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The Conservative Mindset

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, Emerson, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Politics, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on July 20, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

The following review first appeared here in the Los Angeles Review of Books.  Some of the references, such as those to the presidential primary season, may be dated now, but they were timely on the date of original publication.

The presidential primaries are at last upon us. The leading Republican candidates, including frontrunners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, have resorted to showmanship and grandstanding to make their case for the party nomination. Their harsh, uncouth rhetoric stands in marked contrast to the writings of Russell Amos Kirk, a founding father of modern American conservatism.

Books on Kirk exist, but they’re few. Fellow conservatives, many of them friends or colleagues of Kirk’s — like T. S. Eliot, William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, F. A. Hayek, Eric Voegelin, and Leo Strauss — have received more attention. In this regard, Kirk is the victim of his virtues: he was less polarizing, celebrated by followers and detractors alike for his measured temperament and learned judgments. He did earn numerous adversaries, including Hayek and Frank Meyer, who in retrospect appear more like ambivalent friends, but the staying power of Kirk’s congeniality seems to have softened objections to his most resolute opinions.

Bradley J. Birzer, a professor at Hillsdale College who holds a chair named for Kirk, fills a need with his lucid and ambitious biography. Birzer is the first researcher to have been granted full access to Kirk’s letters, diaries, and draft manuscripts. He has avoided — as others haven’t — defining Kirk by his list of accomplishments and has pieced together a comprehensive, complex account of Kirk’s personality, motivations, and influences.

Birzer offers five themes in Kirk’s work, and less so his private life, which Birzer only touches on: his intellectual heritage, his ideas of the transcendent, his Christian humanism, his fiction, and the reach and implications of his conservatism. Kirk isn’t a dull subject. One need not identify as a conservative to appreciate his polished charm and idiosyncrasies. A plump, bespectacled gentleman who feigned disdain for technology, Kirk was something of a spiritualist with a penchant for the weird. He considered himself a Stoic before he had converted to Catholicism, a regeneration that makes sense in light of the relation of Stoic to Pauline thought.

As a young man Kirk spent four years in the military. His feelings about this experience were conflicted. He suffered from a blend of ennui and disenchantment but occupied his free time with reading, writing, and studying. He was horrified by the use of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the United States had decimated the most flourishing Western cultural and religious centers in the Japanese Empire, just as he was by the internment of Japanese Americans.

The tremendous violence of the 20th century, occasioned by the rise of Nazism, communism, and fascism, impressed upon Kirk a sense of tragedy and fatalism. He came to despise totalitarianism, bureaucracy, radicalism, and “ideology” as leveling systems that stamped out the dignity and individuality of the human person. Hard to place along the left-right spectrum, he was as critical of big corporations and the military as he was of big government and labor.

When Kirk inserted himself into political debates he supported Republican politicians, becoming temporarily more interventionist in his foreign policy before returning to a form of Taftian isolationism, but he always remained more worried about reawakening the moral imagination than in having the right candidates elected to office. His was a long view of society, one without a fixed teleology or secular eschatology, and skeptical of utopian thought. Kirk advocated a “republic of letters,” a community of high-minded and profoundly sensitive thinkers devoted to rearticulating perennial truths (such as the need to pacify human violence, temper human urges for power, and cultivate human longing for the transcendent or divine) and preserving humanist institutions.

Kirk’s politics were shaped by imaginative literature and characterized by a rich poetic vision and vast cultural literacy. Fascinated by such disparate figures as Edmund Burke, Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, T. S. Eliot, Sir Walter Scott, George Santayana, and most of the American Founders, Kirk was also versed in the libertarianism of Albert Jay Nock and Isabel Paterson, whose ideas he admired as a young man but vehemently rejected throughout his mature years. Burke and Babbitt, more than any other men, shaped his political philosophy. And his irreducible imagination made room for mysticism and a curious interest in ghosts.

