Published Humanitas, Volume XXXII, Nos. 1 & 2, 2019

Russell Kirk has three interlocking intentions in writing The Roots of American Order. First, he would draw our attention to the appearance of modern tyranny, particularly as established by the French and Russian revolutions, and have us see this form of tyranny as a new and especially dangerous type of political evil. Second, he aims to keep America from succumbing to a similar modern tyranny by arguing that America is largely the result of premodern strains of thought and historical and cultural experiences that have combined to give us an ordered liberty that, if properly understood and attended to, insulates us from modern tyranny. Third, in recovering an understanding of our ordered liberty, Kirk would also have us renew our loyalty to it on its own terms (apart from the protection it offers us from modern tyranny) and retain it as the substantial political goal toward which Americans can and should aim. In recovering an appreciation of the premodern roots of American order, Kirk sets himself against the position that America can be understood as a fundamentally early-modern liberal nation. Though recent scholarly work on the place of natural rights in the American Founding has raised questions about Kirk’s analysis of the Founding, it is my argument that Kirk’s analysis is largely sound because America’s political culture does indeed have deep roots in premodernity. Furthermore, Kirk’s analysis of modern tyranny is also sound. Despite the fact that debate over the character of the Founding is very much alive, and regardless of how it turns out, loyalty to Kirk’s understanding of ordered liberty is vital because the American ordered liberty that he describes is a precondition of human flourishing.

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