The American Cause (1957)
In the helpful introduction to this third edition of an oft-out-of-print book, Gleaves Whitney, a senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, offers a fascinating history of the prior editions and an explanation of why it's being made available again now. In 1956, publisher Henry Regnery approached Russell Kirk--whose seminal study of conservative philosophy, The Conservative Mind, he'd published in 1953--and asked him to write what Mr. Whitney aptly calls "this enduring primer on American civilization." Mr. Kirk apparently balked at first, his plate being fairly full after the success of his earlier book, but then learned that the North Koreans had enjoyed surprising success brainwashing captured American soldiers, because the POWs knew so little about their own culture and the cause for which they fought. Mr. Whitney says that:
In fact, the chief of intelligence of the 'Chinese People's Volunteer Army' in North Korea had written a memorandum to his superiors in Beijing in which he fairly gloated. 'Based upon our observations of American soldiers and their officers captured in this war,' this intelligence officer wrote, 'the following facts are evidenced.' Among other things, 'There is little knowledge or understanding, even among United States university graduates, of American political history and philosophy; of federal, state, and community organizations; of states rights and civil rights; of safeguards to freedom; and of how these things supposedly operate within [their] own system.'Kirk, himself a WWII veteran, decided to write the book.
In 1966, the political/moral confusions surrounding the Vietnam War prompted a second edition. Today--when one supposes that few will claim that the young people produced by our post-modern, politically-correct, multi-culturalist education system have any better understanding of America's heritage and mission in the world--it makes a third appearance, and not a day too soon. If only every schoolchild, no, every citizen, in America, were to read it, perhaps they'd (we'd) better understand why we wage this war on terrorism and why we've diverged so far from the Old Europe and the rest of our opponents at the UN.
Mr. Kirk begins from the premise that there are three bodies of principle that "invisibly control any people": these are their moral convictions; their political convictions; and their economic convictions:
Out of the development of these bodies of principle there grows what we call civilization; and when these bodies of principle are weakened, and a people lose faith in the ideas by which they live, civilization decays. When these bodies of principle are increasing in strength and richness, we say a people are progressive; but when those bodies of principle are decaying in their influence upon men and women, we call such a people decadent. It is by the healthiness of our principles that we measure the success or failure of any society.It is his purpose in these pages to explain these convictions and to summon us back to them, in order that we may restore the health of American society.
As regards America's moral convictions, Mr. Kirk traces them to Judeo-Christianity. [He specifically refers to America as a Christian nation, but is so scrupulous to always include Judaism as the progenitor and soulmate of Christianity that it seems likely he'd use the Judeo-Christian formulation if he were writing today.] He discusses this background fully, then distills these convictions down to what we might call an American civic religion:
In essence, then, the Christian faith is this. God exists, a stern judge but a loving father to all mankind. Man has been made in God's own image; but man, an imperfect image of God, torments himself by his tendency to sin. The world is always a battleground between good and evil in human nature. All men are brothers in spirit, because they have a common spiritual father, God; and they are enjoined to treat one another as brothers. Because they are made in the image of God, and are brothers in Christ, they possess human dignity. From this human dignity comes rights peculiar to man which no one is morally free to violate. The revelations by God establish the way in which men are to live with one another. Justice and peace and charity all flow from God's commandments, given in a spirit of love. Christ will redeem from sin the man who accepts him as savior. The reward of loving obedience to God is eternal life, perfection beyond this world. The self-punishment of defiant sin is never to know God, and thus to lose immortality. Human nature and society never will become perfect in the course of history. Yet God's love rules the world; and happiness, if we are to find it at all in this life, comes from God's will. As the essence of man is more than merely mortal, so the destiny of man is more than merely human. The spirit will survive the flesh, and when the end of all earthly things arrives, those who love God shall find a peace that the mortal world never knows. Men who expect to create a heaven upon earth, in defiance of the laws of man's nature and the revelation of God, can create only hell upon earth.Some will object to this characterization, even in historical terms, but that it is true is evidenced in everything from the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that Man is Created and it is only therefore that he is "endowed with certain inalienable rights"; to the framework of the Constitution, which rather than being based on a utopian scheme uses checks and balances to control the voracious ambitions of men; to things like the statement in the Pledge of Allegiance that we are a nation "under God", our assumption that a witness in court is bound to tell the truth upon swearing an oath, and the majoritarian belief that dignity inheres in every human life. And the salutary effects of this creed are apparent in everything from the persistence of our belief in evil to our hostility to perfectionizing political dogmas--communism and the like. That these beliefs make America unusual, even in the West, can be seen just by looking at Europe, where the decline in Christian faith has been accompanied by a descent into statism, moral relativism, and pacifism. We may not hew to these convictions as truly as we must if the American experiment is to survive, but we do still believe in them to enough of a degree that we've managed to avoid the decadence that is claiming Europe.
