Woodrow the Burkean

by John J. Miller

I visited Woodrow Wilson’s birthplace yesterday. Let’s just get this out of the way immediately: No, it’s not because I’m a closet admirer of Wilson. Far from it. But I’m a sucker for presidential tourism and I was in Staunton, Va., in the Shenandoah Valley, for other reasons. It’s pronounced “Stanton,” by the way–drop the “u.”

The tour was excellent–the site is intimate, well preserved, and they let you touch things. For a conservative like me, however, the most interesting item was in the Wilson museum next door: a big sketch of Edmund Burke, drawn by Wilson’s wife. It hangs in an area that reproduces Wilson’s office at Princeton, with his desk, books, etc. The description says that Burke was one of Wilson’s intellectual heroes. It reminded me of how differently Burke was viewed a century ago. Before there was a conservative movement, Burke was widely regarded as a liberal. Then came the rescue efforts of Russell Kirk and Peter Stanlis and the fundamental reorientation of Burke’s legacy. This was one of the modern conservative movement’s first intellectual triumphs. But it occurred a generation after Wilson’s death, and so the image of a founding father of conservatism once gazed down upon a champion of progressivism. We can only imagine what Burke would have thought of his supposed disciple.