American Conservatism

A scene of rolling hills ringed by lush trees and a landscape dotted with small farms and homesteads adorns the cover of this unusual reference book. The picture — with just a single, winding road, devoid of traffic but for one man on horseback — is Grant Wood’s Stone City, and it conveys a sense of the best this encyclopedia has to offer. The conservatism here goes much deeper than Republican Party politics; entries on agrarianism, community, and distributism — the smallholding economic philosophy of G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc — serve to remind readers that there are kinds of conservatism rooted in the conservation of land and place.

Branches of those traditions and similar ones can be seen in many more of the book’s six-hundred-plus entries, including those on Russell Kirk, author of the seminal 1953 work The Conservative Mind and a self-described Northern Agrarian, and Wendell Berry, who as “a localist and believer in small-scale sustainable economies” can be considered “a serious proponent of an alternative vision of cultural conservatism.” Lesser-known figures such as Ralph Borsodi, a political decentralist and a professional economist who “identified the factory as the greatest contributor to the ugliness of modern Western civilization,” also receive their due.

Most of the book, in fact, consists of biographical pieces on men and women who have contributed to the intellectual side of the American Right — attention to politicians is sparse within these pages. The encyclopedia’s contributors themselves are predominantly journalists or academics, many of them greatly distinguished in their fields. (Peter Stanlis, to name just one, is a premier scholar of Edmund Burke.) The editors, for their part, have taken the widest possible view of conservatism, even including a piece on the conservative side of anarchism by essayist and novelist Bill Kauffman. As a rule, sympathetic contributors provide the entries on divergent strains of conservatism. Jeffersonian and agrarian schools of thought (and life) on the American Right are well represented, so too are Hamiltonian and industrialist varieties.

The book is most valuable, however, not for those entries that reflect what wrongly goes by the name of conservatism today — a bent of mind that sees bigger SUVs and bigger defense budgets as the marks of national greatness — but for those that remind us of the older conservatisms that worked to cultivate a world more like Grant Wood’s.