Mr. Kirk demonstrates the danger inherent in losing these moral convictions when he moves on to describe the political convictions that animate America :
[I]n the political beliefs of what we call 'Christian civilization' or 'Western civilization'--of which American civilization is a part--there are three cardinal ideas: the idea of justice, the idea of order, and the idea of freedom. [...] They make possible the ordered liberty that is among the chief justifications of the American cause.Of particular importance here is Mr. Kirk's description of the American concept of equality, which is fundamentally procedural, rather than substantive:
All men ought to be equal before the law; but law is not intended to force upon them an artificial equality of condition. Justice does not exist in order to change men's natures; rather justice's purpose is to help men fulfil the particular natures to which they were born. [...] In one thing only ought men to be equal, here on earth: equally subject to the operation of just laws.In fact, the entirety of American politics might nearly be said to be procedural rather than substantive. Obviously governments are instituted among men in order to achieve physical security, both from one another and from rival nations, and to achieve certain other purposes which are best realized in combination rather than in isolation. However, precisely because we realize that our basic rights precede the formation of government and because our moral convictions instruct us that human institutions will never perfect mankind, that we make government itself rather a secondary consideration in our society. American government is not primarily intended to ameliorate the unpleasant conditions of human existence--poverty and the like--but to provide a framework within which we can work on them ourselves, but wherein no man's status shall bear upon his chances of receiving justice at the hands of another nor at the hands of the State. Some may be miserable in the free lives they lead, but it is not the role of the government, in the American system, to try to make them happy. Even Thomas Jefferson only recognized the right to pursue happiness, not to attain it. This recognition that individuals have personal duties and responsibilities, not just "rights" as against each other and the government, is probably the aspect of Americanism that has become most degraded since the Great Depression fueled the rise of the Welfare State and which has completely deteriorated in the rest of the West.
Lastly, Mr. Kirk describes America's economic principles:
[I]n the economic realm, what is the American cause? It is the defense of an economic system that allows men and women to make their own principal choices in life; which reinforces political liberty; which adequately supplies the necessities of life; which recognizes and guides beneficently the deep-seated human longing for competition and measurable accomplishment. What we call the 'free-market economy' does these things.Here it is worth noting that he wrote these words at a time when the "free-market" was in pretty general disfavor. Economists, politicians, philosophers, etc., assumed that it was instead possible for the state to manage the economy far better than it could manage itself. In particular, it was thought that the state should minimize the effects of competition and equal out "accomplishment", that folks would respond well to a kind of paternalistic leveling. Though we're still saddled with many unfortunate and inefficient accretions from that time, few would still argue the intellectual case for this kind of government control of the economy and redistributive welfare any longer, at least not here in America.
