Friday, April 26, 2013

Drew Maciag's "Edmund Burke in America"

Drew Maciag has taught history at the University of Rochester, SUNY Geneseo, and Nazareth College.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Edmund Burke in America: The Contested Career of the Father of Modern Conservatism, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Edmund Burke in America concludes the tale of Supreme Court justice Joseph Story, one of the three main characters in chapter 5: “American Whigs: A Conservative Response.” Each of these pre-Civil War politicos (the other two were Edward Everett and Rufus Choate) was an admirer of the British Whig politician Edmund Burke during the age of liberal Jacksonian democracy.

Joseph Story had been a reasonable man, a respected legal scholar, a judicial nationalist (no fan of states’ rights), and he was less nostalgically conservative than some of his Whiggish contemporaries. His late-career turn to the ideological right is surprising unless one understands that American recourses to Burke’s anti-revolutionary philosophy usually coincided with perceived threats to the social order. During the Cold War, the threat would be communism; after the 1960s it would be liberalism run amok. But in Story’s day it was the threat of abolitionism, which could precipitate civil war, and of radical democratization, which challenged the rule of established elites (as demonstrated by Dorr’s Rebellion in Rhode Island). Page 99 states the matter plainly:
Like Edmund Burke—in fact like most men—Joseph Story had found it easy to be moderate in moderate times. But as the general heat of ideology returned in the late antebellum period, the temperature of Story’s opinions rose along with those of the nation at large.
After 1840, the Era of Good Feelings was only a memory and the more contentious “second two-party system” of Whigs and Democrats was in full force; worse, the westward expansion of slavery was back on the agenda. Within this context (again to page 99):
Story linked abolitionism with Dorr’s Rebellion and saw them both as evidence of “The tendency to ultraism of all sorts.” [He further stated…]“The spirit of the age has broken loose from the strong ties, which have hitherto bound society together by mutual cohesions and attractions of habits, manners, institutions, morals, and literature.” He called for a return to the values of Burke…and a rejection of “those mad men, who…in the name of conscience, liberty, or the rights of man…are willing to bid farewell to that Constitution…which I trust may be transmitted, unimpaired, from generation to generation for many centuries to come.”
Story’s words contain, in microcosm, the theme of Edmund Burke in America: When conservatives evoked Burke, it was out of fear that stability, order, tradition, or hierarchy, were at risk. When liberals evoked him (which was less often and less urgently), they recalled his own reform efforts and humanitarian sensibility. The “real” Edmund Burke was often in the eye of the beholder. Liberals were less compelled to cite his legacy because they drew from a larger list of “heroes,” “fathers,” or ideological predecessors than was available to conservatives—especially in a nation founded by revolution and devoted to freedom, equality, and the personal pursuit of happiness. When Americans contested the philosophy of Edmund Burke, they were really debating alternative moral visions, historical interpretations, and national ideals. In short, citizens’ opinions about Burke reflected their own conceptions of what it meant to be an American.
Learn more about Edmund Burke in America at the Cornell University Press website.

My Book, The Movie: Edmund Burke in America.

--Marshal Zeringue