American Republic

I find myself in a difficult position in replying to Brad Birzer’s essay “Westward, The Loss of the Republic.” First, I have great respect for my very good friend Dr. Birzer and agree with him on the essence of conservatism and most other important questions. Secondly, he is usually the hopeful one and, to put it mildly, I am not. My motto is that behind every silver lining looms a massive dark cloud. Several friends have already commented on my recent essay (A Conservatism of Hope?) that perhaps I have finally begun a much recommended regime of therapy and medication. Alas, I continue to refuse such assistance. As my hero the great conservative intellectual Popeye the Sailor proclaimed “I am what I am what I am.”

Birzer is correct that the American Republic took an ominous turn with Mr. Jefferson’s 1803 purchase of the Louisiana Territory. Jefferson had a nasty habit of praising a government restricted to the specific powers outlined in the Constitution and ignoring the same document when it limited actions he felt necessary. As Birzer suggests, this may certainly be viewed as the first major step in a pattern of ignoring the Constitution while pursuing a vision of empire. Further, he is right to condemn our treatment of the Indians in the West. And I agree with his praise of United States Marine Corps. I must add to that admiration of the US Army and the 82nd Airborne Division in particular (my son is an officer in the 82nd). We are fortunate indeed to have these fine young men and women defending us. Thank goodness there are still a few institutions within the Federal government worthy of admiration.

Yet, as Birzer makes clear, massive growth of government at home and our apparent commitment to empire abroad has weakened the American Republic to the point of moral, political and economic collapse. What is a conservative in this year of our Lord two thousand and ten to do? Are we only to focus on hearth and home?

Dr. Russell Kirk gave a lecture to the Heritage Foundation in 1980 which I think gives us perspective and, dare I say it, reason to hope. Thirty years have passed, a Jeffersonian generation, and we do not appear to have a Ronald Reagan on the horizon. And yet I believe Dr. Kirk’s words have great relevance to us today as we stand in the center of a dark cloud and pray for a little cheerfulness to break in. (Note his reference to the Imaginative Conservative—he knew about the future of our little community before we did).

“It has happened from time to time in the history of civilizations that a period of decadence and discouragement has been followed by a period of renewal and hope. It can be so with our American civilization. Such a restoration requires the joining of right reason with imagination. Do the people in the present conservative movement possess such reason and imagination?

…Paul Elmer More remarked that in a time of crisis, often the conservative displays powers of imagination which save the day. We need to rouse imagination of that sort—even the poetic imagination. President Nixon once asked me what one book he should read. T.S. Eliot’s Notes toward the Definition of Culture, I told him, and later sent him a copy. With Eliot and other great poets, the imaginative conservative takes long views; and he knows, among a good many other things, that ‘culture’ is more than a matter of subsidized art-festivals. It is our culture itself which totters in these concluding twenty years of the twentieth century. The word ‘conservative’ originally signified ‘guardian.’

Today thinking conservatives have to be concerned with more than winning elections, important though that task is; we have to think seriously about our civilization’s preservation. Thinking always being painful, liberals and radicals have not troubled themselves much about the shape of things to come.”

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