Russell Kirk shows that the United States was a new thing built upon a number of very old things, and these are the roots which give it life today: the English common law, the English language, the English Reformation, the English Parliament; the Roman order and the Greek intellect, Montesquieu’s “depositary” of justice, and Edmund Burke’s gospel of continuity.
The Roots of American Order by Russell Kirk (Revised edition, ISI Books 2003, 534 pages]
The President of a great American university told me not long ago that most of his students shared the opinion of Mr. Henry Ford: history was “bunk.” They would not have said that about heredity, which is supposed to unload the sins of the children upon the fathers, and cheerfully to leave them there.
Yet history, read as what has mattered and not only as what has happened, is simply another name for heredity. This important book by Dr. Russell Kirk is a study in the heredity of the United States. Its publication at a time when America is preparing to celebrate the bicentenary of its independence is a significant event. No doubt we shall be hearing a good deal about the American “revolution,” but Dr. Kirk shows convincingly that no revolution was less revolutionary than the War of Independence. The last thing the Patriots of the Thirteen Colonies wanted was to turn things upside down; all they wanted was to leave them as they were, but in the hands of a capable English gentleman called George Washington instead of an incapable English king called George III.
Dr. Kirk effectively disposes of the notion that American independence was inspired by French revolutionary thought, which he evidently dislikes as much as I do. For the matter of that, it could hardly have been inspired by an event which followed it. The French Revolution was dogmatic; the American Revolution was empirical, although it found words for its beliefs which can still rouse a great nation to arms. Dr. Kirk shows that the United States was a new thing built upon a number of very old things, and these are the roots which give it life today: the English common law, the English language, the English Reformation, the English Parliament; the Roman order and the Greek intellect; Montesquieu’s “depositary” of justice secured by the Supreme Court—for, as de Tocqueville wrote, “it is at the bar or the bench that the American aristocracy is to he found”; Burke’s gospel of continuity—“a partnership, not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”
Much has happened, of course, since Patrick Henry declared: “I know of no way of judging the future but by the past.” The Irish, Italian, and German immigration has drastically modified the ethnic landscape of America; the Catholic ferment has challenged the native Protestant ethos, but it has not disturbed the separation of church and state—the recognition of Pope Gelasius’ “two swords.” The problem, as Burke saw so clearly, and as Dr. Kirk is at pains to emphasize, has been the reconciliation of liberty and order. Neither is an absolute; each is a condition of the good life. Liberty easily becomes a profligate; order quickly becomes a policeman. Yet order in the state is a sterile compulsion unless it reflects an order in the soul. As Cardinal Manning observed, “all human conflicts are basically theological,” and Tocqueville asked: “What can be done with a people who are their own masters if they are not submissive to the Deity?” Many of the Founding Fathers may have been Deists, and nothing much more, but Alexander Hamilton declared, with the weight of human experience behind him, that “morality must fail with religion.” Dr. Kirk maintains that “Americans adhere to faith in their religion and scepticism in their politics.”
They do wisely if they adhere to the latter. A cynic has reason to proclaim that “democracy” is the Golden Calf of the twentieth century—Hobbes’ Leviathan now raised to the altar. Montesquieu’s (and Aristotle’s) mixed constitution has become perilously unbalanced. De Tocqueville saw the danger of “democratic despotism,” and it was a Roman historian, Polybius, who described “government of the multitude as the greatest of all evils.” Government by the people can turn into government by the mob, and government by the mob into government by the masters—and by them alone.
Few Americans today would go as far as John Randolph with his defiant declaration: “I am an aristocrat; I love liberty; I hate equality.” Nevertheless it is a fact of history, and particularly of English history, that liberty flourishes where the aristocratic element in society is allowed its due influence. America has realised that in every generation aristocracy must be earned afresh, but it should not be refused its wages. Aristocracy must also be refreshed, and in England the refreshment has often come from America. Here, again, it is useful to remember that history is also heredity—be that heredity humble, as in the case of Abraham Lincoln, or privileged, as in the case of Franklin Roosevelt.
The first term of Aristotle’s definition of ideal government is secure in a state which is really an elective monarchy, and the third term is secured by the popular election. Dr. Kirk is surely right in ascribing to the Constitution of the United States something of “the divinity that doth hedge a king”; and just as right in warning us against a “democratic despotism from which not only God seems to have disappeared, but even oldfangled individual man is lacking.” The written Constitution of the United States has in the Supreme Court a safeguard which the unwritten constitution of the United Kingdom altogether lacks. A popular majority in the House of Commons can decree anything it likes. It only requires a stroke of the pen by the monarch which the monarch is unlikely to refuse—even in the case of his, or her, abdication. Dr. Kirk reminds us of Calhoun’s valuable distinction:
The United States is, of course, a Republic, a constitutional democracy, in contradistinction to an absolute democracy; and…the theory which regards it as a government of the mere numerical majority rests on a gross and groundless misconception.
Valuable also was Orestes Brownson’s warning that “pure democracy would destroy the territorial democracy,” so dear to the heart of Disraeli; and Madison’s contrast between the “democracy” only viable in the small county or the village square, and the “republic” whose authority is viable over a large area. Democracy is a noble ideal, but it is among the lessons of this book that there are times when it needs to be defended against itself.
Dr. Kirk spares us the jeremiads to which he might well have been tempted. His book is sober, objective, and erudite. In so wide-ranging a resumé he puts his finger unerringly on the people who really matter—whether they are famous like Cicero, Augustine, Virgil, and Plato, or less well known, but hardly less important, like “judicious Hooker,” who indicated many a rendezvous where Anglicans and Roman Catholics might meet today, and who was not without influence on Shakespeare. All the quotations are pithy and relevant. This book should become a breviary for every educated person, and especially for those who are less well educated than they imagine. In taking us back to our beginnings it brings us up to date, often with a salutary jolt.
If it shocks the complacency of the progressive mentality, the shock will be timely, for the moment, let us not deceive ourselves, is critical for Western civilization. As Emerson wrote: “Things are in the saddle: they ride mankind.” They are not always pleasant things—more insidious and less ephemeral than the “men on horseback,” like Cromwell and Bonaparte, Hitler and Stalin. Emerson’s outcry was echoed by Yeats: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…” Dr. Kirk’s recall to order should help the “centre” to hold firm.
Republished with the gracious permission of The University Bookman (volume 15, Number 1, Autumn 1974).
This essay originally appeared in The Imaginative Conservative in April 2012.
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