Having laid out just what Americanism, at least in its original form, consists of, Mr. Kirk celebrates the achievements of our society and, even as he recognizes its imperfections, suggests that the American cause is to oppose the ideals of our, by and large, "just, orderly, free, prosperous, and intelligent society" to those causes which seek to deny our fellow humans such things. In his time, this mainly meant communism. In our time it means the remnants of collectivism and the still thriving ideology of Islamicism (that branch of Islam which requires that all three sets of convictions above be governed for all men everywhere by the specific words of the Koran). Because the various iterations of totalitarianism--Nazism, communism, Islamicism--differ so little from one another, because America has remained reasonably steadfast, and because human nature truly is unchanging, his closing words still ring true today, nearly fifty years later, confronting a "new" enemy:
For two important reasons--and those of equal weight in the minds of most citizens of the United States--America has set her face against every totalist ideology, stationed her troops on foreign soil, built an immense air force and an immense fleet, poured out her national wealth in aid of the defense and the welfare of the free world. One reason is that Americans believe in the dignity of man, made in an image more than human; and the revolutionary ideologue threatens to destroy that dignity wherever he finds weakness, The other reason is that Americans know that they themselves cannot be secure unless the civilization of which they are a part is secure. They do not hesitate to oppose by strength the armed doctrines of ideologues. Their cause, they believe, is the cause of true human nature, of enlightened order, regular justice, and liberty under law. For this they have made some sacrifices; they will make more.It is not too much to say that this passage describes precisely the divide in the West today, between what we colloquially call "hawks" and "doves". It is as simple as this: the hawks continue to believe in the American cause, while the doves do not. Hawks believe: in the more than mortal dignity of all men; in the importance of preserving Judeo-Christian/Western/American civilization; in a human nature that, though it makes Man sinful, inclines men to seek order, justice, and liberty; and, most of all, in the duty to vindicate these principles. It speaks well of America that these principles and the cause remain so strong, but it must be troublesome to those who do believe in them that so many here and abroad no longer share the faith. For, make no mistake, the doves do not oppose war with Iraq so much as they oppose this America. Those who have abandoned the American cause are a revolutionary movement and, whether intentionally or not, put at risk the civilization and the civil society described by Mr. Kirk. We can't know what might replace them, though we can suspect it will not be better, but we know that it will not be the kind of America that the Founders and their principles bequeathed to us. It's hard to imagine though that many who will read this terrific little book will fail to re-embrace the American cause. Would then that every American would read it and read it again.
-WIKIPEDIA: Russell Kirk
-ESSAY: Abraham Lincoln and the Dignity of the Presidency (Russell Kirk, February 19th, 2017, The Imaginative Conservative)
-ESSAY: The Essence of Conservatism: Adapted from The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Conservatism (Russell Kirk, The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal)
-ESSAY: Eliot and the Follies of the Time (Russell Kirk, 08/01/08, First Principles)
-TRIBUTE: Ordered Liberty: Remembering Russell Kirk (BreakPoint with Charles Colson, October 24, 2003)
-ESSAY: The Bohemian Tory & the Oxbridge Knights (Mark Kalthoff, May 20th, 2022, Imaginative Conservative)
-ESSAY: Russell Kirk’s Enduring Constitution (Bradley J. Birzer, March 21st, 2022, Imagibnary Conservative)
-ESSAY: What Is Conservatism? (KEVIN DEYOUNG, JANUARY 26, 2021, Gospel Coalition)
-ESSAY: The Mind of Russell Kirk: How the horrors of war led to the birth of American conservatism. (DANIEL MCCARTHY, January 27, 2016, American Conservative)
-REVIEW: of Roots of American Order (Bradley Birzer, Imaginative Conservative)
-REVIEW: of America's British Culture by Russell Kirk (Stephen M. Krason, Religion & Liberty)
-REVIEW: of Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology By W. Wesley McDonald (Alvino-Mario Fantini , Townhall)
Ghost Stories: The season of mellow fruitfulness is also fright time. (Michael Dirda, October 31, 2004, Washington Post)
Contempt; a review of The Essential Russell Kirk: Selected Essays, Edited by George A. Panichas (Alan Wolfe, 07.09.07, New Republic)
-REVIEW: of Russell Kirk: American Conservative by Bradley J. Birzer (GERALD J. RUSSELLO, Books & Culture)
Book-related and General Links:
Russell Amos Kirk (1918-1994): Memorial Mass (St. Joseph's Catholic Church, Washington, D.C., May 27, 1994)
-REVIEW: of The American Cause (Kevin Holtsberry)
-REVIEW: of The American Cause (Blogcritics)
Gleaves Whitney (Yorktown University)
The Kirk Center - Gleaves Whitney, Senior Fellow
-TRIBUTE: Gleaves Whitney at Memorial Mass for Russell Kirk
-ESSAY: Choosing War: What would Washington and Lincoln do? (Gleaves Whitney, February 18, 2003, National Review)
-ESSAY: Democrats for Preemption: An old doctrine. (Gleaves Whitney, February 13, 2003, National Review)
-SPPECH: RECOVERING RHETORIC: HOW IDEAS, LANGUAGE, AND LEADERSHIP CAN TRIUMPH IN POSTMODERN POLITICS (Gleaves Whitney, 12/09/99, HERITAGE FOUNDATION LECTURE)
-SPEECH: The Cultural Foundation of Politics (Gleaves Whitney, Philadelphia Society, Saturday, April 13, 2002)
-PROFILE: In search of a candidate with strength and eloquence (Suzanne Fields, Dec. 27, 1999, Jewish World Review)
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd