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Russell Kirk’s “Roots of American Order” rightly deserves its place as a conservative masterpiece. It is an ethical and moral history of Western civilization as it nurtured, shaped, and delimited American political culture.
Written to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Russell Kirk’s magisterial The Roots of American Order first appeared in print in late 1974, nearly half-a-century ago. Interestingly enough, 1974 also marked the mid-point of Kirk’s career. He had published his more famous The Conservative Mind in 1953, and he would pass away in April 1994. Thus, 1974 is about as middle of his career as it gets. In almost every respect, Roots of American Order is Kirk at his best, in terms of writing style but also especially in terms of explicating moral wisdom. Kirk was always brilliant at writing through the eyes of others—in terms of intellectual history and biographical portraiture—and Roots is no exception. At one critical moment in the text, Kirk even states, “In every age, society has been relieved only by the endeavors of a few people moved by the grace of God, and has been made tolerable and constrained to relative peace from time to time only by the compulsions of the state—though that state itself shares in the general corruption.” True to form then, Kirk, in terms of approach to his subject, echoes Livy, Cicero, Plutarch, and St. Augustine, but always from a deeply American standpoint.
Somewhat famously—at least within conservative circles—Kirk’s Roots of American Order is an ethical and moral history of Western civilization as it nurtured, shaped, and delimited American political culture. America, Kirk asserts time and time again, began in the ancient world, and one finds continuity among the ancient world, the medieval world, and the present day, not discontinuity. The founders of America were neither radical nor abstract, but conscious of the patrimony bequeathed them by the ancient Hebrews, the ancient Greeks, the ancient Romans, and the medieval and Reformational churches. Symbolically, Kirk employs five cities (he jokingly referred to Roots as a “Tale of Four Cities”): Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London, organically culminating in Philadelphia. Armed with such a stance, Kirk challenges thinkers as diverse as the second Great Awakening preacher Crazy Lorenzo Dow and the exponent of Manifest Destiny, John L. O’Sullivan, and Progressives such as Albert Beveridge who saw all things new in America.
In Platonic fashion, Kirk examines both the order of the soul and the order of the republic in a sort of pursuit of justice itself. Classically, justice is defined as “to give each his due,” and Kirk is critically concerned with knowing exactly where each person, idea, and culture is in the grand scheme of things. Men and women, then, do not create or invent laws, mores, and norms—rather, they discover them, identifying what is universal in a particular manifestation. After all, Kirk wrote elsewhere:
To seek for truths in history… distinctly is not to indulge in dreamy visions of unborn ages, or to predict the inevitability of some political domination. Rather, the truths of history, the real meanings, are to be discovered in what history can teach us about the framework of the Logos, if you will: about the significance of human existence: about the splendor and the misery of our condition. In this inquiry, there must be joined with the historical discipline certain insights of philosophy and psychology. For historical consciousness necessarily is entwined with the mystery of personal consciousness.[*]
Thus, for Kirk, everything good, true, beautiful, and eternal has its place within time. Further, Kirk sees women and men as moral and ethical beings, endowed with free will and, thus, moral culpability.
Beautifully written, Roots can be read in a few sittings, despite its massive length (Kirk also called it his “fat book”). Indeed, one can take it as a whole or one can slowly meditate on each part of it. Almost half the book deals with Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London (and, somewhat eccentrically, St. Andrews in Scotland), and the other half deals with American history from its colonial settlement through the American Civil War.
Interestingly enough, when Kirk began writing Roots in the late 1960s, he envisioned it as a massive project that would involve various editions of the book (thus, making it accessible to different educational levels), with lesson plans available for teachers, and a series of films—possibly narrated by Charlton Heston or Ronald Reagan—to be shown to private audiences or, perhaps, through PBS. Thus, one could think of the project as something similar to (but predating) Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose. Kirk was also envisioning something akin to homeschooling, being at least a full generation away from the actual movement.
Though Roots of American Order has gone through four editions, it always had its critics. Some tame critics, such as the Publishers Weekly, stated merely that Roots was “rambling scholarship that affirms faith in American ideals and institutions.” Others, such as Colorado State University’s Robert Hoffert, were less kind. He called Roots “unsatisfying and unsatisfactory,” with the author creating a mere “charade: a guessing game which instructs us via tableaux and indirection.” Further, he complained: “Kirk offers a confession of faith rather than a rigorous historical or philosophical analysis. If you come to it as a believer, you’ll be overwhelmed. But how can you respond as an infidel?”
Most reviewers, however, found much to love in the book. Not atypical was John Chamberlain’s review in The Freeman: “It is the incredible scope of the book that is staggering. Even more remarkable, it is as deep as it is wide, relating order in the soul to order in the State in masterly fashion. Kirk has always been good at intellectual portraiture, but this book combines his old forte with the qualities of a great mural.” Others called Roots scholarly, majestic, and deep.
Almost a half century later, Roots holds up amazingly well. It rightly deserves its place as a conservative masterpiece.
The author would like to thank Shelby Tone for collecting and hunting down reviews for him.
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[*] Kirk, “Regaining Historical Consciousness,” in Redeeming the Time, 102.
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