Kirk’s debt to Burke cannot be overstated. “Like the nineteenth-century liberals,” Birzer says, “Kirk focused on the older Burke, but he countered their dismissal of Burke’s ideas as reactionary and exaggerated.” Kirk also downplayed Burke the Whig, who championed the cause of the American Revolution, which Kirk considered to be not a revolution but a conservative restoration of ancient English liberties. Kirk was wary about the Enlightenment, as was Burke, because the scientism of that period tended to oversimplify inherently complex human nature and behavior. Kirk also thought the Enlightenment philosophes had broken too readily from the tested traditions of the past that shaped human experience.

Kirk appealed to American patriotism — which he distinguished from reckless nationalism — in The American Cause (1957) (which he later renounced as a “child’s book”), The Roots of American Order (1974), and Americas British Culture (1993), drawing attention to what he saw as the enduring customs and mores that guard against utopian conjecture. Yet American patriotism was, in Kirk’s mind, heir to the patrimony of Athens, Jerusalem, Rome, and London. From the mistakes and successes of these symbolic cities Americans could learn to avoid “foreign aid” and “military violence,” as well as grandiose attempts to “struggle for the Americanization of the world.”

Disillusioned with academia after his graduate work at Duke, Kirk was offered a position, which he turned down, at the University of Chicago. Kirk fell in love with the University of St. Andrews, however, where he took his doctorate and wrote a lengthy dissertation on Edmund Burke that would later become his magnum opus, The Conservative Mind. Kirk revised The Conservative Mind throughout his life, adding new permutations and nuances in an attempt to ensure the continued resonance of his cultural mapping.

The almost instant success of The Conservative Mind made Kirk an unlikely celebrity. The book featured sharply etched portraits of men Kirk considered to be representatives of the conservative tradition. Regrettably, and perhaps tellingly, Kirk tended to ignore the contributions of women, passing over such apposite figures as Julian of Norwich or Margery Kempe, with whom he, as a mystic Catholic anglophile, had much in common. Kirk shared more with these women, in fact, than he did with Coleridge or Thomas Babington Macaulay, who appear in The Conservative Mind.

Kirk was also woefully uneducated about American pragmatism. He overlooked Burke’s influence on, and compatibility with, pragmatism. (As Seth Vannatta ably demonstrates in Conservatism and Pragmatism (2014), Burke “is a model precursor of pragmatism because he chose to deal with circumstances rather than abstractions.”) Kirk failed to see the pragmatic elements of Santayana, whom he adored, and he seemed generally unaware of the work of C.S. Peirce. Kirk’s breezy dismissal of William James, Santayana’s teacher and later colleague, suggests he hadn’t read much of James’s oeuvre, for Kirk lumped the very different James and Dewey together in a manner that proved that Kirk himself was susceptible to the simplification and reduction he decried in others.

Conservatism, for Kirk, consisted of an attitude or mindset, not an explicit or detailed political program. Enumerating vague “canons” of conservatism that Kirk tweaked from edition to edition, The Conservative Mind was a “hagiographic litany,” a genealogy of the high-minded heroes of ordered liberty and convention. Kirk didn’t intend the book to be model scholarship. It was something more — an aestheticized bricolage cannibalized from Burke and Eliot and others, with inspirational and ritualistic value. It has never gone out of print.

Kirk is sometimes accused of being contradictory, holding simultaneously incompatible positions, in part because he lauded apparent antagonists such as John C. Calhoun and Abraham Lincoln. “Kirk found something to like in each man,” Birzer says of Calhoun and Lincoln, “for each, from [Kirk’s] perspective, embodied some timeless truth made sacramentally incarnate.” Tension between rivaling conservative visions is reconciled in Kirk’s desire never “to create an ideology out of conservatism, a theology at the quick and the ready with which one could easily beat one’s opponents into submission.” Ideology, Kirk believed, was a symptom of totalitarianism, and as such was the common denominator of fascism and communism. Kirk believed his own philosophy was not an ideology, because he, like Burke, preferred “a principled defense of justice and prudence” to any specific faction or agenda. He recognized that change was necessary, but thought it should be guided by prudence and historical sensitivity.

