The Father of American Conservatism

Mecosta’s Russell Kirk

Feature photo: The sculpture Permanent Things by Hew Lorimer is located in the Russell Kirk Center library, Mecosta, Michigan. “Permanent things” is a concept of the poet T.S. Eliot. The sculpture’s left panel signifies History, the middle panel signifies Religion and the right panel signifies Law.

Map: Environment and Climate Change Canada

By Justin Holland Jr.

“The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.” T.S. Eliot

Russell Kirk in 1962. Public domain photo.

American conservative Russell Kirk published his doctoral dissertation entitled The Conservative Mind in 1953. Although Kirk was a native of Michigan and obtained his bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University, he did his doctoral work at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. In spite of his academic background, Kirk was not just a monolith for intellectual conservatism. He was a prolific writer who appealed to a variety of audiences. For example, Kirk had a column in the Los Angeles Times. He was published frequently in the conservative journal the National Review. He also wrote Gothic stories such as Old House of Fear. With these varied outlets for his writing Kirk was able to express his Midwestern ideas while appealing to people across the United States.

The Conservative Mind became the foundation for the intellectual conservative movement that emerged in the years following World War II. After publishing The Conservative Mind, Kirk “Found [himself] a leader of an intellectual movement, without having intended to be anything of the sort (Kirk, Confessions, p. 29).” This movement included individuals such as William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of the conservative magazine the National Review; Leo Strauss, a scholar from the University of Chicago; Milton Friedman, a free-market capitalist out of the University of Chicago; and, various others. Although these individuals are all under the conservative banner their thoughts differed greatly.

Kirk’s differences with many conservatives led him to criticize neoconservatives and libertarians as being either too ideological or not rooted in tradition. Kirk’s essence of conservatism follows the themes of Irish statesman Sir Edmund Burke who challenged the ideas of U.S. founding father and author of the Rights of Man Thomas Paine. Kirk did not believe a true conservative could have an ideology. He differentiates conservatism from an ideology by stating, “’Politics is the art of the possible,’ the conservative says: he thinks of political policies as intended to preserve order, justice and freedom (Kirk, The Politics of Prudence, p. 1).” To Kirk “The ideologue…thinks of politics as a revolutionary instrument for transforming society and even transforming human nature. In his march toward Utopia, the ideologue is merciless (Kirk, The Politics of Prudence, p. 1).”

Kirk tried his best to establish conservatism as a negation of ideology. His main problems with ideologies were that:

1. Ideology is inverted religion…. Ideology inherits the fanaticism that sometimes has afflicted religious faith and applies that intolerant belief to concerns secular.

2. Ideology makes political compromise impossible.

3. Ideologues vie one with another in fancied fidelity to their Absolute Truth; and they are quick to denounce deviationists or deflectors from their party orthodoxy.

(Kirk, The Politics of Prudence, pp. 5-6)

Kirk’s work led him to leave academia and settle in his ancestral home in Mecosta, Michigan. Kirk’s home became known as ‘Piety Hill’ where he hosted a variety of academic and literary programs. He devoted much of his time to writing and giving lectures across the world. In fact, he went everywhere with his typewriter—an ancient laptop of sorts (Birzer, p. 13).

The typewriter used by Russell Kirk.

Kirk’s success led him to be a well-respected individual in conservative politics. Republican presidents, including Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, interacted with Kirk. Under the Reagan administration, Kirk was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal, which is meant to recognize an individual ‘who has performed exemplary deeds or services for his or her country or fellow citizens.’

Kirk’s journey was a unique one, especially considering the current “conservative” movement. He did not start off as a Christian; instead he was a Stoic following the teachings of Marcus Aurelius. He became a Catholic in 1963 when he married his wife Annette Courtemanche, well after the publishing The Conservative Mind.

Throughout his life Kirk tried to capture the essence of conservatism. In his book, The Politics of Prudence, he outlined ten conservative principles:

1. The conservative believes that’s there exists an enduring moral order.

2. The conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity.

3. Conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription.

4. Conservatives are guided by their principles of prudence.

5. Conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety.

6. Conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability.

7. Conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked.

8. Conservatives uphold voluntary community quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism.

9. The conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions.

10. The thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society.

(Kirk, The Politics of Prudence, pp. 17-24)

Kirk saw conservatism not as a rejection of change, but rather a complimentary force that tries to maintain the fabric of society with respect to the past, the future and the present. The following four examples illustrate Kirk’s conservative thinking as a cultural critic of policies and practices, including those he viewed unfavorably.

Living by Example:

Kirk not only spoke of conservative values, he lived them. Actions were taken to help those in need. The Kirk family took in many refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, Ethiopia and other places. Some of the people he helped were portrayed in his fictional stories. One such person was Clinton Wallace, a self-described hobo who lived with the Kirks from time to time. The compassion the Kirks had for Wallace is evident by the fact that after he died they provided a tombstone that reads ‘Knight of the Road’ (Birzer, pp. 388-389).

Another way that Kirk provided for the community was creating an intellectual environment that allowed scholars and individuals to pursue their research interests and participate in a vigorous liberal arts program. This program eventually became associated with the Wilbur Foundation. Founded by author Marguerite Eyer Wilbur, it is today known as the Wilbur Fellowship and currently administered by Russell Kirk’s widow Annette Kirk (Birzer, pp. 389-391).

Clinton Wallace was a homeless man who lived with the Kirk family from time to time.

