December 24, 2016

1215, 1640, 1688, 1776...:

Russell Kirk & the American Constitutional Founding (Mark C. Henrie, 11/06/16, Imaginative Conservative)

Ever the conservative, Dr. Kirk attempted to demonstrate the unoriginality of the American Revolution. To him, ours was "a revolution not made but prevented," a conservative revolt against the novelty of George III's centralizing rule and Parliament's departure from past practice into direct taxation of the colonies.[2] At a political level, Kirk was more impressed by the continuity between the arguments of 1688 (the "Glorious Revolution") and those of 1776 than by their differences, while he was more impressed by the discontinuity between 1776 and 1789 (the French Revolution) than by their similarities. Following Edmund Burke's implicit view and the arguments of such later conservative thinkers as Friedrich von Gentz, Kirk distinguished the American experience from that of other nations during the so-called "Age of Democratic Revolution."[3] What was truly novel about America's experience for Kirk was that it had undergone a political "revolution" precisely while escaping the ideological novelty of the age.

Furthermore, Kirk's view of the American Constitutional Founding in 1787 was captured in his refusal even to speak of a "Founding"--a word that conjures images of some Great Man, a Solon, Lycurgus, or Aeneas. A Founding implies the quasi-divine legislation of an entirely new way of life, the creation of a people. Kirk, however, read the Constitution of 1787 as a reworking of traditional English and colonial American practice, rather than anything new or particularly speculative. Certainly it is fanciful to imagine immediately deducing bicameralism, for example, from any postulate of natural right. For Kirk, just as the constitutions of the states were prudent revisions of colonial charters, so also the 1787 U.S. Constitution was a slight adjustment of the Articles of Confederation. Kirk was surely correct that whatever the "intention" of the drafters of the Constitution, this was the "understanding" of the ratifying conventions of the states, whose consent established our political regime.[4]

Even if we can speak of an American Founding, Kirk's conservative political science raised and attempted to answer questions that are otherwise begged in the patriotic narrative: Whence came that Founding generation of Americans? Whence can we trace their "roots?" Some commentators ignore these questions, but only by presuming an ahistorical, "mythic" Founding. On the other hand, to address such questions seriously, we cannot only look to the political order under which the founding generation were raised, for since the collapse of the unity of the ancient polis it is a mistake simply to equate the political regime with the totality of a way of life of a people. To determine whom these men of the founding generation were--and who we are--we must look instead to tradition and culture, to all the elements of our civilization.

Here Kirk found his field, which was fitting. For conservative theorists have always been less interested in formal political institutions than in manners and mores. A fundamental proposition of conservative reflection on social matters is the supremacy of the "unwritten" constitution of a people to "written" political forms.[5] The many traditions that constitute a people are where we discover the meaning of our common life, for culture is deeper than politics. As Kirk put it, "Culture cannot really be planned by political authority, for much of culture is unconscious; and politics grows out of culture, not culture out of politics."[6] Placing the American Founding into the context of our cultural traditions yields quite a different understanding of the meaning of America.

Specifically then, Kirk insisted that America's is a "British Culture," one clearly continuous with that of our Anglo-Saxon forebears. We can speak of our Anglo-Saxon forbears, for whatever a particular American's ethnic descent, our common life, Kirk believed, reveals a British heritage. Because Americans speak English, our most vivid common images and metaphors are the products of the British literary tradition. Politically, we inherit an attachment to the rule of law, a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon practice.[7] Kirk also drew attention to our appropriation of representative government and most fundamental of all, our heritage of Anglo-Saxon mores, manners, habits, and domestic institutions.[8] For Kirk, both our Founders and we share this British culture, and this more than anything defines "us."

Posted by at December 24, 2016 4:58 AM

  

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