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Readers of The Imaginative Conservative might be interested in a lecture CSPAN has been airing on CSPAN3 regarding the Old Republicans, a groups of 19th-century American statesmen and men of letters who believed Jefferson and Madison had (almost) destroyed the republic during their respective presidencies.

Taken as a whole, Russell Kirk argued in his first book, John Randolph of Roanoke, the Old Republicans believed in several principles, including: 1) natural law and the inability of a legislature to accomplish anything meaningful beyond ratifying what is discovered in nature/creation; 2) a profound agrarianism and fear of cities and industry; 3) true individualism of the human person (promoting a true diversity of talents); and 4) a strict construction of the U.S. Constitution.

The so-called Jacksonian time period (1807-1848) is filled with bizarre and interesting persons, but none more so than those who made up the Old Republicans. As an exchange with Adam Smith expert, Jim Otteson, recently made me aware, the Old Republicans are the American equivalent of the Old British Whigs. I have had similar conversation with the leader of this fearless website, Winston Elliott. Indeed, Winston credits Kirk’s biography of Randolph as a central piece of literature in and to his own intellectual makeup.

It would be difficult for any reader of the The Imaginative Conservative not to recognize in these eccentric early-19th century figures, vital ancestors of today’s Conservatives and Libertarians.

After the producer, Luke Nichter (a great Nixon scholar and historian at the University of Texas), contacted me in August, a film company arrived on campus on September 15 and taped the lecture in Kendall Hall.

Though I think I have a face made for radio, I had an absolute blast recording this. The film crew was great, as were my brilliant students. I owe them all—Luke, the camera crew, and my students—an immense thanks.

And, I found out, probably not too surprisingly, that I’m a bit of a ham in front of a camera.

My lecture material came from original sources and memoirs, Russell Kirk’s stunning first book, Randolph of Roanoke (University of Chicago, 1951), and the work of several recent scholars including John F. Devanny, Jr., and Adam L. Tate. Google books and LibertyFund books, reprinting the various works of John Taylor of Caroline, helped immensely, as did my friend and Old Republican scholar, Carey Roberts.

If you’re interested in watching the lecture online, please click here.

A few favorite quotes from Kirk’s work:

“I would not live under King Numbers. I would not be his steward, nor make him my taskmaster. I would obey the principle of self-preservation, a principle we find even in the brute creation, in flying from this mischief.” [quoted in Kirk, Randolph of Roanoke, 14]

“The lust for innovation–for it is a lust–that is the proper term for an unlawful desire–this lust for innovation. . . has been the death of all Republics” [quoted in Kirk, The Conservative Mind, 166].

To these things, I can only write “Amen.”

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3 replies to this post
  1. For those of us in Kabul who refuse to bow to King Numbers and get easily bored by the military and developmental 'missionaries, mercenaries and misfits,' this is welcome relief indeed. Are there more of Professor Birzer's lectures to be downloaded and enjoyed at leisure? If so, would Winston please publish a list and URLs?

    With thanks

    Stephen Masty

  2. Professor Birzer – many thanks for the connection to your talks. Having downloaded them, I shall ration them out to myself and savour them slowly. Meanwhile, in the distant hills, I think that I hear the wild Afghan tribes clamouring out for more! I do hope that, amid your busy schedule, a few are planned or in the works. With many thanks indeed,

    Stephen Masty

    PS: I am not completely kidding. At lunch the other day my boss, the Agriculture Minister, mused completely off the cuff, "You know, I only hate two kinds of people, those who kill trees and those who kill tradition." Afghan-Mecosta.

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