The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 23, 2019

Page 5 of 5
American Conservative Thought

Lesson 1: Edmund Burke

  1. Burke, excerpt from Reflections on the Revolution in France. [On this webpage, do a text search for the section from “You will observe, that from Magna Charta...” to “...but you are at war with nature.”]
    • How is Burke’s concept of “nature’s teaching” different from his opponents’ doctrine of “the rights of men”?
    • The case is often made that the American and French Revolutions were fundamentally different in nature. Did the American revolutionaries “act as if you had never been moulded into civil society, and had every thing to begin anew”?
    • What does it mean to have a tradition of liberty?
  2. Burke, Speech on the Reform of the Representation of the Commons in Parliament
    • Is the existence of a prescriptive constitution necessary to conservatism?
    • Does “the true touchstone of all theories” exclude the use of political theory, Burke’s protestations to the contrary notwithstanding?
    • What does it mean that “every man ought to govern himself,” a notion Burke disparages?
  3. Burke, “Letter to William Elliot, May 1795” from Further Reflections on the French Revolution
    • How is elitism connected to an ideological style in politics?
    • What are Burke’s reasons for favoring the past over the future?
    • What is the distinction between innovation and reform?

Summary question: Is it proper to speak of a conservative canon of principles that we can glean from Burke? What distinguishes conservatism from other political opinions, ideologies, and philosophies?

Further reading:

  1. The Enduring Edmund Burke, ed. Ian Crowe
  2. Peter Stanlis, “The Basis of Burke’s Political Conservatism”
  3. Russell Kirk, Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered
  4. Russell Kirk, “Edmund Burke and the Constitution”
  5. Jeffrey Hart, “Edmund Burke and the English Revolution”

Lesson 2: British liberalism

  1. David Hume, “That Politics May Be Reduced to a Science” from Essays Moral, Political, Literary
    • Is the moral virtue of the ruler a sufficient condition for good government?
    • What role does history play in our political thinking?
    • What distinguishes wisdom in politics from political zealotry?
  2. John Locke, Second Treatise on Government, Ch. II, VII, VIII, & IX
    • What are four arguments for the existence of a state of nature? What are four arguments against it?
    • How is liberty distinguished from license? What does this have to do with natural law, and is Locke a natural law thinker?
    • Does voluntarism void the binding nature of a compact, ensuring its eventual disintegration?
  3. Adam Smith, “Of Public Jurisprudence” from Lectures on Jurisprudence
    • What does the presumption of a time without civil society mean for the stability or instability of civil society?
    • Does Smith’s “nation of hunters” live in a direct democracy?
    • Must a polity enslave some to ensure the liberty of others? Compare ancient Greece to post-Civil War America, for one case study.

Summary question: Is conservatism in America and England necessarily the conservation of liberalism?

Further reading:

  1. Eugene Miller, “Hume on the Development of English Liberty”
  2. Donald W. Livingston, “David Hume: Ambassador from the World of Learning to the World of Conversation”
  3. Donald J. Devine, “John Locke: His Harmony between Liberty and Virtue”
  4. Willmoore Kendall, “John Locke Revisited”
  5. Paul A. Rahe, “John Locke’s Philosophical Partisanship”
  6. Russell Kirk, “Three Pillars of Order: Edmund Burke, Samuel Johnson, Adam Smith”
  7. Paul Gottfried, “Adam Smith and German Social Thought”

Lesson 3: European nineteenth-century conservatism

  1. Joseph de Maistre, Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions, §I-XIV & XXVI–XLVII
    • Can an American adhere to de Maistre’s conception of a constitution? If so, what would America’s unwritten constitution consist of?
    • How does one discern a nation’s unwritten constitution? By what mechanism is the unwritten constitution authoritative?
    • What place does infallibility have in political thinking? Is there a polity or man that is infallible? Cf. Maistre’s comments on the English Constitution.
  2. Abraham Kuyper, “Calvinism and Politics” from Lectures on Calvinism.
    • Could Kuyper’s politics function in a state that does not recognize Christian revelation?
    • Is Calvinism the source of the historical liberties of Englishmen, Americans, and other nations with historically significant Calvinist populations?
    • How are there spheres outside the state’s purview? How do their individual authorities relate to one another?
  3. Friedrich Julius Stahl, Speech on the repeal of the Prussian constitution.
    • On what sort of reasoning does Stahl base his argument? Is it antithetical to ideology?
    • Is Stahl’s rejection of “unlimited freedom” an affirmation of Kuyperian sphere-sovereignty?
    • To what end would a “well-placed, harmonious legal whole” exist, if it did?

