The Conservative Constitution by Russell Kirk
A nation’s constitution can be created overnight, claimed Clinton Rossiter incautiously at a symposium over thirty years ago. Witness, he continued, the guiding instruments composed by several European countries shortly after each of the two world wars. Present at that same symposium, Russell Kirk answered Rossiter’s statement with a simple question: “Where are those constitutions now?” Indeed, the framers of any enduring constitution must consider “the history, the moral order, the resources, the prospects of a country—and much else besides,” states Kirk in his latest book, The Conservative Constitution. Furthermore, writes Kirk, “Those framers must have some understanding of what Edmund Burke called ‘the contract of eternal society.'”
This contract, linking the living with preceding generations arid with generations yet unborn, is bound up with custom, convention, prescription, and what Burke termed the “moral imagination”—the biblical view of humanity as fallen, driven by appetites that need to be checked, yet beloved of God and made for eternity. It is an organic contract, far removed from the various compacts of fear and expedience described by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau.
This view of the body politic, as Kirk convincingly argues, also guided the deliberations of the framers of the American Constitution. Far from being the heirs of Enlightenment thinkers and the innovative philosophes, the framers were instead the inheritors and guardians of “the chartered rights of Englishmen.” Those rights, based on prescription and usage, extended back to the Glorious Revolution and beyond, and found their most prominent spokesman in Burke.
Burke’s thoughts, particularly as expressed in the Annual Register—a publication read avidly on both sides of the Atlantic during the late eighteenth century—were closely aligned to the Framers’ outlook. Derived from such an inheritance and with its sober view of humanity’s state, the Constitution was never intended as a license for utopians or a weapon for ideologues. It is not, as Lord Macaulay claimed, “all sail and no anchor.”
The Conservative Constitution, written as “an attempt to understand the Constitution of the United States as a framework for a conservative political order in North America,” elaborates upon key sections of an earlier book, The Roots of American Order (originally published in 1974, it has recently been revised and republished by Regnery Gateway), a work of wide scope and astonishing learning, The Conservative Constitution pulls together fifteen essays written during the past few years by Kirk on matters specifically related to the Constitution. Particularly noteworthy is his chapter entitled “The First Clause of the First Amendment: Politics and Religion,” which considers American church-state relations and is a most lucid, well-argued essay on that subject.
Perhaps the principal point of the book, articulated by Kirk and shared by his intellectual ancestor, Burke, is found in the concluding chapter of this remarkable volume:
Great states with good constitutions develop when most people think of their duties and restrain their appetites. Great states sink toward their dissolution when most people think of their privileges and indulge their appetites freely…. And no matter how admirable a constitution may look upon paper, it will be ineffectual unless the written constitution, the web of custom and convention, affirms an enduring moral order of obligation and personal responsibility.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared in the Intercollegiate Review (Spring 1992) and is published here with gracious permission.