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Classical Christian Movement

The Roots of America, Watered

By June 1, 2009January 31st, 2023No Comments

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We find in every human endeavor two types of practitioner: the technician and the creator. The technician prides himself in his practicality, by which he means his ability to resolve an immediate problem. The creator sees his work in the broader context, from a more philosophical or theological perspective. He strives to solve immediate problems, but he is even more concerned about how the proposed solution will fit into the bigger picture.

This valuable distinction can help us to appreciate perhaps the nest and most valuable book available to teach civics to our students, Russell Kirk’s masterpiece, The Roots of American Order.

The American constitution is a crown jewel of the Christian, classical tradition. Russell Kirk provides the only guidebook I have found to that tradition written at a popular, accessible level, and that can be used by students in a Christian classical classroom.

Understanding that “the American moral order could not have come into existence at all, had it not been for the legacy left by Israel,” Kirk shows us an American history that begins, not with 1776 or 1492, but with the ancient Hebrews.

Tracing our history through four cities, Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London, Kirk shows how in each of these cities the roots of our order were planted and tended in the perpetual striving for just societies and righteous souls.

From Jerusalem we learned the law and the prophets and received a Messiah and a church.

We learned of covenant with a transcendent God and received our moral order. We even learned the doctrine of the separation of church and state. The ideas that Puritans and Calvinists inherited from the ancient Jews would form our national character.

From the Greeks we learned of tyranny and democracy, realized that the permanent is more important than the ever-changing, and inherited an idealism that continues to drive us to strive for justice and beauty. Aristotle taught us about the importance of the middle class and presented a case for mixed government.

Rome offers a whole laboratory of political experiments, none more important than its mixed republican form of government. From Rome we inherited a senate and an assembly. We separate the executive from the legislative and judicial branches. We have adopted Cicero’s legal theories concerning natural law.

Perhaps the most compelling sections in Roots focus on the place of London in American history. Our cultural debt is rather obvious, ranging from language to theater to something like free enterprise. But Kirk shows that we also have a political debt that we forget at our peril.

The rule of law, trial by jury, representative government, the Bill of Rights, and the notion of a written constitution did not fall from heaven on the fourth of July. They were purchased by the pains of armies and philosophers and merchants and theologians and monarchs and aristocrats. The stability of our legal system astonishes the world because our political tradition inherited so much wisdom from our British patrimony.

Kirk describes the rise of Parliament in the 13th and 14th centuries, the development of common law from the 10th century, the impact of the crusades on American ideals, the Reformation in Britain and its impact on the American order, the English civil war, whiggery, Hobbes, Locke, and Bunyan, the “salutary neglect” of the colonies by the British parliament, and the enormous influence of politicians and philosophers Montesquieu and Hume, Hooker and Blackstone, Knox and Burke.

In the penultimate chapter, he sketches a “revolution not made, but prevented” and the constitution that arose from it. All of this, he achieves in only 477 pages followed by an epilogue, extended notes for each chapter, suggestions for further reading, and an index.

We speak often of the genius of our founding fathers, among whom there were, as Forrest McDonald expressed it, “enough wise men,” to develop one of the truly awe-inspiring documents in world political history. But where did these men gain such wisdom?

Kirk shows us: it was from an immersion in “the great tradition” that remains an ever- present source of renewal for those who immerse themselves in it. No wonder Malcolm Muggeridge wrote of The Roots of American Order, “His book is exactly what people need to read, and he has made it easy, even pleasurable, to do so.”

When we teach civics, our students must become more than issue specialists, able to vote with only an eye to today’s hot topics. Unless they know the historic roots of American civilization, they will be unable to water them and the order that feeds on those roots will die.