The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot

Russell Kirk. The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1960). First edition originally published 1953.


Conscious conservatism, in the modern sense, did not manifest itself until 1790, with the publication of Reflections on the Revolution in France. In that year the prophetic powers of Burke fixed in the public consciousness, for the first time, the opposing poles of conservation and innovation. The Carmagnole announced the opening of our era, and the smoky energy of coal and steam in the north of England was the signal for another revolution. If one attempts to trace conservative ideas back to an earlier time in Britain, soon he is enmeshed in Whiggery, Toryism, and intellectual antiquarianism; for the modern issues, though earlier taking substance, were not yet distinct. Nor does the American struggle between conservatives and radicals become intense until Citizen Genet and Tom Paine transport across the Atlantic enthusiasm for French liberty: the American Revolution, substantially, had been a conservative reaction, in the English political tradition, against royal innovation . If one really must find a preceptor for conservatism who is older than Burke, he cannot rest satisfied with Bolingbroke, whose skepticism in religion disqualifies him, or with the Machiavellian Hobbes, or that old-fangled absolutist Filmer. Falkland, indeed, and Clarendon and Halifax and Strafford, deserve study; still more, in Richard Hooker one discovers profound conservative observations which Burke inherited with his Anglicanism and which Hooker drew in part from the Schoolmen and their authorities; but already one is back in the sixteenth century, and then in the thirteenth, and this book is concerned with modern problems. In any practical sense, Burke is the founder of our conservatism.

The constitution of England existed for the protection of Englishmen in all walks of life, Burke said: to ensure their liberties, their equality in the eyes of justice, their opportunity to live with decency. What were its origins? The tradition of English rights, the statutes conceded by the kings, the arrangement established between sovereign and parliament after 1688. In the government of the nation, the people participated through their representatives—not delegates, but representatives, elected from the ancient corporate bodies of the nation, rather than from an amorphous mass of subjects. What constituted the people? In Burke’s opinion, the public consisted of some four hundred thousand free men, possessed of leisure or property or membership in a responsible body which enabled them to apprehend the elements of politics. (Burke granted that the extent of the suffrage was a question to be determined by prudence and expedience, varying with the character of the age.) The country gentlemen, the farmers , the professional classes, the merchants, the manufacturers, the university graduates, in some constituencies the shopkeepers and prosperous artisans, the forty-shilling freeholders: men of these orders had the franchise. It was a proper balancing and checking of the several classes competent to exercise political influence—the crown, the peerage, the squirearchy, the middle classes, the old towns and the universities of the realm. Within one or another of these categories, the real interest of every person in England was comprehended. In good government, the object of voting is not to enable every man to express his ego, but to represent his interest, whether or not he casts his vote personally and directly.

Often Burke’s age is called aristocratic. But in the stricter sense, it was not: the basis of power was far broader than nobility and gentry. Burke himself drew mucih of his support from the middle classes, and could say, ” I am no friend to aristocracy … I would rather by far see it [government) resolved into any other form, than lost in that austere and insolent domination. ” The scholarship of Tocqueville describes succinctly this liberal England: “At first blush it would appear that the old constitution is still in force in England; but, on a closer view, this illusion is dispelled. Forget old names, pass over old forms, and you will find the feudal system substantially abolished there as early as the seventeenth century: all classes freely intermingled, an eclipsed nobility, an aristocracy open to all, wealth installed as the supreme power, all men equal before the law, equal taxes, a free press, public debates—phenomena which were all unknown to medieval society. It was the skillful infusion of this young blood into the old feudal body which preserved its life, and imbued it with fresh vitality, without divesting it of its ancient shape.” Spiritual continuity, the immense importance of keeping change within the framework of custom, the recognition that society is an immortal being: these deep truths were impressed upon Burke’s mind through his observation of free English institutions. Certain writers who ought to know better are fond of saying that Burke considered society an “organism”—a term redolent of positivism and biological evolution. In actuality, Burke was careful not to bind himself by that rash analogy. He spoke of society as a spiritual unity, an eternal partnership, a corporation which is always perishing and yet always renewing, very like that other perpetual corporation and unity, the church. Upon the preservation of this view of society, Burke thought, the success of English institutions depended—defending a view implicit in English thought so early as Hooker, but never before so clearly enunciated.

Google Books (free preview)