Some of the happiest memories of my collegiate days are fervent barroom debates among a small but redoubtable and congenial company of reactionaries.
The smell of spilled beer and sawdust still reminds me of those times. Outside, the 60’s raged. Hairy “students” with girlish arms and shoulders and trust funds preached revolution and the merits of Mao and Che. In the back booths of Clarence’s Bar and Grill and The Shack, however, our discussions were deeper and more serious, as well as decidedly unfashionable. What are the true principles of conservatism? Or what are the principles of true conservatism?
The argument often revolved around Russell Kirk’s six canons or James Burnham’s 29 theses. Or even around a silly collection of “conservative” writings by the then-not-yet-totally-discredited William F. Buckley, Jr. It was called I Thought I Saw a Dream Walking or some such title and was notable for the absence of almost every important American conservative thinker. Straussians and ultramontanists were well represented, but not Richard M. Weaver.
If only we had had Chilton Williamson’s Conservative Bookshelf in those days! Our discussions would have been infinitely better guided and more fruitful. Mr. Williamson’s selection of 50 works is as near perfection as is ever approached in this vale of tears (with one exception). The wise reading and understanding that lie behind his choices are awesome, and Mr. Williamson’s summaries are succinct but perceptive and flawless. In three or four pages, he distills the burden of each classic and shows its place in a great tradition. This is no small achievement with often difficult writers, from Saint Augustine to John Lukacs.
The final entry, Treason, by Ann Coulter, does not belong among the classics, as the editor doubtless well knows, but is included as an illustration of the defects of what passes for “conservative” discourse these days.
Everybody will have one or two favorites overlooked, of course. Like it or not, Ludwig von Mises is a more influential economist than Hayek and Röpke. I might have included the whole of Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, of which “The Bear” is a part, rather than just “The Bear” alone. I would choose William Graham Sumner’s Folkways or The Conquest of the United States by Spain instead of Henry Adams to represent “Progressive Era” conservatism. But I quibble. There are not many books that can be named “a lasting achievement.” The Conservative Bookshelf is one.
The editor would doubtless be accused of dereliction if he had not included the Federalist among the classics of conservatism. Contrary to accepted opinion, this work does not contain the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. It is neither representative nor authoritative. It is a work of special pleading. The truly representative and authoritative wisdom of the Founding Fathers is to be found in the debates in the Philadelphia Convention, in the debates and documents of the ratifying conventions, and in the federal and state documents of the 1790’s. John C. Calhoun’s Disquisition on Government and Discourse on the Constitution would be better choices here. The Federalist is full of shallow speculation (Madison) and insincere argument (Hamilton), all in the service of aggressive centralization, which every classic of American conservatism, in one way or another, warns against.