by Dr Joe Arminio
Principal Instructor, Homeschool Curriculum Improved
Russell Kirk’s famous book The Conservative Mind is getting a lot of press lately, on account of this being the sixtieth anniversary of its publication. For those wanting to get to the heart of his message quickly, there is the refreshing, even if equally old, distillation, that is, his important article entitled “The Essence Of Conservatism.” It contains a bold enumeration of ten principles that, he believes, ought to inform the conservative movement. It also casts the spotlight upon the origins of American Conservatism, especially the thinking of Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and the Federalists. But shouldn’t Jefferson and his top supporters also be included in the pantheon of American Conservatism?
In what way did Jefferson — the “pen of the [American] revolution,” our third president, and other glittering credentials — fail to live up to any of Kirk’s ten principles? The only thing I can think of is, some shall say Jefferson failed in regard to the tenth principle, which counsels against risky “innovation,” and which reads at length, thus: “… moral and political innovation can be destructive as well as beneficial; and if innovation is undertaken in a spirit of presumption and exuberance, probably it will be disastrous.” Specifically, he disappoints some because they say he preferred unstable, risk-taking France to “conservative” Great Britain.
Does adherence to Kirk’s aforementioned tenth principle require that Jefferson should have preferred Great Britain at all times? It does not. It is true that, during the period in question, the British sidestepped any violent political “innovation.” On the other hand, France had been our principle Revolutionary War ally. Why, then, take the Jeffersonians to task for tilting toward France? So where lies the rub? Is it Jefferson’s continued enthusiasm for France, on into the French Revolution? Yet, his enthusiasm waxed at the onset but waned when their experiment became synonymous with chaos and the guillotine.
If there is no failure in regard to principle number ten, why should any conservative still dislike Jefferson? Could the unease some feel toward him actually be the byproduct of excessive hero worship of the Federalists? The Federalists, it is true, were the prime authors of the revered Constitution, including such remarkable things as its checks-and-balances. Jefferson applauded those sorts of things. Yet he also pointed out other things — such as, in his letter to Lafayette of 1792, that “stock jobbers” and “king jobbers” were increasingly entering the government. Such veiled rebuke (and, elsewhere, open rebuke) of the party that authored the core of the supreme law of the land have drawn the ire of many — then and now.
What if the truth of our founding is complex? What if the Federalists were not always heroes? You have, for instance, the absence of a Bill Of Rights when they emerged from secret session in Philadelphia in 1787. You have their insistence upon the muzzling Alien and Seditions Acts of 1798. Nor was Jefferson without blemish.
Would that more conservatives today wrestle with the full historical record, however inconvenient or challenging it may be in places. As a result, the critics of the man of Monticello just might alter their opinion. And, even better informed, they could make even better use of such insights as Kirk’s ten principles of Conservatism.
See my page on Conservatism for further discussion.