For a history buff, Kirk could be positively ahistorical and uncritical, ignoring the nuances and particularities of events that shaped the lives of his heroes. He ignored Calhoun’s commitment to the peculiar institution, and with a quick wave of the hand erased slavery from Calhoun’s political calculus, adding without qualification that “Calhoun defended the rights of minorities.” Kirk made clumsy caricatures out of his assumed enemies, calling men like Emerson “the most influential of all American radicals.” Emerson had met Coleridge, whose Romanticism partially inspired Emerson’s transcendentalism. Yet Kirk loathed Emerson and praised Coleridge and saw no inconsistency in doing so.

Kirk was not alone during the 1950s. The decade witnessed a renaissance of conservatism, exemplified by the publication of not only Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, but also Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community, Strauss’s Natural Right and History, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Eliot’s The Confidential Clerk, Voegelin’s New Science of Politics, Gabriel Marcel’s Man against Mass Society, Christopher Dawkins’s Understanding Europe, C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, Whittaker Chambers’s Witness, and Buckley’s God and Man at Yale. It was The Conservative Mind, however, that “gave one voice to a number of isolated and atomized voices.” It also lent intellectual substance and credibility to the activist groundswell surrounding such politicians as Goldwater a decade later.

When Kirk joined Buckley’s National Review, the manner of his writing changed. Previously he had contributed to literary and scholarly journals, but, as Birzer points out, his “contributions to the National Review slowly but surely crowded out his output to other periodicals.” Working for National Review also drew Kirk into personality conflicts that passed as theoretical disagreements. Kirk sided with Buckley, for instance, in banishing from the pages of National Review any writers associated with the John Birch Society. Kirk despised the egoism of Ayn Rand, scorned the label neoconservative, and did not take kindly to the doctrines of Irving Kristol. Yet Kirk held Leo Strauss in high regard, in no small part because of Strauss’s scholarship on Burke and natural rights.

Strauss is sometimes treated as the fount of neoconservativism, given that his students include, among others, Allan Bloom, Harry Jaffa, and Paul Wolfowitz. But Kirk never would have considered the esoteric and conscientious Strauss to be in a league with neoconservative provocateurs like Midge Decter and Norman Podhoretz, who indicted Kirk for anti-Semitism after Kirk, in a speech before the Heritage Foundation, stated that some neoconservatives had mistaken Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States — a tactless comment that was blown out of proportion.

“Kirk never sought conformity with those around him,” Birzer argues, “because he never wanted to create a sect or a religion or a cult of personality.” Kirk labored for the sake of posterity, not self-promotion. “The idea of creating ‘Kirkians,’” as there are Straussians, Misesians, Randians, and Rothbardians, “would have horrified [Kirk] at every level of his being”; Birzer insists that Kirk “desired only to inspire and to leaven with the gifts given him,” adding that “[h]e did well.” “I hope,” Birzer concludes, “I have done at least half as well” in writing Kirk’s biography.

Bringing Kirk into renewed focus during a contentious election season, as the term conservatism is bandied about, contested, and abused by commentators as varied as David Brooks and Phyllis Schlafly, Megyn Kelly and Rush Limbaugh, Karl Rove and Michael Savage, Birzer reminds us that conservatism, properly understood, is a “means, a mood, an attitude to conserve, to preserve, and to pass on to future generations the best of the humane tradition rather than to advocate a particular political philosophy, party, or agenda.”

One wonders, watching the campaign stops and debate spectacles, the ominous political advertisements and alarmist fundraising operations, what’s left of this humane tradition in our current political discourse. When our politicians lack a responsible and meaningful awareness of the residual wisdom of the ages, we get the leadership and politics we deserve. Would that we had more Russell Kirks around to remind us of the enduring things that, in times like these, are hard to find and difficult to believe in.

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John William Corrington: A Different Kind of Conservative

In American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, Essays, Fiction, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, Joyce Corrington, Literature, Politics, Southern History, Southern Literature, Television, Television Writing, The South, Western Philosophy, Writing on November 18, 2015 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

A slightly different version of this article originally appeared here in The American Conservative.

