by Gary Gregg, director of the MCCONNELL CENTER
2023 is the 70th year since Regnery Publishing brought Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind to the reading public. The book helped transform modern American politics and inform many emerging conservative minds. When I was interning in Washington, DC more than thirty years ago, I remember answering a question by saying that I had a skeletal conservatism only until I met the works of Russell Kirk, who put flesh on those bones. Kirk’s influence was similar to the generation before I was born. He helped them understand they were conservative and the latest in a long line of Anglo-Americans who sought to conserve rather than upturn.
Now, seventy years after the little “Bohemian Tory” from Michigan burst onto the public scene, we find ourselves in a vastly different political environment. We have gone through numerous upheavals in our politics and our culture and after presidencies of executive overreach and massive budget deficits we seem to have arrived at a particularly libertarian moment in our political life as a nation.
Kirk’s instincts to be left alone to his family and community would be heartened by this movement, but the man who so often argued that “order is the first need of all” might also be troubled by the shriller voices that have been raised against anything that smells of government power. In libertarian challenges to law enforcement, airline security, homeland security measures, and public health measures, we may see challenges to Kirk’s defense of government as an inherited and necessary good.
As the conservative movement evolved in the 20th and 21st centuries, a dominant theme became the defense of the U.S. Constitution and the men who made it. It is one of the things that attracted me most to the movement when I was a teenager interested in politics and enamored with the rhetoric and vision of Ronald Reagan. Those of us who came into the movement later and read backwards through its history might have been puzzled to see how comparatively little of the founders’ Constitution is found in Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind.
Kirk calls the Constitution, “the most successful conservative device in the history of the world.” And yet, he gives that incredible accolade to the document in virtually the only paragraph directly dealing with it in the chapter discussing the founding period of American history. Even this paragraph in The Conservative Mind however, is not a substantive exploration of this remarkable instrument.
Kirk did write about the Constitution and its defense later in his career but it seems of little concern to the young man who penned The Conservative Mind. How can this central element of the conservative project be such a minor player in Kirk’s seminal work? First, we can say that the very title of the book focused his book “minds” and ideas rather than institutions and political documents. That said, what did Kirk have to say about those minds and their ideas that created such a wonderfully successful political device as the Constitution of 1787? The surprising answer: almost nothing.
Among his pantheon of conservatives one is hard-pressed to find the giants of the 1787 Convention. Where is Washington, Madison, Wilson, Sherman or Morris? Those we would more readily associate with a “freedom agenda” like Thomas Jefferson or Patrick Henry make almost no appearance at all. (Though, he does say that Jefferson had at least half the mind of a conservative.) Among our vaunted founders that so much conservative ink has been spilled to defend, Kirk holds up to us only three primary figures: Alexander Hamilton, Fisher Ames, and John Adams, only one of which had any direct influence at the Constitutional Convention.
In these three members of the founding generation, Kirk would have us see three types of conservatism. In Hamilton we see his least favorite type of “conservative mind.” Indeed, after Kirk’s treatment of Hamilton we might be hard pressed to consider him a conservative at all. He is a city dweller and the “northern agrarian” Kirk tells us that “veneration withers upon the pavement.” Hamilton lacked the key virtue of a conservative statesman b lacking prudence. He was unable, for instance, to see that his policy proposals might lead to a consolidated nation of leveling and innovation and mega cities full of radicalism. On this score Kirk calls him “almost naive.” The New Yorker did not understand local affections and institutions. Eventually “his instruments did indeed crush particularism to earth.”
In the almost forgotten but “delightful reactionary” Fisher Ames, Kirk identified another type of conservative mind at the founding. According to Kirk, Ames’ chief concern was with the cultural underlying the constitutional order, that “unwritten constitution” that supports and influences the political institutions. Ames was a “stern moralist” who was pessimistic about the potential of democracy and believed that tranquility and the protection of property were the chief aims of government. Neither, he was concerned, could be well served by a non-deliberative democratic people plagued with demagogic leaders who would exploit popular passions and appetites. Kirk’s sympathies were clearly more with Ames than with Hamilton.
