Drew Maciag, Edmund Burke in America: The Contested Career of the Father of Modern Conservatism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), 280 pages.
Review by Bradley Baranowski
Hegel in his brief remarks on America called it the “land of the future.”Fittingly, the political tradition often associated with this land is one with little regard for the past: liberalism. In his new book, Edmund Burke in America the historian Drew Maciag takes aim at liberalism’s grip on America’s historical imagination.
Maciag directs his efforts not at dispelling the importance liberal thought has played in United States history. On the contrary, liberalism appears here as a robust and vital strand of American intellectual life. Liberals have conservatives to thank for this. “[T]he liberal tradition has survived and retained primacy only by continual struggle against repeated and varied conservative assaults,”Maciag claims (xii). Among the warriors in this prolonged ideological battle is another European figure for whom history mattered a great deal, Edmund Burke.
Maciag follows Burke’s reception in the U.S. from the revolutionary age to today. His selection criterion is itself liberal. The “sole criterion”for inclusion in the study, writes Maciag, was that subjects “each had something to say regarding Burke, which also illuminated the landscape of political thinking in the America of their time”(xiii). This produces a study that blends the original research of a monograph with the scope of a survey. Maciag embraces this fact, writing “this book may be viewed as a selective history of the United States, with alternative national visions as its theme and the reaction to Burke’s writings as its evidence”(xiii). In other words, Edmund Burke in America is more about the contexts of Burkes’s reception rather than the specific ways he was read by Americans.
While the goal is to say something about the national visions Americans have held, Maciag does illuminate much about how Burke’s ideas fared in the new world. Today most of us know Burke through his reaction to the French Revolution. That emphasis, however, is recent. Nineteenth century American Whigs such as Rufus Choate and Joseph Story downplayed the importance of Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), largely ignoring the text. Other figures such as the historian George Bancroft followed the same pattern. While Burke’s cautious attitude toward social change and his call for prudent reforms were palatable to many, even conservative Americans knew better than to defend views that could undercut their nation’s own revolutionary founding.
Maciag’s approach also reveals a tradition of thought that does not easily fit within the contemporary liberal/conservative dichotomy. Many of his figures combine political reformism with cultural conservatism, package in an understanding of society’s laws as expressions of underlying traditions. He provides a series of concise, well-written close readings of key figures to explicate this theme. Maybe the greatest strength of this approach is that it both revitalizes interest in figures that we are familiar with and revives figures who have largely languished at the fringes of American intellectual history. Cultural conservatism’s relation to political progressivism (of various stripes) appears as crucial to understanding the thought of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. The Nation magazine, a crucial platform for cultural and political debate among Gilded Age liberals, was shot through with these Burkean themes during the final decades of the nineteenth century.
In all these examples, Burke functions not as a great preserver of tradition alone but as a crucial component in the “transition to modern America.”(105) Burke’s whiggish views of history helped figures such as Roosevelt and Wilson reconcile their visions of America as an exceptional nation to the homogenizing forces of modernization. The relationship between progress and tradition was a balancing act rather than irreconcilable ideas. All it took was great leaders to keep the two in line.
However, Burke was not one of those great oaks he rhapsodized about but a man. He can only bear so much interpretive weight. At times, Burke buckles under Maciag speculative load. There are many figures whose relation to the father of modern conservatism seem tenuous at best. George F. Kennan’s “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,”for instance, is a Burkean document, according to Maciag. Despite the fact that “Kennan mentioned neither Jacobins nor Burke, his portrayal of communism’s mood and technique shared with Reflections a psychological and methodological understanding of the modern ideological state.”(208) Is it reasonable to call Kennan a “Burkean”due to a perceived “mood?”Perhaps. Yet it seems equally likely that these themes—a suspicion of ideology, a weariness of social engineering, etc.—were more rooted in American soil than offshoots of Burke’s writings. What would a history of these theme look like if Burke was not its starting point? Who would still be included, who would disappear, and who would appear? These questions demand further research and thought yet Maciag’s ability to place them on the table is admirable.
The other major set of questions raised by Edmund Burke in America concern what we should expect from a reception history. While rooted in the past, this book seems to prove Hegel’s point. Maciag’s eyes are facing forward and his concerns are ultimately over the legacy of Burkean thought in America, not its heritage. It is clear that Maciag wants to highlight the reform elements of Burke’s thought while downplaying his reactionary impulses. His Burke is a cautious Whig, one who believes that liberal reforms are necessary in order to stave off disorder. This Burke has more in common with postwar liberals like Trilling and Schlesinger than he does with other anti-revolutionaries such as de Maistre.
Consider Maciag’s treatment of the postwar revival of interest in Burke among conservatives. Russell Kirk, whose opus The Conservative Mind was a seminal work in the Burke renaissance, thought of the thinker as a natural law theorist. Peter Viereck pressed Burke into service against communism in the cold war. The list of examples continues. Whereas previous Burkeans warranted even-keeled analysis, even praise, from Maciag, the postwar conservatives are chided. Unlike Burke, who believed that “a state without some means of change was without a means of its own conservation,”Kirk, Viereck, and others “did not seek merely to apply the brakes; they wanted American civilization to reverse course”(214). Burke would not have approved.
Maciag adds some speculation to these judgments.“Perhaps a postwar Burke might have been a political moderate,”he writes:
slightly liberal on some matters, slightly conservative on others. . . . The right-of-center revivalists should not be condemned for claiming a piece of Burke, but for claiming the whole of him. Equally so, their left-of-center intellectual counterparts might be chastised for leaving Burke completely unclaimed and unattended (215).
Between these lines lies the Burke that Maciag has received—and with it, the national vision our author holds dear.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with weighing in as Maciag does. Indeed, it is novel. Reception histories, for good or bad, tend to avoid judgments about the worth or rightness of their subjects. His approach does force us to ask whether he succeeds in painting a picture of Burke that we can admire now. For this, we might have to leave Burke behind (or, at least, the Burke of Reflections) and join Hegel, looking towards the futures of America.
Bradley Baranowski is a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying twentieth century U.S. intellectual history. His dissertation examines the career of John Rawls’s 1971 A Theory of Justice. The project reconstructs Rawls’s early intellectual biography, his shifting relation to the work, and its reception among scholars, politicians, and public.