The White House has drafted an executive order that would make neoclassicism the default style for new federal buildings. If the administration follows through it will be cause for celebration. Neoclassicism was the architectural language of American public buildings for two hundred years.
In the post-war period this style has been abandoned in favor of egregious modern designs. Marion Smith of the National Civic Art Society, which proposed the order, tells The New York Times, “For too long architectural elites and bureaucrats have derided the idea of beauty, blatantly ignored public opinions on style, and have quietly spent taxpayer money constructing ugly, expensive, and inefficient buildings.”
The National Civic Art Society is fast becoming one of my favorite organizations. NCAS is also leading the campaign to rebuild Charles McKim’s original Penn Station.
As an aside, I wonder who in the administration is a champion of classicism. Probably not the president himself since we know what his taste in architecture looks like.
Sir Roger Scruton has died. We lose the greatest contemporary English philosopher and an irreplaceable voice for Burkean conservatism. A statement from his family reads:
It is with great sadness that we announce the death of Sir Roger Scruton, FBA, FRSL. Beloved husband of Sophie, adored father to Sam and Lucy and treasured brother of Elizabeth and Andrea, he died peacefully on Sunday 12th January. He was born on 27th February 1944 and had been fighting cancer for the last 6 months. His family are hugely proud of him and of all his achievements. (12.01.2020)
At the time of his death Sir Roger was working on the government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. He had been appointed, removed, and finally reinstated as a commissioner in 2019. I wrote about his appointment at the time.
The commission has now published its report, Living with Beauty. The entire report is compelling, accessible, and worth reading. Its recommendations fall under three broad aims: Ask for Beauty, Refuse Ugliness, and Promote Stewardship. Specific recommendations include a “fast track” for beauty and a “re-greening” of towns and cities.
The report has been received warmly by the government, and if acted upon will be a worthy legacy for Sir Roger who has been a crusader for traditional architecture and urban planning.
The Victorian art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) believed that “wise work” has three characteristics: it is honest, it is useful, and it is cheerful.
Ruskin looked with admiration upon gothic architecture of the High Middle Ages. He determined, writes P.D. Anthony, in John Ruskin’s Labour, “that it required forms of social organization and forms of manual labour that are superior to those of contemporary society” and “which are essential to human development and happiness.” Modest masons and craftsmen working in their own limited spheres had the opportunity “to express themselves in magnificent creations which transcended the humble contributions of ordinary men.”
By 1854 Ruskin was contemplating “a great work” he meant “to write on politics—founded on the thirteenth century.” However Nicholas Shrimpton writes, in The Cambridge Companion to John Ruskin, that by the end of the decade he “had turned away from overt medievalism to a deeper, more implicit use of medieval assumptions. Pre-modern concepts, such as intrinsic value and the ‘just price,’ were applied to modern problems in a series of controversial books and lectures.”
In the 1870s Ruskin founded the Guild of St George. Its mission was to encourage arts education, independent craftsmanship, and sustainable agriculture among the working classes. He attempted to spread the message of the guild through a series of pamphlets collectively titled, Fors Clavigera. Shrimpton writes, “these texts would seek to suggest an alternative to the industrialism, capitalism, and urbanization of modern society.”
Ruskin’s program was the inspiration for the Arts and Crafts movement developed by William Morris in the 1880s. Morris’s philosophy was a somewhat uneasy amalgamation of Ruskinian and Marxist ideas. But Ruskin’s own critique of laissez-faire came from the Right, not the Left. “I am, and my father was before me,” he once wrote, “a violent Tory of the old school,” whose politics were marked by “a most sincere love of kings, and dislike of everybody who attempted to disobey them.” He was a strict Protestant, and although he had a religious crisis in middle age, Anthony writes, his “Christian faith developed and broadened as he grew older.”
