Adrian Lee is a Solicitor-Advocate in London, specialising in criminal defence, and was twice a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.
In the 1950s William F. Buckley Jr emerged as Conservatism’s greatest exponent in the American media and galvanised a generation of activists to oppose the seemingly inevitable drift towards social democracy.
However, another unique and significant thinker simultaneously emerged and would become, as biographer Bradley Birzer commented “…the intellectual touchstone of the conservative movement”: Russell Kirk.
Russell Amos Kirk was someone of very different character and background to Buckley. In many respects, Kirk resembled our own Roger Scruton in both approach and political instincts. In physical stature he was short, which was commented upon by neo-conservative icon Leo Strauss at their first meeting, when he exclaimed “Oh, Mr. Kirk! I am so happy to find that you’re little too! From your books, I had feared that you might be a great, tall, fierce man.”
For many years, Kirk worked as a columnist for Buckley’s National Review. A member of staff commented: “…he seldom visited the National Review offices, but when he did, the staff met a plump fellow with a kindly face wearing a cape, a black wide-brimmed, floppy felt hat, a gold-plated stickpin in his necktie and carrying a sword cane.”
Kirk was born in Plymouth, Michigan, 103 years ago, on October 19, 1918. He was the son of a humble railway engineer and grew up in a prefabricated house (ordered from a Sears, Roebuck catalogue) located besides the tracks and close to the marshalling yards. Kirk attended a state school and studied for his first degree at Michigan State College.
For his Master’s, Kirk re-located to Duke University in North Carolina and completed a dissertation on the life of nineteenth century Virginian politician, John Randolph of Roanoke. After serving in the U.S. Army during the War (mostly in a dreary army camp in the Utah desert), Kirk was determined to return to university to obtain his Phd.
At this stage, a life of academia beckoned and he was soon employed as a lecturer in the history of civilisation at Michigan State College. The college allowed Kirk a leave of absence to study for his Phd. and Kirk’s choice of academic institution was St. Andrews University, Scotland. Kirk became enchanted by St. Andrews, calling it “the cosiest university in the world” and for the rest of his life he would spend several months each year in Scotland. His interest in British Conservatism deepened as a result and he discovered his life-long muse, Edmund Burke.
Unsurprisingly, Conservative philosophy was the subject of his thesis. When completed, Kirk re-edited the thesis and wrote to an American publishing house offering an astonishingly detailed, 500-page manuscript on the evolution of Conservative thought in Britain and America. His book was accepted and was first published in 1953 under the title of The Conservative Mind – From Burke to T.S.Eliot.
This seminal work deserves to be read and treasured by all Conservatives. It comprises a series of chapters examining the works of different cultural, philosophical and political Conservatives. Subjects examined included such diverse figures as John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Walter Scott, Samuel Coleridge, Alexis de Tocqueville, Walter Bagehot, Benjamin Disraeli, Arthur Balfour and W.H. Mallock.
Kirk begins by asking “What is the essence of British and American Conservatism?” He answers: “Strictly speaking, Conservatism is not a political system, and certainly not an ideology. It is a way of looking at civic social order.”
The author then identifies the 10 principles of Conservatism, as follows:
Kirk had little to say about economics and even contemporary politics in The Conservative Mind. His mission was to prove that Conservatism was a largely Anglo-American creed that first and foremost acted to conserve, to preserve and to pass on to future generations the best of humane traditions, rather than to advocate a rigid ideology or political party. He emphasised the spiritual nature of the individual, an acceptance of the mystery of human existence and the acknowledgement that innovation must be tied to traditions and customs.
Kirk’s parents were Protestants, but in his youth his faith went adrift, and he preferred to emphasise his stoicism. Later he re-discovered his spiritual side and became an ardent Christian Humanist. His religious convictions and the belief that Judeo-Christianity provided western civilisation’s moral foundation led to a close friendship with T.S. Eliot. Both men believed that for society to flourish in the future “permanent things” had to be defended in the present. After Eliot’s death, Kirk was to author the first comprehensive study of his works, Eliot and His Age: T.S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century.
Later in life, Kirk followed up The Conservative Mind with a history of the development of western civilisation entitled The Roots of American Order, in which he argued that the intellectual underpinnings of modern western society lay in the cultures of five cities: Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, London and Philadelphia.
The Conservative Mind was instantly successful and provided American Conservatives with a sense of history and philosophy. In 1956, Time magazine named Kirk as one of the 15 most important American intellectuals. Washington Post columnist Sidney Blumenthal commented in 1986 that The Conservative Mind “…was crucial in establishing the cause as a valid intellectual enterprise” because it “offered a genealogy of Conservatism.”
Kirk lived as a “Tory Bohemian” and worked from his eccentric home, Piety Hill, in Mecosta, Michigan. There he converted a toy factory into his library and built an Italianate house adorned with sculptures rescued from demolished buildings in Western Michigan. Kirk dwelt there with his wife and four daughters and frequently hosted refugees from communist countries.
Russell Kirk authored 20 further non-fiction books, three novels and some 3,000 weekly columns. He also became a noted author of ghost stories and horror fiction. Indeed, so esteemed was he that he was invited to become an honorary member of the Count Dracula Society and frequently attended their meetings in southern California.
Regarding his later political works, of particular note is Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered, America’s British Culture and The Portable Conservative Reader. Kirk had no interest in becoming a political activist, despite writing speeches for both Barry Goldwater and Pat Buchanan in campaigns two decades apart. However, his influence upon the growing American Conservative movement was pivotal and in 1989 Ronald Reagan awarded him the Presidential Citizens Medal.
On his 103rd birthday, Russell Kirk’s work should be read by all Conservatives. He identified a Conservatism distinct from libertarianism and nationalism that valued a moral order rooted in faith and tradition. In doing so, Kirk demonstrated that Conservative values provide the essential foundation for a free and prosperous future.