Edmund Burke in America

Edmund Burke in America: The Contested Career of the Father of Modern Conservatism

Drew Maciag
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 280
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    Edmund Burke in America
    Book Description:

    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. InEdmund 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6787-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. Introduction: In Search of Icons
    (pp. 1-6)

    In a 2005New Yorkerinterview, a neoconservative Pentagon official defended the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq by invoking the name of the eighteenth-century British politician Edmund Burke.¹ Burke’s relevance may not have been obvious to most readers. But those who understood the esoteric codes of ideological discourse got the message. Forget that Burke had no practical knowledge of the Middle East, and knew nothing about weapons of mass destruction, Islamic fundamentalism, military strategy, or democratic nation building. None of that mattered. Paying homage to Burke was more a profession of faith than an explanation of policy. To certain conservative...

  5. Chapter 1 Burke in Brief: A “Philosophical” Primer
    (pp. 7-22)

    Edmund Burke (1729–97) is usually described as a British political philosopher. But he was, in the first instance, an active politician who spent most of his adult life as a member of Parliament. Whatever “philosophy” Burke expounded was extracted by others from his pamphlets, letters, and orations, which were produced in the heat of political battle. This, in part, explains why he has been susceptible to differing interpretations. Burke was a prolific speaker and writer who today is remembered chiefly as a critic of the French Revolution and as the “father of conservatism.” In historical context, however, he had...

  6. Part I: Early America

    • Chapter 2 Old Seeds, New Soil: The Land of Paine
      (pp. 25-32)

      Benjamin Franklin once remarked that the Atlantic Ocean acted as a filter on European ideas as they traveled to America. But Franklin was exaggerating the influence of the voyage. European ideas arrived in America intact because they arrived in print. The same writings by Old World intellectuals were available on both continents, though the cultural environment into which they were received in America was distinctive. In today’s political jargon, we would say that the ideas of Locke, Rousseau, Milton, Montesquieu, and Edmund Burkeresonateddifferently in the colonies, compared to England or France. As one scholar put it, “Freed from...

    • Chapter 3 Federalist Persuasions: John and J. Q. Adams
      (pp. 33-57)

      One American who scarcely praised Burke at all, who was in fact almost dismissive of him, was John Adams. This is ironic, since Adams (1735–1826) has been called an “American Burke.” Actually the nation’s second president was no Burkean in the proper sense: he neither consulted Burke for guidance nor invoked him for authority. Even so, there is much about Adams that seems congruent with Burke at first glance. Both men stood left of the political center while in their primes, and appeared to move to the right in their later years. Both purportedly held a dark view of...

    • Chapter 4 Democratic America: The Ethos of Liberalism
      (pp. 58-72)

      What John Adams, Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, the founding fathers, and many of their contemporaries all shared was the privilege of historical opportunity. The worldwide importance of the American and French Revolutions infused their efforts with added consequence, and in the process infused their lives with great historical value. But when the turbulent epoch in which they thrived finally passed, it was followed by a period of comparative calm. During this less-revolutionary phase of national development, the primary driving force of human agency in America shifted from a relative handful of important men to a larger and more diverse collection...

    • Chapter 5 American Whigs: A Conservative Response
      (pp. 73-104)

      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 swelling democratic tide as a threat to their own status, influence, and power, as well as to the old Federalist and classical republican reliance on constitutional balance. Under America’s first two-party system, the rivalry between Federalists and Republicans had conformed to a fairly straightforward contest between hierarchical and grassroots sensibilities. To exaggerate for the sake of contrast: Federalists wanted a...

  7. Part II: Transition to Modern America

    • Chapter 6 The Gilded Age: Eclectic Interpretations
      (pp. 107-121)

      America’s political interest in Edmund Burke became less consequential after the Civil War, because of dramatic changes (both literally and figuratively) to the national landscape. During the Age of Revolution and the antebellum period, politics in its broadest sense was the central concern of American life, since the process of democratization was the defining theme. Burke therefore was always relevant in one way or another. But following the war, economics in its broadest sense became the central concern of American life—and politics, immigration, urbanization, westward migration, and even to some extent religion, became intertwined with the new defining theme...