From the perspective of the present day, when the interests of labor are considered the purview of the political Left, it is interesting to consider someone who devoted the whole of his considerable talents to the welfare of the working classes, for reasons of traditionalism and noblesse oblige. Shrimpton traces Ruskin’s thought, writing that he was not,
an ancestor of the British Labour Party…Neither the Marxian nor the Fabian branch of English socialism was significantly Ruskinian…his politics and economics belong to a different and more marginal tradition which stretches from the Ultra-Tories and Götzists…of the 1820s and ‘30s, through the Tory Young Englanders of the 1840s, to the Arts and Crafts and ‘back to the land’ movements of the 1880s, and the Guild Socialism and Distributism of the early twentieth century, with partial echoes in some of the Green or Ecological parties of the present day.
This entire “marginal tradition” has been pushed well outside the margins of political debate in the twenty-first century and our civic life seems poorer for it.
Anthony, P.D. (1983) John Ruskin’s Labour: A Study of Ruskin’s Social Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ruskin, John. (1866) The Crown of Wild Olive: Three Lectures on Work, Traffic, and War. New York: John Wiley & Son.
Shrimpton, Nicholas. “Politics and economics,” in O’Gorman, Francis (ed). (2015) The Cambridge Companion to John Ruskin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jack London writing in Cosmopolitan (November, 1900):
The stronger, the braver, the more indomitable, are selected to go to the wars, and to die early, without offspring. The weaker are sent to the plow and permitted to perpetuate their kind. As Doctor Jordan has remarked, the best are sent forth, the second‑best remain. But it does not stop at this. The best of the second‑best are next sent, and the third‑best is left. The French peasant of today demonstrates what manner of man is left to the soil after one hundred years or so of military selection. Where are the soldiers of Greece, Sparta, and Rome? They lie on countless fields of battle, and with them their descendants which were not.
The UK government has announced a “commission to champion beautiful buildings as an integral part of the drive to build the homes communities need,” according to a press release today. This can only be taken as good news for advocates of traditional architecture.
The commission “will develop a vision and practical measures to help ensure new developments meet the needs and expectations of communities, making them more likely to be welcomed rather than resisted.”
The ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful’ Commission has a mandate:
l. To promote better design and style of homes, villages, towns and high streets, to reflect what communities want, building on the knowledge and tradition of what they know works for their area.
2. To explore how new settlements can be developed with greater community consent.
3. To make the planning system work in support of better design and style, not against it.
Perhaps most exiting is the news that Sir Roger Scruton has been appointed chairman of the commission. Sir Roger is a great advocate of classical and vernacular design. As Rev Marcus Walker writes on Twitter: “The government is finally doing something actually Conservative: appointing Sir Roger Scruton to chair a commission into the Built Environment.”
In The New York Review of Books this month Freeman Dyson reviews Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies by Geoffrey West. Dyson offers insight into why small cities and villages have historically produced men of genius and why the present-day trend toward mega-cities is almost certainly dysgenic.
If a small population is inbreeding, the rate of drift of the average measure of any human capability scales with the inverse square root of the population. Big fluctuations of the average happen in isolated villages far more often than in cities. On the average, people in villages are not more capable than people in cities. But if ten million people are divided into a thousand genetically isolated villages, there is a good chance that one lucky village will have a population with outstandingly high average capability, and there is a good chance that an inbreeding population with high average capability produces an occasional bunch of geniuses in a short time. The effect of genetic isolation is even stronger if the population of the village is divided by barriers of rank or caste or religion. Social snobbery can be as effective as geography in keeping people from spreading their genes widely.
A substantial fraction of the population of Europe and the Middle East in the time between 1000 BC and 1800 AD lived in genetically isolated villages, so that genetic drift may have been the most important factor making intellectual revolutions possible. Places where intellectual revolutions happened include, among many others, Jerusalem around 800 BC (the invention of monotheistic religion), Athens around 500 BC (the invention of drama and philosophy and the beginnings of science), Venice around 1300 AD (the invention of modern commerce), Florence around 1600 (the invention of modern science), and Manchester around 1750 (the invention of modern industry).
