What is conservatism?
First, conservatism is not progressivism. Progressives seek authority in modernity, science, utility, and the idea of progress. Since there is much betterment yet to achieve, they have a preferential option for change over continuity. By contrast, conservatives affirm the authority of Judeo-Christian religions, Greco-Roman classics, and Western, Anglo, American norms. Because people today stand on the shoulders of giants, conservatives usually counsel continuity over change.
Second, as a cohesive body of thought, conservatism is the child of the very unconservative modern age. It contends against the anti-conservative forces of modernity, intentionally biting the hand that feeds it. This is a good, if paradoxical, thing. In a time of tumult marked by revolutions and the cult of change, civilization needs a counter-force that questions change, slows it down, and demands to know what of permanent value is being diminished or lost. If there had been no modernity -- if there had been no French Revolution or Industrial Revolution -- there would have been no need for conservatism to set itself against all the ideologies and other "isms" of the last two centuries: liberalism, capitalism, progressivism, radicalism, socialism, Marxism, Leninism, anarchism, syndicalism, Stalinism, Maoism, relativism, libertarianism -- on and on the list goes.
Third, in the face of these "isms," conservatives champion certain first principles in response to the fragmenting forces of modernity. In the eighteenth century, Edmund Burke articulated a just, humane order to counter the “armed doctrines” of French revolutionaries. In the twentieth, Russell Kirk opposed galloping statism and rapacious totalitarianism. These avatars set down principles that are drawn from the tested wisdom of the species. What T. S. Eliot called the "Permanent Things" provide a compass, anchor, and rudder for Homo viator – man the pilgrim – in his difficult voyage over rough seas.
Fourth, religion -- the source of the cult of the culture -- has a special place in the conservative order. Eric Voegelin and Christopher Dawson warned that when the ideologue seeks to relegate traditional religions to the private sphere, what emerges in the public sphere is not necessarily self-enlightened human beings dedicated to civic humanism, but defenders of the guillotine, gulag, and death camp. The reality of these historical tragedies demonstrates that there are unintended consequences when branching too far away from our civilizational roots in Jerusalem and Rome.
Fifth, the American founding has become the touchstone for many of today's conservatives. On the one hand, this linkage is understandable because the American Revolution did not turn the world upside down. It established a nation based on ordered liberty and the rule of law. It was primarily a political, not a social, reordering, establishing a federated polity for citizens who valued the freedom and rights of 18th century Englishmen. On the other hand, the linkage is paradoxical for a number of reasons.
Paradox #1: What the Most Conservative Western Institution Thought of the American Founding
Arguably the most conservative institution in the Western world at the time of the American founding was the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Pius VI (reigned from 1775-1799) struggled to come to grips with the creation of the United States because personally he was on good terms with King George III, while philosophically he favored monarchies over republics. He was also aware of the attitude of most Americans in a nation in which less than two percent of the population was Roman Catholic. John Adams wrote on August 4, 1776, to the president of the Continental Congress:
Prominent Roman Catholics in Great Britain also set their faces against American independence. "An Address of the Roman Catholic Peers and Commons of Great Britain” to King George III, dated May 2, 1776, and published in the London Gazette, expresses appreciation for the constitution and Catholics' loyalty to it. For years “their conduct has been irreproachable,” and they are going to stand by the king in “public danger,” and are “perfectly ready, on every occasion, to give proofs of our fidelity.” The address further says:
This address was signed by two hundred and five peers and commoners, all Roman Catholics.
In the 19th century, Church teaching also condemned a major "ism" -- "Americanism" -- because it stood for separating church and state and, at its most extreme, shrinking religion's impact to the private sphere while treating religion indifferently in the public square.
Paradox #2: Post-War American Conservatives Are More Connected to Radical Thought Than They Realize
Another paradox of conservatism is often overlooked by its champions. It's that most of conservatism’s first principles are derived from history’s greatest radicals. The paradox is hardly illogical when we consider that our word "radical" comes from the Latin radix, meaning "root." So etymologically, both conservatives and radicals look to the roots of things for their first principles.
This insight is what Russell Kirk was getting at when he wrote, in Program for Conservatives, that, "The thinking conservative, in truth, must take on some of the outward characteristics of the radical." When we explore the roots of conservatism's first principles, it is a perfectly reasonable thought.
Consider briefly the radical roots of conservatism's most cherished beliefs:
(1) The belief in a transcendent moral order came not from the conservatives but the revolutionaries of their day. The Hebrews – led first by Abraham, and then by Moses and Aaron – launched the radical idea of transcendent monotheism amid numerous nature deities. Such innovative ideas as linear time, a people’s covenant with God, the separation of the Creator from creation, the ethical critique of rulers, the moral evaluation of history, and the end of human sacrifice are all notions we take for granted today, yet they were dramatic departures from the norm between 2,000 to 3,000 years ago.
