Edmund Burke in America: The Contested Career of the Father of Modern Conservatism
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The statesman and political philosopher Edmund Burke (1729–1797) is a touchstone for modern conservatism in the United States, and his name and his writings have been invoked by figures ranging from the arch Federalist George Cabot to the twentieth-century political philosopher Leo Strauss. But Burke's legacy has neither been consistently associated with conservative thought nor has the richness and subtlety of his political vision been fully appreciated by either his American admirers or detractors. In Edmund Burke in America, Drew Maciag traces Burke's reception and reputation in the United States, from the contest of ideas between Burke and Thomas Paine in the Revolutionary period, to the Progressive Era (when Republicans and Democrats alike invoked Burke’s wisdom), to his apotheosis within the modern conservative movement.
Throughout, Maciag is sensitive to the relationship between American opinions about Burke and the changing circumstances of American life. The dynamic tension between conservative and liberal attitudes in American society surfaced in debates over the French Revolution, Jacksonian democracy, Gilded Age values, Progressive reform, Cold War anticommunism, and post-1960s liberalism. The post–World War II rediscovery of Burke by New Conservatives and their adoption of him as the "father of conservatism" provided an intellectual foundation for the conservative ascendancy of the late twentieth century. Highlighting the Burkean influence on such influential writers as George Bancroft, E. L. Godkin, and Russell Kirk, Maciag also explores the underappreciated impact of Burke’s thought on four U.S. presidents: John Adams and John Quincy Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson. Through close and keen readings of political speeches, public lectures, and works of history and political theory and commentary, Maciag offers a sweeping account of the American political scene over two centuries.
was the least democratic branch of government), their long-term practical consequences could be either conservative (as many of the nineteenth-century decisions proved to be), or quite liberal and egalitarian (as many of the mid-twentieth-century decisions proved to be). Thus while Story helped assure the perpetuation of a substantial element of elite rule in America, he could not in the long run guarantee the ideology or even the sensibility of that rule. Among other things this meant that even
not explain why he sided with plutocrats on most political issues. The apparent explanation is that he feared the masses more—especially the urban immigrant masses.33 In this Godkin was adhering to the general tendency of conservatives to trust the few rather than the many—regardless of their degree of respect for the few. Finally, like so many cultural conservatives, Godkin had mixed feelings about the western frontier. While an early article of his in the North American Review had expressed
radicals” nor “forgetful of the old principles,” and who had “built” from “old stuffs whose grain and fibre they knew.” In this spirit, Wilson lectured his contemporaries on the error of America’s obsession with originality: “The world’s memory must be kept alive, or we shall never see an end to its old mistakes. We are in danger to lose our identity and become infantile in every generation.” Worse, “The past is discredited among [the masses], because they played no choosing part in it. It was
the world. . . . Liberalism must be more liberal than ever before, it must even be radical, if civilization is to escape the typhoon.”34 Sadly, international liberalism—as Wilson conceived it—was not to be, and 158 T R A N S I T I O N TO M O D E R N A M E R I C A civilization would soon face another “typhoon” as a consequence. Domestically as well, liberalism, progressivism, and reform became nearly dormant after the Great War and would not revive for over a decade. When they resurfaced in
that a heavy-handed British policy might lead to independence: “If we are not able to contrive some method of governing India well . . . a ground is laid for their eternal separation.” Also as in the American crisis, Burke thought abuse of power jeopardized the political traditions of the mother country.28 One writer on Burke’s Indian efforts has summarized them well: “The main force of [Burke’s] argument, unlike that of the Reflections, errs on the side of popular protest, humanitarian