Summary question: Are European and American conservatisms fundamentally different? If so, how? And if not, how do we assess America’s Lockean legacy?

Further reading:

  1. T. John Jamieson, “A Joseph de Maistre Revival”
  2. Critics of the Enlightenment: Readings in the French Counter-Revolutionary Tradition, ed. Christopher O. Blum
  3. Aurelian Craiutu, “The True Joseph de Maistre”
  4. James Skillen, “Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea”

Lesson 4: American nineteenth-century conservatism

  1. John C. Calhoun, A Disquisition on Government. [Read from the beginning to “I shall begin with the former.”]
    • Is the antagonism that Calhoun assumes at all levels of politics endemic to government?
    • Is the conservative principle of the contemporary American government force or compromise? Can or does a concurrent majority exist in America?
    • Is the principle of nullification essential to the American constitution?
  2. John Taylor, “The Principles of Our Revolution,” from Construction Construed and Constitutions Vindicated.
    • What is the particular danger of avarice in a republican government?
    • Was the American Revolution a puritanical war similar to the English Civil War? How and in what sense(s)?
    • How are authorities between the individual and the nation bulwarks of and hindrances to liberty?
  3. James Fenimore Cooper, “On the Republic of the United States of America” (p. 17) from The American Democrat
    • Could America have preserved liberty without the authority of the national government as the Constitution established it?
    • Is Cooper’s exegesis of the establishment clause correct?
    • Is the existence of an aristocracy necessary to conservatism?

Summary question: What should and/or does American conservatism conserve? Is there an American conservatism, or must there be multiple American conservatisms?

Further reading:

  1. Felix Morley, “The Actuality of Calhoun”
  2. George Anastaplo, “The American Alcibiades?”
  3. J.W. Cooke, “Old-Fashioned Men”
  4. Michael Clark, “Democrats and Gentlemen”
  5. Grant Morrison, “James Fenimore Cooper and American Republicanism”

Lesson 5: The Old Right

  1. Garet Garrett, The People’s Pottage, pp. 126-154, “The Rise of Empire: Properties of Empire”
    • Is a republican empire desirable and/or possible? What would its telos be?
    • Are there conditions of war or national defense that justify the measures Garrett deems unconstitutional?
    • How does Garrett envision the constitutional system of checks and balances?
  2. Albert Jay Nock, “Life, Liberty, and...”
    • What does “the pursuit of happiness” mean? Would the phrase “life, liberty, and property” have been better in the Declaration? Why or why not?
    • For what purpose or purposes does government exist? Does Nock consider any of these?
    • What place, if any, do families, churches, and other groups larger than the individual—but smaller than the state—have in Nock’s essay? Why are they present or absent?
  3. John Flynn, Part III, Chapter 3 “The Righteous Autarchy” from As We Go Marching
    • Do you agree with Flynn’s assessment of the significance of World War I? Why or why not?
    • Is any degree of government planning compatible with a free society?
    • To what extent is Flynn’s comparison of the New Deal to fascist and communist regimes an apt one?

Summary question: What are the main features of Nock, Flynn, and Garrett’s common vision of America? Why do they desire that the American state do so little?

Further reading:

  1. The Superfluous Men: Conservative Critics of American Culture, 1900-1945, ed. Robert M. Crunden
  2. Justin Raimondo, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement
  3. Who Owns America? A New Declaration of Independence, ed. Herbert Agar and Allen Tate
  4. Edmund Opitz, “The Durable Mr. Nock”
  5. Robert Thornton, “A Stroll with Albert Jay Nock”

Lesson 6: The libertarians

  1. Murray Rothbard, “Myth and Truth About Libertarianism”
    • Are there types of coercion that can produce authentic virtue and not merely “good behavior”?
    • Why would Rothbard’s “myths” arise in the first place? Are they logical extensions of libertarianism?
    • Is the doctrine of natural rights compatible with traditional Judaism or Christianity?
  2. F.A. von Hayek, “Principles or Expediency?”
    • Is the concept of “spontaneous order,” especially in the market, essential to libertarianism?
    • What does Hayek mean by “ideology”? Is an a priori commitment to the idea of liberty un-conservative or, at least, un-Burkean?
    • Does conservatism presume the kind of knowledge essential to making decisions for others (e.g. in the family, in the state, in the church) that Hayek rejects?
  3. Frank Chodorov, “Government Contra State” from Fugitive Essays: Selected Writings of Frank Chodorov
    • How are natural rights related to each other, if at all? What does it mean when one of them (e.g. the right to life) is openly denied to some in the polity in the name of another (the right of privacy)?
    • What place does custom have in determining a government’s legitimacy?
    • Does taxation have any purpose more legitimate than the one named by Chodorov?

