September 1, 2003
To fully understand the importance of Russell Kirk, you must examine the history of the modern conservative movement - that is, since World War II. In 1964, the campaign of Barry Goldwater for President of the United States made conservatism a political movement. Ronald Reagan, beginning in 1967 as Governor of California, and then later as President of the United States from 1981 to 1989, established conservatism as a governing movement. But predating both of these eras was conservatism as an intellectual movement. Indeed it was this sound intellectual foundation that enabled the conservative movement to maintain its rigor and integrity as it continued into the political and governmental phases.
Leading the conservative intellectual movement in its early days, and serving as a "philosophical shepherd" for its expansion into subsequent phases, was Russell Kirk. His early book, The Conservative Mind, was recognized even by The New York Times as giving "American conservatives an identity and a genealogy" which was fundamental to the post-war movement. Likewise the rest of the liberal news media acknowledged Russell Kirk as one of America's leading thinkers, and respected him for both his brilliant thought and his intellectual integrity.
Russell Kirk was not just a thinker and a writer. At heart he was a teacher - an art at which he excelled. He spoke before students on hundreds of college and university campuses throughout the United States. The two journals that he edited, The University Bookman and Modern Age provided students and faculty alike with a serious view of conservative thought. Dr. Kirk most enjoyed direct interaction with students. His seminars at his home in Mecosta, Michigan, which he called Piety Hill, drew young people from all over the world. Kirk's intellectual vigor, his sense of humor, and his friendly personality made him a unique teacher and source of inspiration for his students. His many activities for the benefit of The Intercollegiate Studies Institute contributed greatly to the remarkable growth of that organization.
Dr. Kirk's repertoire of subjects was broad and comprehensive. His writings and talks covered everything from political philosophy and practice to literature, ethics, social policy, and modern culture. His erudite writings were not limited to the United States. During his life he contributed to dozens of learned periodicals in Britain, Australia, Canada, and the countries of Europe.
During the 1950s and 60s, conservative thought was a novelty to most Americans, and was confined primarily to the academy and to a small number of thinkers and writers. Through his books and articles, Russell Kirk introduced the subject to thousands of inquiring minds, and provided a rational basis for thinking about liberty, free markets, and limited government. This was an era in which William F. Buckley Jr. was introducing America to the National Review, and Human Events was a struggling publication. Russell Kirk provided intellectual depth to conservative thought and personally attracted new adherents to that viewpoint.
For his outstanding service to the nation, Dr. Kirk was honored by The Heritage Foundation by being named a Distinguished Scholar, and received the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Ronald Reagan in 1989. These were fitting tributes to this leading figure of modern conservatism.
--Edwin Meese III, former U.S. attorney general, is the Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow in Public Policy at the Heritage Foundation. James L. Gattuso is a research fellow in regulatory policy at Heritage.
Originally published in The Parthian Standard