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Woodrow Wilson and Burke

John J. Miller visited Wilson's birthplace in Virginia, notes the portrait of Edmund Burke painted by his wife, and then this revealing comment about an aspect of modern conservatism: "The description says that Burke was one of Wilson's intellectual heroes. It reminded me of how differently Burke was viewed a century ago. Before there was a conservative movement, Burke was widely regarded as a liberal. Then came the rescue efforts of Russell Kirk and Peter Stanlis and the fundamental reorientation of Burke's legacy. This was one of the modern conservative movement's first intellectual triumphs. But it occurred a generation after Wilson's death, and so the image of a founding father of conservatism once gazed down upon a champion of progressivism. We can only imagine what Burke would have thought of his supposed disciple."

The really interesting question is how Wilson is viewed--how Wilson understood himself--not how Burke has been made this or that by Kirk and Stanlis.  John should read Wilson with more care for Wilson was very explicit in revealing how he broke with the Founding; in denying the possibility that political theory could explain the legitimacy of political power or why citizens or subjects should obey the law.  This is why much of Wilson's academic work talked about the evolution of states then in existence ("governments have their natural evolution and are one thing in one age, another in another") and why he was so against the theory of natural rights, inalienable rights, or the Laws of Nature.  No social contract for old Woodrow, no consent, and certainly no limits on government (he thinks modern social science, anthropology, for example, refutes this kind of thinking).  We should not be surprised that he becomes the first president to attack the Constitution, both its structure and its purpose.  Leadership, democracy, and efficiency become everything to him.  And this has what to do with what Miller calls conservatism, or maybe I should say, American conservatism?  And how will it help a Tea Party man, or any citizen, focus on the present crisis and re-connect him with our political principles?
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Discussions - 7 Comments

Did Burke think he was a conservative?

What do these words mean anymore: "conservative" and "liberal"? These political terms, as we use them, confound the definitions of the words. I am an American Conservative because I prefer our government by our Constitution as little adulterated as possible. Yet, in light of the history of the world -- even to Burke's political milieu, surely I am not conservative. I love the principles of our Declaration and think we should understand our government in that light and judge it by those principles. I see that as that best way to preserve liberty. In that, surely I am liberal, since my focus and desire is for maximum liberty for all of us, which I think requires limited government.

I think the US government status quo is not limited enough to ensure true liberty, although I confess I am personally quite free in my daily life, as free as my grandmother was.

Call me your Tea-Party man: I become lost in a political terminology that does not define well in which connotation and colloquial usage has me decrying Liberalism, while I cry out for liberty. I denounce Progressivism, but am I against Progress? I don't think so.

Herein maybe I am very conservative as in desiring, Socratic-ally, that we define our terms better before we enter our argument. What the heck are we talking about?

Burke, of course, believed that Parliament was sovereign, with the right to make law for the colonies "in all cases whatsoever." He thought that a functioning empire could not, in fact, pass whatever laws it chose, however. By contrast, the men of 1776 held that no government is sovereign in Bodin's sense. Being stuck with a Parliament that was, in law, sovereign, Burke turned to history and prudence to apply the brakes. We Americans took a different path.

Remember what Strauss says, that Burke “seeks the foundation of government ‘in a conformity to our duties’ and not in ‘imaginary rights of men’” (NR&H, p. 297). And this: “...participation in political power does not belong to the rights of man, because men have a right to good government, and there is no necessary connection between good government and government by the many” (NR&H 1953, p. 298).

To be Burkean about America is to go against Burke and to dedicate oneself to the Natural Rights of the Declaration.

Aristotlean, too.

Our lovely Kate who asks the right questions wants definitions...but this is the paradox at the heart of it all.

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