tagAlexis de Tocqueville

Russell Kirk on Conservatives Regaining Ground


Conservatives have retreated a long way since the French Revolution burst out; now and again they have fled headlong; but they have not despaired when defeated in the field. The radicals have been able to rouse the appetite for novelty and the passion of envy among modern peoples; the conservatives have been able to fortify themselves within the inertia and the tradition of man; and these latter are powerful walls still. Certainly the conservatives have been routed, forced back from ditch to palisade; yet today, when the radicals’ ranks are decimated and afflicted by internecine ferocity, conservatives have such an opportunity for regaining ground as they had not seen since the day when modern radicalism issued its challenge to prescriptive society by decorating “this hell-porch of a Hotel de Ville” with human heads on pikes.

How much conservatives have lost since July 14, 1789, has been suggested in the preceding chapters of this prolonged essay. What they have retained, in Britain and America, remains greater than what they have forfeited. The celebrants of the Feast of Reason, could they see the Anglo-American civilization of 1972, would be astonished to find Christian belief still enduring on either side of the Atlantic. If the churches of Britain are not altogether in sound condition, still they are little weaker than they were in 1789. The latitudinarian parsons (many of whom, Burke knew, held revolutionary sympathies at the beginning of the troubles in France) have successors more diligent, if no more conservative. The America that Jefferson described to a Barbary bey as “‘not a Christian nation”‘ is simultaneously the home of muscular Protestantism and a chief prop of Rome. As Tocqueville predicted, democratic times have altered the practice of religion, but they have not worked the ruin of religious conviction. Thus the basis of any conservative order, religious sanction, remains tolerably secure.

As for political institutions, the outward shape of things has altered little in either Britain or the United States; and even the inward constitution has changed only in an orderly fashion, with few exceptions. The British Constitution still depends upon Crown in Parliament; it still acknowledges the ancient rights of Englishmen. The House of Commons remains a powerful body of critics; the House of Lords, however reduced in authority, provides some check upon the appetites of the hour; the sovereign and the idea of monarchy are respected by every important political faction. In America, the Federal Constitution has endured as the most sagacious conservative document in political history; the balance of interests and powers still operates, however threatened by recent centralization; and almost no one with a popular following advocates the overthrow of American political establishments.