Back to Burke?
The rise of the Tea Party and ongoing Republican efforts to define their national platform make this an opportune time to explore the roots and contours of American conservatism. Drew Maciag’s Edmund Burke in America: The Contested Career of the Father of Modern Conservatism employs Burke to investigate wider themes in American political culture, arguing that Burke—unlike John Locke—is not important because of the substance of his ideas. Rather, Burke’s unique combination of progressive and traditional paradigms made him a “curious type of half modern” attractive to conservatives because he urged change and progress tempered by continuity and tradition.
Although remembered as a conservative, Burke (1729-97) was committed to Enlightenment liberal reform. He opposed slavery and most forms of capital punishment, supported religious toleration, objected to harsh penal codes in Ireland and condemned corporal punishment for sodomy (leading to accusations that he was a “sodomite sympathizer”). In the context of British constitutional monarchy and imperialism, in a highly publicized trial, Burke accused the governor general of British India, Warren Hastings, of abusing Indian natives. Yet Burke rejected radical social engineering or the chaotic rule of the “mob.” For these reasons, he opposed the French Revolution and the easing of divorce laws. Burke described his approach in “A Letter to a Noble Lord”: “To innovate is not to reform.... The French revolutionists...refused to reform anything; and they left...nothing at all unchanged.”
According to Drew Maciag, this Old Whig distrust of egalitarianism and revolution has provided American conservatives—from the 18th to the 21st centuries—a “significant intellectual counterpoint” to “utopian confidence in democracy, equality, and the sensibility of perpetual revolution.” Because American political culture is rooted in a struggle between the followers of Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke, Maciag insists that we can understand the “perpetual tension between competing sets of American ideals” by looking at how different generations fought over Burke. Exploring that tension might have revealed how the American right and left have often coalesced around a core set of liberal ideals or the paradoxical cross-fertilizations that have led the Tea Party to adopt elements of Paine’s libertarianism while rejecting his desire to protect individuals from the effects of capitalism (e.g., Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, Basic Books 2013, as well as Adam Gopnik’s “The Right Man: Who Owns Edmund Burke?” The New Yorker, 7/29/13).
Disappointingly, Maciag neither traces the impact of Burke’s ideas nor provides an argument for why Burke shines light on the American political tradition. His claims boil down to how many Americans mentioned Burke (e.g., John Adams, Woodrow Wilson) because Burke provided eloquence or “ever-quotable prose” or Americans had a Burke-like sensibility (e.g., Theodore Roosevelt). The fact that Wilson wrote about Burke does not mean he was Burkean or “firmly entrenched in his conservative outlook.” As Maciag admits, Wilson was a liberal in politics, economics, foreign policy and diplomacy. Occasionally and outrageously, Maciag calls on similarity of biography or psychological state (e.g., whether Burke and John Adams’s sons were successful in politics or they both felt underappreciated in old age). Ultimately, Maciag demonstrates that Burke’s ideas did not affect the development of American conservatism. Burke simply provided quotations (which could be molded to just about any new idea) and philosophical authority as Americans forged new institutions.
For example, 20th-century Catholic writers fought positivism by reinventing Burke as a theorist of natural and higher law in the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas. Catholics used Burke’s name (e.g., the Burke Society of Fordham University, the Burke Newsletter at the University of Detroit) to legitimate their cause. Like the other public intellectuals, writers and politicians Maciag describes, Catholic scholars like Peter Stanlis “twisted” Burke to fit “the Catholic mold.” Burke provided no argument for natural law, but he legitimated the claims and provided useful rhetoric.
Although there are some wonderful moments in the book (e.g., how “Thoughts on the Causes of the Present Discontents” wove criticism of Andrew Jackson together with Burke’s 1770 attack on the corruption and despotism of George III) readers will not gain much depth or breadth of understanding regarding American conservatism. Important schools of thought or major conservative thinkers (e.g., Hamilton, Hayek, Buckley) are never seriously addressed. Huntington’s famous claim regarding Burke (e.g., the “shock of events” drives people to conservatism when institutions they take for granted are affected) is mentioned but not analyzed. For Maciag, conservatism focuses on “order, stability, hierarchy, religious orthodoxy, institutional authority, social conformity, property rights, discipline, and established cultural standards,” but these themes are neither discussed systematically nor critically interrogated. Given the importance of religion, capitalism, immigration, sexual orientation, crime and punishment and race in 21st-century conservative rhetoric, it is odd that these themes—all addressed by Burke—are virtually ignored. Modern conservatives have run against government and favored popular recall, but how can this be squared with Burke?
Is the French Revolution really the Maginot line of the American political traditions? Maciag never provides convincing evidence. Differing understandings of nationalism (Hamilton and the Federal Bank) and federalism (John Adams and the Alien and Sedition Acts) defined party lines, but can these ideological differences be traced to the social engineering of the French Revolution? Maciag refers to the market as a substitute for monarchy, aristocracy and restrictive customary practices but fails to acknowledge that slavery (mentioned in that same paragraph) was, quite literally, a “restrictive” customary practice that defined American political life. Slavery and states rights warrant careful discussion, given modern conservatism’s reliance on local control rather than national supremacy.
As a work for general audiences, Maciag fails to provide crucial background information on events or unfamiliar people (e.g., the XYZ Affair, Friedrich von Gentz and Ralph Adams Cram); and for academic readers, he ignores major debates in the literature and makes grand claims without providing adequate evidence. Although Maciag unearths some fascinating material, he fails to demonstrate how investigating Burke casts light on the development of American conservative ideals. As he writes, “American conservatism as actually practiced in politics, economics, and social policy has had almost nothing to do with Burke’s philosophy.”
This article also appeared in print, under the headline “Back to Burke?,” in the September 15, 2014, issue.