    • Chapter 7 Theodore Roosevelt: Blazing Forward, Looking Backward
      (pp. 122-142)

      Aside from John Adams, the president who invites the closest comparison with Edmund Burke is Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919). Yet the parallels between Burke and Roosevelt may not be immediately obvious. Many Americans think they know Theodore Roosevelt, but what they know is his mythic image. A good deal of that image was projected by TR himself, and his creation of an unmistakable persona was an early triumph of modern public relations. Over time, his promotional efforts were enhanced by a confederacy of cartoonists, journalists, merchandisers (selling Teddy bears), sympathetic memoirists, and others who reinforced his image as a fearless...

    • Chapter 8 Woodrow Wilson: Confronting American Maturity
      (pp. 143-162)

      Although TR retained the more Burkelike sensibility, the American president who outright said the most about Edmund Burke was Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924). Roosevelt and Wilson belonged to opposing political parties and exhibited strikingly different personalities, yet they were much in tune politically. (Ironically, each went to absurd lengths to deny this last point.) As presidents, both men shepherded substantial reform legislation through Congress, and each in his own way asserted the primacy of “the people” over vested economic interests. Both made a show of appealing to morality and high ideals, and both used their offices to expand the limits...

  8. Part III: Postwar America

    • Chapter 9 Modern Times: Conjunctions and Consensus
      (pp. 165-171)

      Given the success of Progressive reform and New Deal liberalism in the early decades of the twentieth century (and the technocratic, commercial, and cultural modernization that continued even during the 1920s), as well as the general blurring of Burke’s American image, few could have predicted the postwar revival of aggressive Burkean conservatism. Ever since the early nineteenth century, attempts to import or adopt Burke’s Anglo-traditionalist sensibility proved to be a fool’s errand; America’s cultural conservatives admitted this. But following the Second World War hundreds of books and articles about Burke were published, with the great majority emphasizing his conservative principles....

    • Chapter 10 Natural Law: A Neo-traditionalist Revival
      (pp. 172-199)

      The idea of “natural law,” even if somewhat vague, has a long and venerable history. In various guises it dates back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, and some writers have claimed it belongs also to the Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Chinese traditions.¹ Natural law is universal and absolute, since it emanates from God, or from nature. In the Western Christian tradition, it is knowable only to God, though it may be imperfectly discovered by man’s reason. During the Middle Ages, when jurisprudence was still a branch of theology, all “customs” and “enactments” were expected to be “in harmony...

    • Chapter 11 The Cold War: Existential Threat Redux
      (pp. 200-215)

      While natural law remained an esoteric concern during the 1950s, the Cold War became a major preoccupation of the American public, and it provided the apocalyptic context for political and social debate. The communist menace was cited repeatedly on such issues as the Marshall Plan, McCarthyism, the fluoridation of water supplies, civil rights, math and science education, the interstate highway system, and management of the “mixed economy.” Moreover, fear of “godless communism” was not just theoretical; the threat of nuclear attack by the Soviet Union made it primal. Suburbanites did not build fallout shelters and schoolchildren were not taught to...

    • Chapter 12 Contemporary Conservatives: Victories and Illusions
      (pp. 216-228)

      Unlike the Cold War, which many believed offered clear alternatives between good and evil and right and wrong, most social and political concerns in the final decades of the twentieth century did not lend themselves to such all-or-nothing analysis. (The loudest exception to this rule was the clash over abortion rights, a battle that Burke was not asked to join.) Plenty of writing on Edmund Burke has appeared since the 1970s, but much of it has not been useful for tracing the course of American ideals. In part this represented a maturation of Burkean scholarship, as well as a diversification...

  9. Conclusion: A World without Fathers
    (pp. 229-242)

    There is currently no clear American consensus on the value of Burke’s political philosophy, and there is not—and never has been—any meaningful agreement about Burke’s relevance to American history. Furthermore, direct interest in Burke has been confined to a relatively small handful of scholars, journalists, and political advocates; elsewhere, even among educated Americans, Burke’s name usually goes unrecognized. Yet this belies the significance of Burke’s legacy. Burke was not the only thinker to have influenced Americans who—in a climate suspicious of intellectuals—supposedly acquired their beliefs simply because certain ideas were “in the air.” Many Americans absorbed...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 243-278)
  11. Index
    (pp. 279-286)