Russell Kirk gave southern conservatives a larger canvas by which to imagine the conservative tradition. One could be southern, conservative, and yet reject the ancient racial evils of the South.

When Russell Kirk published The Conservative Mind in 1953, he included among the pantheon of conservatives in the United States John C. Calhoun and John Randolph of Roanoke. He chose not to call them simply slaveholding American conservatives or conservatives in the South, but instead “Southern Conservatives.” Kirk rejected the notion that southerners were just deviant Americans who adopted slavery for economic gain. He recognized the otherness of the broadly defined South from the North. Between the Federalist conservatives and the landed southern conservatives, “a gulf was fixed.” That this gulf demarked different cultures remains debated in academe. Depending on one’s point a view, the South emerges as a tragically wrong, authoritarian, genteel, and backward culture, or a willfully degenerate group of Americans who adopted slavery and moved South in order to find exorbitant economic gains at the expense of human happiness and life. Kirk chiefly understood the South as anti-industrialist and anti-national in cultural character. He believed southerners “were convinced that political and/or economic consolidation” would destroy the barrier of tradition and establish a majoritarian state. Kirk saw the South differentiated not by economics or politics, but by culture. Kirk clearly believed that a southern culture existed, and that being southern meant fulfilling some part of a human obligation to this southern cultus. A return to Kirk’s analysis in The Conservative Mind and Modern Age offers a venerable analysis of southern culture in an era of increasingly lost identity and placelessness. Prominent southern journalists now proclaim the South’s most timeless value as its ability to change, an ability essentially to reject the cultus without consequence. The South, by this reckoning, was and is nothing at all. Kirk believed otherwise.[1]

A recent scholarly treatment of Kirk’s tertiary intellectual dalliances with the South recently appeared in John McKee Barr’s Loathing Lincoln. Barr admitted that Kirk saw Lincoln as a conservative worthy of emulation, but he nonetheless lumped Kirk in with the best-known anti-Lincoln and pro-southern conservatives of the mid and late twentieth century. According to Barr, Kirk, among others, “contributed to the propagation of various elements of a political philosophy that was congenial to Lincoln’s detractors.” Suspicion, and sometimes outright hostility to hostility to state authority, “especially at the federal level; pro-antebellum South; pro-agrarian; illiberal and anti-modern in outlook; wary of change; and last, pessimistic about the America that Abraham Lincoln had helped conserve, or re-create, with Union victory in the Civil War.” Barr’s work was well received in academe. LSU Press awarded Loathing Lincoln its prestigious Landry Award, and the work gained fast currency. His limited analysis betrayed a limited imagination and understanding of what Kirk thought about Lincoln and more importantly, what he thought about the South. This surreptitious linking of Kirk with Neo-Confederates is unfortunate, but not surprising. Yet even the New York Times understood that Kirk abhorred the rhetoric and often the intellectual underpinnings of the “Radical Right”:

Although staunchly conservative throughout his life, Dr. Kirk never endorsed what came to be known as the radical right. He once called Robert Welch, founder of the right-wing John Birch Society, a “likable, honest, courageous, energetic man” who nevertheless was the “kiss of death” for the conservative cause because of his “silliness and injustice of utterance.”

One may safely assume Kirk’s elegant loathing of the Tea Party, the Religious Right á la Sarah Palin, and importantly for this essay, unabashed crypto-southern sympathies.[2]

Kirk’s views on the cultural and political history of the South placed him well within the mainstream of many northern-born historians and writers in the mid-Twentieth Century. He saw the “froth of abolitionist harangues and Southern fire-eating” as each responsible in their own way for the political and social violence that culminated in the American Civil War. To be sure, Kirk viewed “the wild demands and expectations of the abolitionists” as “quite as slippery a foundation for political decency” and pro-slavery extremism, and so too did Bruce Catton, Charles M. Wiltse, J.G. Randall, and other northern intellectuals and historians. Kirk’s sidestepping of the political history of slavery served not as an attempt to expunge the South for its sin of slaveholding but instead to understand the South within a philosophical framework set by first principles.[3]

Kirk dispassionately argued that a southern tradition existed before the antebellum era, informed but not inspired or dominated by the presence of human bondage. Southern conservative tradition lay fixed in four instincts:

a half-indolent distaste for alteration; a determination to preserve an agricultural society; a love of local rights; and a sensitivity about the negro question-the ‘peculiar institution” before the Civil War, the color-line thereafter. During the early years of the Republic, the former three concerns much overshadowed the last.

