America’s British Culture by Russell Kirk (150 pages, Transaction Publishers, 1994)
Russell Kirk, who had been called the father of the modern American conservative movement, died in April 1994. Best known for his impressive contribution to Anglo-American intellectual history entitled The Conservative Mind (1953), he spent a lifetime exploring America’s Western and British antecedents. He came to an understanding of American tradition and British derived culture unsurpassed; moreover, his prose is some of the most elegant and learned written. America’s British Culture is his last published book and is a clear, insightful explication of key British elements prominent in American culture as well as an important study and critique of the current cultural climate in America.
Kirk was a historian of the first order, committed to rigorous standards in his work. He evidences both historiographical accuracy and tightly reasoned and compelling argumentation in America’s British Culture. Dr. Kirk isolates four major British fashions that have particularly shaped American culture; to wit, language and a common body of literature; rule of law and the common law tradition; representative government; and ethical heritage-moral habits, conventions, customs and the like. These are not simply asserted, rather they are traced and explained in detail. An appendix addresses some aspects of classical philosophy which, mostly transmitted through Great Britain, also continue to affect American mores and political modes of thinking. The book is indexed and contains a helpful historical chronology.
In terms of language and literature, Dr. Kirk recounts development of Old English and then written prose literature, which began in the late ninth century with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Three centuries of Norman French influence from 1066 resulted in the “enlivened” language of Middle English and the works of Dante and Chaucer. The Renaissance gave birth to Modern English after 1500 and the works of Shakespeare. Dr. Kirk also stresses the importance of the King James translation of the Bible and other works that exerted formative influence on the British colonies. Between 1600 and 1700, these included works of Shakespeare, Milton and Dryden, as well as the sermons of Jonathan Edwards and others. In the eighteenth century, these included moral and political essays by Joseph Addison, Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke.
Most fascinating, Dr. Kirk argues that a conjunction of English and American literature was achieved in the nineteenth century, such that the books of Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Fenimore Cooper and others were much sold in Britain whereas Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were schooled in British Romantic Age literature of Sir Walter Scott, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Lord Byron, Shelley and Keats, as well as the Victorian literature of Dickens, Thackeray and others. Moreover, the literature communicated certain positive assumptions about the human condition, about liberty and about order. Obviously, a common body of literature equates to more than words, and to leave a language or literature behind may be at the expense of important ideas and values that animate it.
The supremacy of law might be one such value. Fortunately, rule of law and the common law tradition are one more key British element in our culture, largely independent of literature since being institutionalized. The considered judgments of able judges, in a multitude of cases, comprise the law in the absence of statutes. The law therefore respects precedent and generally observes custom. Indeed, the jury system comes from such common law tradition; moreover, so does the presumption of innocence. In civil or Roman law, which constitutes the legal tradition of most of Europe, the interest of the State is primary and so presumption shifts to the prosecutor. Possessors of power, instead of citizens and peers, determine guilt or innocence and the rightfulness of claims. Common law from England remains in effect for 49 states, alongside the written laws of state and federal legislatures (Louisiana has a form of civil law derived from French and Spanish colonizers).
Statutory law, not to mention the state of public virtue or the legal profession, now impinges upon both rights and justice, despite the common law. Moreover, dependability of the law, qualitatively and in terms of enforcement, has markedly declined. Dr. Kirk observes that where the common law is allowed to prevail, people are “able to act on the assumption that the law will not alter capriciously from year to year.” Justice is better served that way from an individual and societal standpoint. Indeed, we should concern ourselves that other systems historically devolve into respecters of persons, governments of men and not laws, protectors of some and not of others. Governments that do not act upon established principles undermine the common law and violate the supremacy of law, which holds that even the highest officials may not act with caprice.
Kirk emphasizes that the rule of law and the common law tradition work to achieve social harmony and are not designed to effect social revolution. Rule of law and common law tradition were understood to have been established at the time of the American Revolution, and common law in American context amounted to a realization of the principles in the Magna Carta, i.e., to life, liberty and property—to the peculiar American version of the so-called rights of freeborn Englishmen. The Constitution strove to preserve that revolutionary achievement; hence, the United States evidences legal continuity with Britain. The most widely consulted source authority on law at the Constitutional Convention was Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-69). Kirk cites legal scholars and judges to prove the point. Several common law protections aimed at curbing the power of the federal government were also incorporated in the bill of Rights. To the extent that government becomes arbitrary or that we violate some other kind of equality, we affect more than legal case precedents—we may restrict the sphere of individual liberty on which substantive rights depend. Kirk cites the cases of revolutionary France and Soviet Russia to illustrate the point and to prove that parchment constitutions and written declarations of rights are worthless without the corresponding cultural supports.
