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.
prototypical of nineteenth-century scientism. It may have been faulty reasoning, but it was faulty in a forward-looking manner. It was also a byproduct of Enlightenment rationalism, though one that would be turned mostly to conservative purposes in the coming century. Burke’s belief in a restoration of traditional society was, by contrast, backward looking and decidedly anti-Enlightenment in character. His recourse to pleasing illusions, chivalry, and a preference for wisdom over reason was as
“convince our coevals that America has a monopoly of Revolution, that we really started the whole thing and have our chance for the last word also, if we are able and if we prove willing to take it.”45 Ch ap ter 5 American Whigs A Conservative Response If the mid-antebellum consensus felt somewhat like the end of history, not all Americans of the time were satisfied with the outcome. An important minority failed to accept democratization as a recipe for the good society. Many elites saw the
“successively becomes the savior of the Constitution.” He believed the Republican Party’s emphasis on slavery to be an “evil which assails the state” and that “their creed” was “revolutionary and dangerous.” He added, “The fear to which I appeal is that early and provident fear which Mr. Burke so beautifully describes as being the mother of safety.”45 In this revealing speech Choate stood at odds with the mainstream American tradition on two separate points: he mocked the ideals of the
their enemy, they say, and they will not learn of it. They wish to break with it for ever: its lessons are tainted to their taste.” And he added that, “In America especially, we run perpetually this risk of newness.”20 Wilson also applied a Burkean argument to combat the growing tendency toward scientism in the academy, which he saw as a harmful side effect of modernization. Hence he warned educators not to instill a hubris of rationality in their students. Like most conservatives, Wilson
any number of nineteenthcentury American Burkeans. Given such company (and in a twist on what was earlier said about Burke), one might suggest that had Wilson died at fifty, his legacy would be that of conservative traditionalism rather than Progressive reform or organizational modernization. But while Wilson continued to cite Burke for the rest of his life, he eventually came to emphasize the more proto-liberal side of his thought—while never changing his view of Burke as a voice rooted in