November 24, 2003


The Origins of the Modern American Conservative Movement (Lee Edwards, Ph.D., November 21, 2003, Heritage Lecture #811)

The central idea of The Conservative Mind, upon which American conservatism is essentially based, is ordered liberty. It is a blending of the sometimes contending requirements of the community and the individual, of individual freedom and individual responsibility, of limited government and unlimited markets.

Kirk described six basic "canons" or principles of conservatism:

A divine intent, as well as personal conscience, rules society;

Traditional life is filled with variety and mystery while most radical systems are characterized by a narrowing uniformity;

Civilized society requires orders and classes;

Property and freedom are inseparably connected;

Man must control his will and his appetite, knowing that he is governed more by emotion than by reason; and

Society must alter slowly.

The Conservative Mind was an impressive feat of scholarship--a synthesis of the ideas of the leading conservative Anglo-American thinkers and political leaders of the late 18th century through the early 20th century. The work established convincingly that there was a tradition of American conservatism that had existed since the Founding of the Republic. With one book, Russell Kirk made conservatism intellectually acceptable in America. Indeed, he gave the conservative movement its name.

However, the intellectual pedigree of American conservatism goes much farther back in time than the 18th century. In a subsequent book, Russell Kirk wrote that the roots of American order were first planted nearly three thousand years earlier.

Kirk used the device of five cities--Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, London, and Philadelphia--to trace their development. The roots first appeared in Jerusalem, with the Hebrew perception of a purposeful moral existence under God. They were strengthened in Athens, with the philosophical and political self-awareness of the Greeks. They were nurtured in Rome, by the Roman experience of law and social awareness. They were intertwined with the Christian understanding of human duties and human hopes, of man redeemed. They were joined by medieval custom, learning, and valor.

The roots of American order were then enriched by two great political experiments that occurred in London, the birthplace of parliaments and the guardian of common law, and in Philadelphia, where both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were written. The miracle of Philadelphia was that the delegates were able to resolve, for the most part, the conflicting demands of freedom and order. They created a true national government but not an absolute government. They designed something new under the political sun--a federalism which carefully enumerated, separated, and restrained the powers of the national government.

1953--the year of The Conservative Mind--was a critical year in American politics and conservatism. Dwight Eisenhower was inaugurated as President, signaling an end to the New Deal era. Conservatives such as Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet, Richard Weaver, Clinton Rossiter, and Leo Strauss published works that could not be ignored. It was the year that conservatives began to coalesce, arguing and disputing all the while, into a political movement.

Over the next 50 years, a succession of conservative philosophers, popularizers, philanthropists, and politicians marched across the American political stage. First came the philosophers, who presented their ideas usually in an academic forum. Next came the popularizers, journalists and the like, who translated the often obscure language of the philosophers into a common idiom. Finally came the politicians, whose attention was caught and whose imaginations were fired by the popularizers and who introduced public policies and campaign platforms based on conservative ideas. Throughout this period, prescient philanthropists underwrote the thinking of the philosophers, the journals of the popularizers, and the campaigns of the politicians.

The history of American politics suggests that a political movement must experience these successive waves of ideas, interpretation, and action along with sufficient financial resources to be successful. [...]

The liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in 1947 that "there seems no inherent obstacle to the gradual advance of socialism in the United States through a series of New Deals." Five-and-a-half de-cades later, the conservative columnist George Will wrote that we had experienced "the intellectual collapse of socialism" in America and around the world.

The one political constant throughout those 50 years has been the rise of the Right, whose Long March to national power and prominence was often interrupted by the death of its leaders, calamitous defeats at the polls, frequent feuding within its ranks over means and ends, and the perennial hostility of the prevailing liberal establishment. But through the power of its ideas--ever linked by the priceless principle of ordered liberty--and the unceasing dissemination and application of those ideas, the conservative movement has become a major, and often the dominant, player in the political and economic realms of America.

It's fascinating to watch the American Left try to revive itself by skipping to step three--setting up radio and television networks without bothering to reckon with their complete lack of ideas. Give the GOP an hour of free airtime on the networks to present a vision of the next four years and you'd get democratization and free trade abroad and an "ownership society", faith-based social programs, and radical tax reform at home. These are ideas about transforming America and the world. Give the Democrats an hour and you'd get...what?

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 24, 2003 6:49 PM


Posted by: RDB at November 24, 2003 7:47 PM

They've gotten an hour every Sunday night for decades... it's called "60 Minutes"

Posted by: MarkD at November 24, 2003 9:12 PM

They would gladly spend an hour telling you about your short-comings

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at November 25, 2003 8:43 AM

The nine echoes. But if they wore tails and top-hats, the ratings might improve.

Posted by: jim hamlen at November 25, 2003 10:46 AM

60 Minutes! Good one!!

Posted by: BJW at November 25, 2003 10:56 AM

Peter Jennings?



Posted by: Genecis at November 25, 2003 12:06 PM