January 27, 2013


The Living Edmund Burke (Russell Kirk, Imaginative Conservative)

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.

Posted by at January 27, 2013 9:29 AM

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