When John William Corrington died in 1988, Southern conservatives lost one of their most talented writers, a refined Cajun cowboy with a jazzy voice and bold pen whose work has been unjustly and imprudently neglected.

A man of letters with a wide array of interests, an ambivalent Catholic and a devotee of Eric Voegelin, a lawyer and an English professor, Bill (as his friends and family called him) authored or edited over 20 books, including novels, poetry collections, and short story collections. His most recognized works are screenplays – Boxcar Bertha, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, and Omega Man – but he hoped for the legacy of a belletrist. “I don’t give a damn about TV or film for that matter,” he once wrote somewhat disingenuously, adding that he cared about “serious writing – the novel, the story, the poem, the essay.” William Mills, who, after Bill’s death, collected the commemorative essays of Bill’s friends under the title Southern Man of Letters, declared that, should Bill have a biographer, “the story of his life will be very much the life of a mind, one lived among books, reading them and writing them.”

Bill was born in Ohio, a fact he sometimes concealed. He claimed on his C.V. that he was born in Memphis, Tennessee, home to the Dixieland brass that inspired him to take up the trumpet. His parents, who were in fact from Memphis, had not intended to stay in Ohio but were seeking temporary work there to get through the Depression. Bill spent his childhood in Shreveport, Louisiana, where he remained for college, taking his degree from Centenary College. He then earned a master’s in English from Rice, focusing on Renaissance drama, and later a doctorate in English from the University of Sussex in England. His doctoral dissertation was on Joyce’s Dubliners. He taught at LSU, Loyola University of the South, and California-Berkeley before tiring of campus politics and university bureaucracy. This was, after all, the late 1960s.

Film director Roger Corman discovered Bill’s fiction at this time and contracted with him to write a screenplay about the life of Baron Manfred von Richthofen, better known as the Red Barron. As a child Bill was often bedridden with asthma, and his hobby was to build WWI and WWII model airplanes – as a young man he attempted to join the Air Force but was turned away for being colorblind – so Bill was already familiar with the Red Barron’s story. Having completed his assignment for Corman, Bill was confidant he could secure new sources of revenue when he left the academy and entered Tulane Law School as an already accomplished poet, novelist, and now screenwriter. During his first year in law school, he and his wife, Joyce, penned the screenplay for Battle for the Planet of the Apes, the popularity of which ensured they would always have a job in film and television. Bill’s grades in law school may have suffered from his extracurricular writing, but it was writing, not the law, that ultimately proved profitable to him.

Joyce wasn’t Bill’s first wife. He’d married briefly to a young Protestant girl whose father was a minister. Bill’s Catholicism and academic interest in mystical, pagan, and heretical traditions meant the marriage was doomed. Bill claimed it was never even consummated because she found sex to be painful. Over almost as soon as it began, the marriage was officially annulled.

Bill’s fascination with Catholicism, the South, and the works of Eric Voegelin, combined with his disgust for Marxism and campus radicals, made for a unique blend of conservatism. Early in his career Bill and Miller Williams went on the lecture circuit together to defend the South and Southern intellectuals against what they considered to be an anti-Southern bias within universities. Bill kept photos of Robert E. Lee and Stonewell Jackson on the wall of his study and named two of his sons after them. With the rise of the conservative movement during the Reagan Era and the slow separation of traditionalist and neoconservatives, epitomized by the controversy over Reagan’s nomination of Mel Bradford as the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Bill felt compelled to offer a Southerner’s perspective on conservatism. He considered his conservatism to be regionally specific, explaining that “I am a Southerner and for all my travel and schooling, I am not able to put aside the certain otherness that sets a Southerner apart from the rest of America even in the midst of the 20th century.” “The South,” he maintained, “is a nation buried within another.” His essay “Are Southerner’s Different?” was published thirty years ago in The Southern Partisan but still resonates even now when Southerners have become less “different.”

Calling something “different” presupposes another something that’s not the same. The title of Bill’s essay therefore begs the question: “Different from what?” Bill crafted the essay for an audience of Southern conservatives. At the expense of style he might have framed his question this way: “Are Southern conservatives different from conservatives in other regions of America?” To which he would have emphatically answered yes.

