The Living Edmund Burke
Russell Kirk, Modern Age, Summer/Fall 1982
Getting up in recent months an anthology of conservative writing, The Portable Conservative Reader, I had reason to re-read much of Burke. More than ever before, I was impressed with how relevant Burke’s thoughts—and, indeed, Burke’s actions—remain to our present discontents. (It is with some reluctance I employ that word “relevant,” its abuse by the young ideological zealots or the ’sixties and ’seventies considered.) As the bicentenary of the Constitution of the United States approaches, we may expect another strong renewal of attention to Burke, comparable to that reawakened interest in his writings which surged up in America about 1953, when my Conservative Mind was published.
American attention to Burke has waxed and waned repeatedly ever since 1770, when Edmund Burke was chosen agent for the Province of New York at the British court. Early in the twentieth century, when Woodrow Wilson (not yet President) was praising Burke to the skies in the pages of The Century Magazine, Burke’s works were studied in every decent American high school—the Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies especially. I have my mother’s copy of the Conciliation, “edited for school use by Joseph Villiers Denney.” (In those years, such editing did not signify abridgment or simplification.) The little volume has my mother’s marginalia and marked passages, she being then a sophomore in high school.
She relished certain image-evoking passages: “Those who wield the thunder of the state” . . . “It is not easy indeed to make a monopoly of theorems and corollaries” . . . “Despotism itself is obliged to truck and huckster” . . . “The scarcity which you have felt would have been a desolating famine, if this child of your old age, with a true filial piety, with a Roman charity, had not put the full breast of its youthful exuberance to the mouth of its exhausted parent.” One does not encounter such power and imagery in twentieth-century oratory.
Also my mother wrote upon the fly-leaves certain brief reflections stirred up by Burke. “Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.” “Manners are the happy ways of doing things.” Presumably these were remarks by her teacher, who must have taught more of Burke than the Conciliation: for the former of these marginalia doubtless is derived from the concepts of Burke’s early Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, and the latter from his Reflections on the Revolution in France, in which his passages on manners are found.
It was otherwise, a generation later, when I became a high school student. I do not recall any detailed discussion of Burke in any class or textbook. The English roots of American society were neglected somewhat during the ’thirties. I came to Burke in rather a circuitous way: by having read in a textbook in American history, when I was a junior, about John Randolph of Roanoke; by making some close study of Jefferson when I was a high school senior; and then moving deeper into both Jefferson and Randolph during my college years. At Duke University, in 1941, I wrote my master’s thesis on Randolph, who had written of Burke, “He is the Newton of political philosophy.” To understand Randolph, I plunged into Burke. My years at St. Andrews University, in Scotland, where I wrote my doctoral dissertation The Conservative Mind, were spent in large part mastering the whole of Burke’s works and tracing Burke’s influence upon English and American men of thought and action. And during those years I found that other writers and scholars, simultaneously, had been discovering the relevance of Burke to our time of troubles—Peter Stanlis, Ross Hoffman, Francis Canavan, Gaetano Vincitorio, Thomas Copeland, and a dozen more who became my friends. Discussion of Burke’s thought spread throughout the United States. We were even told of a Bowery character who wandered the sidewalks of New York distributing cards inscribed “Burke saves.”
This renewed influence of Burke upon American scholars and journalists, universities and even the mass media, was obscured by the radical outbursts of the ’sixties and ’seventies. But it seems probable that the conservative tendency of this nation in the ’eighties will be reinforced and given imaginative power by the genius of Burke. One trusts that as we celebrate the two-hundredth anniversary of the Constitutional Convention, we will recall the ascendancy of Burke over the minds of the leading Framers and other American statesmen of that age.
Thomas Paine erringly dedicated The Rights of Man to George Washington; but Washington, rejecting Paine, expressed his admiration of Burke. Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall were governed by Burke’s principles. (Marshall, by the way, lifted portions of his Life of Washington from Burke’s account of the American War of Independence in The Annual Register.) The Constitution itself reflects the practicality and prudence taught that generation of men by Burke—by contrast with the doctrinaire and ephemeral successive constitutional documents of the French revolutionaries.
Burke is little “dated.” For America plays today the role that was Britain’s at the end of the eighteenth century: like the English then, we Americans have become, without willing it, the defenders of civilization against the enemies of order and justice and freedom. Ours are imperial duties, requiring imperial intellects for their performance. Burke does not stand outside the American political tradition: rather, he stands in the grander continuity of that civilization in which American life and character are a part. To seek guidance from Burke is no more exotic, for Americans, than to seek humane insights from Shakespeare, or to seek religious wisdom from Saint Paul. In many respects, the great American nation of 1982 is more like the imperial Britain of two centuries past than it resembles the isolated infant federation of the early years of independence. Because Burke addressed himself to matters that transcended nationalities and generations, he endures on either side of the Atlantic. Much political truth, like most of poetic truth, transcends frontiers—and especially when nations share a heritage of long historical experience, humane letters, and political first principles.
Yet in gaining from Burke’s insights, we Americans need to take pains not to convert ourselves into “Burkean” ideologues: that is, into political fanatics, mistaking a set of abstract principles for political reality. No man more greatly abhorred ideology, political abstraction, than did the practical statesman Edmund Burke. Be governed by prescription, convention, custom, ancient usage, historical experience, said Burke; remember that change is the means of our preservation; bear it in mind that the superior statesman is one who combines with a disposition to preserve an ability to reform. The foundation of our civil social order, like that of Burke’s Britain, is not an ideology, some “armed doctrine”: rather, it is the Christian religion. And in the statesman, said Burke (echoing Plato), the chief virtue is prudence. It is such wisdom (recognized even by radicals like Harold Laski and Connor Cruise O’Brien) that Burke imparts to us; what he does not give us is a Procrustean bed for stretching or chopping the victims of ideological passion.
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