Book Review

Edmund Burke in the American Imagination

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.

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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 Baranowskibiography, his shifting relation to the work, and its reception among scholars, politicians, and public.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’d like to thank Bradley Baranowski for a thoughtful and (unless I’m fooling myself) generally favorable review of my EDMUND BURKE IN AMERICA. If I may, I’d like to quickly toss out my instant reaction to a couple of points. First, thank you so much for understanding that Burke is more or less an actuator, rather than the main character in this study: if there is a main character, it is American ideology itself. (The attractive cover portrait of Burke might be misleading on this point, but we couldn’t find a picture of American ideology that was in the public domain). Another way of making this point for those who are familiar with CITIZEN KANE, is that Burke—among other things—was my rosebud, and that the history of American ideals was the “meaning” (or grand narrative) of Charles Foster Kane’s life . Second, while I realized the risk from the start, I did allow myself a certain “presentist license” in the third and final part of the book (which covers post-WWII). This is not the place for an involved personal tangent, but when I decided to change careers in my late 30s, I was torn between historical scholarship and contemporary social/political/economic commentary; I tried to some extent to combine those impulses when depicting the postwar environment (and in fairness to my genre-bending: it’s pretty difficult to treat very recent history without revealing some authorial judgments—certainly Russell Kirk and kindred New Conservative historians made no such effort!). Third, I had never heard of reception history until six months after I finished the dissertation that served as the first draft of this book. I just did what came naturally to me and later learned there was a name for it! So if my own style of reception history is a bit quirky that’s probably because I followed no existing model! (Prior to tripping across the term, I would have described myself as a “contextualist” intellectual historian with a political bent.) I knew what I was trying to do was a bit unusual, but at my age and experience level I was in no mood to try a safer, more customary monograph. I sought to write a book that was innovative in approach; I think I succeeded and I’m now both reaping the reward and paying the penalties! I’d love to hear more from readers of the book. I’m at [email protected]. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for this review, Brad. I must confess, I don’t get Maciag’s treatment (or non-treatment) of Burke in the post-WWII years at all. My own work suggests that conservatives like Viereck and liberals like Niebuhr converged in an effort to cast Burke as a New Deal liberal. Do you think Maciag lumps Kirk, Viereck, Nisbet, Weaver into one school of reading Burke, or is he more nuanced than that? You point about Burke appearing as a Cold War liberal is apt, given that Cold War liberals partook in the Burke revival. See Jennifer Burns’s excellent essay in Liberalism for a New Century (http://www.amazon.com/Liberalism-New-Century-Neil-Jumonville/dp/0520250710).

    Also not sure what Maciag means by leftists leaving Burke “unattended.” Even Paul Goodman, in his Notes of a Neolithic Conservative (1970), references Burke approvingly as a way to condemn sham conservativism as well as the New Left’s revolutionary turn (http://www.amazon.com/Liberalism-New-Century-Neil-Jumonville/dp/0520250710).

  3. Great review, fascinating-sounding book. To echo Mark Edwards: I am thinking also of EP Thompson and Raymond Williams, huge influences on the American New Left, both of whom dealt extensively (and, to some degree, sympathetically, though certainly the kind of sympathy one extends to an enemy) with Burke in their work.

    I was just puzzling over some references to Burke’s Sublime and Beautiful in William James’s Principles of Psychology, and wonder if that “aesthetic Burke” makes an appearance here?

    And I wonder how the book treats the “postcolonial Burke” in, e.g the writing of Uday Singh Mehta, or the Burke who emerges in the wake of Furet’s French Revolution revisionism? Or is that stuff outside the temporal borders the books sets itself?

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