Somewhere between Hamilton’s centralizing impulse and acquisitive goals and Fisher Ames’ moralisms, Kirk found his true conservative model among our founders. In Kirk’s pantheon, John Adams stands only marginally below the great Edmund Burke. The very fact that John Adams was not at the Constitutional Convention and not active among those who framed our great document may actually aid our understanding of why Kirk finds Adams worthy of giving his name to the only chapter Kirk dedicated to the founding period of the nation.
Many decades before David McCullough and HBO resurrected the Braintree lawyer and farmer in the mind and imaginations of contemporary Americans, Kirk had singled him out for the highest possible praise. John Adams was a model conservative mind because his superior intellectual gifts and disciplined mind were moderated and informed by the prejudices of a Christian culture, the experiences of a New England farmer, and an historical imagination. Kirk’s Adams is a thinker and writer more than a politician or leader in international affairs. Kirk was concerned with Adams’ books and other writings, almost completely forgotten today and in Kirk’s own day, too. Kirk recounted that he was the first person to cut the pages on a century old collection of Adams’ works. He was not concerned with Adams the leader of the Revolution or Adams the Diplomat and President, but John Adams the historically informed and philosophically sound mind.
Kirk focused on two great achievements of John Adams the thinker–His Discourses on Davila and his Defense of the Constitutions of the United States. Adams wrote his Discourses on Davila in 1790 as a challenge to Condorcet and other radical minds and their dangerous misconceptions of humanity. He published his more than 1200 page Defense in 1787 as the United States moved toward the creation of a new constitutional order. It was in this massive tome that Adams brought the full weight of his philosophical and historic research to bear in support of political institutions such as a bicameral legislature, an independent executive, federalism, and a mixed and balanced political order. Before James Madison penned his famous contribution to The Federalist Papers, Adams wrote of the dangers of unchecked and unbalanced power.
"Where the people have a voice, and there is no balance, there will be everlasting fluctuations, revolutions, and horrors, until a standing army, with a general at its head, commands the peace, or the necessity of an equilibrium appear to all, and is adopted by all."
Reconsidering Kirk’s founders, both missing and rediscovered, leads us to an understanding of Kirk’s conservatism that would surprise many who consider themselves contemporary heirs of the movement he helped found. Kirk was concerned with institutions, including those of the U.S. Constitution, to the degree that they are aligned with two more critical undergirding phenomena: human nature and political culture.
Throughout The Conservative Mind, authors and statesmen are upheld to the degree that their understanding of human nature accords with the inherited vision of Judeo-Christian revelation and human experience. Human beings are flawed, incapable of perfection, and suffer profoundly from original sin. To the degree that political institutions are structured to account for this overriding fact and meliorate its most negative consequences, they are found to be worthy of praise. Here the United States’ Constitution is good as it rests on this basic understanding and accounts for the corruption of power by separated and checked institutions.
Though Adams fought hard against the philosophes and their abstract accounts of human nature, he admitted to some degree of change possible within the human species. Such change is manifest in the political culture. As the virtues, values and ideas of a people change so will their political prospects, making any constitution only as useful or useless as the culture that underpins it. Of course, with Adams and all of Kirk’s conservative minds, any change is bounded by the fact that we are created somewhere between the beasts and the angels and are destined to always stay in that zone of humanity.
To understand and learn from Russell Kirk’s magnum opus, then, we must understand an overriding fact of human existence: sin and culture trump politics and planning. This is why Kirk, unlike so many contemporary conservatives, pointed us in the direction of the poets and not the politicians; the unwritten more than to the written constitution. It is in this way that we might more properly consider our “founders” not the framers of the Constitution in 1787 but those who shaped the minds and imaginations of the culture that produced it. The Constitution of 1787 will survive as something more than parchment only to the degree that it is supported by the prevailing political culture of America.
Gary L. Gregg II holds the Mitch McConnell Chair in Leadership at the University of Louisville and is author or editor of numerous books including Vital Remnants: America’s Founding and the Western Tradition.