A Proper Patrimony: Russell Kirk and America’s Moral Genealogy
It is nowadays the fashion to think of these United States as a wholly “invented” polity, as the pure and miraculous handiwork of those gifted political craftsmen who were our honored forefathers and whose high achievements we celebrate during this commemorative year. It is also the conventional wisdom that our original revolution was the genuine revolution, the paradigm for all serious and progressive rebellions, early or late, and the fulcrum upon which the modern world has since been obliged to turn. It is obvious that the emphasis behind these assumptions is upon what was new about America, that break with the general Western prescription which should ostensibly account for our distinctive political habitude and origination. A corollary premise is that such a revolution is destined to continue on and on, perpetually unfinished, perpetually at war with whatever remains of the older world turned upside down when Lord Cornwallis marched out from his works.
What I have been describing is, to be sure, the basis for a variety of impious readings of the American past. In recent months we have heard or read about them all as part of the regular Bicentennial fare. And perhaps detected in the almost choral harmonies of the music they make together a fanfare sanctioning disorders yet to come. However, most of our countrymen are so thoroughly accustomed to the calculus which informs these interpretations that they notice its operation rarely, if at all. When told that the France of Robespierre, the Russia of Lenin and the China of Mao are close relations to the America of 1776, that our “political religion” is a position defined by reaction against the structures, customs, and feelings which had informed the long record of Western man prior to the inception of our adventure with independence, they offer no objections. And even though the same solid citizens will, in all likelihood, act in their everyday affairs to belie such infamous analogies, the pressure of distortion gathers continuously in the absence of vigorous refutation. The results, in our contemporary social and political discourse, are something we experience with ever growing dismay.
Thus we face the paradox that what we are taught from authority concerning the American Revolution is the measure of our confusion on that subject. Here the influence of Louis Hartz and Bernard Bailyn comes quickly to mind. And I mention their names only to typify a more numerous breed—all of them relatives of the frenetic persona in Swift’s Tale of a Tub, all, like that mad hack, gathering materials for “A Modest Defence of the Proceedings of the Rabble.” The Roots of American Order presupposes, as a piece of rhetoric, no other state of affairs, no less formidable adversaries to confound. I use the word rhetoric advisedly. Praise of discontinuity, rupture, and drastic innovation is ever the song of the new ideological historians—of helpful, not baneful change: but change identified as good by being identified as radical. Kirk, however, writes no Tory apocalypse. He contends that our roots run deep and remain intact, that to know them is to recognize both their antiquity and their present hold upon us. His book is a calculated inquiry into the genesis of our national character which looks behind events and documents to remote antecedents and attempts to encourage a modest estimation of its originality, a thoughtful appreciation of how much and how far it was brought to these shores, and a quiet rejoicing that we remain, in our essential qualities as a people, so well and so anciently grounded in the funded wisdom of the ages. Kirk’s amiable but unremitting determination is to require of our generation a grudging admission that America has a religious, a moral, and therefore a political genealogy: a patrimony that could only be called unrevolutionary and not at all modern, whose order-giving strength owes, by accident or omission as much as by design, to continuities so axiomatic that we have really, until of late, felt any need to speak of them at all.
Thus came his book to be a special sort of anomaly, a study of America which devotes less than a third of its pages to life on this side of the Atlantic. Indeed, some of its larger components could be read with very little of a particular national theme in mind. One instance is the section on “Roman virtue.” Another appears in a few fine pages on Scotland’s St. Andrew’s University (the subject of a fine Kirk monograph—and his European alma mater). These excursions might puzzle the reader who likes to think of America in terms of disembodied ideals. But, given his purposes. Kirk had no other choice of procedures, no alternatives in emphasis. Most of the little that Kirk does write about colonial America or the formation of the Republic is included primarily to point his readers backward in time, to trends and authorities established among us long before we became our own kind of one and many.
Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London—the four great iconic cities for the Anglo-American and tropes for four distinctive structurings of social and political life, these plus an assortment of supporting figures who have made for our perception of these citadels as a sequence and a synthetic “given”—are the ingredients in Kirk’s cultural dynamic. As a principle of order Jerusalem represents, of course, faith and pious submission. Athens signifies (apart from its force as a negative political example) reason and art: philosophy and the examined life. Rome is a simpler model. Rome is law and public order, a notion of the common good, of corporate liberty. After Rome comes Jerusalem again—the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Medieval man sifted that first Jerusalem and Athens and Rome through the filter of the gospels, the fullness of God’s revelation to His creation. And, most significantly for Americans, in and around the city on the Thames. Christianity taught of the integrity of the individual soul. In England that translated into liberty under law, in community. Kirk gathers up the threads as he goes. Mixed in with his discourse of cities and men is an account of certain habits and ideas, their slow and steady formation. And much church history. For the moral imagination has many of its roots there, as Kirk never allows us to forget, though the decorums which it nourishes take a prudential, secular form. These reverend patrimonies, religious and traditional, reach so far back into our composite past and have so nourished our identity that we are loath even to think of them unless they begin to lose their hold. And they are inseparable. Hear Kirk on the English absorption and combination of previous Western culture:
From that time [of conversion] forward, despite conquest by the Danes and later by the Normans, despite the English Reformation of the sixteenth century and the Civil Wars of the seventeenth century, one may trace the development of English law, English political institutions, and English civilization —a continuity that would spread to America in the seventeenth century and would provide fertile soil in which the American culture could take root. Knowledge of medieval England and Scotland is essential to a decent understanding of American order. During those nine hundred years between the coming of Saint Augustine of Canterbury and the triumph of Renaissance and Reformation at the beginning of the sixteenth century, there developed in Britain the general system of law that we inherit; the essentials of representative government; the very language that we speak and the early greatness of English literature; the social patterns that still affect American society; rudimentary industry and commerce that remain basic to our modern economy; the schools and universities which were emulated in America; the Norman and English Gothic architecture that are part of our material inheritance; and the idea of a gentleman that still may be discerned in the American democracy. This medieval patrimony was so much taken for granted by the men who founded the American Republic that they did not even trouble themselves to praise it so much as they should have done. (p. 178)
A major purpose of this volume is to correct the distortion made possible by the silence of the “founders.”
The centerpiece of The Roots of American Order may well be Kirk’s discussion of Great Britain after the Renaissance and Reformation, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. It is a masterful synthesis of social, cultural, and political developments. That we are in extension of this record no one who reads these pages will hereafter be disposed to doubt. Yet this observation can mislead. And all the rest of his narrative of Western beginnings may charm us overmuch. We have had from Kirk’s astonishing career proof of a profound interest in the acts and monuments of Europe. In truth, the demonstration of this concern is so considerable that hostile comment on the Wizard of Mecosta has sometimes argued from it that he is only a cultural expatriate, a connoisseur of archaic places, persons, and emotions. But, because of the fashion in which Kirk links this passion to his perspective on the formation of our nation, we can now insist that Russell Kirk was always occupied with the old world chiefly because of his identification with the new. He is an instinctive master in the reconstruction of a living social and political condition, the Gestalt of seemingly contradictory impulses and imperatives operating in configuration within or behind the thoughts and deeds of men and nations. His sketches of persons mighty in battle, in thought, or in the spiritual realm are illustrative of this gift. Yet in each of these portraits drawn for The Roots of American Order the teaching remains clear: they (or their kind) helped directly to make us what we are. Or what, at our best, we should be. Never again will students of Kirk’s career doubt that his absolute location in upstate Michigan and his identification with the “wise prejudice” of that ancestral place is consonant with his salutes to the classical, the medieval, the Scots, and (American) Southern regimes. In all of these explorations Kirk writes as a recognizable variety of American. And if that American speaks in the English idiom of an Old Whig or moderate Tory, the inheritance he applies to our situation has all the more authority in its application of the mores majorum formed and tested long ago by the intellectually most significant of our progenitors: a habit of mind built into the language it created and sanctioned by fruitful use.
