March 11, 2012


What Holds America Together?: a review of The Roots of American Order by Russell Kirk (ROBERT SPEAIGHT, Autumn 1974, University Bookman)

Much has happened, of course, since Patrick Henry declared: "I know of no way of judging the future but by the past." The Irish, Italian, and German immigration has drastically modified the ethnic landscape of America; the Catholic ferment has challenged the native Protestant ethos, but it has not disturbed the separation of church and state--the recognition of Pope Gelasius' "two swords." The problem, as Burke saw so clearly, and as Dr. Kirk is at pains to emphasize, has been the reconciliation of liberty and order. Neither is an absolute; each is a condition of the good life. Liberty easily becomes a profligate; order quickly becomes a policeman. Yet order in the state is a sterile compulsion unless it reflects an order in the soul. As Cardinal Manning observed, "all human conflicts are basically theological," and Tocqueville asked: "What can be done with a people who are their own masters if they are not submissive to the Deity?" Many of the Founding Fathers may have been Deists, and nothing much more, but Alexander Hamilton declared, with the weight of human experience behind him, that "morality must fail with religion." Dr. Kirk maintains that "Americans adhere to faith in their religion and scepticism in their politics."

They do wisely if they adhere to the latter. A cynic has reason to proclaim that "democracy" is the Golden Calf of the twentieth century--Hobbes' Leviathan now raised to the altar. Montesquieu's (and Aristotle's) mixed constitution has become perilously unbalanced. De Tocqueville saw the danger of "democratic despotism," and it was a Roman historian, Polybius, who described "government of the multitude as the greatest of all evils." Government by the people can turn into government by the mob, and government by the mob into government by the masters--and by them alone.

Few Americans today would go as far as John Randolph with his defiant declaration: "I am an aristocrat; I love liberty; I hate equality."

Few might go that far, but it was the entire basis of the Long War.

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Posted by at March 11, 2012 9:37 AM

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