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Russell Kirk: Godfather of Modern American Conservatism

Russell Kirk

Godfather of Modern American Conservatism


Chances are you haven’t heard the name Russell Kirk escape the lips of many conservative pundits. That’s a shame, because Kirk was one of the principal founders of the modern conservative movement. In fact, he gave the movement its name with his landmark book The ­Conservative Mind (1953).

Kirk destroyed the prevailing liberal narrative that there was no such thing as a conservative intellectual tradition. The Conservative Mind revealed the estimable line of thinkers who had developed Anglo-American conservative thought as far back as the eighteenth century, from statesmen like Edmund Burke and John Adams to writers including Alexis de Tocqueville and T. S. Eliot. Kirk showed that conservatism, far from being a relic of the European feudal order, was really the most legitimate basis for the American political and social order.

The Conservative Mind offered a lifeline to disparate bands of politicians, academics, journalists, and citizens who had become disillusioned by the growing power of the state. Over the next four decades, Kirk limned a conservative vision based on tradition, order, the moral imagination, and the “permanent things.” That vision has influenced generations of ­conservatives—not least Ronald Reagan, who awarded Kirk the Presidential Citizens Medal in 1989.

Kirk’s influence lives on. ISI has many of his books in print, regularly holds retreats and conferences for top students at the Russell Kirk Center in Michigan, and publishes the esteemed quarterly journal he founded in 1957, Modern Age. These are all testaments to the fact that Kirk’s insights remain vital resources for conservative renewal. As one commentator recently put it, “Considering the arid wastelands of today’s political discourse, rediscovering Russell Kirk’s elegant wisdom can be as reviving as steady rains after a long drought.”

Here are just a few examples of that reviving wisdom.


The Conservative Tradition

If a conservative order is indeed to return, we ought to know the tradition which is attached to it, so that we may rebuild society; if it is not to be restored, still we ought to understand conservative ideas so that we may rake from the ashes what scorched fragments of civilizations escape the conflagration of unchecked will and appetite.

The Conservative Mind


Rid Yourself of Ideology

Conservatism is the negation of ideology: it is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order. The attitude we call conservatism is sustained by a body of ­sentiments, rather than by a system of ideological dogmata.

The Politics of Prudence


A Sound Foundation

The human condition is insufferable unless we perceive a harmony, an order, in existence. . . . No order is perfect: man himself being imperfect, presumably we never will make our way to Utopia. (If ever we arrived at Utopia, indeed, we might be infinitely bored with the place.) But if the roots of an order are healthy, that order may be reinvigorated and improved. If its roots are withered, “the dead tree gives no shelter.”

The Roots of American Order


Barbarians and Fanatics

A man without principles is an unprincipled man. A nation with­out principles is an uncivilized nation. If a people forget their principles, they relapse into barbarism and savagery. If a people reject sound principles for false principles, they become a nation of fanatics.

The American Cause



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