He used the essay to compare three icons of conservatism – Ronald Reagan, George Will, and William F. Buckley – to ascertain whether they expressed regional distinctions within American conservatism and to suggest that each failed to formulate or represent the essence of conservatism. Constituted by disparate and oft-competing traditions, “conservatism” in America, he suggested, failed as a meaningful category of discourse in matters of national rather than local importance. Its characteristics among Southerners, however, were readily apparent.

Because Bill identified himself as a Southern conservative, he doubted whether he could sit down with Reagan, Will, and Buckley “over glasses of sour mash” and achieve “such sweet agreement on the range of problems facing the world” that “any opinion one of us stated might by and large draw nothing more than approving nods from the others.” He rejected as “mere sentimentality” and “downright delusion” the “notion that conservatives east, west, midwest and south” could “find themselves in agreement on most matters of public policy.”

Bill criticized Reagan for stationing marines in Lebanon “without a clear-cut combat role” or a “mission to achieve.” He doubted whether he and Reagan held “the same view of the use of military force.” Bill regarded his own view as “simple and founded purely on Roman principles: Avoid battle whenever an interest or purpose can be obtained by other means, political, diplomatic, or economic; fight only for clear-cut interests which can be won or preserved by force; fight when and where you will be able to achieve a determinable victory. If you engage, win – at whatever costs – and make sure the enemy suffers disproportionately greater loss than you do.” This view of war materialized in Bill’s first novel, And Wait for the Night, which, inspired by Hodding Carter’s The Angry Scar, depicted the devastation of the South during Reconstruction. And Wait for the Night begins with a long section on the fighting that resulted in the fall of Vicksburg. If there’s a theme common to Bill’s fiction about war, including his short stories and his third novel, The Bombardier, it’s pride in a soldier’s duty but sensibility to the horrors of war.

Bill’s dislike of Will arose from the controversy ignited by the failed Bradford nomination. Will had taken to the Washington Post to decry Bradford’s attachment to the “nostalgic Confederate remnant within the conservative movement.” Bradford’s singular offense was proposing that Lincoln was a “Gnostic” in the sense that Voegelin used the term. A friend and admirer of Voegelin who would eventually edit Voegelin’s works, Bill did not think Lincoln was a Gnostic. As Bill put it in a 1964 letter to Anthony Blond, the British editor who had published And Wait for the Night, Lincoln stood “in relation to the South very much as Khrushchev did to Hungary, as the United Nations apparachiks did to Katanga.”

Bill was one of those conservatives Will decried for having a not unfavorable view of the Confederacy. He once dashed off a missive to Charles Bukowski that referred to Lee as “the greatest man who ever lived” and he later asked to be buried with a Confederate flag in his coffin. A statue of General Sherman on a horse inspired – rather, provoked – Bill’s book of poems Lines to the South. Robert B. Heilman observed that 75% of Bill’s short stories involved the Civil War. Asked whether he was a Southern writer, Bill quipped, “If nobody else wants to be, that’s fine; then we would have only one: me.”

Unlike Will, Bill was not about to let Lincoln mythology become a condition for conservative office or to disregard the different historical circumstances that shaped political theories about the role of the central government in relation to the several states. “Will’s stance,” Bill announced with typical bravado, “comes close to requiring a loyalty oath to the Great Emancipator, and I for one will not have it. It is one thing to live one’s life under the necessity of empirical events long past; it is quite another to be forced to genuflect to them.”

Bill was unable to put his finger on what irked him about Buckley. Rather than criticizing Buckley directly, he criticized things associated with Buckley: “the Ivy League mentality” and “the American aristocracy.” Bill had an earthy dynamism and a brawling personality and didn’t take kindly to (in his view) pompous sophisticates who seemed (to him) to put on airs. He preferred the matter-of-fact, muscular qualities of those rugged Americans who possessed, as he mused in a rare moment of verbosity, “a hard-nosed intelligence, an openness to experience, a limited but real sense of classical past and a profound respect not only for institutions in place but for the work of a man’s hands and mind as well as a deep and unshakeable certainty of the role of divine providence in the affairs of humanity not to mention a profound contempt for inherited title, place and dignity.” This did not describe Buckley, at least not entirely.

