The long heritage of ideas, principles, norms and traditions that conservatives have sought to conserve since the age of Edmund Burke were magnificently chronicled in the groundbreaking book The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk. In his book The Roots of American Order, Kirk traced the rich heritage of Western Civilization farther back through London to ancient Rome, Athens and Jerusalem. From the Judeo-Christian tradition the West learned how to order its soul, from the Greek philosophers it learned how to order its mind and from the Romans the West acquired our republican political foundations upon which Europe has been building for two millennia.
As the Constitution of the United States was being ratified, revolution was breaking out in France. At a time when a new country would consecrate old established customs, an old country would attempt new abstract theories of government and demolish its old institutions and the Ancient Regime. In attempting to remake mankind and its social contracts, France for decades would devour its own and disfigure the continent in its bloody revolution which ended in despotism, but America would enjoy law and order, liberty, and relative peace and prosperity and would grow into the greatest republic the world has ever known. The different ideas which lay at the heart of the American and French Revolutions continue to powerfully shape in opposing ways the world in which we live today.
America’s War of Independence was “a revolution not made, but prevented,” Kirk explains. Britain’s American colonies had grown accustomed to and rather liked that the mother country had permitted them to govern themselves. Our Founders sought to conserve the societal order that had bestowed the blessings of liberty on the fledgling commonwealths. It was King George, the Founders felt, who was infringing on the “chartered rights of Englishmen.” When our Framers mustered in Philadelphia, they constructed little that was innovative but rather conserved the best of the constitutional bequest from our British heritage. An independent judiciary empowered with a check on the executive and legislative branches was certainly a new creation, but Americans were not caught up in the radical philosophies which were catching fire in and burning down France. Instead of desiring to create some new sentimental egalitarianism, Americans were concerned with preserving the existing order and restating long observed principles of law.
Unlike the fifty-five refined Framers in Philadelphia, the rancorous seventeen hundred which comprised France’s National Assembly “entertained extravagant notions of social perfectibility, being quite unacquainted with representative government,” Kirk explains in his compilation The Conservative Constitution (later republished as Rights and Duties). The Americans were steeped in the tradition of Blackstone’s Commentaries on English Law, and Baron de Montesquieu was the man whose name was most mentioned from the “democracy of the dead” at our Constitutional Convention. His glowing praise of the British Constitution and his theories of checks and balances, and of divisions of powers were among the brightest stars in the constellation of ideas by which our Framers charted America’s course. The French ironically didn’t learn from our favorite Frenchman, but instead embraced atheistic faith in absolute Reason of the likes of Thomas Paine who left America for England in 1787 and that ‘insane Socrates’ from Geneva, Jean Jacques Rousseau whose Social Contract has been called the handbook of the French Revolution.
Irish statesman Edmund Burke made a profound impact on our Founding Fathers. Burke was an outspoken critic of King George in Parliament calling for reconciliation with the colonies and for discontinuing the taxes placed upon them. He also edited The Annual Register which provided the only detailed account of the Revolution which, along with Burke’s essays and speeches in defense of British Law and its prudent reform, was read thoroughly in America. Burke’s prescient and eloquent excoriation of the underlying philosophies of French Revolution stands as a devastating remonstration of the folly of faith in abstract Reason and the pursuit of spurious Perfect Freedom. In his biography of Burke, Kirk writes: “the romantic face of Jean Jacques darts out, at intervals, from behind a variety of masks—the flushed face of Paine, the grim brow of Marx, the pedantic countenance of Dewey. . . Let us concede that a knowledge of the mind of Rousseau is as important as an apprehension of Burke’s, for any man who would understand our present discontents.”
Conservatives discern the need for prudent restraints upon political power and upon human passion, Russell Kirk reminds us, providing a timely and timeless warning that the philosophies of the French Enlightenment “could not make man and society anew: they could only ruin the constructions of thousands of years of painful human endeavor.” The American Founders, with prudent piety toward prescription, experience, duty, and custom, maintained the continuity of our inherited Western Civilization which enabled our spectacular ascension.
Books by Russell Kirk may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.