people’s affairs can prove too complex for any bureaucracy to manage. And we have seen that only the spirit of Jeffersonian is some is able to restrain the evils. We have come to understand that collective action without liberty, complete liberty, is like a quicksand hidden by green grass.” (226)

“Perhaps Mr. Gregory is right in his assertion that Jefferson’s shrine is an empty one; perhaps the new writers and, far more important, the new politicians will pay little heed to the Sage of Monticello. But if such be the case, we must not look for real prosperity, real success, or real happiness in our new system of collective action; we must await a decline like that of Rome under Diocletian, who found that his planned economy could exist satisfactorily only when supported by the strong arms of an enterprising and free citizenry, and that his collective methods had extinguished the last faint spark of such a citizenry in the decaying Empire. It may be too late for us to uphold the Jeffersonian ideal. If it is too late, the night of the ages cannot fall too soon.” (227)

Books on or by Dr. Kirk may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

All of the preceding quotes were dictated from: Russell Amos Kirk, “Jefferson and the Faithless,” South Atlantic Quarterly 140 (1941): 220-227. 

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2 replies to this post
  1. Seems to me that Christopher Hitchens may be our generation’s Mencken. Hitchen’s positive attitude toward Jeffersonian thought in his book ''Thomas Jefferson: Author of America'' (see NY Times review link below) conflicts with his self-characterization as an antitheist, similarly to Mencken. Without a view into their soul, it would appear that both writers have repressed sentiments on theology; if not then how can they have such admiration for a man such as Jefferson who grounded his beliefs in the divine laws of life, liberty and the pursuit of property and happiness. Kirk’s representation of Jefferson’s ideals is brilliant and seventy years later we have to ask ourselves if Kirk’s “night of the ages” is upon us.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/17/books/review/17WIDMER.html

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