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Gertrude Himmelfarb: Teacher of the Free and Virtuous Society

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Since the passing of Gertrude Himmelfarb I have been reflecting on just how much she taught me through her voluminous historical scholarship. In this week’s Acton Line Podcast I interviewed Yuval Levin, Resident Scholar and Director of Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies at AEI, who was also her student. Levin’s recent essay in the National Review, “The Historian as Moralist,” is the best introduction I have ever read to Himmelfarb’s intellectual project, her major works, and her lasting influence.

My conversation with Yuval Levin was wide ranging discussing the basic outlines of Gertrude Himmelfarb’s life, her view of the proper role of historical scholarship and the vocation of the historian, and the reasons behind her fascination with the Victorians. We spend a lot of time discussing her masterful biography of Lord ActonLord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics, which serves as both the best single introduction to Lord Acton and the key to understanding Himmelfarb’s own intellectual project.

Levin’s explanation of the enormous influence of Himmelfarb’s scholarship on the American conservative movement inspired me to dive deeper into the biography of this deeply fascinating woman. In an illuminating essay in National Affairs, “The Brooklyn Burkeans,” Jonathan Bronitsky argues that Himmelfarb’s first student was her husband Irving Kristol:

… Kristol’s introduction to and extensive education in that classical liberalism came, above all, from his wife of 67 years: Gertrude Himmelfarb. As such, Himmelfarb — known to her friends as “Bea” — should be understood to be not only an internationally esteemed historian of Victorian England but also a pivotal figure in the trajectory of neoconservatism and post-war American conservatism. The influence of her passion for British moral and political thought can be discerned in practically every position Kristol maintained on culture, economics, religion, history, philosophy, and politics.

Gertrude Himmelfarb’s own introduction to the liberal tradition began with Lord Acton:

Critically, Acton led Himmelfarb to Edmund Burke, who soon became one of her and her husband’s foremost historical and intellectual inspirations. Burke and Acton, according to English historian Archbishop David Mathew, were “master and disciple.” Acton himself had lauded Burke as the “teacher of mankind” and exalted his parliamentary speeches from 1790 to 1795 as “the law and the prophets.” Himmelfarb defined Acton as “a liberal with a difference” and cautioned her colleagues in 1949 to avoid the temptation “to fit him into a familiar pattern of thought” or “a ready-made philosophy or school.”

The historically sensitive anti-ideological conservative liberalism of Acton and Burke animated the scholarship of Gertrude Himmelfarb. Her immense learning and generous teaching spirit introduced so many to this enduring vision. Those committed to a free and virtuous society remain her students.

 

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Dan Hugger Dan Hugger is Librarian and Research Associate at the Acton Institute.