If you were looking for a succinct and well-written primer on traditional American conservatism and the enduring values of the American Founders, you would be hard pressed to do better than
The American Cause by Russell Kirk. Henry Regnery originally published this short work in 1957 during the early days of the Cold War. It was later republished in 1966 in the heart of the revolutionary 1960’s. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute has recently decided to again publish this short but timely work. Kirk scholar, and speech writer for former Michigan Governor John Engler, Gleaves Whitney has edited the volume and provided an introduction and afterword. The original work had a heavy emphasis on communism and the communist threat that was appropriate to its time. Whitney has seen to abbreviate or generalize some of the focus on communism as such. This helps to preserve the meat of the book and to limit the distraction of dated political issues. Much discussion remains about communism as an ideology but Whitney’s editing prevents the work from being seen as merely an anti-communist polemic. The result is a book that is still very pertinent to today’s conflicts. In fact, Kirk’s succinct description of American exceptionalism remains one of the most clearly written and eloquently argued synopses of traditional conservatism around.
Kirk’s goal in writing the book was in fighting ignorance about American values and ideals. Obviously this was a concern during the Cold War but his warning applies equally today:
Fanatic ideologues in our time have drawn their strength from faith in their ideas, evil though most of their ideas have been. When revolutionaries willing to lay down their life for their movement have more faith in their ideology than we have in our ancient principles, and when anti-American ideologies on college campuses can bewilder even American university students by their arguments, then our American cause is in peril.
The heart of the book focuses on the three bodies of principles that serve to guide our lives and nation: our moral, political, and economic convictions. It is out of these principles that civilization grows. The goal of conservatism is to defend our civilization from decay and decadence, from a weakening of our principles. It is the defense of these principles that Kirk labels “the American cause.”
Kirk outlines the impact of Christian belief on American history and situates our moral convictions in Judeo-Christian theism. Kirk lists three key ingredients: “the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the dignity of man.” Out of this belief in God as the creator and sustainer of life flows the dignity and natural rights of mankind. But life on earth is not paradise; instead we live in a fallen world. As a result this life is not an end in itself but rather a place of trial and struggle – perfection will not be attained in this world. Because of their belief in a fallen and limited human nature – in original sin – Americans have avoided both religious utopianism and intoleration to a degree not found elsewhere. Kirk notes the unique America perspective: “We are a Christian nation that observes religious principles in its public acts, though enforcing religious convictions on no one.” One of the major factors in America’s religious toleration has been it’s understand of the difference between moral and positive law:
[W]e do not often attempt to regulate by law the complexities of private morality. In America, a man may stay within the law and yet do considerable number of immoral things. He may lie, seduce, neglect his duties, waste his life, denounce God, and yet run small risk of ever going to prison . . . We restrict the operation of our positive laws to those essential matters of public security that cannot be neglected without immediate danger to the whole fabric of civilized society.
In the political arena Kirk outlines three important ideas in Western thought: justice, order, and freedom. It is the unique balancing of these three ideas that gives America its “order liberty.” Kirk defines justice as “the principle and process by which each man is accorded the things that are his own – the things that belong to his nature.” It is the first necessity of any decent society. The American view of justice is also unique. Justice is not seen as some cosmic and perfect equality. Rather it is the limited right of each man to pursue his nature as long as he does not infringe on the rights of his neighbor. This is justice before the law not equality of condition. Kirk provides a vivid description:
In the just state, the energetic man is protected in his rights to the fruits of his endeavors; the contemplative man, in his right to study and leisure; the propertied man, in his rights of inheritance and bequest; the poor man, in his rights to decent treatment and peaceful existence; the religious man, in his rights to worship; the craftsman, in his right to work. The just state, in short, will endeavor to ensure that no one shall take from another man what properly belongs to his personality, his station in life, and his material interests.
This type of justice does not seek the crushing uniformity of equality of condition but rather revels in the variety and natural talents of human beings.
As Kirk pointed out throughout his career, order is a necessary condition for freedom. Kirk points out that the American Founders were not out to produce a classless society. Nor, despite their republicanism, did they seek the destruction of aristocracy. The founders sought to abolish caste: “hereditary distinctions and privileges enforced by law.” Knowing human nature they realized that the natural aristocracy of talent, ambition, and wealth could be used to the benefit of the commonwealth. Kirk points to what the founders were looking for:
A satisfactorily orderly society, they argued, must consist of a mixture of aristocracy and democracy, a balancing and checking and harmonizing of the influence of wealth and private ability with the influence of numbers and popular desire.
As a result of this unique view of justice, and the recognition of the need for order, the American founders sought to create a system of government that protected freedom defined in a negative sense: security from having things done to you against your will. Kirk again understands that prudence must prevail:
All that central political authority can accomplish is to promise not to abridge the freedoms which men have made for themselves, or which they receive as part of their birthright from God.
The protection of certain basic rights – not the search for perfect equality or “demolishing all obstacles to anarchic self-gratification” – was the motive behind the American Revolution and it underlines the American cause today.
With moral and political foundations clear Kirk moves on to our economic convictions. The order is no accident as he shows how the third builds off the first two. He relates how our free market system is best suited to human nature and the demands of justice, order, and freedom. A competitive free market system promotes justice – to each his own – by allowing people to compete based on their talents, hard work, and ambition. The free enterprise system promotes order because it allows people to pursue their own particular interests; to work within their own unique personality and nature. Lastly, the market promotes freedom because it is based on choices freely made. Kirk contrasts the benefits of this system with the collectivist and command economy. Instead of justice you get forced equality – taking what is rightfully one man’s rewards and giving them to someone who did not earn them. Instead of order you get a society warped by a false hierarchy; instead of variety and natural leadership you get stale bureaucracy and uniformity. Instead of freedom you get compulsion and servitude. As Kirk points out, where economic freedom is eroded moral and political freedom begins to disappear. Given these principles it is not surprising that the American economy far surpasses its competitors. While Kirk eschews pride and arrogance about American accomplishments, and realizes there is more to life than a good standard of living, he knows that we have much to be thankful for and proud of as a nation.
Kirk concludes with a discussion of those who wish us harm. Much of Kirk’s focus is aimed at communist and Marxist revolutionaries but his basic points are still useful today. Kirk insightfully notes that most discontent is a result of confusion and uncertainty. He points out that people infrequently revolt out of simple privation but rather when the pace of change imperials their way of thinking and their way of life. He outlines how the “giddy change” of modern life has upset the foundation of societies across the globe. The traditional organization of work, family, and religion is being broken down. Reacting to this situation, revolutionaries ironically seek to “turn the world upside down in resentment at the world’s confusion.” Sadly, their Utopian goals only result in destruction and suffering. Because of America’s unique place in the world, these revolutionaries – acting out of hatred and envy – often turn towards America with disastrous results.
These violent and radical revolutionaries are often aided by the sentimental and ignorant among us. This is what Kirk is fighting against, weakness from within. To fight this weakness, he provides a rousing defense of American ideals in the face of those who accuse America of being materialistic, imperialistic, capitalistic, unjust, and decadent. After refuting these charges one by one Kirk provides a fitting and inspiring conclusion that I would like to quote at length because it remains as true today as it was the day Kirk wrote it:
For two important reasons – and those of equal weight in the minds of most citizens of the United States – America has set her face against every totalist ideology, stationer her troops on foreign soil, built an immense air force and an immense fleet, poured out her national wealth in aid of the defense and the welfare of the free world. One reason is that Americans know they themselves cannot be secure unless the civilization of which they are apart is secure. The do not hesitate to oppose by strength the armed doctrines of ideologues. Their cause, they believe, is the cause of true human nature, of enlightened order, regular justice, and liberty under law. For this cause they have made some sacrifices; they will make more.
From beginning to end Kirk eloquently and engagingly describes this defense of civilization as the American Cause. At heart this is what it means to be conservative. In America’s current “time of troubles” I heartily recommend this short but powerful book.