Bill’s outline for conservatism, unlike Reagan’s and Will’s and Buckley’s, involved what he called “traditional Southern thought and sentiment,” to wit, the land, the community, and a foreign policy of “decency and common sense,” which is to say, a “realistic, non-ideological orientation toward the rest of the world.”

This last aspect of his conservatism, couched in such plain diction, simplifies what is in fact a ramified element of his shifting Weltanschauung. He hesitated to “presume to enunciate a ‘Southern view’ of foreign policy” but acknowledged that “there remain a few antique verities stretching from President Washington’s Farewell Address to the Monroe Doctrine.” These verities had to be, he believed, “reviewed” and “reinterpreted” in light of what was then the most pressing threat abroad to American values at home: “the rise of a Russian empire bound together by force.”

The policy of containment that was a shibboleth for some policy experts during the Reagan years was for Bill a waste of time. “I do not recall that our liberal predecessors argued for the ‘containment’ of National Socialism as it ravaged Europe in the late 1930s and 40s,” he said. That did not mean he categorically favored military intervention. “Obviously,” he qualified, “direct military force to attain specific goals is not among our options.”

What then was among the options? Bill’s answer was less quixotic than it was unhelpfully obvious: “political economics.” He anticipated that the Soviet Union would “find itself pressing the last drop of economic usefulness out of the poor befuddled bodies of its subjects” if the West quit supplying the Soviets with “western technology, western food, and vast sums of western credit.” Despite its artlessness, this approach won the day but never played out as neatly or innocently as Bill envisioned it.

Within weeks of publishing “Are Southerners Different?,” Bill delivered a paper in Chattanooga that decried the “rise of ideologies from the Enlightenment egophanies of the philosophes through the scientism and materialism of the 19th century to the political mass-movements and therapies of the 20th century, including, but not limited to, National Socialism, Marxist-Leninism, secular humanism, and logical positivism,” all of which, he claimed, had “resulted in a virtual decerebration of the Humanities.” Bill had entered a melancholy, meditative phase in which he began to portray political extremism of all stripes as a vicious assault on the humanities, those organizing aesthetic and social principles that “bear witness to the truth insofar as they penetrate noetically to the common experiential symbols of human beings.”

Bill resisted categories and defied simple classification. He informed Bukowski, for instance, that he had taken up the sonnet just to throw “dirt in the eyes of those would love to put some label on my ass.” Shortly after discovering Voegelin, Bill began to read Russell Kirk. Bruce Hershenson, then a producer with a Los Angeles television station who had come to prominence through a documentary on the funeral of John F. Kennedy, commissioned Bill to write a screenplay of Kirk’s Roots of American Order. Bill drew up the script, but it was never produced. Kirk later entrusted the script to Richard Bishirjian. (That script is now on file at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal.) Bishirjian intimated that the script’s failure had to do with “the new political appointees at NEH that Bennett recruited.” These appointees, Bishirjian said, were “ideologues for whom John Locke, the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln, and Harry Jaffa define America.”

The heavy burden of the past on Southern consciousness suits Southerners for the type of humanistic inquiry that interested Bill: the humanities, according to him, “remember” and “re-collect” and “force upon us the memory of humanitas in all its experiential and symbolic variety.” “It is a handy thing for a writer to discover that his geographical and spiritual situations are parallel,” he said. “It makes the geography live, and lends concreteness to the soul.”

Bill’s soul, as it were, was shaped by the South, to which his spirit belonged. Tapping Robert Frost, he speculated that the symbolism of General Lee’s and General Joseph Johnston’s surrenders “made all the difference” in terms of his “development as a writer.” Whatever he wrote or thought, he knew he’d already lost. In a basic sense this is true of us all: life heads unswervingly in one fatal direction. Better to realize we’re fighting battles we cannot win: that we cannot, of our own accord, bring about a permanent heaven on this temporary earth. We may take solace and even rejoice in our shared inevitability. We all go the way of the South: We die, no matter how hard we try to stay alive.

