When Russell Kirk wrote America’s British Culture it was as a necessary corrective to frequent claims that ours is a polyglot culture, a “multi culture” held together solely by certain abstract political principles, generally summed up in a phrase from the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal,” with “inalienable rights”). Kirk’s is, indeed, a good and useful book, pointing to the cultural origins of American traditions of thought and action in the British Isles. But one should not take Kirk’s book, or any truly conservative work on the roots of American order, as an endorsement of the fantasy that America, or at any rate conservative America, is some kind of cheap copy of high Anglican English culture, with its highly-mannered ethos and its rejection of political principle in favor of “muddling through” at all costs. Conservatives do not, or at least should not, simply adopt customs not their own, or accept full identification with a narrowly defined culture with which they share only a limited number of common sources and living traditions. Such a path may have been appropriate for T.S. Eliot. But the reasons for this ex-patriot poet’s English conversion had more to do with the primacy of his mind and the timeless art he produced than with the capacity of peoples to pursue a good life in concrete, historical circumstances.
America’s British culture is not purely English, let alone Anglican—thank goodness. Our culture’s grounding in dissenting traditions and the customs of a mix of enterprising and spiritual settlers shaped its growth from the beginning toward a strong republicanism and principled religiosity that allowed our nation, until quite recently, to avoid the worst degradations of ideological politics long dominant in the United Kingdom. It is to this culture, and to neither English high Anglicanism nor any mythic ideological individualism that Americans should look in working to renew our embattled way of life.
America’s culture has its roots in somewhat divergent sets of early immigrants, but immigrants who rather quickly came to share a common view of the proper nature of private character and public life. For example, the Puritans who founded the northern colonies of New England certainly were no effete, aristocratic Anglicans. Calvinists to the core, they had for many decades, even before leaving Great Britain, joined in close-knit communities through “church covenants,” whereby they agreed, before God, to govern themselves in political, economic, religious, and even legal dealings separate from the established, Anglican Church. Known as Dissenters, these settlers brought with them a version of the English constitutional tradition that emphasized the rights of local communities to govern themselves, as they had sought to do under the thumb of the established Church of England. And they did so without lords, let alone bishops.
As David Hackett Fischer shows in his highly important Albion’s Seed, there were other settlers with other cultural characteristics and practices (or “folkways”) as well. And these settlers formed homogeneous communities in different, to begin with quite isolated, parts of the American colonies. They maintained their own character even as, over time, their interactions shaped a broader common culture. These groups included highly individualistic settlers from the border regions between England and Scotland, Quakers from England’s North Midlands, and a rather small and limited kind of aristocratic element centered in Virginia and made up of younger sons of southern English nobles. The Puritans and Quakers would exercise cultural, intellectual, and constitutional influence beyond their numbers, particularly through their capacity to draft important documents and to succeed in economic life. Further south, adventurers separate from America’s religious foundations had not fared well in the early days, but their borderland successors became aggressive settlers of a new back country and anchored the more aristocratic elements of their region, literally swamping any attempt to establish an Anglican hierarchy. Indeed, English talk of sending a bishop to America was as frightening to many southerners as to their northern counterparts. And newer sects, particularly the Anabaptists (today’s Baptists) gained significant sway, there.
None of this is to say that there were not truly aristocratic elements present in the American colonies. There were; they were called loyalists or Tories, and the vast majority of them left after their side lost the War for Independence. (It would take decades for a substantial “aristocracy” of slaveholding planters to develop.) Ancestry is not destiny, of course. Moreover, it has proven all too easy for observers to mistake the republicanism of America for a democratic culture in the contemporary sense. When Tocqueville wrote of Democracy in America, he was comparing American society with the hereditary aristocracies of Europe, among which even British culture was considered rather egalitarian on account of class intermarriage and the susceptibility of English nobles to taxation. There was only a remnant or rump of an inherited aristocracy in the New World—that in Virginia, headed by a small number of younger sons of lesser nobles. But there was a common commitment to an ordered society, by which was meant a society consisting of differing orders of persons, with some ranking higher than others.
American aristocracy would be “natural” aristocracy. Talent, industry and in some places perceived godliness would constitute valid claims to high status. The roots of this aristocracy lay in the practices of religious communities and the practical habits born of adventurous and commercial lives. The “better sort” would be highly educated by any standard. Their fundamentally British education would encompass the classics of Greek and Roman politics and letters. The culture of the mind, as it were, would be in some ways more British than that of the English themselves, for it would be more widespread and take in sources on the periphery of the English imagination, for example various Calvinist writings. There also would be immigration throughout the colonial era. Scots in particular would help shape the mind of the colonies and new nation as they brought elements of the Scottish Enlightenment and common sense philosophy to these shores.
All this is to say that the roots of our culture are undeniably British, but also republican and Calvinist. The Protestantism of American culture is filtered through the communalist, localist lens of local religious self-government, and there was scant room for aristocracy in the true sense, here. As to other religions, American culture from the beginning was relatively tolerant (banishing more than hanging). But bearers of this culture had no qualms about asserting their cultural hegemony. Catholics in particular had to work for many decades to even begin to enrich this culture’s mind and, alas, would not fully succeed before their own educational establishment crumbled. And this brings to mind the contemporary cultural challenge for those who would renew our traditions and way of life.
The deeper roots of contemporary rights, duties, and understandings lay within traditions still relatively unknown to the dominant culture. They have their origins in the Middle Ages, in the Church’s battles with kings and nobles, in the formation of the canon law and, from it, the western legal tradition, and through this to both Catholic and Protestant city-states and federations that sought to uphold piety, liberty, and self-government. These roots must be re-discovered and renewed among both Protestants and Catholics if we are to maintain the tree of ordered liberty and constitutional self-government they support.
Given the character of American culture, it is not surprising that Catholics and evangelicals have so much in common yet have so much trouble cooperating for common ends. Tocqueville noted that an American township resembled a medieval French village as something live resembles the same thing after death. Catholics struggle to revive the practical groundings of their faith in the midst of institutional breakdown and subservient clericalism. At the same time, however, Protestants, especially of the serious Calvinist bent, struggle to communicate to themselves as well as others the concrete grounds for the way of life they know in their bones instantiates the permanent goods of mankind.
Whatever the status of today’s “clash of civilizations,” within the United States the so-called culture war is not being fought primarily among people of differing faiths, but rather between people of faith and people who seek to drive faith from the public square. Sadly, this is a decades-old struggle, still not fully recognized. But such recognition should cause all people of faith to work with one another, despite theological differences, to the extent that they support and seek to renew our common culture. I leave for another post discussion of how far such a common culture extends in regard to immigrant groups. It clearly extends to Jews, whose faith has had such influence on our own faith and culture, both historically and through cultural cross-pollenization in America. Where members of other faiths are concerned, the issue is not one of theology primarily, but of sustained commitment to a way of life.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.