History is a funny thing in that it takes no prisoners. One thing American Conservatives have wrestled with since the foundation of the republic is just what it is they are supposed to be conserving. Europeans and Latin Americans were fairly clear on the point, with a rejection of the principles of the French Revolution and concomitant adherence to altar and throne. The religious patterns of our early settlement and the revolutionary origins of our government, however, made any such easy definition impossible. Complex arguments have been made both for and against the supposed “Conservatism” of the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, of Hamilton and Jefferson, of the Whig Party and the Democratic, of the Union and the Confederacy, and of the gold standard supporters and the Silverites. Perhaps these contradictions have never been so glaring as during the Great Depression, with the work of a man named Seward Collins (1899–1952).
Heir to a national chain of tobacco shops, Collins’s privileged upbringing and education culminated in his stint at Princeton where, as an undergraduate, he became friendly with F. Scott Fitzgerald. After graduation, he threw himself into the New York literary highlife of the Roaring Twenties. At this stage of his life, he held to the fashionable Leftist Modernism in political and literary matters affected by his friends. Wanting to do something serious to encourage literature in the United States, in 1927 Collins purchased The Bookman. He continued its tradition of publishing both new fiction and literary criticism by some of the best-known writers of the time—including Sherlock Holmes’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
During his association with this magazine, Collins gradually moved away from his liberal views, and came increasingly to embrace the style of literary criticism originated by Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, dubbed the “New Humanism.” As the 1920s ended and the Great Depression descended upon the United States, Collins increasingly critiqued both capitalism, which in his view had created the crisis, and communism, which sought to treat the evil with an even worse medicine. He also noted—as did many other American commentators at the time—that Mussolini’s Italy was seemingly sailing through the Depression with minimal apparent distress. This Collins came to attribute to Italian corporatism and to Mussolini’s strong leadership exercised for the common good. The “Dirty Thirties” commenced, and “fascism” as Collins understood it seemed to him to be a better and better solution.
However, as his biographer, Michael Jay Tucker, has pointed out: “Collins’ utopia is not that of the jack-booted SS man, but rather that of the rural life, the local squire, the parish priest, and the general paternalism of pre-industrial civilization… Nowhere in Collins do we find a cult of personality, nor a call for a militarized society, nor an organized plan for the imperial expansion of a revitalized nation. All that we do have is a vague anti-modernism. Or, to put it rather more simply, if Collins was a fascist, then he was a poor one indeed, though he would have made a rather good Hobbit.” Nevertheless, however confused about fascism he might have been, he was resolved that an American version of it was necessary if the United States were to escape their downward path. To that end, in 1933 he wound up The Bookman and replaced it with The American Review.
He opened its first issue with this description: “The American Review is founded to give greater currency to the ideas of a number of groups and individuals who are radically critical of conditions prevalent in the modern world, but launch their criticism from a ‘traditionalist’ basis: from the basis of a firm grasp on the immense body of experience accumulated by men in the past, and the insight which this knowledge affords. The magazine is a response to the widespread and growing feeling that the forces and principles which have produced the modern chaos are incapable of yielding any solution; that the only hope is a return to fundamentals and tested principles which have been largely pushed aside.”
The result was a magazine that featured articles by a who’s who of what was considered the Anglo-American Right: English Distributists (G.K. Chesterton and Belloc wrote for it), Southern Agrarians, monarchists of various stripes, corporatists, Jeffersonians, fascists, followers of Father Coughlin, and such rare birds as T.S. Eliot and Ralph Adams Cram. Its pages are well worth reading even today, due to the high caliber of the writing. But it was an unstable mix of folk who were united purely in what they opposed—communism and monopoly capitalism—and, unsurprisingly, it blew apart in 1937 when several key players parted ways with Collins over his continued naïveté regarding Hitler. Collins opened up a bookshop and, after the war, studied psychical research until his own entry into the Great Beyond.
The point in this ancient and obscure history is that even with the best will in the world (and extremely educated people), “Conservatism” in America has always been well-nigh impossible to define, much less organize. Attempts to do so have rarely succeeded in the long run. After World War II, Russel Kirk attempted to do so with considerably more success than Collins (reflecting his own far greater depth and intellect). But this mixture, too, was unsteady; reaching its apogee with the election of Reagan, it blew apart afterwards with the fall of communism and had little effect in stopping the decay of American society.
A major part of the problem is that America herself lacks definition. Speakers on all sides of political spectrum will say such things as “America is more an idea than a country.” But that idea is sufficiently tenuous for players as diverse as the German American Bund and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to wrap themselves in it. In this writer’s opinion, what is needed is, first, a love of the country as it actually is, historical warts and all: its diverse peoples and customs and its real contributions to humanity—from cocktails to the Great American Songbook and the polio vaccine.
For the Catholic, however, this is only the beginning. At heart, the woes of these United States are not political but cultural—that is to say, religious. The best thing we can do about them is not to argue about whether Hamilton or Jefferson was “more American” but to strive our hardest to evangelize this country. A Catholic America would be truly something worth conserving.
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