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