This book is therefore not so much a dissertation on American history as a prolegomenon to the study of discrete components of that record and context for such restricted inquiries: a Burkean preface to historical research per se, and a touchstone for understanding the specious eschatologies and mythologies which structure the narratives of our regnant historians. Since the filter through which the general Western prescription came into our system is a British one, the pivotal sections of Kirk’s inquiry concern, a fortiori, the effect of that filter on the decisions which drove British America to pursue a destiny of its own. His great point is that the impetus was itself English, and after the Revolution continued to be English — at least until 1860. Kirk on the heritage of the English common law, the rule of stare decisis, as that mentality has shaped our common course adds, I believe, some valuable insights to the study of American politics: Kirk on Blackstone and his predecessors, whose authorities were not set aside with the rejection of George III. Hear again his words: “It was to the precedent of the Petition of Right , among other constitutional precedents, that American Patriots would look in the 1760’s and 1770’s, and many of the grievances listed in the Petition would reappear in the American Declaration of Independence” (p. 261). Kirk keeps us ever mindful that we were not “made” but, rather, thanks to new circumstances and “benign neglect,” simply “grew.” The institutions of representative government flourished from earliest times in almost every North American colony. Also a plurality of churches, some of them established; and the habit of religious toleration, at least outside of New England. Equally convincing are Kirk’s observations on how we adapted the total British precedent without any sense of irreverence toward the model or much awareness that real modification was in process.
A body of transplanted English freeholders with a few town men thrown in, minus a nobility or powerful church establishment, could not, in a new land, have turned out any other way. At least, not after 1688 and the development of a legalist, xenophobic, and unphilosophical rationale for political justification of that most English and conservative of rebellions. The Declaration of Independence is a forensic, rhetorical document, the end of a series of such, designed to enlist recruits here and sympathy in England. It is intellectually an outgrowth of the Glorious Revolution. Understood historically and in its formal character, read as you would read a public poem, it tells us how to approach our departure from the royal protection. And as rhetoric, in what it specifies and what it neglects to mention, the Constitution is equally eloquent: in its ideological spareness, its derivation of authority from pre-existent states (resting on English charters, English history and what legally had being); and also in its first ten amendments, drawn directly from England’s own 1689 Declaration of Rights. The inference is unmistakable. Separation came from the other side. Americans remained within the inherited identity, keepers of that most basic and inviolate of compacts, between the living, dead, and yet unborn. From these materials has subsisted (in our author’s terms) an “unwritten constitution” of our own. To this union we gave—on purpose, in the English spirit—only partial expression, chiefly in connection with new economic and political realities which were part of the American scene after the thirteen sovereign states achieved their respective autonomies. But a people with a real genealogy have no need of ingenious founders or the abstractions of contract. Kirk conceives of his work in these matters as a labor of restoration and recovery, not as a venture in intellectual innovation. However, as he well knows, to suggest such historically “self-evident” truths concerning 1776 and 1787 is, for this bemused generation, more shocking than mere originality could hope to be. To repeat, emphasis on the English filter is necessary to their demonstration.
In two other respects The Roots of American Order will scandalize those educated conventionally. I refer here to Kirk’s insistence upon the authority of revealed religion among earlier Americans and his tributes to the ideal of the gentleman. The tenets of the Christian faith are the second prescription in his account of our roots. Right order depends upon the commitment of single persons to its ground, an acknowledgment of some outside authority. Excessive individualism is checked only by such extrinsic force, when it is freely admitted. Moral order within strong men binds the Commonweal to the Godsweal. Both rest finally on a sound ontology, without which no decalogue can operate with force. And gentlemen are the vessels of this sound ontology, those who are ever conscious that the gods alone assign our stations and exact a performance equivalent to their importance. In a nation where almost nothing was codified —where communities were very different, each jealous of its own character while still desiring a definite but restricted link to the rest—no more than a de facto, localistic religious/social structure made good sense; that is, if the balance of these conflicting imperatives was to survive.
