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In the process of revitalizing Britain’s governing principles, the American founding also unleashed the ideas of liberty and equality to an unexpected degree…

A heavy overcast settled over the Huron Valley. Expecting snow at any moment, I sought shelter in Haven Hall. My hope was to intercept Dr. Tonsor coming down from his office, then to accompany him on the walk across the Diag to class. I had the proverbial “deep question” for him. Seeing him emerge from the elevator in his Paddington Bear hat, I greeted him and after pleasantries put my subject before him:

“Professor Tonsor, I am interested in how you think about the American founding. The political philosophers I’ve read say that America was the product of the Enlightenment, meaning that it was founded as a classical liberal nation. According to this view, conservatism in America is just classical liberalism’s ‘right wing,’ pushing for freer markets in a free-market system and smaller government in a federal system. American conservatives are thus not like European conservatives who, in reaction to the French Revolution, sought to restore the ancien regime with its monarchy, mercantilism, and three orders. Since that old-world conservative tradition never existed in the U.S. after its founding, what we call ‘conservative’ looks much different from conservatism in Europe. Is it true that conservatism in America is just classical liberalism’s right wing and nothing more?”

Tonsor responded: “The question, as you ask it, is not well framed. It tries to make the founding an ‘either-or’ event: liberal or conservative? But the interpretive methods that characterize the humanities encourage us to think not in terms of ‘either-or’ but in terms of ‘both-and.’ Were we all liberals then? Were we all liberals in 1776 and 1787? That’s what you’re asking. From the viewpoint of the political philosophers who see the founding as the outcome of debate during the Enlightenment, we were liberal. Yet, taking in the longer perspective of Western civilization, we must ask: Were we conservative in any sense that is prior to and separate from liberalism? And the answer to that question is, yes, most definitely, if you consider our inheritance from the ancient world and Christendom.”

I said, “That longer perspective is what Russell Kirk achieved in The Roots of American Order.”[1]

“Since you are taken with Russell Kirk’s argument, Mr. Whitney, I’d like you to elaborate.”

Oh, my. I was taken aback when Tonsor suddenly lobbed the question back to me—it was unusual for him to do so. But since I was the one who had just teed up Kirk’s Roots, I had to run with it. The ideas in The Roots were once considered mainstream in the academy,[2] and I had read the book with enthusiasm before moving to Ann Arbor. But in the 1980s it was hardly ever referenced much less taught in American and Western civilization surveys. This presented problems for a graduate student. In the company of the methodological gatekeepers in Michigan’s history department, it was best not to cite Kirk’s Roots since his thesis was considered out-of-date at best; racist, sexist, classist, and elitest at worst.

Taking a deep breath I said: “There is truth in the claim of the political philosophers. Since we were the first nation established in the modern age, our political economy was liberal from the start. In the first place, we didn’t have a feudal or mercantile economy. We had a modern free-market system that owed much to Adam Smith and the Enlightenment. Second, we didn’t have a feudal or absolutist monarchy. Instead we had a mixed constitution that was the result of enlightened reflection [3] on liberal philosophers like Locke and republican thinkers like Montesquieu; the resulting federated polity balanced both the primacy of the individual (seen in the liberalism of the Bill of Rights) and the primacy of civic virtue (seen in the republicanism of the Northwest Ordinance, Article III). Third, we didn’t have a social order that looked like the ancien regime with its aristocratic privileges, noble titles, and laws upholding primogeniture. Traditionalist European conservatives—Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald, and Pio Nono—hated what we were. They condemned ‘Americanism.’ Our natural aristocracy renewed itself each generation in a relatively mobile society where most could rise due to merit and a little luck. So, yes, in all these fundamental ways, we were not a conservative European nation but a modern liberal one that owed its founding institutions mostly to the Enlightenment.”

“Fine, but there’s more,” said Tonsor in his laconic way. “Go on.”

“Yes,” I said, “there’s also truth in the claim that our founding was conservative—deeply conservative in ways that were prior to and separate from liberalism. Our modern liberal roots, strong as they are, do not tell of deeper roots still. America’s deep cultural roots are revealed in our unwritten constitution, our habits of the heart, and our syncretic worldview—a fusion that holds in dynamic tension the living traditions of ancient Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, as well as medieval London.”

“I’m surprised,” said Tonsor, “that you stop at medieval London. Remember that Protestant and Catholic thinkers engaged the Enlightenment in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century London, Edinburgh, and Paris. They continually sifted and tested the Age of Reason in light of what Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and medieval London had to teach.[4] Out of that dynamic tension, out of that struggle between those who argued for continuity and those who argued for change, emerged the Founders’ syncretic worldview. The intellectual leaders of the American founding—Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, Madison—stood atop the pinnacle of that worldview.”

One thing about my conversations with Tonsor: He always kept my mind on the stretch. There was no resting with him. “Dr. Kirk,” I said, “does speak to our moral and spiritual formation. When Americans go to church or temple on Sunday, we are walking into the space inspired by premodern, illiberal religions that originated in the Near East between two thousand and three thousand years ago.[5] In theory, liberalism is neutral when it comes to religion. It claims to have no necessary or sufficient need for citizens to believe in the God of the Christians or the God of the Jews. Yet Judeo-Christian moral norms and spiritual comfort have been a cornerstone of our culture from the start.”