These places were all villages, with populations of a few tens of thousands, divided into tribes and social classes with even smaller populations. In each case, a small starburst of geniuses emerged from a small inbred population within a few centuries, and changed our ways of thinking irreversibly. These eruptions have many historical causes. Cultural and political accidents may provide unusual opportunities for young geniuses to exploit. But the appearance of a starburst must be to some extent a consequence of genetic drift. The examples that I mentioned all belong to Western cultures. No doubt similar starbursts of genius occurred in other cultures, but I am ignorant of the details of their history.
West’s neglect of villages as agents of change raises an important question. How likely is it that significant numbers of humans will choose to remain in genetically isolated communities in centuries to come?
The minor nineteenth-century poet and political figure Lord John Manners has long seemed to me worthy of reappraisal. That he was a minor poet was a matter of his own inclination. He published two significant volumes as a young man, England’s Trust and Other Poems, in 1841, and English Ballads and Other Poems, in 1850. But although he lived until 1906 he never returned to verse. That he was, in the end, a minor political figure is a loss for Britain.
Manners was a principle member of the conservative Young England group, which he co-founded with George Smythe (later Viscount Strangford) and Alexander Baillie-Cochrane (later Baron Lamington). At Cambridge together in the 1830s, these young men rebelled against Utilitarianism and the new priorities of the Industrial Revolution.
By the mid-nineteenth century industrialization had drastically changed the social order, economy, and landscape of Britain. The nation’s wealth had shifted from the countryside to the cities, taking with it vast populations. The sweet rural economy of manor, cottage, and craft was being undermined by policies that favored heavy industry. A decentralized society based on inherited rights and traditions, in harmony with nature, and built to the human scale was becoming increasingly centralized, mechanized, democratized, and dehumanized.
A generation earlier, Edmund Burke had written that civilization is a partnership between the dead, the living, and the yet unborn. Traditionalists of the nineteenth century viewed the modern project as an unraveling of that partnership. The delicate system of organic institutions and relationships that underpinned the old order could not be swept away without taking with it the civilization it had brought into being. By the time Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837 a number of political figures, artists, philosophers, and theologians were contemplating how traditional society might be recovered. Largely independent of one another they found inspiration in the legacy of the Middle Ages.
Young England fought to restore power to the monarchy, the peerage, and the Church of England. Manners and his friends advocated a romantic revival of feudalism and agrarianism. They promoted the interests of the countryside, its rustic economy, landed gentry, and working classes. They opposed the consolidation of power by a bourgeois oligarchy which had brought with it Blake’s “dark satanic mills,” slum-cities, and class warfare.
The contemporary historian Edward Barrington de Fonblanque painted a charming prose-picture of the type of society that the Young Englanders wished to create:
The nobles of England were once more to occupy their legitimate place around the throne and in the order of chivalry; the Church was to become the revered guardian and benevolent educator of the masses; commerce and industry, literature and art, were to be fostered by generous patronage; and a grateful and contented peasantry, clustering for shelter under the shadow of lordly mansions, were to vary the monotony of their toilful lives by merry dances on the village green, and perennial feasts of roast oxen and barrels of ale provided by their munificent lords and masters, the hereditary owners of the soil.
In 1841, Manners published England’s Trust and Other Poems, dedicated to Smythe. In his book Young England, to date the only book-length history of the movement, Richard Faber described the titular poem as “the most complete manifesto of Young England’s basic philosophy” at that point. Manners recalled to mind “a nobler age”:
When men of stalwart hearts and steadfast faith
Shrunk from dishonour, rather than from death,
When to great minds obedience did not seem
A slave’s condition, or a bigot’s dream…
When kings were taught to feel the dreadful weight
Of power derived from One than kings more great,
And learned with reverence to wield the rod
They dreamed entrusted to their hand by God.
Each knew his place—king, peasant, peer or priest,
The greatest owned connexion with the least;
From rank to rank the generous feeling ran,
And linked society as man to man.
Must we then hearken to the furious cry
Of those who clamour for ‘equality?’
Have not the people learnt how vain the trust
On props like that which crumble into dust?