Notwithstanding, American political exceptionalism is largely, though not exclusively drawn from British Opposition theory. In addition, American forms of representative government—hence the congress, state legislatures, county and municipal councils and school boards—have roots in thirteenth century England. Dr. Kirk traces the development of representative government through stages in England. The first formal employment of the word representatives was in 1295. By degree, “the commons” (or barons, knights, burgesses and small landowners) came to hold the power of the purse—to grant or deny funds requested by the king. Parliament, however, was not allowed to initiate legislation until the fifteenth century. Parliamentary supremacy was not achieved until the seventeenth century. The spirit of the Glorious Revolution (1688-89), as William and Mary ascended the throne, was very evident in the colonies; indeed, peculiar precedents of representation, as well as Whiggish political sentiments, deepened and flourished from that time through the period of benign or “salutary neglect.” When the end of the Seven Years’ War also brought an end to Britain’s “hands off” approach, the relationship twixt Britain and her colonies worsened.
At root, Kirk maintains that the American Revolution was fought over conflicting interpretations of the British Constitution, especially over the limits of Parliamentary sovereignty. The colonists had come to expect actual representation from their assemblies in matters involving “internal” taxation. The Stamp Act of 1765 was the first attempt by Great Britain to levy taxes on anything other than trade. Colonists viewed taxes on goods exiting or entering America to be “external” and thus amenable to legislation by Parliament, according to the theory of so-called virtual representation within the empire. Britain counted the colonies as so many British cities and towns with royal charters, and she intended to tax her colonies the same way she taxed her own municipalities. The colonists believed their status to be considerably greater than mere townships, and anyway their distance from the Mother Country practically negated such comparison. Attempts to tax internally (and hence destroy) could not be granted to any but actual representatives, who lived in the districts they represented and who served the local interests. Taxation without (actual) representation amounted to political slavery. A series of similar acts evoked protest and organized efforts to resist British policy. Quite reluctantly, the Colonies declared independence in 1776.
Even so, American representative forms are British in origin. Kirk also explains the duties and honor of representatives stemming from the British concept. Representatives are not mere delegates, expected to carry out the specific instructions of fleeting democratic majorities; rather, representatives must think for themselves and vote the wisest decisions, albeit, on behalf of constituents. After the Revolution, state governments patterned themselves on Parliament. The unique aspect of the American Republic was its representation on grand scale. Each state was patterned on English parliamentary national government. To form a single nation out of essentially thirteen required James Madison’s innovative genius. Dr. Kirk explains that federalism
reconciled the need for national defense and an integrated economy with the need for state (or provincial) self-government…
Thus the new United States developed a scheme of dual representation: the people, in their national capacity, sending political representatives to Washington…the people, in their capacity as citizens of a particular state, sending political representatives to their state capital.
Of course, the power of the national legislature was significantly less in those days. Interestingly, Kirk also points out that while the national executive is also far more powerful today, the Founders conferred on the office of the Presidency powers nearly equivalent to those enjoyed by King George III before 1765. They designed the office, in other words, with “kingly” power as it was exercised in the period of benign neglect. The President therefore embodies our “virtual” representative in the British tradition.
In terms of an ethical heritage, every culture has drawn its mores or principles of morality primarily from religious belief, and America is no exception. Kirk spends some time delineating the various religious denominations in the Colonies. He quotes Tocqueville, however, saying the various sects nevertheless comprised a broad Christian consensus concerning morality. Dr. Kirk puts it succinctly, “Out of Christian teaching arose America’s mores.” He does indicate, however, that American mores particularly emphasized the marriage tie. Later in the appendix, he implies that his strong family orientation is bequeathed to Americans by ancient Rome through the universal church. Dr. Kirk advances other common traits of ethical heritage more tentatively but with plausible rationale. These include physical and moral courage; present sacrifice for future good; inclination toward household independence; practical intelligence; fair dealings and commercial efficiency; and respect for the law. He also admits that there are at least four operative and competing British folkways and ideas of freedom in this country, which he takes from David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways’ in America (1989).