“Yes,” said Tonsor. “To paraphrase Tocqueville: ‘I doubt whether man can ever support at the same time complete religious indifference and complete political freedom. I am inclined to think that if he lacks faith, he will be a subject. But if he believes, he has the chance to be free.’ Liberalism, he thought, cannot exist in some theoretical cultural vacuum. It needs religion to prop it up.”[6]

Sucking in a larger breath, I said: “Another example Dr. Kirk explores comes from our intellectual formation. When young Americans read Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and others who inform our intellectual defense of reason, they are entering a space inspired by premodern, pre-liberal philosophies that originated in the eastern Mediterranean more than two thousand years ago.[7] Liberalism does not mandate what must be taught. It tries to be value free when it comes to knowledge. It claims to have no necessary or sufficient need for citizens to pursue the ancient classics that originated prior to and separate from liberalism. Yet we know that an education in the classics enriches the experience of citizenship.”

Tonsor weighed in: “Liberalism also needs the interior reflection encouraged by the humanities to prop it up.”

“I think so, yes,” I said in agreement. “Still another example in Kirk comes from medieval England after the Conquest. Liberals would like to take credit for many of the developments that have contributed to ordered freedom in the modern age—the common law, stare decisis, Parliament, habeas corpus, trial by jury, and other individual rights that were later adopted by liberalism.[8] In truth, they cannot. There was no -ism called liberalism when these rights and innovations appeared in the Middle Ages. Yet their absence today would be unthinkable in liberalism’s public square.”

Tonsor objected: “Stop right there. Using the term, ‘public square,’ is such a banal descent into cliche.”[9]

“Okay,” I said, trying to disguise my pique. Unfortunately, I was becoming used to his gratuitous criticism. At the same time, I figuratively slapped my forehead since the word “okay” also made him peevish. If ever I wanted to drive him nuts I could say: “The public square is okay.”

It was probably a good thing that I did not have time to dwell on Tonsor’s peevishness since we had mounted the stairs and were entering the classroom. I was proud of myself for making the case that classical liberalism could not fully account for the American mind. Using Kirk, I pulled back the curtain on our founders’ deep conservative roots—evidenced by the living traditions they embraced from Semitic Jerusalem, Mediterranean Athens, cosmopolitan Rome, and Germanic London. Conservatism was not just the right wing of classical liberalism but something much richer.


After Tonsor slapped his satchel on the table in front of the class, he came back to the desk into which I was getting settled. “You know, Mr. Whitney, we must talk more about The Roots. It’s a beautiful work in conception but a flawed work in execution.”

My professor’s words reminded me of something I’d read between Fort Collins and Ann Arbor the previous summer. At the beginning of the road trip to Michigan, I had grappled with Tonsor’s “The United States as a ‘Revolutionary Society,'”[10] and it occurred to me then that his 1975 essay might be a critique of Kirk’s 1974 book. Both were written in anticipation of America’s bicentennial celebration, and both sought to plumb the meaning of the American experience.

Tonsor’s thesis was that the American founding revitalized Britain’s governing principles and thus could be seen as a conservative event. However, in the process of revitalizing Britain’s governing principles, the American founding also unleashed the ideas of liberty and equality to an unexpected degree. After 1776, the empire of liberty would spread as never before. Also after 1776 and especially after the four years culminating in 1865—what Lord Acton called “the Second American Revolution”[11]—the empire of equality would spread as never before. The American founding, paradoxically, was just as much an act of revolution as it was an act of conservation. Looking back, Kirk had focused on the American founding as a fusion of the living traditions of four old cities—Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London. Looking forward, Tonsor saw the American Revolution as a launchpad that took man’s aspiration for more liberty and more equality to new heights. It was both-and: both a conservative and a revolutionary event; both a stroke for liberty and a stroke for equality.

Given my admiration for both men, I needed to come to terms with the tension between Kirk’s and Tonsor’s interpretation of the revolutionary era. Each in his own way seemed to sound the right note. Could their notes be harmonized? The Roots was one of my favorite works of history, plumbing the subjects I liked to think about most. It played no small part in my decision to pursue graduate studies in history. The Roots was also an important work since it preserved an interpretation of American history that was important to keep alive, somewhere, anywhere, in the postmodern academy that dismissed it amid a swarm of deconstructing “narratives.” But Tonsor’s insight was also critically important to understanding how America became the country she was. Could I keep the thought of both men in dynamic tension?

This essay is also published on Dr. Whitney’s personal website and is part of a series of conversations with the late Stephen J. Tonsor, who was Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThe Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order (Malibu: Pepperdine University Press, 1974).

[2] For an earlier statement of Kirk’s basic thesis, see the address by the former president of the American Historical Association, Carlton J. H. Hayes, “The American Frontier—Frontier of What?” December 27, 1945, American Historical Review, vol. 50, no. 2 (January 1946): 199-216.

[3] Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Papers, Number One, paragraph one, 1787.

[4] For a recent study of the traditionalists’ confrontation with the Enlightenment, see Ulrich L. Lehner, The Catholic Enlightenment: The Forgotten History of a Global Movement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[5] Kirk, Roots, chaps. 2, 5.

[6] Stephen J. Tonsor, “Et tu, brutish?” Christian Science Monitor, April 9, 1979, p. B36.

[7] Kirk, Roots, chaps. 3-4.

[8] Kirk, Roots, chap. 6.

[9] Both Tonsor and I were alluding to a recently published book by Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984).

[10] Stephen J. Tonsor, “The United States as a ‘Revolutionary Society,'”Modern Age, vol. 19, no. 2 (spring 1975): 136-45.

[11] Stephen J. Tonsor, “Quest for Liberty: America in Acton’s Thought,” Introduction by James C. Holland (Grand Rapids, MI: Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, Occasional Paper No. 1, 1993).

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