War:

War was an issue that Kirk would heavily criticize near the end of his life. The Persian Gulf War under President George H.W. Bush was a major concern. During a lecture series at the Heritage Foundation Kirk stated:

“Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson were enthusiasts for American domination of the world. Now George Bush appears to be emulating those eminent Democrats. When the Republicans, once upon a time, nominated for the presidency a ‘One World’ candidate, Wendell Willkie, they were sadly trounced. In general, Republicans throughout the twentieth century have been advocates of prudence and restraint in the conduct of foreign affairs.

But Mr. Bush, out of mixed motives, has embarked upon a radical course of intervention in the region of the Persian Gulf. After carpet-bombing the Cradle of Civilization as no country ever had been bombed before, Mr. Bush sent in hundreds of thousands of soldiers to overrun the Iraqi bunkers—that were garrisoned by dead men, asphyxiated.

And for what reason? The Bush Administration found it difficult to answer that question clearly. In the beginning it was implied that the American national interest required low petroleum prices: therefore, if need be, smite and spare not!”

(Kirk, Heritage Foundation Lecture on February 27, 1991)

Kirk saw the use of America’s military to defend Kuwait as an overreach of America’s power. Kirk did not want a war hungry state; instead he wanted the actors of foreign policy to follow a more cautious path. Kirk did not want wars because they are destructive for all those involved—making it difficult to preserve society. It is not too difficult to imagine that the wars in the Middle East that followed after Kirk’s death would face a more scathing critique.

The Russell Kirk Center Library houses over 10,000 books and hosts various events.

Economics:

Kirk himself was not an economist but he was concerned with the capitalist and socialist ideologies that were competing during the years that he wrote. He was also not a materialist, which is evident by a passage he wrote for the America 96 journal in 1957. In this article he stated:

“Economic production is not an end in itself, though nearly everyone talks as if it were. The real end of economic production is to raise man above the savage level, to make possible the leisure which sustains civilization and to free man from the condition of being a simple drudge. When efficiency of production becomes an end in itself, then truly technology has triumphed over humanity

(Kirk, America, vol. 96, no. 14. p. 390).”

Kirk was more concerned with humanity and T.S. Eliot’s idea of permanent things than the material world. Eliot’s “permanent things” conception was defined by Kirk in a Heritage Foundation lecture on February 9, 1989, “Those enduring truths and ways of life and standards of order (Kirk, The Permanent Things of T.S. Eliot’s Politics).” Kirk emphasized a humane economy in which humanity was the beneficiary instead of the pursuit of the next groundbreaking gadget. Technology, which is often associated with economic development, concerned Kirk. And as evidenced by the section on war above, Kirk did not want our technology, in this case automobiles or anything that runs on petroleum, to control the trajectory and eventual end of humankind.

Environment:

In terms of the environment Kirk’s thoughts differed from mainstream America prior to President Nixon’s environmental legislation. He was deeply concerned with the modernization of the world. And to him modernization was the catalyst that brought about the degradation of America’s natural ecosystems. In The Conservative Mind Kirk wrote, “The modern spectacle of vanished forests and eroded lands, wasted petroleum and ruthless mining, national debts recklessly increased until they are repudiated, and continual revision of positive law, is evidence of what an age without veneration does to itself and its successors (Kirk, The Conservative Mind, pp. 44-45).” Kirk saw modernity as a beast that if left unchecked would cause great harm to both society and the environment—this is where his conservative principles come in.

When it came to environmental causes Kirk vocalized his support for keeping America pollution free. For example, in 1962 Kirk wrote that “The public needs to bring pressure upon state authorities, everywhere, to take measures against the polluters of every sort (Kirk, Los Angeles Times, (2) 5.4).” Much of Kirk’s concerns stemmed from his affiliation with southern agrarian thinking so he was cautious when it came to the growth of industry because unexpected consequences come with change.

Today it appears the United States Republican Party, generally thought of as the more conservative party, has moved away from Kirk’s conservatism and adopted a more ideological fervor. There seems to be little room for compromise, an integral component of Kirk’s ideas. The age of information has allowed us to know anything about everything but has constrained us to the first page of a Google search. Unfortunately, information solely from social media has created more dogmas and has failed to unify a deeply divided America.

Russell Kirk passed away in 1994 leaving a legacy of cultural knowledge and criticism. The policy-oriented America that has since his death created ideologues among progressives and conservatives alike would probably abhor Kirk’s conservative ideas. Even though Kirk can no longer provide the world with his critiques and knowledge, his emphasis on the permanent things and thinking about one’s ancestors and those to come as well as oneself is captured by the quote on his tombstone. This quote by the poet T.S. Eliot is the same quote that starts this article; it encapsulates the soul and spirit of Russell Kirk’s thoughts:

“The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.”

T.S. Eliot
Russell Kirk’s tombstone in Mecosta, Michigan

The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal: https://kirkcenter.org/

The books:

Birzer, Bradley. Russell Kirk: American Conservative. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky. 2014.

Kirk, Russell. Confessions of a Bohemian Tory. New York, NY: Fleet Publishing Corporation, 1963.

­­­­­——–The Conservative Mind. Washington DC: Regnery Publishing Inc. 1994.

——–The Politics of Prudence. Bryn Mawr, PA: Intercollegiate Studies Institute. 1993.

Other publications:

Kirk, Russell. Ideology and Political Economy. America, vol. 96, no. 14. January 5, 1957.

——–Pollution Might Be Spreading Over the Land. Los Angeles Times. November 26, 1962.

——–Political Errors at the End of the Twentieth Century. Heritage Foundation Lecture on February 27, 1991.

The Place:

Mecosta, Michigan, just north of Grand Rapids, is a village of about 500 people. It was founded by Russell Kirk’s ancestors.

Story and images except the public domain image of Dr. Kirk copyright 2019 Justin Holland Jr.

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