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American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia.

American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia. Edited by Bruce Frohnen, Jeremy Beer, and Jeffrey O. Nelson (Wilmington, DE, ISI Books, 2006., xxv plus 979 pp.).

The American Conservatism has a useful introduction that gives an account of its beginnings with the encyclopedia's initiator Gregory Wolfe and Garland Press as a response to the 1990 Encyclopedia of the American Left and its mutation into an encyclopedia of American conservatism after its transfer to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) as publisher. ISI was begun in 1953 by libertarian journalist Frank Chodorov to counter the growing spread of collectivist ideologies among America elites.

The editors of this encyclopedia renounce the proposition that conservatism has been the result of an inevitable development of a coherent ideology or agreement on any set number of policy position. To the contrary, they acknowledge that the history of conservatism has been marked by tensions and outright contradictions. Divisions existed not only between types of anti-communists and anti-statists, but between traditionalist and individualists who affirmed the primacy of religion, politics, or economics. At the same time, they stress that it was not their intent "to establish any orthodox definition of conservatism but rather to offer information and insight on the persons, schools, concepts organizations, events, publications, and other topics of major importance ... since World War II." With short but helpful bibliographies at their end, the encyclopedia's 626 entries, which range from 250 to 2,500 words in length, are, by my sampling, well-written and carefully edited. The entries cover social issues from abortion and affirmative action, to welfare, to thinkers from Lord Acton to Donald Atwell Zoll, politicians from John Adams to John Witherspoon, magazines from American Mercury to the Weekly Standard, books from Berry Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative to Whittaker Chamber's Witness, historical events from the American Revolution to the Vietnam and Iraq wars, social philosophies from agrarianism to totalitarianism, concepts from academic freedom to tradition, organizations from the American First Committee to the Young Americans for Freedom, and much else.

The encyclopedia's intellectual aperture, which arguably is not a fair criterion for judging an encyclopedia, could have been enhanced by the inclusion of essays on such matters as the generations of American conservatism, other national traditions of conservatism and their convergence and divergence from American conservatism, American conservatism's dependency on forms of nineteenth-century European conservatism and Catholic social theory, and as well as the contribution of recent European intellectual refugees to American thought. It could have also offered critical essays on the way in which post-World-War-II American conservatism resembled in its premises and spirits prewar and interwar European cultural "renaissances" and proposals of third ways; and a survey of how history, anthropology, political science, sociology shaped and were shaped by American conservatism.

The encyclopedia, however, passed with flying colors a more concrete and practical test. I put it to use writing an invited essay on long-time intellectual and active conservative University of Michigan Professor Stephen Tonsor. To begin, I found a concise article on him by historian Gregory Schneider, the recent compiler of an anthology of Tonsor essays. Illustrating Tonsor's first, foundational and enduring interest in nineteenth-century German, English, and Catholic thought, and his role in the formative stages of American conservatism, I found four useful entries by Tonsor himself, though not listed in a contributor index that illustrated his first, foundational, and enduring interest in nineteenth-century German, English, and Catholic thought, and his role in the formative stages of American conservatism. Also, I found pertinent entries on conservative movements and institutions in which he participated such as the "Regnery Press," "the Intercollegiate Review," "Modern Age," "the Earhart Foundation" and "the Philadelphia Society," At the same time entries on such fellow conservative thinkers as 'Russell Kirk," "Richard Weaver," "Eliseo Vivas," "Robert Nisbet" and "Eric Voegelin" and movements as "paleoconservatism," "neoconservativism," and "Staussianism" afforded useful comparisons and perspectives on Tonsor.

This single example, coupled with a wide sampling of the encyclopedia, left me confident in saying that the strong and interlocking entries found in this encyclopedia will make it of great value to all who are interested in American conservatism. Its clarity and richness will suggest fresh and intriguing relations among conservative ideas, thinkers, movements, organizations, and politics. Certainly for all but the stubborn, habituated, and ideologically tenacious of right and left, it will end the ironclad identity of American conservatism with the political right and the Republican party.

Joseph Amato

Marshall, MN
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Author:Amato, Joseph
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2007
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