Political
Philosophy and Cultural Renewal: Collected Essays

by Francis Graham Wilson, edited by H. Lee Cheek, Jr.,
M. Susan Power, and Kathy B. Cheek
Transaction Publishers (New Brunswick, New Jersey) 263
pp., $49.95 cloth, 2001.

book cover imageIt
has been argued, perhaps most notably by George Nash, that
American conservatism as an intellectual movement became
articulate only after World War II. Prior to the war, it
seemed that the most prominent conservative thinkers were
European émigrés and refugees whose lives were
personally affected by the Nazi tyranny—e.g., F. A.
Hayek, Heinrich Rommen, Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin. It
is noteworthy that Russell Kirk’s The Conservative
Mind
was not published until 1953. It would be mistaken,
however, to deny the existence of important American conservative
voices during the mid-nineteenth century. As proof of this,
editors Lee Cheek Jr., M. Susan Power, and Kathy B. Cheek
have done a great service in compiling representative essays
from the American political scientist Francis Graham Wilson
(1901–1976). In addition, they provide an excellent introduction
that guides the reader through Wilson’s life and legacy.
The essays span a wide range of topics from human nature,
organic theory, conservatism, Cicero’s de officiis and
the American political mind.

Wilson was a convert to Roman Catholicism who taught at
the University of Illinois. He would serve as Wilmoore Kendall’s
dissertation advisor. In Wilson’s works, one hears
a distinctly American conservative voice confronting the
moral and intellectual crisis of liberal democracy and the
threat of totalitarianism. Indeed, Wilson’s early,
prewar essays contain a forthright condemnation of the twin
evils of German fascism and Soviet communism prior to the
arrival of many of the prominent émigrés mentioned
above.

Much like Reinhold Niebuhr, Wilson defends a “conservative
realism” that appreciates both the dignity of human
beings as created in the image of God and their depravity
as egocentric, fallen creatures. He contrasts this “dualistic” view
of human nature—one that recognizes man’s capacity
for both good and evil, to utopian distortions that consider
human beings to be naturally good or infinitely malleable.

Wilson’s political thought is informed by the moral
and intellectual heritage of Roman Catholicism. His political
ethics is therefore theocentric or God centered. His analysis
of politics is imbued by the natural law, a defense of the
Christian and classical virtue of prudence, and an appreciation
of the limits of politics. Reiterating the teachings of Tocqueville
for his own time, Wilson boldly affirms that, “Christian
morality was the foundation of all political morality.” And
in the Political Philosophy of Conservatism, he
observes a close connection between conservatism and Christianity
in western civilization:

In the West, the conservative has discovered the code
of measure through religious inquiry, and theology and
religious philosophy have made their contribution. The
conservative has been generally a Christian and he has
taken his theism seriously, while revolutionary minds have
turned to deism, pantheism, and atheism. For the conservative,
man’s
relation to the cosmos is an adventure in practicalities
of theism. It has been the great religious literatures
that have indicated the truth of existence.

Moreover, Wilson’s views on capitalism seem to have
been deeply influenced by the Vatican’s teaching on
work, human dignity, and social justice in Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo
Anno
. Though he repudiated socialism, Wilson nonetheless
consistently emphasized that American conservatism cannot
simply be equated with unbridled, laissez-faire capitalism.
The common good is not necessarily served through the sum
total of egocentric interests. Thus, on the question of an
unfettered free market and free trade, Wilson presages arguments
made in our own day by social or paleo-conservatives.

This collection also provides an illuminating window into
the discipline of political science in mid-nineteenth century
America. Wilson acknowledges the important contribution of
the German émigrés Strauss and Voegelin make
to political science. However, he criticizes the former for
omitting “Christian thinking, believing apparently
that the Christian political inquiry and its theory of reform
can be subsumed as part of classical.” Of the latter
he states, “It is Eric Voegelin, more than any other,
who has in recent times in Order and History insisted
on the basis of knowledge about a human, and prudential order.”

As an American himself, Wilson paid greater attention to
the tradition of American political thought than did the
German émigrés. As one intimately familiar
with this tradition, he was passionately involved in preserving
his own nation’s intellectual and political heritage.
Indeed, his speech On Jeffersonian Tradition is
one of the finest and most interesting essays in the volume.
Here Wilson provides a nuanced analysis of Jefferson’s
political thought, recognizing both its flaws and contributions.
Wilson treats Jefferson, who is often seen as the nemesis
of American conservatism, with balance, reverence, and needed
sobriety. Perhaps this is because Wilson—himself a
proud Texan—sees Jefferson as part of the wider tradition
of southern conservatism and states’ rights. Wilson
subscribes to the Calhounian view that the Union is a compact
between free and sovereign states. Yet this commitment seems
to be somewhat inconsistent with his praise of Roosevelt
and the New Deal, though perhaps Wilson saw in Roosevelt’s
program a level of correction to capitalist excess.

Finally, this book is valuable in revealing Wilson’s
appreciation that conservatism is more than a way of thinking;
it is a way of living. Wilson maintains that conservatism
is anchored in an orientation that both acknowledges and
reveres the order of existence. He poignantly explores conservatism
as an aesthetic, an affective response of gratitude, reverence
and love for those “permanent things” that are
truly good, true and beautiful. Most provocatively, Wilson
believes that, at bottom, the conservative shares much in
common with the romantic: 

The love of tradition comes from knowledge of the immensity
of human experience; it arises in the valorous struggle
for an accepted cause. When one’s Invincible Armada
is lost, love runs deeper, and in suffering one begins
afresh. To be loved, tradition must mean something to the
spirit, and in it there is always something of the garb
of romanticism, the love of sacrifice . . . .

Indeed, these are words to ponder for each generation of
American scholars who like Wilson must do their part to defend
the precious, yet fragile cultural inheritance of western
civilization and its New World progeny—the American
regime.

Joseph R. Fornieri is
assistant professor of Political Science at the Rochester
Institute of Technology and author of Abraham Lincoln’s
Political Faith,
a work which explores Lincoln’s
religion and politics.

Subscribe to the University Bookman