Summary question: Can libertarians be considered conservative? If yes, define the senses in which they are; if no, why have they been allied with conservatives in the past?

Further reading:

  1. George Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in American Since 1945 (an excellent introduction for all modern strands of American conservatism)
  2. Freedom and Virtue: The Conservative/Libertarian Debate, ed. George W. Carey
  3. Murray Rothbard, “Conservatism and Freedom: A Libertarian Comment”
  4. Dyer & Hickman, “American Conservatism and F.A. Hayek”
  5. Frank Chodorov, “Debunking the State”
  6. Russell Kirk, “Libertarians: the Chirping Sectaries”

Lesson 7: The anticommunists

  1. Whittaker Chambers, foreword to Witness
    • How can man become a beast?
    • Is it true that the crisis of the Western world exists to the degree to which the West has grown indifferent to God?
    • How does Chambers’ vision of the common crisis of the modern West as Man without God reorient our understanding of communism, and of the “free world”?
  2. James Burnham, “The Circular Travels of the Professors”
    • Why would intellectuals be particularly susceptible to ideological thinking?
    • Is the argument against communism’s effects (mass murder and mass poverty, among others) more pertinent today than the argument against its premises (atheism, materialism, etc.)?
    • Writing in 1960, does Burnham turn out to be at all prophetic about the future of communism? Or was he a failed prophet?
  3. William Henry Chamberlin, “Communism in Disarray”
    • Is permanent revolution intrinsic to communism?
    • Why does Chamberlin iterate communism’s dreary history with such thoroughness?
    • Did communism in fact die for the reasons Chamberlin provides or predicts?

Summary question: Now that communism has been consigned to history’s “ash heap,” are the writings of the anticommunists relevant any more? Why or why not?

Further reading:

  1. Jeffrey Hart, The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and its Times
  2. Daniel Mahoney, “Whittaker Chambers: Witness to the Crisis of the Modern Soul”
  3. Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, and the Schism in the American Soul, ed. Patrick A. Swan.
  4. William McGurn, “The Witness of Whittaker Chambers: A Bitter Hope”
  5. Daniel Kelly, James Burnham and the Struggle for the World: A Life
  6. Samuel Francis, “Power and History: The Political Thought of James Burnham”
  7. Albert Weeks, “Communist Illusion and Scourge”

Lesson 8: The traditionalists

  1. Russell Kirk, “Enlivening the Conservative Mind”, pp. 23-26 of “The State of Conservatism: A Symposium” pdf.
    • Review Kirk’s list of items to which the conservative subscribes. How does adherence to these ideas differ from adherence to an ideology?
    • What are the “certain large questions” on which thinking conservatives can agree? Does this exclude any of the groups listed a few paragraphs earlier in the essay?
    • Is conservatism a “movement”?
  2. Richard Weaver, “Up From Liberalism”
    • Why did Weaver write an intellectual autobiography rather than a compendium of his ideas?
    • Does a denial of one part of Weaver’s orthodoxy entail a denial of all the others? In other words, do all Weaver’s contentions stand and fall together, or can one appropriate them selectively?
    • Compare Weaver’s description of war under the auspices of chivalry with Garrett’s American imperial war. How does each author deal with the history of war, and what does he assume or claim about its participants?
  3. Robert Nisbet, “Conservatives and Libertarians: Uneasy Cousins”
    • What aspects of American conservatism are Burkean, and which are un- or anti-Burkean?
    • Is there a conservatism that is not opposed to libertarianism?
    • Can one believe that “human nature” changes or is nonexistent and still remain a conservative?

Summary question: In the end, is the “unorthodox defense of orthodoxy” an impossibility?

