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800px-The_death_of_general_warren_at_the_battle_of_bunker_hill_lightboxThe 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

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10 replies to this post
  1. There are few things on which I disagree with the brilliant Russell Kirk. And while this is a small point, it is one: that Kirk says "America's War of Independence was 'a revolution not made, but prevented.'" I understand what Kirk was getting at, but if the American colonists were trying to conserve "the chartered rights of Englishmen," then what they engaged in was, indeed, a revolution. A revolution by definition is not a "throwing off," as in France and later Russia, but a "revolving" or a "returning to" the original. Revolution was precisely what we had at the Founding — and what we desperately need again.

  2. No, I think, Mr. Beadle, it is a BIG one. If the American secession from the British Empire was a revolution, then you have just given the game away to the progressives who have claimed the same thing since the beginning. Your little definitions don't get at the source. If you read our documents carefully, you will see that the colonists understood the British as promoting a revolution, and that is exactly what Kirk was getting at. If there was a revolution, then we are like the French and like the Russians. If not, then we are inheritors of the Judeo-Christian-Greco-Roman-Germanic heritage, and the champions thereof. This is a divide in our current culture, and I know which side I am on.

  3. Indeed, the wise Dr. Willson speaks the truth. Only Jaffa and the Neo-Jacobins on the Right term the American secession a "revolution". Unfortunately, both the liberal progressives and the (neo-)"conservative" progressives (Straussians) want us to live in the post-French revolutionary world.

  4. Although the word "revolution" can be tossed around to mean different things to different people in different eras, the founders called the war a revolution. I do not see any compelling reason to change (how's that for conservative prescription!).

    Some conservative intellectuals have accused Kirk of tossing around the word "conservative" in the same way. He promiscuously applies the name "conservative" to conservers of British political order, orthodox religion, the Southern planation regime, state sovereignty, and high culture that have little in common with respect to the political order established by our founders.

  5. As to the French Revolution in general, I am not sure what "ancient liberties" or "chartered rights of Frenchmen" the French people could hope to reestablish. I am no expert on the FR, but maybe they had no alternative but to scrap the monarchy and the aristocracy along with their religious props and start anew.

  6. Historian Pauline Maier noted in the closing minutes of Episode 6 of the documentary Liberty! The American Revolution that, “I think it’s one of the greatest ironies of human history that the American Revolution is sometimes considered no revolution at all. That honor goes to others – the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution — revolutions that fail to realize their promise of liberty, revolutions that ultimately failed. Our revolution, I think, is underestimated mainly because it succeeded.”

  7. Congratulations Darrin! This is exactly what I want to study…btw, I didn’t know this website, just the channel on Youtube until now..

    This is what i’d like the people here in Brazil learn…i’m reading and studying the conservative thinking in England and USA here but we have not almost anything in portuguese language. I am humble to admit that your country is an example and it isn’t something to be ignored and hated like a lot of people around here and from middle east does…in our universities it is almost impossible to talk to someone about these ideas, the most people prefer talk about Fidel Castro than Reagan or Thatcher, when they know who were these leaders, of course…

  8. When a despotic king, like George III, usurps rights not properly his, then it falls to the citizens to restore the balance and to end the tyranny. Doing so is not a revolution; it is in response to the revolution that already happened. Without such opposition, there is no way to conserve the usurped rights. Taxation without representation is a revolution in English law and governance. To preserve the old order, it had to be resisted. Resisting the revolution was not liberal then, and resisting the effort to fundamentally transform America is not liberal now.

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