Ten Years of American Conservatism

An essayist’s governing principle is that more can be said in a thousand words than in a thousand pages.  Ten years ago ISI Books published American Conservatism:  An Encyclopedia, a thousand pages containing 626 entries varying in length from 250 to 2500 words.  In that hefty volume comes together the best of both worlds.

Time after time, critics of conservatism variously mock it or vilify it, declaring it to be moronic, insane, or evil, or somehow a monstrous mutant combining all three.  In this book’s Introduction, the editors, Bruce Frohnen, Jeremy Beer, and Jeffrey O. Nelson, explain that they and the 216 contributors to American Conservatism focus on conservatism as a formidable intellectual movement in the United States since the Second World War.

That movement’s intellectual ancestors could be traced back to Moses, Plato, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and John Locke, but the editors decided to go back only to the mid-eighteenth century.  To the extent that this intellectual movement, launched mainly by Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences (1948) and Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind (1953), has influenced or been influenced by political campaigns and decisions, the editors included such political figures as Dwight Eisenhower and Antonin Scalia, as well as earlier American conservatives, such as John Adams and Alexander Hamilton.

The editors then explain by what criteria they selected people, institutions, and ideas for American Conservatism.  The editors had a preferential option for “politicians and pundits” who have had a “deep and lasting influence on conservatism,” and foreign thinkers and politicians and ones from before 1945 who “had a significant bearing on conservatism in America since the end of World War II.”  For folks who gasp at conservatives as the barbarians at the gates, or more locally, as cranky Uncle Henry who must be kept away from the guests at Topher and Tiffany’s wedding reception, this book should serve to open eyes, if not minds.

In this encyclopedia one will learn the difference between neoconservatives and palaeoconservatives, fusionists and libertarians, the Heritage Foundation and the John Birch Society.  From 1966 to 1999 William F. Buckley, Jr., hosted Firing Line, a weekly television show on PBS in which he interviewed prominent people from across the political spectrum.  In that spirit, American Conservatism included not only reserved and reticent Republicans in dark grey suits, men like Calvin Coolidge and Robert Taft, but also such Democrats as Thomas Jefferson and Stephen Douglas, William Jennings Bryan and George Wallace.

As that brief list suggests, in these pages one may sample the rich diversity within American conservatism.  Here one finds entries on Clare Boothe Luce and Gertrude Himmelfarb, Francis Fukuyama and Thomas Sowell.  One imagines a luncheon conversation among them and such featured religious leaders as Richard John Neuhaus, James Dobson, and Will Herberg.

In addition to succinct biographical sketches of hundreds of influential conservatives, there are entries on issues important to conservatives, but on which they disagree:  issues ranging from abortion to welfare policy, capital punishment to supply-side economics.  Other issues find conservatives of all stripes in agreement:  family and private property are good; Marxism and totalitarianism are bad.  Also presented are legal cases in which conservatives took intense interest, from the trial of Alger Hiss to the Supreme Court case involving Pennsylvania’s Grove City College.

As one would expect, there are entries on conservative heroes like Edmund Burke and Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater and Margaret Thatcher, but the encyclopedia has its surprises.  Continental Europe is represented by Switzerland’s Jacob Burckhardt, Germany’s Wilhelm Röpke, and France’s Alexis de Tocqueville.  Noteworthy are European émigrés such as Ludwig von Mises, Leo Strauss, Edward Teller, and Eric Voegelin.  There are three Jesuits (Francis Canavan, John Courtney Murray, and James V. Schall) and one Benedictine (Stanley L. Jaki); a saint (John Paul II) and two on the path to sainthood (John Henry Newman and Fulton Sheen).  There are the perennially odious (Ayn Rand and Richard Nixon) and the now obscure (Revilo P. Oliver and Frank Chodorov).

Literary figures abound, from Robert Frost and Nathaniel Hawthorne to C. S. Lewis and George Orwell, from T. S. Eliot and Flannery O’Connor to Agnes Repplier and Walker Percy.  Historians appear as well, from Henry Adams and Christopher Dawson to Daniel J. Boorstin and Francis Parkman.  Less narrative are numerous economists, from Friedrich von Hayek to Adam Smith.  There are journalists such as H. L. Mencken, Walter Lippmann, and William Safire, and journals such as First Things, National Review, and The Weekly Standard.

The book also has its quirks.  Given the editorial criterion of significant Anglo-American influence, one is baffled by an entry on Dinesh D’Souza but not John Foster Dulles; Dan Quayle but not Winston Churchill.  Whereas one expects the entry on G. K. Chesterton, absent is Malcolm Muggeridge.  Although, by wise editorial choice, Grant Wood’s painting “Stone City” graces the front cover of America Conservatism, the text itself passes over the visual arts.  True, there are entries on a few American art critics, and there is an entry on “media, conservative,” about conservative newspapers, magazines, blogs, talk radio, and Fox News.

Nevertheless, what conservatives seek to conserve is not only an overflowing bookcase.  For instance, an encyclopedia focusing on conservative intellectuals ought to acknowledge the media phenomenon that was Kenneth Clark’s television series and book Civilisation (1969).  Countless people still relish his lush display of masterpieces of Western art and architecture.  Put another way, American Conservatism could have done without an entry on a marginal lunatic, Ezra Pound, and had one on Grant Wood.

After all, more Americans have developed or reinforced conservative political and cultural ideals from admiring Wood’s paintings and those of Norman Rockwell, and from watching the films of Frank Capra and Cecil B. DeMille, than from studying Pound’s cantos or dozens of philosophical works competing in the final round for Most Boring Book Since Boethius.  (Yes, I know, long after we are dust, people will still be reading Boethius, who will still be boring.)

In 2012 the publishers of Encyclopaedia Britannica announced that the 2010 edition would be the last to appear in print.  Henceforth that great work, begun in 1768, would be available only on-line.  Bibliophiles must face the sad fact that the encyclopedia as codex has gone the way of the papyrus scroll.  However, American Conservatism is a durable amphibian, after ten years still remaining in print, on paper and also in electronic format.

Daniel J. Heisey
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

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