Further reading:

  1. Bruce Frohnen, “Redeeming America’s Political Culture: The Kirkean Tradition in the Study of American Public Life”
  2. Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order
  3. Russell Kirk, The Politics of Prudence
  4. Russell Kirk, The American Cause
  5. Henry Regnery, “Russell Kirk: A Life Worth Living”
  6. Richard Weaver, Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time
  7. John Bliese, “Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk, and the Environment”
  8. John East, “Richard Weaver: The Conservatism of Affirmation”
  9. Brad Lowell Stone, “A True Sociologist: Richard Weaver”

Lesson 9: Neoconservatism

  1. Irving Kristol, “The Neoconservative Persuasion”
    • Why does Kristol cite hopefulness, being forward-looking, and cheerfulness as “in the American grain,” rather than lugubriousness, nostalgia, or dyspepsia? Do the latter characteristics have a place in conservatism? Do they have a place in American life?
    • Does neoconservatism have a contribution to make that is extra- or non-political? Is neoconservatism anything besides a political movement?
    • Is neoconservatism primarily valuable for its contributions to domestic policy?
  2. Tod Lindberg, “Neoconservatism’s Liberal Legacy”
    • Is American conservatism the conservation of liberalism?
    • Is the “neoconservative turn” in public policy a conservative “turn” in any sense?
    • Is neoconservatism an ideology?
  3. Gary North, “An Introduction to Neoconservatism”
    • What is neoconservatism’s relation to the Old Right?
    • Why is neoconservatism not fundamentally opposed to the expansion of government for the public good?
    • Re-read what North calls his fundamental insight about neoconservatives’ societal position. Does it matter more, as much, or less than he thinks it does to neoconservatism?

Summary question: Is neoconservatism actually conservative? In what ways?

Further reading:

  1. The Future of Conservatism: Conflict and Consensus in the Post-Reagan Era, ed. Charles W. Dunn
  2. Samuel Francis, “The Harmless Persuasion”

Lesson 10: Paleoconservatism

  1. Samuel Francis, “The Paleo Persuasion”
    • Is America a “proposition”? Why or why not?
    • Should paleoconservatives hold out hope for electoral success in America?
    • What degree of continuity is there between the Old Right and the paleoconservatives? What is the degree of continuity between paleos and traditionalists?
  2. Paul Gottfried, “Paleoconservatism”
    • To paraphrase Tertullian, what hath paleoconservatism to do with neoconservatism?
    • Who are the libertarians with whom paleoconservatives could make an alliance? Is this a political or philosophical meeting of minds?
    • Does the paleoconservatives’ rejection of ideology necessarily lead to the embrace of relativism in their politics?
  3. Douglas Jeffrey, “Confused About Conservatism”
    • What is the responsibility of the American people in light of their history?
    • What is it the task of American conservatism to conserve?
    • What does it mean that conservatives “defeat[ed] the Soviet Union”?

Summary question: Is paleoconservatism more than a reaction to neoconservatism? If so, what is that “more”?

Further reading:

  1. Gerald Russello, “The Need for Self-Scrutiny”

Lesson 11: The agrarians

  1. Wendell Berry, “The Agrarian Standard”
    • Notice Berry’s phrase, “make people truly native to their places.” How does a process of “making native” occur?
    • Must industrialization be anathema to conservatives?
    • What does the phrase “healthy people in a healthy land” mean? Can it be reduced to quantifiable measures of health (e.g. incidence of cancer, parts-per-million of a given pollutant)? Is Berry’s vision more holistic than that?
  2. Allan Carlson, “Compassionate Conservatism: Ten Lessons from the New Agrarians”
    • Is an “activist” or “compassionate” conservatism oxymoronic?
    • Compare Carlson’s list of agrarian virtues to Garrett’s marks of empire. Is the cultivation of such virtues and prejudices compatible with an empire? Why or why not?
    • Can a wide diffusion of property be achieved without massive state intervention in the market? If so, does this mean that agrarianism is fundamentally unjust?
  3. David Gordon, “We Will Berry You!—The Flaky Socialism of the Crunchy Cons”
    • Is agrarianism a necessary consequence of being a traditionalist?
    • Why are restrictions on personal freedom categorically wrong?
    • It would appear that agrarianism would necessarily result in much less wealth for a society overall. How does an agrarian rationally defend his positions?

Summary question: Reread the beginning of Berry’s essay in which he discusses his hoped-for but elusive obsolescence as an agrarian writer. Is agrarianism in particular, and conservatism in general, nothing more than a striving in vain for glorious—but hopelessly lost—causes?

Further reading:

  1. Allan Carlson, Third Ways
  2. Bill Kauffman, Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists
  3. George Panichas, “In the Agrarian Conservative Tradition”
  4. Andrew Foshee, “The Political Economy of the Southern Agrarian Tradition”
  5. Andrew Lytle, “They Took Their Stand: The Agrarian View After Fifty Years”
  6. Jeremy Beer, “An Alternative Conservative”
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