Burke Across The Pond

Reviewing Drew Maciag’s Edmund Burke in America, Bradley Baranowski details the complicated reception of the British statesman’s ideas on this side of the Atlantic:

While the goal is to say something about the national visions Americans have held, Maciag does illuminate much about how Burke’s ideas fared in the new world. Today most of us know Burke through his reaction to the French Revolution. That emphasis, however, is recent. Nineteenth century American Whigs such as Rufus Choate and Joseph Story downplayed the importance of Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), largely ignoring the text. Other figures such as the historian George Bancroft followed the same pattern. While Burke’s cautious attitude toward social change and his call for prudent reforms were palatable to many, even conservative Americans knew better than to defend views that could undercut their nation’s own revolutionary founding.

Maciag’s approach also reveals a tradition of thought that does not easily fit within the contemporary liberal/conservative dichotomy.

Many of his figures combine political reformism with cultural conservatism, package in an understanding of society’s laws as expressions of underlying traditions. He provides a series of concise, well-written close readings of key figures to explicate this theme. Maybe the greatest strength of this approach is that it both revitalizes interest in figures that we are familiar with and revives figures who have largely languished at the fringes of American intellectual history. Cultural conservatism’s relation to political progressivism (of various stripes) appears as crucial to understanding the thought of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. The Nation magazine, a crucial platform for cultural and political debate among Gilded Age liberals, was shot through with these Burkean themes during the final decades of the nineteenth century.

In all these examples, Burke functions not as a great preserver of tradition alone but as a crucial component in the “transition to modern America.” Burke’s whiggish views of history helped figures such as Roosevelt and Wilson reconcile their visions of America as an exceptional nation to the homogenizing forces of modernization. The relationship between progress and tradition was a balancing act rather than irreconcilable ideas. All it took was great leaders to keep the two in line.

Recent Dish on Burke herehere, and here.