All Commentary
Thursday, July 1, 1965

A revewer’s Notebook

Russell Kirk’s excellent John Randolph of Roanoke: A Study in American Politics, which on the date of its first issue in 1951 was a harbinger of modern conserva­tive scholarship, has been repub­lished by Henry Regnery of Chi­cago (480 pp., $5.95) with new ap­pendices containing Randolph’s more important speeches and a selection of his letters. The new edition is extremely welcome, for it comes at a time when Kirk is under considerable fire from one wing of the conservatives for his attempt to make the thought of the Anglo-Irishman Edmund Burke relevant to an America which, supposedly, has never had a Burkean tradition. What John Randolph of Roanoke empha­sizes is that this country once had a Burke in politics—though the resemblance of Randolph, a tor­mented, sickly, sardonic South Virginia slaveholder, to Burke is obscured by so many surface dif­ferences that it takes some dig­ging to find it.

The main point made by Kirk is that his two intellectual heroes had a common horror of abstrac­tion in political thought such as Locke’s theory of “natural rights,” or Tom Paine’s “rights of man.” The things men did have a right to, in the Burke (and Randolph) view, were the benefits and tradi­tions incorporated over the ages in their culture and society. “All we have of freedom, all we use and know, this our fathers bought for us, long and long ago,” as I seem to remember Kipling. Kirk puts it this way: “Men’s rights, in short, are not mysterious gifts deduced from a priori postulates; they are opportunities or advan­tages which the stability of a just society bestows upon its mem­bers.”

I find myself biting on air when I read a sentence like that, for the definition of a “just society” would seem to demand a theory of the nature of man, which gets us back to “rights appropriate to man’s nature,” or “natural rights” tout court. But if my sense of log­ic makes me a Lockean, my temperament makes me a Burkean, for I agree with Kirk (and Burke and Randolph) that the tissue of traditional Anglo-American liber­ties should not be subjected to sudden change by legislatures—or courts!—prodded by the momen­tary clamor of pressure groups.

Just as Burke venerated the traditions of his eighteenth cen­tury British society, Randolph took the “Old Republicanism” of Tidewater Virginia as something that should remain beyond the reach of revolutionaries. Randolph did not like slavery, and he be­longed for a time to Bishop Wil­berforce’s English society for the suppression of the slave trade. But he had inherited his slaves, and he considered that it would be a cruel thing to do to turn them off into a society not yet ready to absorb them as free men. Ab­olitionists angered him, for they believed that “all is to be forced—nothing can be trusted to time, or to nature.” In his will John Ran­dolph did give freedom to his slaves, who were sent after his death to lands which he had pro­vided for them in Ohio. Kirk re­marks upon the bitter irony that ensued when the people of Ohio, an abolitionist state, met Ran­dolph‘s Negroes “with violence and drove them from the farms the southern champion had pur­chased for them.”

Men of Honor and Learning

The Burkean reality of Vir­ginia Tidewater life at the end of the eighteenth century was that it produced men of honor and learning. Randolph wanted it to continue that way. But he found himself in a Congress that had little use for his Old Republican­ism. The Jeffersonian Republicans were, to Randolph‘s way of think­ing, levelers; they looked to the development of an America of small yeoman farmers, and they angered him because of their en­mity to such institutions as entail and primogeniture. The Federal­ists were no better, for they be­lieved in the development of in­dustry, the creation of cities, and the centralization of power in a federal state.

Old Republicanism required strict construction of the Consti­tution for the preservation of states’ rights. In economics, it meant Free Trade, for the plant­ers who supported the Old Re­publicans needed English mar­kets for their crops, and found it more expedient—and cheaper—to trade for English manufac­tured goods. In foreign affairs, Old Republicanism meant politi­cal isolationism, for wars inter­fered with overseas commerce and put high taxes on agrarians who weren’t prepared to pay them.

Since Randolph was never one to curb his tongue, he found him­self embroiled with practically everybody else in politics in the Jeffersonian and earliest Jackson­ian periods. For a while he made common cause with the New Eng­landers who opposed Jefferson‘s Embargo and the War of 1812. The embargo and the war accom­plished the ruin of both the Vir­ginia Tidewater planters and the New England shipping interest—and after the war was over Mas­sachusetts’ Daniel Webster, a great opportunist, went over to the High Tariff enemy when it became apparent that the ship­ping interest would never come back. This left John Randolph with no important congressional allies.

But he did pass on the sub­stance of his thought to John Cal­houn of South Carolina. Original­ly a War Hawk and a nationalist, Calhoun embraced a Burkean de­fense of the tradition of states’ rights when he realized that a na­tionalist North and West would menace the slave economy of the Deep South.

