Appraising America's Formative Principles

The American Cause is much needed at this time in the nation’s history, when many earnest people find themselves both angered by the actions of anti-American terrorists and confused by the Siren-call of those who loathe the United States and have an abiding contempt for those awful “Red State” yokels who live quietly, prudently, and productively.

At such a time, when some people wonder if there is such a thing as “The American Cause,” Russell Kirk’s calm, well-stated walk-through of the beliefs and practices that formed and continue to inform America is a welcome work.

The first edition of The American Cause was published in 1957, at a time when stories of the torments endured by American soldiers captured by the enemy during the Korean War were still fresh.

What concerned many observers of that era was the shameful fact that many American captives denounced their colleagues and their cause without torture and without significant coercion of any sort. Their Communist manipulators were amazed and delighted by this turn of events, and wrote enthusiastically to their superiors to describe their American charges as individuals remarkably ignorant of their own nation’s history, the philosophical groundings underlying The American Cause, and the intent of the United States’ founding documents.

Moral Foundation

In response to this state of events, publisher Henry Regnery encouraged Kirk to write The American Cause, to provide what the author described as “a concise statement of the beliefs that secure our order, our justice, and our freedom.” It was written in the hope that those Americans who should take the time to read it need never again retreat before those who disparage America’s roots on account of “their own ignorance, lack of confidence, and weakness in reasoned debate.”

Reissued in 1966, to provide a counterblast to America’s leftist radicals during the Vietnam War, The American Cause has now been edited and reissued anew for a readership in the post-Communist world.

This is a short book-169 pages, including a topical index, supplied by the editor for the first time in the work’s publication history-with not a word wasted. Editor Gleaves Whitney is recognized within conservative circles as an authority on Kirk’s historical writings, and is thus especially well suited to update The American Cause.

By making small editorial changes to eliminate references that might otherwise date the work, Whitney brings Kirk’s primer in American history out of the Cold-War era and into a world threatened by Al Qaeda, anarchists, and terrorists of every stripe. At such a time as this, Kirk’s The American Cause is much needed-for in our age, as was true during the lifetime of Kirk (1918-1994), “good-natured ignorance is a luxury none of us can afford.”

In this work, Kirk begins by identifying the three bodies of principles that invisibly control any people: their set of moral convictions, their set of political convictions, and their set of economic convictions. He discusses each of these principles as they have applied to the United States since its founding, emphasizing that the American model arose out of the collective experience of the nation’s people, their customs, conventions, and ways of continuity, beginning with a realistic view of man and his relation to his neighbors and his God.

Kirk contrasts America’s revolutionary cause with that of the French revolutionaries-delineating the differences between the one, which was an essentially conservative response to the overreaching and innovations of Parliament, and the other, which sought to overthrow all established authority and erect in its place an ideology built upon the musings of coffee-house philosophers. Kirk demonstrates that informed Americans hold that theirs “is the cause of true human nature, of enlightened order, regular justice, and liberty under law.”

Editor Whitney’s essay on American exceptionalism-the fact that America is unique in its successful establishment of a tolerable balance between the claims of order, freedom, and justice, with a special place and destiny in the world-serves as an effective afterword to The American Cause, affirming and further explicating the truths stated by Kirk.

American Exceptionalism

As Whitney writes in this essay, “The American Achievement,” “America is no utopia, certainly. Yet is it more than just another country. In the perspective of world history, it is exceptional. As we ponder our founding, it is well for us to see the historically significant accomplishment America is. A renewed appreciation of our blessings will help Americans meet the many challenges we face, now and in the future.”

On that note, readers should be aware that The American Cause does not provide a statement of that contradiction in terms called “conservative ideology”: a Five-Year Plan for bringing about a supposed conservative Utopia.

For his part, Kirk took pains to emphasize that conservatism is no ideology, and thus offers no step-by-step recipe for a world of contentedness promised by ideology. In truth, conservatism is a way of looking at life which focuses upon that which endures-what Kirk (following the example of T. S. Eliot) called “the permanent things” and the moral imagination, which recognizes man as a being created by God and meant for eternity, though flawed and in need of redemption from his errors, appetites, and enthusiasms.

There seems little chance that the readers of this little book will ever find themselves suffering under threat of torture by totalist captors, as were American prisoners of war during the Korean Conflict. But it is highly likely that the modern American citizen will be subjected to a fairly relentless barrage of dishonest televised newscasts, multicultural claptrap geared toward denigrating all of American history prior to the annus mirabulis 1968, and much else besides.

For all such readers, The American Cause-in this invaluably updated edition-will prove a modern classic of informative clear-thinking and refreshing truth about a nation that is well worth affirming, defending, and celebrating.


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