Chilton Williamson’s study of the sources of American conservative thought presupposes certain assumptions about his subject that may not be universally shared but are defensible nonetheless.  Williamson suggests that American conservatism is essentially paleoconservative, and both his choice of current conservative authors and his comments on Joe Scotchie’s Revolt From the Heartland underline this association.  Furthermore, Williamson’s contemptuous references to the neoconservatives and his scathing comments on the marital infidelity of the libertarian Albert J. Nock indicate that there are positions often identified with the contemporary right that Williamson does not consider “conservative.”  He comes back repeatedly to the Christian roots of conservative thought, and, from the repeated citation of Catholic thinkers and the conspicuous absence of the Protestant Reformers, who heavily influenced American religious and political culture, his conservatism, it may be concluded, is largely (if not exclusively) a function of his Catholic beliefs.  Williamson justifies this linkage by locating the heart of conservatism in the inseparably Catholic principle of “subsidiarity.”  To this, one may respond by pointing out that European Lutherans and Calvinists defended the same principle in early-modern times; also, Thomas Fleming’s The Morality of Everyday Life, which Williamson discusses, documents the widespread nature of subsidiarity even in non-Christian societies.

Having pointed this out, allow me to dwell on the positive features of Williamson’s discussion of conservative thinkers and their sources.  His prose and expositions—unlike those, for instance, in Commentary—are marvelous to read.  Even more important, Williamson sets up a plausible model of conservative thinking that, despite his courteous nods in the direction of “conservative” TV celebrities, underscores the gulf between the present alliance of country-club Republicans and neocon talking heads and those who understand the value of tradition and the destructive aspects of Progress.  Were I doing a similar project, my list of thinkers and advocates would overlap his.  Although I would have focused more on Continental authors, Williamson can properly claim that, like Russell Kirk, he is looking at a specifically Anglo-American conservative mind.

What is troublesome in his analysis, but is clearly not Williamson’s fault, is the problem of taxonomy.  Despite the earnest attempt in the Introduction to distinguish “conservative,” “rightist,” and generic Republican and to show in which ways they dovetail (or do not), one is still left, as Williamson concedes, with definitional and contextual loose ends.  The reason is that, while we can find conservative impulses in 20th-century America, one is not describing in any way a conservative society.  The American conservatism represented by Robert Taft was essentially bourgeois liberal (in the old-fashioned sense) and has now yielded, as Williamson correctly states, to “foreign adventurism, internationalist ambitions and global crusades.”  The fragile nature of conservative thinking has always been one of its characteristics, for a reason that sociologist Karl Mannheim explained in an essay on conservative “utopianism” in 1927.  Conservative intellectuals, observed Mannheim, are invoking a past that is in the process of dissolving.  They therefore practice “reflectiveness” by trying to reproduce, as a framework of values and sentiments, that which is no longer “a linear experience of historical time.”  Conservatism moves from the historically concrete to an exercise in imaginative and theoretical reconstruction.  The Southern Agrarians, Russell Kirk, and the Chronicles circle all fall into Mannheim’s category, which, in fact, encompasses all serious conservative thinking for the last hundred years.  That such activity does not attract big-government think tanks should come as no surprise.