Are the gradations that have marked our race,
Since God first stamped His likeness on its face,
Gradations hallowed by a thousand ties
Of faith and love, and holiest sympathies,
Seen in the Patriarch’s rule, the Judge’s sway
When God himself was Israel’s present stay,
Now in the world’s dotage to be cast
As week pretences to the howling blast?
No! by the names inscribed in History’s page,
Names that shall live for yet unnumbered years
Shrined in our hearts with Crécy and Poitiers,
Let wealth and commerce, laws and learning die
But leave us still our old Nobility!
When Manners wrote, “leave us still our old Nobility” he did not, of course, mean that his own class alone should endure: he meant the whole system of hierarchy and heredity and mutual loyalty that ensured a place for every man and protected the ancestral rights of the dynastic farmer or craftsman every bit as much as the rights of the dynastic lord. The politics of “equality” not only disenfranchised the nobility but destroyed the protections that the working classes had inherited over generations.
By 1843, Manners, Smythe, and Baillie-Cochrane were all seated in Parliament. They represented a High Tory bloc within the larger Conservative party of which they were members. In a speech to the House of Commons on May 18, 1843, Manners staked out his position, extolling those “principles which, while they would render the Church triumphant, and monarchy powerful, would also restore contentment to a struggling, overworked and deluded people.” A contemporary summary, in Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, records the substance of the speech. He argued that,
As power was taken away from the mitre and the crown and transferred either to the people in that House or out of it, their physical and moral happiness had been lessened…He would extend the feeling of responsibility between the rich and the poor, and shorten the interval which in his opinion was growing too wide between those for whom wealth was made and those who made it.
Manners campaigned against the Mortmain Act of 1736 which put restrictions on the devising of property to charitable uses. He proposed lifting the law to encourage the establishment of religious houses. He argued that “it is inexpedient, in the present condition of the country, to continue the existing restrictions on the exercise of private charity and munificence.” Manners hoped that by overturning the Act the government could not only facilitate but encourage the founding of charitable religious institutions. “In an age confessedly devoted to money-making,” he said in a speech to Parliament, “I ask you to have the courage to believe in the nobler impulses of our nature; to appeal to the glorious spirit which built our cathedrals, our colleges, our convents.” Although he was unsuccessful in this initial campaign, the law was eventually superseded in 1888, in part through his advocacy.
Like Charles Dickens, in his pamphlet, Sunday Under Three Heads, Manners also argued that the working classes needed more leisure time. If civil society was to be nurtured it would require those conditions of leisure, festival, and camaraderie which were the natural expressions of a healthy community. In his 1843 pamphlet, A Plea for National Holy-Days, Manners asked: “Will the old parish church send out of its time-honoured portals and old men and women, the lads and lasses, to the merry green, where youth shall disport itself, and old age, well pleased, look on? Alas! no. Utilitarian selfishness has well nigh banished all such unproductive amusements from the land.”
In Parliament, Young England attracted the attention of the MP from Shrewsbury, Benjamin Disraeli, who saw its members as potential allies. Disraeli’s own philosophy of “one-nation conservatism,” which he represented in the novels Sybil and Coningsby, grew out of his intellectual relationship with them. It was Disraeli who marshaled the circle into a larger political faction. As the most experienced politician among them he became the de facto leader of the group.
They also attracted the attention of critics. The Morning Herald wrote of Manners and Smythe: “These two gentlemen are the prime movers of Young England; and that tomfoolery is the political offshoot of Tractarianism. Mental dandyism is its chiefest characteristic.” Tractarianism refers to the Oxford Movement in the Church of England. The Tractarians emphasized the broadly catholic inheritance of the Anglican tradition. At its best the movement inspired a revival of piety and ritual in the Church of England. Its apologists demonstrated that Anglicanism had an equal claim of descent from Ancient and Medieval Christianity as the ultramontane Roman Catholic Church, which had, for all intents and purposes, been created at the Council of Trent. (The Anglican Book of Common Prayer predates the Roman Missal by two decades). At its worst the movement displaced our authentic High Church Protestantism with the trappings of nineteenth-century Roman Catholicism; in this it may have done more harm than good.
