American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia by Frohnen, Beer, Nelson (Eds.)

I usually like to read a book in its entirety before I review it. In fact, until very recently I was hard pressed to not finish a book once I started reading it. I don’t like loose ends and I guess part of my personality wants to check something off the list and so feels uncomfortable with a half-read book.

This presents a problem, however, when you want to review an encyclopedia. Call me crazy but I am not going to read nine hundred and some pages of entries like a novel. The reason for all of the postulating is the recent release of American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia by ISI Books. I wanted to note the release of this great resource but I obviously haven’t read anything but a small fraction of its copious entries.

Here is a brief description of the volume:

American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia is the first comprehensive reference volume to cover what is surely the most influential political and intellectual movement of the last half century. More than a decade in the making and more than half a million words in length, this informative and entertaining encyclopedia contains substantive entries of up to two thousand words on those persons, events, organizations, and concepts of major importance to postwar American conservatism.

Its contributors include iconic patriarchs of the conservative and libertarian movements, including Russell Kirk, M. E. Bradford, Gerhart Niemeyer, Stephen J. Tonsor, Peter Stanlis, and Murray Rothbard; celebrated scholars such as George H. Nash, Peter Augustine Lawler, Allan Carlson, Daniel J. Mahoney, Wilfred McClay, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, George W. Carey, and Paul Gottfried; well-known authors, including George Weigel, Lee Edwards, Richard Brookhiser, and Gregory Wolfe; and influential movement activists and leaders such as M. Stanton Evans, Morton Blackwell, Leonard Liggio, and Llewellyn Rockwell.

Ranging from abortion to Zoll, Donald Atwell, and written from viewpoints as various as those which have informed the postwar conservative movement itself, the encyclopedia’s more than 600 entries will orient readers of all kinds to the people and ideas that have given shape to contemporary American conservatism. This long-awaited volume is not to be missed.

I have to agree with that last sentiment. If you have any interest in American Conservatism you will want to check out this work. I for one I am excited to have it on my shelf. I consider myself a student of the movement and look forward to many years of dipping into this volume to refresh my memory about key figures and organizations as well as discovering things I didn’t know about the “persons, events, organizations, and concepts” that have made an impact on American Conservatism.

The editors of this important volume are worth mentioning as well:
– Jeremy Beer is the editor in chief at ISI Books. His essays and reviews have appeared in First Things, Catholic Social Science Review, Touchstone, and the New Pantagruel.

– Bruce Frohnen is Associate Professor of Law at Ave Maria School of Law and the author of Virtue and the Promise of Conservatism and The New Communitarians and the Crisis of Modern Liberalism

– Jeffrey O. Nelson is Vice President, Publications at ISI, founding publisher of ISI Books, co-editor of Remembered Past, editor of Henry Regnery’s Perfect Sowing: Reflections of a Bookman, and Russell Kirk’s Redeeming the Time.

The introduction (which can be read here) insightfully describes the history of conservatism and helps explain its present course. It also gives the reader a clear idea of where the editors are coming from. Allow me to quote at some length:

Conservatism’s mixed political fortunes, along with the often acrimonious debates that have persisted among the critics of postwar American society, including neoconservatives, paleoconservatives, traditionalists, libertarians, and those who simply call themselves “conservatives,” reveal a continuing crisis of identity among Americans on the political right. One reason for this crisis may be a lack of historical knowledge and perspective. This is too bad, for the most interesting intellectual debates in the last fifty years have arguably taken place not between conservatives and liberals but between adherents of different positions within the conservative camp. George Nash’s Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945 (revised ed., 1996) provides a masterful narrative history of conservatism, but there has as yet been no comprehensive treatment of the different elements of conservatism in all their conflicting and complementary variety. As Pepperdine University political theorist Ted V. McAlister has pointed out, “The historiography of American conservatism . . . remains immature.

For decades, the academic historical establishment largely ignored American conservatives or dealt with them as a sort of fringe group. Only after the surprising and enduring appeal of Ronald Reagan did most historians begin to take serious scholarly notice of self-proclaimed conservatives. Slowly, the historical literature is growing richer. But for now, the story of conservatism in America, as told by the academics, is fractured and inconclusive.” This volume is intended to contribute to the ongoing effort to understand what it has meant — and still means—to be a conservative in America.

The editors do not see in the history of conservatism the inevitable development of an increasingly powerful and coherent ideology of any kind, nor do they believe in the inevitable triumph of any particular set of policy positions. This eschewal of ideological clarity may leave some readers of this encyclopedia dissatisfied. Indeed, the reader will not get very far in this volume before beginning to notice the tensions and outright contradictions that exist and have ever existed among conservatives—on matters of principle no less than on matters of policy. If it has been marked by anything, conservatism in America has clearly been marked by diversity.

[. . .]

American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia (hereafter ACE ) seeks not to establish any orthodox definition of conservatism but rather to offer information and insight on the persons, schools, concepts, organizations, events, publications, and other topics of major importance to the nature and development of the conservative intellectual movement in America since World War II.

As I said above, if you have any interest in American Conservatism I would encourage you to check out this amazing resource. For conservatives, or students thereof, it is a must have reference.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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