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Edmund Burke, Volume I: 1730-1784
Oxford University Press, 1999
616 pp., $275.00
by Daniel E. Ritchie
Remembrance of Things Past
In one of history's many ironies, Edmund Burke's role as the forefather of a modern political and cultural movement is paralleled only by Karl Marx. While Burke (1730-97) had inspired some tradition-minded individuals in Europe and America throughout the 19th century, it was the publication of Russell Kirk's seminal The Conservative Mind (1953) that associated Burke firmly with Anglo-American conservatism. For Kirk and other conservatives, Burke's critique of the French revolutionaries provided the fuel for their own critique of contemporary socialism, secularism, and the dismissal of tradition in the name of progress. Later, Burke's vision of social change provided an alternative, as passionate as it was rational, to the revolutionary dreams of the Sixties. Even rapid social change should be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, he reasoned, and it should arise out of the deepest constitutional tradition of a particular people. He passionately embodied his thought in a stream of metaphors: he imagined reform as medical care for an ill parent and the constitution as a precious yet dilapidated estate needing repair. The sympathizers of the French Revolution are transmuted into grasshoppers, who "make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle"--imperturbable, loyal Englishmen--repose "beneath the shadow of the British oak." For Kirk and others, Burke's combination of political philosophy and poetic prose was the perfect response to liberal and Marxist critique of the Anglo-American tradition.
Reviewed favorably in The New York Times, Time magazine, and elsewhere, The Conservative Mind appeared early in the Eisenhower Administration, when people were eager to understand what seemed to be a growing conservative movement. In Kirk's treatment, Burke fathered a tradition that crossed the Atlantic in the lives and work of John and John Quincy Adams, John Calhoun, James Fenimore Cooper, and the perspective of Tocqueville on America. In ...