Among American conservatives, there has long been a division between those who take their bearings from Edmund Burke and those who take them from Alexis de Tocqueville. Burkeans are concerned with the preservation of ranks and establishments against the modern tides of democracy and revolution, Tocquevillians with the means by which democracies can preserve themselves against inbred tendencies to self-destruction. For Burke, the great question was how to resist the tide of democratic revolution in order to maintain what is valuable in civilization; for Tocqueville, it was how to render democracy compatible with civilization as a means of saving them both.

James Q. Wilson, who died on March 2 at the age of 80, was a Tocquevillian through and through. The great questions he addressed during his distinguished career in academe were related in one way or another to the preservation of the institutions of religion, family, and communit ...