JEFFERSON COUNTY, KANSAS.  “Community” is a recurring word and theme on this stoop, but it’s invocation can come in many undesirable forms: as a talisman against perceived ills; as a marketing device appealing to an unsatisfied self; as a spur towards nationalistic adventures; or as a way to close the door against others.  Given that, what is being evoked by the word community at FPR?  I certainly don’t have the last word on that question, but what follows is one answer, my contribution to the wonderful American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, edited by our own Jeremy Beer. 


In the years following the French Revolution, conservative thinkers reacted with relatively unanimous skepticism or outright horror at the forces of individualism and progressivism that had erupted with such violence against ancient traditions and institutions during that conflagration. Conservatives like Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre recoiled at the new conception of the human person as an atomized and fully free moral agent, possessed of abstract natural rights to be realized unconstrained by social limits. When entrenched as a movement of the people, they argued, this radical expression of individual will would not only destroy the whole structure of moral order on which western civilization was founded, but would also result in the rise of absolutist despotism.

The optimism of the Victorian Age found little that was convincing in this dour conservative outlook. With the popular penetration of the powerful idea of progress, the autonomous individual and his freely expressed will began to seem a self-evident and unmitigated good. The values of the age of progress-the maximum attainment of personal freedom combined with the maximum attainment of efficiency, mobility, uniformity, neutrality, and objectivity in the exercise of political, economic, and social power-were likewise taken largely as articles of faith. When Jeremy Bentham claimed to be able to legislate for all of India from the comfort of his English study, it was hardly puffery or idle boasting. Rather, as Robert Nisbet has noted, it epitomized the profound confidence that the new political theorists had in the objective power of reason to solve all problems of human relations and in the individual as the universal, primary unit of social and political order. Bentham, Mill, and other nineteenth-century apostles of progressive liberalism paid little heed to conservatives such as John Ruskin who were calling attention to the social cost of rationalism and individualism: the scattering of families, increased urbanization, and the disintegration of ancient allegiances—or, in other words, the destruction of communities of belonging that had persisted for centuries. To liberal theorists, this historical process was viewed not as tragic, or even (usually) as regrettable, but rather as signaling the glorious rebirth of man as he became progressively emancipated from the tyranny and irrationality of the past.

The skeptical attitude of European conservatives towards progressivism was never quite as strongly shared by their American counterparts. America, by the very nature of its discovery, settlement, and political birth, was literally a “new world”; a place of nearly limitless opportunity constrained only by the strength of a man’s back and the sharpness of his wits. The frontier spirit, buttressed by a Puritan heritage that emphasized individual responsibility and strict moral self-discipline, made the idea of the self-sufficient, rugged individual seem a rather conservative ideal, one which did not necessarily threaten the bonds of family, church, and community. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville described the New World in biblical terms—a pristine continent provided to Europe’s castoffs as if newly risen from the receding waters of the great flood, a nearly empty and seemingly inexhaustible land in terms of both sheer physical space and material wealth. This geographic wonder imprinted itself on the American Puritan soul, Tocqueville explained, creating a new kind of man far less susceptible to the chaotic passions of his cramped and world-weary European cousins. Even so, Tocqueville warned that despite their natural advantages, should Americans ever give themselves over entirely to their private interests, the social bonds and traditional institutions necessary for a democratic republic would fail.

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