Thirty some years ago, a brash young conservative wrote conservative columnist George F. Will a note of apology, mistakenly thinking he was a “High Tory” style conservative.
Will responded with a handwritten note of his own, in his singular inimitable style. “Dear Mr. Shirley, I forgive you for having to forgive me.”
In those intervening 35 years, Will has done nothing but faithfully and entertainingly articulate a vision and a defense of “American conservatism” (a phrase I’ve often used myself) against its pale imitators. He has often led the charge against liberalism, yet also recognizes that it is from within the conservative movement that conservatism has always found its greatest threats. This includes that of British conservatism, distinctly different from the philosophy wrought by the American Framers and before, by John Locke. The European iteration understanding is also different from modern conservatives such as Frederic Hayek, Ludwig Von Mises, Bill Buckley, Barry Goldwater, and finally, President Ronald Reagan.
Now this “man of letters” (an old style expression of high praise) has bestowed yet another gift on his fellow conservatives, indeed, fellow Americans, with the publication of his tome and masterpiece, "The Conservative Sensibility."
Will moves quickly in his account and nails the divide between European and American conservatism most succinctly when he writes: “So American conservatism is not only different from, it is at bottom antagonistic to British and continental European conservatism.” Put simply, European conservatism derives its power from monied and political and religious institutions. American conservativism derives its power from the citizenry, who in turn tell the elites what they may do and not do.
Early on, Will also pens, “My subject is American conservatism. My conviction is that, properly understood, conservatism is the Madisonian persuasion." James Madison, the father of the Constitution argued, along with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, in the "Federalist Papers," how and why our new country needed a constitution, a “delicate balance,” between freedom and laws to protect that freedom. But, as Will notes, that historic document is unique in all the world in that it tells the government what it cannot do, unlike other organizing documents of new governments. The U.S. government cannot ration speech, cannot arbitrarily throw men in jail, cannot take away their right to self-defense, cannot charge money to vote, etc., etc. And there is an out clause. If any government fails to respect American individuals, those individuals have the right to rise up and overthrow the government. With as much mayhem as can humanly be inflicted.
His devotion to the home spun brilliance of Goldwater is expressed in the dedication; to that “cheerful malcontent” from the West, who “wed that adjective and that noun.” Goldwater understood the uniqueness of American conservatism, which puts its faith in the citizenry, and not the elites. Goldwater paid tribute to American conservatism in his small book, "The Conscience of a Conservative." Will does an equally good job in his tribute to American conservatism.
Will’s is not a book for the faint-hearted. It has little palatability for sunshine conservatives, Vichy Republicans, Big Government Republicans, Police State Republicans, Bush Republicans, or for those devoted to the 280-character limitation of thought on Twitter.
Point of fact, Will does not use any form of social media. He does not know a tweet from a twerp or a twit.
If Will’s latest work has any inaccuracies, it’s not recognizing that lacrosse is the true original American sport and not baseball, the subject of which he is passionate. He and millions, each year, derive so much pleasure when the directive comes down form Major League Baseball, “Pitchers and catchers, report.” Still, he can be forgiven for this one small mistake.
Someone once described Richard Wagner’s music as “a cannon, smothered in flowers.” So it is with Will’s style. For years, with a stiletto pen oozing chocolate, he’s taken on all who have strayed from the gospel, including both Bushes and other recalcitrant conservatives.
He once wrote, in his elegant style, that President George W. Bush was a poor custodian of the American Constitution. Ouch! And now, our current president earns Will’s scorn, not with clanging denunciations, but with deafening silence, as he is not even mentioned in the volume. History is replete with such disparagements.
At the end of the American Revolution, the Framer Benjamin Rush wrote to Thomas Paine, who was the essential common sense writer of the uprising, “The war is over, but the revolution goes on.” Over the past many years, there have been a few who had the discipline and intellectual firepower to sit down and faithfully articulate what it means to be an American conservative. These include, but are not limited to George Nash.
George F. Will acutely understands and is intrinsically involved in the continuing revolution against centralized authority and the trampling of individuality here in America by dangerous bureaucrats.
Proof? "The Conservative Sensibility."
Craig Shirley is a Ronald Reagan biographer and presidential historian. His books include, “Reagan’s Revolution, The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started it All,” “Rendezvous with Destiny, Ronald Reagan and the Campaign that Changed America,” "Reagan Rising: The Decisive Years," and “ Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan." He is also the author of the New York Times bestseller, “December, 1941” and his new 2019 book, “Mary Ball Washington,” a definitive biography of George Washington’s mother. Shirley lectures frequently at the Reagan Library and the Reagan Ranch. He has been named the First Reagan Scholar at Eureka College, Ronald Reagan’s alma mater and will teach a class this fall at the University of Virginia on Reagan. He appears regularly on Newsmax TV, Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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