In addition to the South’s four conservative instincts, Kirk identified two southerners who best exemplified southern conservatism: John C. Calhoun, and John Randolph of Roanoke.[4]

In selecting Calhoun and Randolph as exemplars of southern conservatism, Kirk implied that even in the South, conscious conservatism remained a minority. In his short 1958 essay on the South, Kirk wrote that southern norms, despite being practiced consciously by small group or even discontinued entirely, nonetheless remained in objective existence. Southerners ceasing to act southern did not preclude the existence of a southern norm. To that end, Kirk selected Calhoun and Randolph. Kirk accurately recognized Randolph as the better exemplar of transcendent cultural conservatism. “In almost all outward things,” wrote Kirk, “Randolph declined to conform to the great tendencies of his time, which he thought an age profoundly decadent.” But in all “important inward things John Randolph conformed to those norms and defended those conventions which go back to Sinai and the banks of the Ilyssus.” Kirk noted Randolph’s devout Christianity and his championship of political liberty, his reliance on tradition—prejudice and prescription in Kirkian terms—in his conceptualization of truth, and his adoration of Edmund Burke’s political thought. “Randolph of Roanoke abided by enduring standards in defiance of power, popularity, and the intellectual climate of opinion of his era.” Most importantly, Kirk saw Randolph’s Sobriety and cautious treatment of human nature as among his most important legacies. “There are certain great principles,” Randolph warned, “which we ignore only at our extreme peril; and if those principles are flouted long enough, private character and the social order sink beyond restoration.” Randolph’s caution kept him from embracing the vogues of the day. Illustrative of this predisposition was Randolph’s ferocious response to Nullification, South Carolina’s enhancement of Calhoun’s 1828 Disquisition on Government. Enraged by what he saw as radicalism, Randolph called nullification “nonsense.” Kirk’s inclusion of Randolph’s conservative response to Nullification signaled the former’s suspicions about the radicalism of Nullification and later seccesion.[5]

Far more knowledgeable and well-read on Randolph than he was on Calhoun, Kirk still knew enough about the latter man to identify Calhoun as some sort of conservative. He understood Calhoun as a fairly typical son of the Scots-Irish frontier in South Carolina. Calvinism, said Kirk, “moulded John C. Calhoun’s character as it shaped his speeches and books.” Kirk noted Calhoun’s religious unorthodoxy—the southern statesmen attended Unitarian services when he went to church—but still assigned a Calvinist “rigid morality” and “relentless acceptance of logic” to the Carolinian. Eugene D. Genovese, who embraced much of Kirk’s writings after his conversion to Catholicism, quipped that “the curious notion has been abroad that Calhoun was a dour and theologically rigid Calvinist. Calhoun was neither dour nor theologically rigid nor a Calvinist.” Kirk’s conversion to Catholicism, like Genovese’s, was precipitated by his marriage to a Catholic but was moderately influenced by Calvinism. In The Roots of American Order, Kirk wrote: “The individual man being too weak to chose the way of Christ, God must choose him. Those who God redeems are the ‘elect,’ brands snatched from the fires of lust for reasons only God knows.” Although he never revised his comments on Calhoun in the subsequent editions of The Conservative Mind, he probably agreed with Genovese’s analysis at the end of his life.[6]

The strength of Kirk’s analysis of the South lay in his ability to identify the best cultural and societal exemplars of an enduring southern tradition. Southerners, as Kirk accurately noted preferred the “slow process of natural change” and loathed artificial or coerced reform. Kirk attributed this impulse to rural people from ‘warm lands,” foreshadowing a major historiographic trend in southern history by nearly fifty years. Only in the last decade have historians seriously reconsidered the South as a tropical socio-cultural milieu. Kirk obviously never countenanced environmental determinism, but he clearly argued that southerners of the nineteenth century inherited the cultural values of seventeenth and eighteenth century Englishmen in the Caribbean.[7]

Secondly, southerners in the conservative tradition retained a deep affection for agricultural life and an aversion to industrialized vocations. Southerners, in Kirk’s estimation, committed themselves to keeping their region free from industrialists’ influence—an influence often associated with wage labor, which inevitably led to societal disorder in the South. Kirk’s assessment rested on firm ground historically. Basil Gildersleeve, a noted nineteenth century South Carolina intellectual, argued that industrialism threatened the very foundation of southern culture. The “sons of the Pilgrims,” Gildersleeve threatened, would find a violent southern reaction if “Yankees and Yankeefied Southrons are to dye the rivers of Virginia with indigo and copperas, and make her skies black with the smoke of their furnaces.” This observation remains the most consequential for the Modern South. Quickened Southerners turned against agrarianism in the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The New South ideal became the region’s unopposed dogma. Kirk never was an agrarian in the strict sense of the word—he did not harbor hopes for a return to an American agrarian order. Instead he found the increasing subordination of truth to capitalism appalling, and agrarianism provided a anti-nominalist ideal to use as a counterpoint to the increased influence of capitalism in defining the American moral order. The term capitalism, warned Kirk “does not contain enough positive content to withstand any strong evil domination…those few who have tried to make a religion out of ‘democratic capitalism’ have failed ludicrously.” [8]