The Problems Remain the Same

Reading about Randolph‘s ca­reer in the Congress of a hundred and fifty years ago is a melan­choly business. If the quixotic Old Republican were alive in 1965, he would recognize at least a hundred contemporary ironies as being very similar to the irony that forced southern enemies of slav­ery such as himself into the posi­tion of defending the rights of states to deal with their “peculiar institution” in their own way, What would Randolph, the enemy of Jefferson’s Embargo and “Mr. Madison’s War,” do about trading with Soviet Russia or about war in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic? He would be forced, would he not, to the Burkean ex­pediency of supporting little ex­peditions and an embargo on trade in strategic goods in order to fore­stall the coming of a big atomic blow-off.

As for Selma, Alabama, and all that it connotes, would Randolph, as a strict constructionist, invoke his principles to welcome a strict construction of the constitutional clause that says the privileges and immunities of the citizen shall be equal? I fancy that Randolph would acknowledge the Federal right under the Fifteenth Amend­ment to guarantee even-handed registration and to police the polls, but would fight to the end for the right of a state to impose educa­tional qualifications on voters in a nondiscriminatory way and to re­tain the poll tax in local elections. This would leave a modern Ran­dolph standing in uncomfortable isolation between the two fires of the Ku Klux Klan and the “lib­erals,” a quite familiar spot for a battler for Old Republican prin­ciples.

Randolph would find himself right at home in the controversies over reapportionment and in the fight to cut foreign aid. The vir­tue of the Kirk study is that it shows that, while times do change, principles do not evaporate. This is a fine work even though it does argue in a circle on the subject of natural law.

If You Don’t Mind My Say­ing So, Essays on Man and Na­ture by Joseph Wood Krutch, New York: William Sloane Associates, 1964, 402 pp., $5.95.

Reviewed by: R. M. Thornton and E. A. Opitz

We may not be able to frame a definition of philosophy, but we can, nevertheless, recognize a phi­losopher when we see one. He would be a man who had served a long and varied apprenticeship: professor of literature at Colum­bia University, dean of American drama critics, biographer of Sam­uel Johnson and Thoreau, natural­ist, student of contemporary sci­ence, observer of the human scene on several fronts. He would, in short, be Joseph Wood Krutch.

Krutch wrote a little bombshell of a book in 1929, The Modern Temper, all the more shattering in its conclusion because of its urbane style. The book examines the universe supposedly revealed by modern science, draws some logical conclusions, and calmly demonstrates that the human spirit can no longer be or feel at home in such a universe. Exactly 25 years and many books later, Krutch re­turned to the general subject in a book called The Measure of Man. He does not here attack the argu­ment of his earlier work, but rather outflanks it. The diagnosis of The Modern Temper still stands, but the prognosis is re­vised upward. Mr. Krutch sets forth his “reasons for no longer believing that the mechanistic, materialistic, and deterministic conclusions of science do have to be accepted as fact and hence as the premises upon which any phi­losophy of life or any estimate of (man’s) future must be based.” The new perspectives are further elaborated in several recent books and essays. Mr. Krutch calls him­self an “essayist by habit,” and in the present collection, culled from various journals and spanning many years, he has given us a de­lightful book, a book to enjoy, and then to ponder.

Krutch views his fellow crea­tures—and himself—with detach­ment and amused tolerance, so that his strongest criticisms pervade one’s thinking without set­ting up any unnatural resistance to what he has to say. He does not scold the social scientists for their infatuation with statistics and polls; he pats them on the head with a witty essay entitled “Through Happiness with Slide Rule and Calipers,” and they vis­ibly diminish. In “Whom Do We Picket Tonight?” he deflates those who feel called to mind other folk’s business by observing that it is “sometimes easier to head an institute for the study of child guidance than it is to turn one brat into a decent human being.” Dealing with those who disparage market competition, he writes: “When men cannot compete for wealth they compete for position, for authority, for influence in the right places. When they cannot own a palace, four automobiles, and ten servants, they manage to get themselves appointed to jobs in connection with which these things are assigned them. More dreadfully still, when these same men find themselves no longer re­quired to pay the common man to do their work for them, they quickly discover that when the profit motive has been abolished, the fear motive affords a very handy substitute.”

