Edmund Burke’s prudential wisdom has much to teach American conservatives.
In his 2019 book The Conservative Sensibility, George Will makes a provocative claim about the relevance—or more accurately, lack of relevance—of Edmund Burke’s writing and statesmanship for the American Right. Yes, Will writes, Burke is a “subtle and profound” thinker, with lessons that “remain germane.” But Burke’s conservatism, he argues, is of the “throne-and-altar” variety, defending long-standing, hierarchical British institutions and practices that have no place in a country like America, where dynamism and social mobility are the regnant values. “American conservatism,” Will concludes, “is not only different from, it is at bottom antagonistic” to the Burkean kind.
This goes too far, as Daniel J. Mahoney’s luminous essay makes clear. Burke’s political thought, especially as advanced in his late prophetic warnings about the French Revolution, offers insights that should be central to any conservative vision of the world. The initial reaction in Britain to the French tumult of 1789 was relaxed; indeed, the revolution had many supporters, including among Burke’s Whigs. But Burke was unsettled. After reading an inflammatory sermon by a nonconformist Welsh minister, implying that the British should follow the French and depose their monarch, he threw himself into writing Reflections on the Revolution in France. Published in November 1790, the book proved a best-selling sensation, advancing an array of arguments on the evil of the French Revolution and where events in France were likely to head. It is rightly considered a classic.
Brian C. Anderson is the editor of City Journal.
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