 

A Few More Words on Patrick Allitt’s The Conservatives

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Politics on October 9, 2011 at 4:51 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Many American politicians call themselves “conservative” despite never having read Paul Elmer More, Irving Babbitt, Robert Taft, Donald Davidson, Frank Meyer, Richard Weaver, James Burnham, or Russell Kirk.  Television pundits recycle the term “neoconservative” without even a passing reference to Leo Strauss, Irving Kristol, or Norman Podhoretz.  A welcome respite from the ignorance of the talking heads, Patrick Allitt’s The Conservatives (Yale University Press, 2009) is an engaging and informative book, even if it is more of an introduction to American conservatism than a critical study.  I recently reviewed the book here at the journal 49th Parallel, but I have more to say about it.

American conservatism is rich and complex but too often simplified or ignored by academics who think they know what conservatism means.  I applaud Allitt for taking conservatism seriously and for marshaling a wealth of evidence to support his thesis.  Those who cannot identify what generally distinguishes a paleoconservative from a neoconservative, or who’re confused by the apparent hypocrisy of conservatives who call for big-government spending on military and surveillance while griping about big-government, need to read this book.  Allitt provides clarity and direction for the uninitiated.  He deserves not just our attention, but our admiration.

Allitt attends to several figures in this book, including John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, William Cobbett, John Marshall, John Randolph of Roanoke, George Fitzhugh, Rufus Choate, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, George Ticknor, Abraham Lincoln, Orestes Brownson, William Graham Sumner, Andrew Carnegie, Theodore Roosevelt, John Crow Ransom, Andrew Lytle, H. L. Mencken, Herbert Hoover, William Howard Taft, Albert Jay Nock, Ralph Adams Cram, George Santayana, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig Von Mises, Murray Rothbard, Ayn Rand, Whittaker Chambers, William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman, Barry Goldwater, George Will, Ronald Reagan, Michael Novak, Robert Bork, Allan Bloom, M. E. Bradford, Thomas Fleming, Clyde Wilson, Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington, Patrick Buchanan, Jerry Falwell, Roger Kimball, Thomas Sowell, Charles Murray, Dinesh D’Souza, and others.  One book cannot address every major figure that influenced American conservatism, and Allit’s failure to mention some names (Strom Thurmond, Gerald Ford, Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, Donald Rumsfeld, Wendell Berry, James Dobson, Pat Robertson, or any of the Bob Joneses) is understandable.  Paul Gottfried appears just once in the book, and passingly.  But a case could be made that Gottfried’s paleoconservatism is more European in origin and thus worthy of analysis.  And surely Eric Voegelin warrants more than a casual reference in a single paragraph.

For some, Allitt’s most objectionable suggestion will be that the Civil War was a conflict of two conservatisms: Calhoun’s versus Webster’s.  This interpretation illuminates and simultaneously complicates such recent debates as the one held between Thomas DiLorenzo and Harry V. Jaffa over the issue of Abraham Lincoln’s legacy.

Allitt also suggests that the Federalists represent an early manifestation of conservatism.  This classification would mean that Jefferson and his ilk were not conservatives, which would in turn imply that current Jeffersonians are not in keeping with a purely conservative tradition.  Allitt offers this helpful and accurate note about Jefferson: “He might not have been the Jacobin his Federalist foes alleged, but neither can he easily be thought of as a conservative.”  Many scholars and enthusiasts consider Jefferson to be a “classical liberal,” but the signification of that word relative to “libertarian” or “conservative” merely confounds definitional precision:  All three words have been used interchangeably and negligently in recent decades.  It may not matter if Jefferson is called “conservative” or “liberal,” especially if those terms cause people to short-circuit reflection or affix a contemporary label to a complicated man living in a complex, radically different era.

Allitt’s book is a fine contribution to and about conservative letters.  I recommend it to anyone who thinks he can explain conservatism.

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