The chief public similarities between Kirk and southern conservatives remained a deep suspicion of capitalism as society’s chief organizing principle. Twentieth-Century southern business leaders and politicos enthusiastically remade their section into a bastion of democratic capitalistic modernism. Modernization and suburbanization signaled capitalism’s preeminence as the southern societal logos. In 1959 Kirk’s intellectual comrade and friend Richard Weaver wrote disparagingly of the University of Kentucky’s trending conformity with the national model of education. If, according to Weaver, Kentucky “had been more provincial in the right way and less sedulously imitative of the dominant American model, it would have offered better fare.” Kentucky’s flagship university, in Weaver’s estimation, proved that the South already lost most of its cultural conservatism by 1930. The more the South became American, the less conservative the region became. Kirk, however, never embraced Weaver’s vicious ant-Americanism. The taproot of American nationalism, Kirk wrote, lay in the Hebraic and Christian traditions inherited by all Americans—not just the South. [9]

Weaver’s southern self-identification lent an air of outright southern partisanship to his scholarly work. Kirk’s northern critical distance created a willingness to understand that the South’s conservative tradition’s worth lay in its conservatism, not in its southern distinctiveness. Kirk’s written memorial to Weaver in 1963 showed the extent that Kirk remained comfortable with the paradox of American conservatism. Kirk wrote that while certainly recognized the tainted roots of southern conservatism “at the same time he defended the order (although he knew the necessity for changes within it) of which slavery was a part against the forces that he believed would overturn it and bring ruin and chaos with the revolution. This was a typical Weaverian distinction.” Kirk’s own analysis of American conservatism emulated Weaver in so much as Kirk knew that he shared similar loathings with Weaver, although they pursued dissimilar types as exemplars of the transcendent. [10]

Kirk sometimes shocked modern southerners by taking positions deemed liberal within the artificial political context created from the Cold War. In the 1970s a group of conservatives at the University of North Carolina invited Kirk to debate noted socialist Michael Harrington. Kirk never asked the subject of their debate. Only when he left his home did he discover the topic: the environment. Kirk informed the officials running the debate that the topic would have to be changed since he and Harrington held no discernable difference of opinion on the issue. [11]

Sympathies to positions taken by southern conservatives never made Kirk’s conservatism southern. Any attempt to equate Kirk to racism or pro-slavery is lunacy and most likely nothing more than an attempt to paint all conservatism as racially tinged. What Kirk did do for southern conservatives is give a larger canvas by which to imagine our conservative tradition. With the publication of the The Conservative Mind and the rest of Kirk’s magnificent body of work, southern conservatives could move away from defending the entirety of the southern Agrarian articulation. One could be southern, conservative, and yet reject the South’s ancient racial evils. More importantly, Kirk offered a corrective to venerable works like I’ll Take My Stand. Transcendent conservatism, not our southern distinctiveness, proved the best basis for seeking truth. By offering southerners a clear picture of a broad conservative tradition, Kirk enabled southern conservatives to find the best in themselves and in their forbearers.


[1] Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot (Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1978), 130-135; Tracy Thompson, The New Mind of the South (Simon & Schuster, 2013), 1-16.
[2] John McKee Barr, Loathing Lincoln: An American Tradition from the Civil War to the Present (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2013), 209; New York Times, 30 April 1994.
[3] Kirk, Conservative Mind, 133.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Russell Kirk, “Norms Conventions, and the South,” Modern Age 2 (Fall 1958): 344.
[6] Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind, 146; Eugene D. Genovese, The Southern Tradition: The Achievement and Limitations of an American Conservatism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University press, 1994), 44; John M. Pafford, Russell Kirk (New York & London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 72; Russell Kirk, Roots of American Order, 162-163.
[7] Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind, 133; Southern anthropologist and historians increasingly treat the region as an extension of the Caribbean and Latin-America. See among others Jon Smith and Deborah Cohen, Look Away! The U.S. South in New World Studies (Durham, 2004); Matthew Pratt Guterl, American Mediterranean: Southern Slaveholders in the Age of Emancipation (Cambridge, MA: 2008); and Robert E. May’s works, especially Slavery, Race, and Conquest in the Tropics: Lincoln, Douglas, and the Future of Latin America (Cambridge: 2013).
[8] Kirk, The Conservative Mind, 133; Basil Gildersleeve, Slaves vs Mechanics, 17 Nov 1863 in Ward W. Briggs Jr. ed., Soldier and Scholar: Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve and the Civil War (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 1998), 151-155; Russell Kirk, Capitalism and the Moral Basis of Social Order,” Modern Age 35 (Winter 1992):
[9] Thomas H. Landess, “A Note on the Origin of Southern Ways,” in Why the South Will Survive (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1981), 159; Richard M. Weaver, “Up From Liberalism,” Modern Age 3 (Winter, 1958-59): 21-22; Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order, 11.
[10] Russell Kirk, “Richard Malcolm Weaver—Conservative,” Modern Age 7 (Summer, 1963): 52-62.
[11] John B. Judis, “Three Wise Men,” New Republic 210 (May, 1994): 20-24

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