“Why, I pray, do you accuse me of a weak character? It is an accusation to which all enlightened men are exposed, because they see the two, or better say, the thousand sides of things, and it is impossible for them to make up their minds upon them, with the result that they stumble sometimes on one side, sometimes the other.” Constant means in English what it does in French, so Benjamin Constant’s defense of his intellectual inconsistency is ironic. Constant (1767-1830), the French political theorist, novelist, and statesman, a republican invited by Napoleon to collaborate with him in drafting a new constitution for the empire, was perhaps the first writer to comprehend the political significance of the French Revolution and how that event had destroyed both the classical and the absolutist traditions, and to attempt to suggest a theoretical structure that could replace them in the context of the new commercial society. Though Constant’s life was sufficiently adventurous and tumultuous as to threaten to overshadow his work, his originality and interest as a writer nevertheless prevails. I became interested in Benjamin Constant while reading up for my book After Tocqueville, and am currently working my way through his Political Writings (Cambridge University Press), edited by Biancamaria Fontana. Included here are The Spirit of Conquest and Usurpation and Their Relation to European Civilization, Principles of Politics Applicable to All Representative Governments, and The Liberty of the Ancients Compared With That of the Moderns.
Letters From Prison (Texas Review Press), edited by Felicity Allen, reached me shortly before Christmas. These are one side of the correspondence between Jefferson Davis and his wife, Varina, collected and extensively annotated by Mrs. Allen, author of Jefferson Davis: Unconquerable Heart. Between April 1865 and April 1866 the former president of the CSA was imprisoned by the Yankees in Fortress Monroe, Virginia, and charged, inter alia, with the assassination of President Lincoln. These moving documents express deep Christian resignation and moral fortitude. “If it be His pleasure to reunite us,” Davis writes at the start of his imprisonment, “you will I trust find that His Fatherly correction has been sanctified to me, and that even in exile and obscurity I should be content to live unknown, quietly to labor for the support of my family; and thus to convince those who have misjudged me, that self seeking and ill regulated ambition are not elements of my character.” And then, just before his release, on the subject of the investigating committee of Congress considering his case: “This is probably the new reading of the Constitution and the exemplification of civil rights.”
—Chilton Williamson, Jr.
The magazine business is an interesting one, understood by very few who are outside of it. Readers who make hajj to Rockford, after recovering from the letdown of seeing our inauspicious physical plant, often say, “What a job! You must look forward to going to work every day!” (I admit, it ain’t a coal mine.) They imagine the writing part, and maybe the correction of a typo here and there, and lots of stare out the window time. They don’t know, and it’s usually not the right time to tell them, about the constant battle of wills and egos (one’s own included), writing styles, column inches, and time involved, or imagine the paradox of begging for money so that one can write things that are likely to offend the sort of people who give money. All of it, a coalition of the willing, being held together by strands of passion and loyalty that are under constant tension. I know—white people problems . . .
Reading Brad Birzer’s outstanding Russell Kirk: American Conservative (reviewed in this issue), I found the account of Kirk’s struggles over his magazine Modern Age strangely comforting. I, sir, am no Russell Kirk, but I can relate to the difficulty of knowing and believing that “modern problems go much deeper than questions of practical politics,” trying to address those problems in a winsome way, and hoping to reach out to a public that, increasingly, views all problems in terms of practical politics. “The serious reading public is the only public worth striving for,” writes a frustrated Kirk in a letter to Henry Regnery. “There is no half-educated public or semi-serious reading public, only a frivolous public that desires pornography and slogans.” (We may rejoice that Kirk did not live to see the advent of the Kingdom of Bloggerdom and the 250-word pixelated essay.)
Kirk’s complaint doesn’t make for a great lede in a direct-mail package. It was private correspondence that illuminates one of the perennial problems of conservatism, particularly conservative publications: These republics of letters must attract new readers and bring in those who are younger. But magazines are not monasteries or universities or communities or families. They cannot be what they are not, no matter how much those other things are lacking. What they can do, and what Kirk did (as Birzer’s book shows), is to challenge and inspire others to invigorate those vital institutions, which, incidentally, will increase the size of the “reading public.”
Conservatives, the editors of this magazine included, are up to the task. They transmit tradition because tradition must be transmitted. Faith without works is dead.
P.S.: I regret to inform you that there are no centerfolds planned for future issues of Chronicles.
—Aaron D. Wolf