Russell Kirk offers us a rich legacy in words and deeds. If we heed them we may yet play our part in preserving our Republic’s ordered liberty…
The thought of Dr. Russell Kirk has inspired many people and many projects, including the journal that you are now reading. Founded by Dr. Bradley Birzer and myself in 2010, The Imaginative Conservative‘s mission is to seek the True, the Good and the Beautiful. To this end, we have published more than 6,000 essays that have been read by fifteen million readers. The Imaginative Conservative began as a publication of The Free Enterprise Institute, whose programs on American history and America’s Founding principles also draw inspiration from the work of Dr. Kirk. The impetus for our journal was a seminar we held to discuss Dr. Kirk’s book, Prospects for Conservatives.
My life, and my work, has been greatly inspired by, and formed by, the writings of Russell Kirk. It is worth noting that I say Dr. Kirk’s writings inspire my work, because I did not have the pleasure of meeting Dr. Kirk in person. However, my life has been transformed by the thought and the words of Russell Kirk.
I grew up in a family where there was very little interest in books, and politics were an anathema for they “never helped the working man.” My 8th-grade English teacher, Mrs. Van Sandt, introduced me to great books, politics, and anti-communism. She shared with me the novels of Allan Drury, where I learned about the evils of communism. By the late 1970s I was a college student, an atheist, a libertarian, and a fan of Ayn Rand. Then, in college I read John Randolph of Roanoke. This was Dr. Kirk’s first book, published in 1951. This was also the first book by Kirk that I read. Dr. Kirk stirred me with his depiction of Randolph as a Jeffersonian so radically committed to Jeffersonian principles that Randolph eventually broke with Mr. Jefferson. Why? Because Jefferson was insufficiently Jeffersonian.
John Randolph had his eccentricities. He liked to come on to the floor of the House of Representatives with his bevy of hunting dogs surrounding him. He sometimes sat at his dinner table and conversed out loud with ghostly spirits. And Randolph was brilliant, a genius in politics, and an admired speaker, and a feared debater in the House. Dr. Kirk captured my imagination with his tale of the fantastical political adventures of John Randolph of Roanoke. For me, before Dr. Kirk’s more famous works; The Conservative Mind, Prospects for Conservatives, The Roots of American Order, Eliot and His Age; there will always be Randolph of Roanoke.
Who introduced Dr. Kirk to John Randolph? Kirk wrote in 1983 that “having read [Albert J.] Nock’s Mr. Jefferson… I was converted into a zealous admirer of Jefferson…. My resulting curiosity about Jefferson and his age… led me to the life and thought of Jefferson’s picturesque adversary and kinsman, John Randolph of Roanoke, about whom in the fullness of time I would write own my first book.”
Dr. Kirk went on to say that Nock’s Jefferson was “temperate, sound in morals, sound in taste, learned in more than one discipline, open-handed, ready to fill great offices at personal sacrifice and then to retire modestly to Monticello—this was the genuine Jefferson, no doctrinaire egalitarian, no abstract intellectual.” These are all qualities that Dr. Kirk demonstrated in abundance.
Jefferson, ever the Virginia gentleman, chose these words to be written on his gravestone: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, the Father of the University of Virginia.” Why did he choose these particular achievements? “Because by these,” he explained, “as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered.” And he is remembered for these accomplishments. He is also remembered as a statesman, president, political philosopher, and a founder of our Republic.
I would suggest that Mr. Jefferson should, like Dr. Kirk, be remembered as a hero of American conservatism. It was Jefferson the conservative who said: “There is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talent.” As Dr. Kirk says in A Program for Conservatives: “Jefferson… founded his idea of liberty and justice upon the writings of Coke and Kames… and upon the tradition of English freedom from the Anglo-Saxons down to the 18th century.”
Russell Kirk and Thomas Jefferson offer us a rich legacy in words and deeds. If we heed them we may yet play our part in preserving our Republic’s ordered liberty.
Dr. Kirk wisely reminds us of the eternal contract among the dead, the living, and the yet-to-be-born. He calls us to remember our debt to those who have come before and our responsibility to preserve our inheritance to pass on to posterity.
As Dr. Kirk explains in his book, The Roots of American Order, historical bonds of wisdom and experience hold American ordered liberty together. We are the heirs of ancient Athens, Jerusalem, Rome, and London. He demonstrates that our Republic flowered in Philadelphia in 1787 because our Founders learned the lessons of history.
In the 35 years since I first read Randolph of Roanoke, Dr. Kirk’s books and essays have enriched my life. I did not meet him, and yet my gratitude is abundant because I know him. We often benefit from gifts that came from we-know-not-where. Dr. Kirk has helped me appreciate the great gifts we have received from our ancestors.
Because of this my conservatism is hopeful, for like Mr. Jefferson I see enormous potential for good in the human person. And my conservatism is grounded in the wisdom of the ages because I was instructed by the thought of Russell Kirk. Dr. Kirk tells us that:
“The conservative is concerned, first of all, for the regeneration of spirit and character—with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding, and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded. This is conservatism at its highest.”
Above I mentioned the words on the gravestone of Thomas Jefferson. What of Russell Kirk’s gravestone? It says: Russell Kirk, Man of Letters. And then from T.S. Eliot are these words: “The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the imagination of the living.”
Thank you, Dr. Kirk. Your words continue to fire my imagination.
Publisher’s Note: This essay was originally delivered as an address to friends of the Hauenstein Center at Grand Valley State University (Grand Rapids, April 13, 2018) in honor of the centenary of Russell Kirk’s birth (October 19, 2018).
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