Roots of American Order
by Russell Kirk
Russell Kirk’s love of order makes him a tad too cautious for me. Some people are conservative by choice and some by temperament; Kirk is conservative for both reasons. I can understand—and usually embrace—conservative arguments, but I don’t understand the mindset that views “playing it safe” as good advice. My sympathies are all with Robert Louis Stevenson when he says, “It is better to live and be done with it, than to die daily in the sick-room. . . . and does not life go down with a better grace, foaming in full body over a precipice, than miserably straggling to an end in sandy deltas?”
But I suppose Stevenson would have made a lousy legislator, as I know I would. The best makers of public policy are those grey men usually derided as “policy wonks,” men who get bogged down in the details and take the time to see every element of a problem. There’s nothing very sexy about maintaining order in a free society, but of course order is crucial for freedom to be preserved.
Kirk knows this and revels in it, and is happy to take pains to spell out how much of American society has its roots in ancient Greece and Rome, and in the wisdom contained in the Old and New Testaments. Kirk then traces this heritage through the Middle Ages, through the Reformation, to the founding of America. He is careful in making his connections, but he is also smart enough to tell some stories along the way—to help the reader see history as the source of much of what we take for granted today.
In this regard, The Roots of American Order is a remarkable book. It is not easy to help students largely unconcerned with government to see how the Magna Carta or Lex Rex revolutionized their own lives, but Kirk takes the time and sketches out the “big picture” skillfully. Unless you are something of a policy wonk yourself, you’ll be glad someone else took the time to do this.
As you read and enjoy, you may even be able to forgive Kirk his relentless caution—though it’s hard to forgive a mindset that gushes over men like Richard Hooker and claims things like, “Democracy in America was made possible by the growth of a colonial aristocracy.”
Still, his general thesis is true: America’s “attachment to certain enduring principles of order has done much to preserve America from the confused and violent change that plagues most modern nations.” Students need to understand this, and Kirk is ready to teach it—carefully.