Thus the customary reading of certain silences in our Constitution is clearly off the mark. Some of this learned distortion Kirk disarms with a few remarks on the merits of genuine “federalism.” Other vulgar errors concerning “democracy,” “competition,” or “liberation” are negated by the aforementioned “characters”: Jesus and Paul, Solon and St. Augustine, John Knox and Cicero, Marcus Aurelius and John of Brienne, to mention but a few. I value in particular his paired discussions of John Locke and David Hume. As regards their utility in the explication of an emerging national personality we have heard too much in praise of the former, far too little of the latter. Locke’s notion of politics in a presocial vacuum had few advocates in the Philadelphia of 1787. Hume’s skeptical prudence was more in evidence in the drafting of our Constitution than any theory of human rights as imperatives operating outside of a specific cultural continuum. For the same reasons, I admire the sketches of Sir Thomas Browne and John Bunyan. Again contrary to what we are told by the secularist authorities, their voices are still heard in this land, bespeaking an invisible communion all the stronger for being interior and beyond the prying eyes of such hostile examiners; audible in the hymnody in which most of us still join to celebrate our deepest loyalties in the time of worship. To reveal and display a bit of this submerged cultural iceberg is Kirk’s enterprise. For, as he writes in conclusion, “Gratitude is one form of happiness; and anyone who appreciates the legacy of moral and social order which he has inherited in America will feel gratitude” (p. 475). He ends his text proper with the most extensive of his sketches, an appreciative comment on a neglected predecessor in American thought—and, in many ways an analogue to Kirk himself. Orestes Brownson, a New Englander by inheritance, after being exposed to all the “armed doctrines” of his day, settled in Michigan, and ended up a Roman Catholic and a traditionalist. Brownson wrote in his The American Republic (1865) the prototype of the book here under consideration. The old reformed radical praises “territorial democracy” and bemoans its decline. His is not a hopeful composition, nor were the years of its origination—not to a man like Brownson, or a man like Russell Kirk.
Which brings me to express uneasiness about one quality of The Roots of American Order, a quality made inevitable by the rhetorical objectives of the work but nonetheless deserving of mention in a full assessment. As I observed above, Kirk more or less concludes his account with the War Between the States. This emphasis is a tacit admission that the objections I have in mind are very much in order. For it is necessary to recognize that almost coeval with our oldest roots are components of the national temper which have perpetually threatened to poison the healthy springs on which they feed. The locus of these obnoxious elements is the New England of the worldly but still “holy” covenant, of antinomian, chiliastic politics; and their principal distributor into the American intellectual bloodstream is our chief of men, the Illinois Cromwell, Abraham Lincoln. The City upon a Hill, once renamed “Union” and refounded by “fire and sword,” is not really the Republic of Kirk’s reverence. And to join the two is to nourish both. True enough, our native gnosticism is a “sometimes thing,” even in its principal champions. For instance, the regimenting Federalists deserve credit for arresting the spread of French “isms” and for preserving the common law. And Lincoln often contradicts the heresies boldly trumpeted in the House Divided, Gettysburg, and Second Inaugural Addresses. In one situation the Great Emancipator may arrogate to himself, by argument and language, an especial intimacy with the Divine Will. He is prepared, when seized by the afflatus, to declare that the multifaceted union ordained by the fathers has brought upon their sons (and especially upon moderate men in the North, long comfortable in this “divided house”) a judgment from on High. On another occasion he will offer to the “sore thumb” of our internal variety, the long accepted fact of black slavery, a constitutional guarantee more rigid than what was needful to secure a confederation in the first place. Sorting out this network of conflicting opinions is a thankless task, a labor requiring the skill and the example of a Russell Kirk. Yet, for reasons he has taught us, it must be done. And with the instruments he (among others) has put into our hands. It is enough to say that if Kirk’s Federalists and his Lincoln were as plausible as the ambiguous demons of my own syncretic typology, we could endure them well enough. Then might we occupy ourselves more with cultivating than with protecting the old stock tree that we both love well.
But for the moment we must take advantage of the impetus given to us by The Roots of American Order and perform some of the labors which it (like earlier Kirk studies) challenges us to undertake. The futurists who construe the past according to the measure of a tomorrow they can only imagine—a dream, usually bad, which hopefully will never come true—must be confronted in connection with the discrete segments of the American record. And with reference to the history of American disorder, of which Kirk speaks only by comparison. Spurred by his achievement, let us have narratives, mixed with generous portions of biography and analogue and a quiet emphasis on commitments shaping the actions of those involved long before they have found theoretical expression. Let us demonstrate how the bonds of faith, friendship, family, and common experience have ordinarily obtained in our national affairs, whatever abstract explanations are imposed upon them after the fact. However, as we follow this example, let us pay tribute to its source, recall who has been and continues to be such an anchor of our political sanity and for so long the special keeper of this prescription for Americans who call themselves conservative. Where the study of these roots is concerned, we all begin with Russell Kirk.