The members of Young England were all High Anglicans of one school or another. Manners and Smythe in particular belonged to the Oxford Movement. Manners imagined the church engendering new quasi-monastic orders and institutions that would transform industrial cities, providing charitable services and cultural roots to increasingly atomized populations.
Clearly the Young Englanders were romantics. In later years, Baillie-Cochrane wrote that they had desired to lighten the servitude and add to the enjoyments of the people: “in fact, to restore ‘Merrie England.’” They did not accomplish anything so grand. The word “dream” appears often in assessments of the group. De Fonblanque described Young England as “a pretty and harmless dream.” They were not without realism or political skill, however.
During their Parliamentary careers the Young Englanders were engaged in the day-to-day business of government. They had successes and failures. The Factory Act of 1847 which limited the working hours of women and children was passed after years of advocacy by the group.
Young England was not opposed to industrial capitalism per se. Disraeli wanted to unite the “aristocracy of wealth” with the aristocracy of birth and instill in the former the sense of paternalism and noblesse oblige for the working classes that the latter possessed. Manners also wanted the great capitalists to take on a neo-feudal responsibility for their workers. He was impressed by the Grant brothers of Manchester, affluent merchants on whom Dickens had based the magnanimous Cheeryble brothers in Nicholas Nickleby. But Manners doubted that the marketplace could ever produce the stability necessary for the emergence of an actual “aristocracy of wealth.” He wrote to his brother Granby, after a tour of Manchester cotton mills in 1841, “the worst of this manufacturing feudalism is its uncertainty, and the moment a cotton lord is down, there’s an end to his dependents’ very subsistence: in legislating, this great difference between an agricultural and a trading aristocracy ought not to be lost sight of.” In the 1840s the working population was divided roughly evenly between the traditional economy of the countryside and the new economy of the factory town. The Young Englanders were adamant that this balance not tip too far toward the city. Without the equilibrium of the unchanging rural economy they believed that the protean upheavals of the factory system would lead to social unrest. To this end, Baillie-Cochrane said, “The only way to arrest the march of revolution in this country was to decide at once against all concession…if the agricultural party were only true to themselves, no influence…would be able to destroy them.” Even long after the heyday of Young England, Manners was confident that with proper leadership the “agricultural classes” could “fight for the existing order” against “democratic Revolution.”
In truth the Factory Act was a rearguard action by the agricultural party. By 1847 laws were in place that would cripple the rural economy and put the industrial party firmly in control of Britain’s destiny. The first of these was the Reform Act of 1832 which had stripped parliamentary representation from small rural boroughs and doubled the representation of many industrial cities. The second was the abolition of the Corn Laws in 1846; free traders finally achieved their long-held ambition to remove tariffs on foreign grain, tilting the market to the disadvantage of British farmers.
Young England was dormant by the end of the 1840s. Disraeli went on to political glory, becoming prime minister in 1868, and again in 1874, but by that time he had left Young England behind. Manners had a long, useful, and distinguished career in government under several Conservative administrations. He served as First Commissioner of Works under Lord Derby and Postmaster-General under Disraeli and Lord Salisbury. Disraeli offered him the viceroyalty of India but he declined. His last public office was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster under Lord Salisbury. In 1891, Queen Victoria knighted him to the Order of the Garter. By that point he had inherited his father’s peerage, becoming the seventh Duke of Rutland. Despite prominent careers, however, neither Manners, Smythe, nor Baillie-Cochrane ever controlled policy to the extent that they could advance the agenda of Young England.
de Fonblanque, Edward Barrington. (1887) Lives of the Lords Strangford. London: Cassell, Petter, & Galpin.
Faber, Richard. (1987) Young England. London: Faber and Faber.
Manners, Lord John James Robert. (1841) England’s Trust and Other Poems. London: Francis & John Rivington.
Michell, John. (2005) Confessions of a Radical Traditionalist. Waterbury Center [VT]: Dominion Press.
Whibley, Charles. (1925) Lord John Manners and His Friends. Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons.