Recovering A Paladin of the Old Right: Francis Graham Wilson

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In
her 1990 “Presidential Address” to the American Political Science
Association, the late Judith Shklar urged the redemption of American
political theory from its “petty intellectual squabbles” and “ideological
combat” of recent decades,  while encouraging a rekindled emphasis
on the imaginative study of the American tradition of theorizing
about political life.   Such an invitation begged the
revisiting of neglected and maligned sources of the “tradition”
by arguing for a departure from the norms of recent scholarship,
as well as a new willingness to encounter the richness of American
political theory undeterred by previous models of textual, historical
and philosophical exposition.

While
Professor Shklar’s admonition to the rising generation of scholars
was a laudable one, a more profound and persistent guide to the
recovery of American political thought and a humane social order
was provided a generation earlier by Francis Graham Wilson, a giant
of a figure in postwar American conservatism, and an academic who
spent the majority of his career at the University of Illinois. 
While Wilson is best known as a Catholic writer and theorist, 
his most significant contribution is his original interpretation
of the development of American politics and the development of an
American concept of liberty.   For Wilson, one means of
overcoming the various academic barriers to authentic historical
and philosophical reflection in the field of political theory was
found in the self-understanding of the citizenry.  The process
of self-interpretation is the result of a quest for ultimate meaning,
and the search usually ends with a turn to the divine, transcendent
basis of history and a shared experience.  Throughout American
history, this quest for explaining and explicating the historical
and philosophical foundations of American political thought has
continued to unfold, Wilson suggested.

The place of American self-understanding and its progression towards
a greater complexity and completeness belied a simplistic explanation
according to Wilson.  His pioneering labors have been augmented
by the scholarship of Willmoore Kendall (whose dissertation was
directed by Wilson) and George Carey.

This
week, our collection of Wilson’s essays, entitled Political
Philosophy and Cultural Renewal
(Transaction Books), was
published.  These efforts demonstrate a philosophical depth
of field within the corpus of American political thought, as well
as a more complex framework for understanding the limits of the
state than previously acknowledged or articulated. The essays also
represent the genius and mutual vision of the Old Right.

The
understanding of popular rule, exhibited in the colonial documents
to early charters, also provided fertile material for Wilson’s study,
especially the transference of experience from the settleent and
Founding periods to the mid-nineteenth century.  From the earliest
movement of American political thought, an important bifurcation
in the conceptualization of popular rule could be observed, Wilson
noted, and was of great importance to the transmittal of understanding. 
Alongside the development of the self-interpretation of New England,
there arose a less dogmatic and more explicitly pastoral presentation
associated with the other great colonial settlement, Jamestown. 
The Virginia colony, nearly simultaneous in date of origin with
the Puritan Massachusetts Bay colony, shared a related history and
many aspects of its political development, while also exhibiting
a distinctiveness.  Wilson’s scholarship, especially his The
American Political Mind
and the essays selected for our
collection,  appropriates the developing understanding within
the South Atlantic colonies as mirroring New England in possessing
a revelatory component of central importance.  These colonies
also offered many persistent particularities of interpretation that
influenced the self-understanding of political order within the
American political tradition, and which Wilson believed had continued
to inform politics in the United States.

The vision of a moral regime, focused upon the idea of subsidiarity
(or localism) in political and religious concerns, was central to
Wilson’s assessment of American politics and liberty.  Subsidiarity
as a means of dividing public authority and perpetuating the republic
was dependent on the virtue of the citizenry within the states. 
The inculcation of virtue required a sustained effort to allow each
generation to hear the “voice of tradition,” Patrick Henry urged.  
If the witnesses expired without fulfilling the need to “inform
posterity,” social and political life might suffer the consequences
of such a collective loss of memory and purpose.

 The
recovery of political thought, especially in an American and conservative
context, was dependent upon a return to the self-understanding of
the older regime according to Wilson; such a project could not be
accomplished without revisiting and expounding the original principles
and experiences of the Founding generation for a new day.  
Wilson devoted his life to this task and his scholarship represents
an important example of this attempt at recovery.  And in these
days, when American conservatism appears to be defined by its incoherence
and acceptance of statist measures, we should turn to Francis Graham
Wilson for direction and hope against the confusion.

May
16, 2001

Lee
Cheek [send them mail]
is Professor of Political Science at Lee University and the author
of Calhoun
and Popular Rule
(University of Missouri Press).  Kathy
Cheek serves as Instructor of Ballet at Lee University and is a
real estate broker.

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