The book: In The Conservative Sensibility (Hachette), George F. Will *68 uses the intellectual tension between the founders and today’s progressives to show how conservatism faces a dire threat from both the left and the right wings of the political spectrum. Will seeks to identify Western political principles and boils down America’s fundamental issues to its deviance from the Constitution and the founders’ beliefs.
This hefty political tome details the legislative failings of Congress and the growing unchecked power of the executive branch as Will builds an argument for “how to think about the enduring questions concerning the proper scope and actual competence of government.” As today’s political environment grows more volatile, The Conservative Sensibility offers a nuanced, studied perspective on America’s growing polarization.
The author: George F. Will *68 writes a twice-weekly syndicated column on politics and domestic and foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He began his column with The Post in 1974, and he received a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1977. He is also a regular contributor to MSNBC and NBC News. His 14 previous books include One Man’s America, Men at Work, and Statecraft as Soulcraft. Will grew up in Champaign, Ill., attended Trinity College and Oxford University and received a Ph.D. from Princeton.
Opening lines: On February 22, 1842, the 110th anniversary of George Washington’s birthday, Abraham Lincoln, then thirty-three, addressed the Washington Temperance Society of Springfield, Illinois. He criticized attempts to reform the intemperate by addressing them “in the thundering tones of anathema and denunciation.” To expect this to be efficacious was, Lincoln said, “to expect a reversal of human nature, which is God’s decree, and never can be reversed.” With those words, which were a rhetorical flourish not intended to say anything novel, the man who would become the nation’s sixteenth president expressed a foundational assumption of the first president and the rest of the nation’s Founders. Today, it is conventional wisdom that there is no knowledge, only opinion, about moral questions, and that this is so because human beings have no nature other than their capacity to acquire culture. They supposedly acquire it as much as soft wax passively acquires the marks of whatever substance presses upon it. The thirtieth president did not think so.
On July 5, 1926, President Calvin Coolidge, who was born on the Fourth of July, 1872, spoke in Philadelphia to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Coolidge was more learned than his cultured despisers know and more learned than most of them are. He translated Dante’s Inferno as a wedding gift for his wife, he read Cicero in Latin, and there is no extant evidence that he ever said “the business of America is business.” That day in Philadelphia he spoke “to reaffirm and reestablish those old theories and principles, which time and the unerring logic of events have demonstrated to be sound.” The founding of the United States, he said, represented a “new civilization…a new spirit…more developed in its regard for the rights of the individual” than any in Europe. Coolidge said “life in a new and open country” had given rise to “aspirations which could not be realized in any subordinate position.” These aspirations, “decreed by the very laws of human nature,” testified to the master of his own destiny.” The Declaration’s “great truths were in the air” Americans then breathed.
Reviews: “The most considerable conservative book since Kirk’s [The Conservative Mind]. … The richness and depth of Will’s study is astonishing. … Everyone interested in American politics and liberal democracy will find it enthralling.” –Booklist (starred review)