In the chapter on ethical heritage, Kirk also addresses the beginnings of higher education in America. He shows how American universities were patterned on Cambridge and Oxford. Such universities satisfied both Enlightenment and Great Awakening impulses in Colonial America and the Early Republic. Notwithstanding the “utilitarian ambitions of Jefferson” and others who preferred a French model, American university curricula were founded on the classical languages and classical literature, the primary method of learning being close study of great writings. Dr. Kirk explains the British way of learning in the new nation:
To develop…a philosophical habit of mind; to seek an ethical end through an intellectual means—such was the British tradition of the development of the mind. The British university labored to wake the reason and the moral imagination of the person for the person’s own sake, through certain disciplines of the intellect. And, in the British tradition, the American colleges had expected that their graduates would address themselves unselfishly to the spiritual and social needs of their neighborhood, their state, their country.
America’s British Culture is not just a history book. Kirk easily crosses disciplines into the social sciences explaining what culture is and why general culture is so necessary to peace and stability in society at large. He demonstrates that civilizations are indeed predicated upon the interdependent relationship of high culture and coherent democratic culture of the folk. He discusses at length the ongoing transmutation of American culture by Counterculture and by sundry attacks on the key elements he described. His focus is on the transmission process of culture and the ways in which it is subverted in America by unhistorical and anti-historical education. The potential impact, of course, is a missing generational link, i.e., disruption of the perennial cultural renewal process. The clear inference is that such results in a loss of general culture and the decline of American civilization.
At very least, the author proves that certain attempts to infuse “multiculturalism” in the schools at all levels equates to the abandonment of our historic commitment to an American identity. The sentiment is echoed by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., who adds that “identity” is more than a mere emotional attachment but exists to meet fundamental social needs and to function as a conduit for constructive social progress. Attempts to exorcise “dead white males” from history and literature, as well as the fictional equivalency of all cultures in terms of value and emphasis, has led to a strange new intellectual provinciality. Dr. Kirk recognizes the need to cultivate affection for a variety of life and custom but opposes the reductionist ideologies of equalitarian and utilitarian social schemes prevalent in American universities today. Ironically, awareness of diversity in the world and in our own country has actually decreased. Declining academic standards only beg the question; multiculturalism has caused provincialism.
Sixty years ago, students learned world geography and the traditional cultures of five continents. High schools provided three years of history: ancient, modern, and American. Many took foreign languages and Latin. English and American literature helped redeem students from what T.S. Eliot called “the provincialism of time.” Kirk continues:
Sixty years ago, most school pupils were taught a good deal about the people and the past of Bolivia, Morocco, China, India, Egypt, Guatemala, and other lands. They even learnt about Eskimo and Aleut cultures. Nowadays pupils are instructed in the disciplines of home economics, driver education, sex education, and the sterile abstractions of Social Studies. Formerly all pupils studied for several years the principal British and American poets, essayists, novelists, and dramatists—this with the purpose of developing their moral imagination. Nowadays they are assigned the prose of “relevance” and “current awareness” at most schools.
Today, pupils are reduced to the eternal present, without perspective or context, intellectually confined to ever-diminishing boundaries of minority self-esteem. A “Curriculum of Inclusion” has become a curriculum of cultural disintegration.
Kirk asserts that our culture may be reinvigorated, and he cites the historical experience of other cultures. He agrees with Louis B. Wright that our British inheritance “has given us some of our sturdiest and most lasting qualities.” Nevertheless, tolerably educated Americans must, as Dr. Kirk entreats, “resist those ideologues of multiculturalism who would pull down the whole elaborate existing culture of this country in order to make everybody culturally equal—that is, equal in ignorance.” If the challenge to inherited culture evokes such response, it is good. America’s British Culture is a timely reminder of what is at stake: that complex web of literature, law, government and mores which makes our civilization possible and which constitutes the greatest cultural legacy in the history of mankind.
Books on this topic may be found at The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Originally published in Continuity: A Journal of History.