Yes, Virginia, conservatism lives
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Yes, Virginia, conservatism lives

Posted September 22, 2017 08:16 AM by Jeffrey Lord liberal-conservative
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DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
Papa says, ‘If you see it in THE SUN it’s so.’
Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?

So went the legendary letter to the editor of the New York Sun from eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon in the fall of 1897. Virginia got an answer almost immediately in the form of an unsigned editorial reply in the Sun, written by Sun newsman Francis Pharcellus Church. The editorial, which history records as the most reprinted editorial ever — to this day — told her: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” Church began his response to little Virginia by saying this:

VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

There was more. But you get the drift. The famous letter comes to mind these days as Republicans struggle in Congress over repealing Obamacare, passing tax reform, and dealing with issues like infrastructure.

Yes, Virginia, conservatism lives. In fact, let’s rewrite those two opening paragraphs of that famous Sun editorial, substituting “conservatism” for “Santa Claus.”

VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a conservatism. It exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no conservatives or conservatism. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. There would be no great buildings, no jobs, no prosperity, no health care, no education. There would be no free speech, no freedom of religion, no safety from the evils of this world, as best as safety can be achieved. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight.

There is abroad in America today, as was noted in that letter in 1897, “the skepticism of a skeptical age.”

Yet conservatism thrives in America precisely because conservatives believe as the late Russell Kirk stated in his foreword to his classic “The Conservative Mind.” In brief:

a priori designs for perfecting human nature and society are anathema to the conservative, who knows them for the tools and the weapon of coffeehouse fanatics.

For the conservative, custom, convention, constitution, and prescription are the sources of a tolerable civil social order. Men not being angels, a terrestrial paradise cannot be contrived by metaphysical enthusiasts; yet an earthly hell can be arranged readily enough by ideologues of one stamp or another. Precisely that has come to pass in a great part of the world, during the 20th century.

As one scans the American and global horizons today, every bit of what Kirk was suggesting rings true. To the extent that there is success and there are successful people in America, it is precisely because they mostly, if imperfectly, live out the conservative principles of “custom, convention, constitution and prescription” that are “the sources of a tolerable civil order.”

When one looks at domestic issues of the congressional moment, such as health care, tax reform, or rebuilding infrastructure, in every single case, it is clear that when conservative principles are abandoned, some variation of disaster, economic chaos, or basic transportation deterioration occurs.

When one looks at the oldest conservative formulation for peace — Reagan phrased it “peace through strength” — that has in fact been around since the Roman Empire, one sees quickly that ignoring this brings on precisely what it seeks to avoid: war. Look at the current situation with North Korea, where Bill Clinton-style appeasement in 1994 has resulted in exactly what Clinton insisted would not happen. Said President Clinton:

I am pleased that the United States and North Korea yesterday reached agreement on the text of a framework document on North Korea's nuclear program. This agreement will help to achieve a longstanding and vital American objective: an end to the threat of nuclear proliferation on the Korean Peninsula.

This agreement is good for the United States, good for our allies, and good for the safety of the entire world. It reduces the danger of the threat of nuclear spreading in the region. It's a crucial step toward drawing North Korea into the global community.

Clinton totally turned his back on the basic, age-old conservative principle of peace through strength. As a result, the world is now confronting a nuclear-armed North Korea — and facing a serious possibility of war.

The abject failures when conservative principles are not followed — as with, say, Obamacare or North Korea — also serve as what Thomas Jefferson famously called “a fire bell in the night.” Jefferson’s words were written in 1820 about the recently passed Missouri Compromise, which, in violation of the most basic conservative common sense, provided for the entrance of Maine into the Union as a free state while allowing the entrance of Missouri as a slave state. The conservative principles spelled out in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” were ignored, and Jefferson accurately foresaw what lay ahead for an America that refused to live up to principle.

But this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.

In other words, the failure to follow a major conservative principle — freedom — would result in disaster and tragedy for America. And so, 41 years later, it did.

Jefferson was right. But Jefferson was wrong in thinking that the ultimate resolution of the issues he spoke of would fail to follow conservative principle. It may take time. The end of slavery came not just because of the Civil War but because behind Abraham Lincoln was a shift in paradigm — the North was convinced, finally, that slavery must end. And Lincoln, who had made the case for ending slavery repeatedly, led that paradigm shift and backed it up with military force.

Remember, Virginia. As Russell Kirk noted: “Men not being angels, a terrestrial paradise cannot be contrived by metaphysical enthusiasts.” Exactly. Put another way, time moves slowly, and in the long history of human existence, conservative principles will never triumph quickly.

In his memoirs of World War II, Winston Churchill wrote of the lessons he hoped his countrymen — and future generations — would learn from his experiences:

In War: Resolution,
In Defeat: Defiance,
In Victory: Magnanimity,
In Peace: Good Will.

Every one of those qualities — resolution, defiance, magnanimity, and good will — is a conservative value. Whether used or ignored, they and other conservative values have always proved their importance, success if followed, and the inevitable failure if ignored. And even — make that especially — when there is a lost battle, one can be reasonably sure that eventually conservatism will triumph.

Is conservatism a failure today? To the contrary.

Yes, Virginia, conservatism lives and thrives. And the truth is, it always will.


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Jeffrey Lord is a former White House political director under Reagan. He writes from Pennsylvania and is the author of “What America Needs: The Case for Trump.” Email him at jlpa1@aol.com.