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An American in London

This was one of the last books by the late Dr. Russell Kirk, who was perhaps America’s foremost intellectual conservative, an eminent scholar in the social sciences and humane letters, and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. It might be said to be both a defense of the traditional European-American culture so much under attack by intellectuals and activists today, and a summary of the major cultural contributions of Britain to America.

Kirk spends the first few pages defining “culture.” Drawing on Dawson, Eliot and others, he concludes that it is a common way of life shaped by common beliefs, something characteristically human which, in its highest sense, involves a commendable pattern of manners and noteworthy aesthetic and intellectual attainment.

Britain influenced the shaping of American culture in four major areas or, as anthropologists and sociologists might say, “folkways”: 1) the English language and literature; 2) the rule of law, which resulted in the greatest degree of protection of the individual under law of any country; 3) the tradition and practice of representative government, which took root in the England of medieval times; and 4) mores, or “moral habits and beliefs and conventions and customs, joined to certain intellectual disciplines.” The latter have also been called “habits of the heart,” and comprised an ethical heritage for Anglo-American life.

Most of the book is devoted to examining each of these aspects of the British contribution. The legal and political heritage, and to a lesser extent, mores were also treated in Kirk’s incomparable 1974 book, The Roots of American Order. Kirk’s reflections on the language here get substantial treatment in one of his books for the first time, however.

He presents many interesting points, not commonly known, about the English language. Most noteworthy are the discussion of its evolution and his argument about why its character made possible so many timeless literary accomplishments and its increased usage throughout the world. Regarding the latter, he says that its great virtues are its simplicity, its ability to easily convey abstract notions, its greater number of words than any other language, and its abundant synonyms. He contends that the language evolved to the point it did because of the high British culture it was a part of.

Most of the book is devoted to examining each of the British contributions. The legal and political heritage to a lesser extent, mores were also treated in Kirk’s literature it spawned, is that it “still instructs us in what it is to be fully human, the reason restraining will and appetite.”

Kirk’s explanation of the common law and how Blackstone was the key figure in its enduring implantation here are largely repeated from The Roots of American Order, but his brief discussion of A.V. Dicey’s thinking about the nature of the rule of law is new. Similarly, half of Kirk’s chapter on the heritage of representative government is borrowed from the latter tome, but his discussion of the Burkean notion of representation, American federalism, and the character of American national government institutions are not (although they are not unfamiliar in political science literature). A most striking point is Kirk’s observation, following Edward S. Corwin and Sir Henry Maine, the latter of whom he quotes that the American Founding Fathers viewed the presidential office as a kind of elected kingship with sweeping executive power.

Kirk’s discussion of mores is an elaboration of his discussion in the above volume on Tocqueville’s thought on the subject. Kirk stresses that American mores were shaped by Christianity, and included marital fidelity and the integrity of the family, “high courage” when facing adversity, willingness to sacrifice in the present for the future, an independent spirit but a hospitableness toward newcomers, a “shrewd practical intelligence,” a desire for “fair dealings and commercial efficiency,” and respect for the laws. American mores were buttressed by early American education, which also was fashioned by British culture. The early American colleges all emulated English institutions, with their “aim of developing a class of gentleman leaders, clerical and lay, through the systematic imparting of a measure of wisdom and virtue”–carried out by “close study of certain great writings.”

Kirk closes his book by returning to the present serious challenge to America’s British culture. It presents itself as much in public apathy and indifference as in the assaults of multiculturalists, and its specific manifestations include the secularization of religion, pragmatism in law and politics, theoretical illiteracy and a decline of appreciation for truly great literature, and a corruption of social science. He also attacks today’s multiculturalists as duplicitous, “intellectually puny,” and a sham. As with all his books, however, Kirk ends on a note of hope as he contends that “America’s British culture ... [can] be reinvigorated.” The group that must bear the heaviest burden in this effort are those who are “tolerably educated.” Again taking material from The Roots of American Order, he includes both an appendix on what America inherited from the ancient Greeks and Romans and a chronology of events in British and American history that were especially important in shaping our culture.

Kirk will be missed, but it is perhaps through books like this, which undergraduates will here and there discover on a library shelf, that they will become introduced to him and to the truths about the American cultural heritage which he worked so hard to uphold but which their education passes over.