The things that people of a given period take for granted are answers supplied to them by thinkers whom they might not even know. It is the task of social criticism to confront us with the men we permit to do our thinking for us, to make us aware of our assumptions. Here is Mr Krutch’s thumbnail analysis:

“The fundamental answers which we have on the whole made, and which we continue to accept, were first given in the seventeenth century by Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and Rene Descartes, and were later elaborated and mod­ernized by Marx and the Darwin­ians. These basic tenets of our civilization (in chronological but not quite logical order) are:

1)     the most important task to which the human mind may devote it­self is the ‘control of nature’ through technology (Bacon);

2)     man may be completely understood if he is considered to be an animal, making predictable reactions to that desire for pleasure and power to which all his other desires may by analysis be reduced (Hobbes);

3)     all animals (man excepted) are pure machines (Descartes);

4)     man, Descartes notwithstand­ing, is also an animal and there­fore also a machine (Darwin);

5)     the human condition is not determined by philosophy, reli­gion, or moral ideas because all of these are actually only by-prod­ucts of social and technological developments which take place independent of man’s will and unin­fluenced by the ‘ideologies’ which they generate (Marx).”

Krutch jokingly asserts that his claim to fame is that he knows more about plant life than any other drama critic, and more about the theater than any botanist! Essays in both fields are here, plus pieces on Johnson, Thoreau, and Mencken—whom Krutch re­gards as the best prose writer of the twentieth century.

Thoreau wrote that he came in­to the world, not to make it better, but to live in it good or bad. Sim­ilarly, Mr. Krutch, who turns a skeptical eye on many of the re­forms currently proposed to im­prove the lot of mankind. He be­lieves that society can be improved only by improving individual men and women and that “saving the world” is, perhaps, a task beyond man’s capacity.

Krutch is proud of having never been taken in by communism, as were so many intellectuals during the past half century. Nor has he worshiped the other false gods of our time—Rationalism, Relativ­ism, Progress, Equality, Science, and Democracy. He discusses at­tempts to cure educational ills by pouring money into school plant; he shows the fallacies in pacifism, and in the sociology which exhib­its a more tender concern for the criminal than for his victim; heis critical of those who would make poverty the scapegoat for all social problems, and who then look to government to rid us of poverty. Mr Krutch distrusts all panaceas, for his faith is placed on the responsible individual. He argues cogently that there is dis­coverable meaning and purpose in human existence, and that man is a unique creation gifted with the will and the imagination to make a world, not merely submit to one. “Man’s most important char­acteristic and that which bestows upon him his dignity is his free­dom to choose.”

Who says a book of essays has to be dull?

The American Colonial Mind And The Classical Tradition by Richard H. Gummere, Cambridge: Harvard Uni­versity Press, 228 pp., $5.25.

Reviewed by Robert M. Thornton

Many early settlers in Amer­ica, and especially the intellectual and political leaders of colonial and revolutionary days, were col­lege men, but mastery of the clas­sics was by no means limited to those who had attended institu­tions of higher learning. The rate of literacy in settled regions was remarkably high, and the wisdom of Greece and Rome was continu­ously brought to bear on the problems of everyday life. Mr. Gum-mere traces the classical ancestry of the Constitution which, like the Declaration of Independence, was in large measure the product of men whose schooling had been in “the grand, old, fortifying classi­cal tradition.”

“Two ancient ideas were re­garded as fundamental by pre-Revolutionary Americans,” says Mr. Gummere, “the Greek concept of a colony independent of the mother state, in everything but sentiment and loyalty, and the Law of Nature which took precedence over any man-made legislation.” He quotes Cicero‘s celebrated ver­sion of this Law of Nature or Higher Law:

True Law is Right Reason, in agreement with Nature; it is of uni­versal value, unchanging and ever­lasting. It is a sin to alter this law… we cannot be freed from its obli­gations by senate or people, and we need not look outside ourselves for an expounder. There will not be dif­ferent laws at Rome and at Athens; but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and all times. God is the author of this law. Whoever is disobedient is flee­ing from himself and denying his human nature.

“The high water mark of the classical tradition in colonial writ­ings” is, in Mr. Gummere’s opin­ion, the correspondence between

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (1812-1826). “These two elder statesmen reveal a mastery of the classics and a practical applica­tion of ancient ideas to modern situations.” They were, he writes, “at home in all fields of history.”

It is precisely this at-homeness in history that is lacking in our age of innovation, with colleges offering practical courses, trivial electives, and quick returns. Here, as at so many points, Albert Jay Nock speaks to our condition:

“The literatures of Greece and Rome,” he writes in his Memoirs (p. 81), “comprise the longest, most complete, and most nearly continuous record we have of what the strange creature known as Homo sapiens has been busy about in virtually every department of spiritual, intellectual, and social activity. That record covers nearly twenty-five hundred years in an unbroken stretch…. The mind which has attentively canvassed this record is much more than a disciplined mind, it is an experi­enced mind. It has come, as Emer­son says, into a feeling of immense longevity, and it instinctively views contemporary man and his doings in the perspective set by this profound and weighty experi­ence.”

The effort to recover our past might be the most effective way to assure our future.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.