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russell kirk

The conservative…knows the peril of power, and the practical means for restraining power. To John Adams and James Madison in the United States, to Burke and Disraeli in England, we can turn for guidance. The thinking conservative has consistently sought to keep power from the appetite of any man or any class, through respect for prescriptive constitutions, attention to state and local (as distinguished from central) government, checking and balancing of the executive and the legislative and judicial divisions of political authority, and prudent confinement of the state’s sphere of action to a few well-defined objects. Just this conservative policy of restraining power by constitutional arrangements has been the chief attainment of American political philosophy, from the colonial thinkers and the framers of the Constitution, through Calhoun and Webster, to our own day; and just this search after a just balance of authority has been the great practical success and lesson of the American political experiment, ensuring to us a high degree of freedom and right for three centuries.

This end was the reason for which the most influential work of all our political literature, the Federalist Papers, was written. The renewed attention which that series of essays is receiving nowadays suggest how the minds of the most serious students of American society are being turned to the problem of power. Madison, Hamilton, and Jay, statesmen severely aware of the frailty of human nature, understood that tyrants and mobs are restrained from overthrowing justice and liberty more by wise constitutions than by any wisdom innate in “the People”; and, drawing from the political experience and tradition of the colonies and England, they convinced their new nation of the prudence of a federal system of government, founded not upon abstract concepts, but upon historical experience and juridical precedent. John Adams, during the same period, in his Defense of the Constitutions, drew up a gigantic brief for the division of political authority, in the light of European history from the sixth century before Christ to the contemporary system of England and the Swiss cantons.

The system of checks and balances in government, the decentralization of authority, and the several other constitutional devices to restrain power were designed, in short, by the leaders of both the Northern and Southern states to conserve the justice and the freedom which Americans had long enjoyed; and thinking conservatives have adhered to this system for hedging and confining power ever since then.

(From Program for Conservatives, pages 256-257, 1954)

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