A review of American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, edited by Bruce Frohnen, Jeremy Beer, and Jeffrey O. Nelson
f you need to find out in a hurry—and who knows when such a need might arise?—what year Walter Berns was born (1919) or how many condensed editions of The Road to Serfdom were distributed by the Book-of-the-Month Club at the end of World War II (600,000), you will readily find the answers in this indispensable new collection of data about the American conservative movement, published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and edited by Bruce Frohnen, an associate professor at Ave Maria Law School; Jeremy Beer, ISI Books’s editor-in-chief; and Jeffrey O. Nelson, its publisher.
As the introduction rightly notes, quoting Ted V. McAlister, “‘[T]he story of conservatism in America, as told by the academics, is fractured and inconclusive.'” The aim of the Encyclopedia is to provide a comprehensive reference guide to help correct this injustice, and “to contribute to the ongoing effort to understand what it has meant—and still means—to be a conservative in America.” This would be quite enough on its own; and if such a project tended to emphasize traditionalist institutions and figures—given the predilections of the book’s editors and publisher—it would hardly be surprising. YetAmerican Conservatism promises more: “The intent of this volume is to provide coverage of those matters of importance to each of the major schools of postwar conservative thought and to do so as evenhandedly as possible.” Let us see.
First, however, there is the obligation every writer confronts when reviewing an encyclopedia, namely, to take issue with the editors’ criteria for inclusion, niggle about the fidelity with which these standards were or were not followed, and lament the overall inadequacy of the final selections.
It may seem an odd criticism to make of an encyclopedia, but in this reviewer’s opinion the volume is diminished—so to speak—more by what it puts in than by what it leaves out. For instance, if the editors quite properly wanted to include “only those living men and women whose careers [are] sufficiently advanced to allow for an adequate assessment of their contributions,” what is David Brooks, barely ripe at age 45, doing in here?
A more serious problem is the negligible historical significance and intellectual heft of various figures deemed worthy of inclusion. Perhaps a reasonable case can be made for including Louis I. Bredvold, William H. Hutt, and Revilo P. Oliver. Going further, a full treatment of American conservatism might—one supposes—make room for Edward Atkinson, William Aylott Orton, and René de Visme Williamson. But in addition to these, American Conservatism includes entries on Basil L. Gildersleeve, Charles Tansill, and Donald Atwell Zoll, who, according to the entry by John Attarian, “has ceased writing on conservatism, and has apparently made a new career in elephant training.” Does any encyclopedia need to be this comprehensive?
Readers of this journal may be interested to know that the entry on the Claremont Institute, written by Matthew Bowman, is accurate and respectful, as are all the entries on think tanks and public policy organizations. Even more graciously, the editors have generally turned over the entries on current-day intellectuals and scholars to those individuals’ sympathetic students—even when this means providing significant space to people distinctly outside the paleoconservative orbit. So the entry on Harry V. Jaffa, for instance, is written by his longtime student and Claremont Institute senior fellow, Edward J. Erler.
This open-armed attitude toward presenting a conservative omnium gatherum not only helps to balance the somewhat indiscriminate standards mentioned earlier, it also bespeaks a laudable spirit of cordiality—vindicating the editors’ claim to have sought out and welcomed “the strong opinions that often are on display, which they believe has made for a more interesting volume than would have been the case had contributors been forced into the iron cage of a supposed neutrality.”
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The magnanimity of these gestures would have been even more pronounced, however, if the editors had not smuggled in so many of their prejudices under the banner of “evenhandedness.” Consider three of the most important subjects covered by the Encyclopedia: the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Civil War—the entries on which were all written by Bruce Frohnen. (As editor primus inter pares, Frohnen assumed responsibility for many of the book’s most substantive essays.) Each begins promisingly enough, carefully heeding the editors’ professed desire “not to establish any orthodox definition of conservatism.” Thus, the entry on the American Revolution opens by noting:
The war by which the American colonies seceded from the British Empire is the subject of significant debate within the conservatism movement. What one thinks of the nature of this war says much about what one thinks of America and of conservatism as a philosophy and way of life.
A similarly ecumenical spirit guides the beginning of the entry on the Declaration, calling it
an object of significant debate within the conservative movement because of the central and unique role some would give it within the American tradition of ordered liberty.
Yet in each case the entries proceed to elide the significance of these debates or differences, and conclude on a very different note. In the American Revolution entry, the “many” conservatives who “accept the notion that the American Revolution created a new America” quietly disappear from view. So does the circumspection of the opening paragraph. Instead, by the essay’s end we are told that “for conservatives”—simply, and without further qualification—”the American Revolution does not mark an abrupt break with the politics of Britain or with an ‘old world’ of superstition and oppression, [but rather] the successful conservation of inherited rights by the American people.”
Similarly, the essay on the Declaration of Independence devotes its concluding paragraph to the nettle of slavery—as well it should. But rather than recur to, or even mention, the Declaration’s clarion endorsement of the equal, natural right to liberty, Frohnen condemns slavery on the basis of the “right” to “the protections of family and local social life.” Slavery is wrong because it “strips individuals of their fundamental social ties by reducing them to commodities…no matter what ideological abstraction may be popular at the time.”
Frohnen’s treatment of the civil war appears to strive for balance, but even the opening salute to intra-conservative differences goes badly awry:
[O]ne’s views on this war—and whether one prefers to call it “The Civil War,” “The War between the States,” or “The War of Northern Aggression”—says much about one’s vision of America’s central traditions and their worthiness for conservation.
This is taking the spirit of inclusiveness too far: to imply that each of these terms is an equally legitimate viewpoint within current conservative thought—merely a matter of preference—is not “encyclopedic” thoroughness; it is an effort to re-certify perhaps the most egregious case of revisionism in American history.
Lest the reader think I am inferring too much, consider how later in this entry Frohnen does not merely mute the opinions of those who dissent from the extreme traditionalist interpretation—as he often does in other entries—but misrepresents them:
Others within the conservative movement reject southern traditions and localism altogether [and] prefer to base their vision of America and its tradition on a reading of the Declaration of Independence that sees America as a single, unitary state dedicated to the protection of individual rights. In this view, the North was morally obligated to invade the South in order to stamp out its evil, slave-based society.
Absent secession? Absent Fort Sumter? Absent military necessity? Who, exactly, in the modern conservative movement has ever propounded such a view?
Producing this encyclopedia was an enormous project; the entries took years to commission, collect, and compile. It is a wonderful resource with many virtues, and should be owned by every serious and inquisitive conservative. But in the final analysis, it is not quite as authoritative or evenhanded as it purports to be. I am reminded of a remark by Harvey C. Mansfield (the subject of a well-crafted entry by Daniel Mahoney) in the introduction to his translation of The Prince: “If the reader thinks my translation a bad one, let him try his own; if he thinks it good, let him learn Italian.” In turn, I say, if the reader thinks this encyclopedia a bad one, let him try his own; but if he thinks it uniformly good, let him read more about America.