(2) Sitting in our comfortable pews on Sunday, we also tend to forget that Christianity was once the most radical spiritual force on earth. (It likely still is.) In the first chapter of Mark, Jesus is seen inaugurating his ministry with "a new teaching -- one with authority." Many have argued over whether Jesus or St. Paul was the real founder of the new religion. What is beyond argument is that they both alienated their conservative Jewish elders even more than their imperial Roman masters. Both Sadducees and Pharisees were offended and threatened. The early church from Antioch forward had a tough time of it, and the blood of the martyrs testifies to the gospel’s departure from the status quo. Centuries later, Edward Gibbon would lay the blame for the fall of the Western Roman Empire at the feet of Christians who preached the counter-cultural beatitudes and proclaimed a new creation under Christ’s dominion.
(3) The idea of popular sovereignty under the rule of law traces back not to conservatives but to revolutionaries in the ancient Mediterranean world. Both in democratic Athens and republican Rome, it was radicals who asserted the audacious idea of self-government in a world already grown old with semi-divine monarchs and militant dictators.
(4) Our ideals of liberal education and free inquiry came not from the conservatives but the radicals of ancient Greece. Thales of Miletus, Socrates, and Pyrrhus – to name just three – were skeptics and innovators who would provide enduring methods of inquiry esteemed by later generations of conservatives.
(5) Language is inherently conservative, yet many significant conventions of English usage derive not from a language conservator but a linguistic radical. Shakespeare stretched English more than any writer before or since. To cite just one expression of his innovation, the Bard of Avon was the master of the neologism, penning more than 1,700 new words in his sonnets and plays.
(6) The long-held notion in the West of the sanctity of private property was most powerfully buttressed during the era of the American Revolution, again, not by conservatives but by radicals. The conservatives in eighteenth-century Europe were either commercial mercantilists or aristocratic holdovers of the feudal age. The radicals of the era wanted to broaden property holding. They were also the capitalists in Holland, France, England, Scotland, and America who, following Adam Smith, championed the division of labor and accumulation of capital that would soon transform material life around the globe. In diverse and substantial ways, the new economics and the Industrial Revolution it fueled would usher in the very un-conservative modern age.
(7) America's founders are identified nowadays with American conservatism. A most ironic paradox for such conservatives – whether one appends tea party, neo, compassionate, traditionalist, paleo, cultural, populist, or imaginative to the pedigree – is the reflexive tendency to make America's founding fathers icons of conservative thought when many of them were anything but conservative. (This is what 19th-century Catholic leadership recognized when they condemned the "Americanism" noted above.)
Paradox #3: Most of America's Leading Founders Were Not Conservative
Now we come to the nub of the paradox that finds so many American conservatives looking to the American founding for their touchstone. In surveys that ask historians to rank the most important founding fathers, the top five who usually make the cut include (in no particular order) Hamilton, Madison, Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson. I find it difficult to discern a consistent, self-conscious conservatism in any of these five titans of the revolutionary generation. More accurately, I would say that they are innovative republicans. And make no mistake: innovative here connotes radical.
--Alexander Hamilton: Radical Framer
Take Alexander Hamilton, who exercised a profound influence on George Washington’s thought. Even though Hamilton is often invoked by populist conservatives, he was neither conservative nor a conservative when it came to nation building. Indeed, consider five ways that Hamilton was no status-quo conservative either in his day or ours. (1) He was a devotee of one of the most revolutionary thinkers of his day, Adam Smith, whose Wealth of Nations helped launch the permanent revolution that a later economist would famously characterize as “creative destruction.” (2) Moreover, Hamilton’s early opposition to slavery was a relative novelty in its day: he was on the side of the innovators, not the conservators, when it came to abolishing the peculiar institution. (3) It was also Hamilton’s idea to hold an extra-constitutional convention that would brazenly disregard the Confederation Congress’s instructions to the delegates to amend the Articles; Hamilton argued for throwing out America’s first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, and writing an entirely new charter. (4) Hamilton wanted to locate the lion’s share of power in the national government. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Hamilton asserted that the states should be reduced to provinces of the national government. (5) And in the Federalist essays 30 and 31 that followed, he argued forcefully to empower the new national government to raise taxes without limit, if necessary, on citizens. (How many tea-party conservatives are aware of this fact?)
What, pray tell, would be considered necessary? Hamilton provides a tough-minded hint when, in Federalist Paper 30, he writes, “I believe it may be regarded as a position, warranted by the history of mankind, that in the usual progress of things, the necessities of a nation, in every stage of its existence, will be found at least equal to its resources." Commenting on this passage, the Straussian Thomas Pangle observes that “whatever power a government has it will use and find a good reason for using…. The more power a government has, the more need it will find for its power” [Pangle, The Great Debate, p. 67]. Combine this thought with Hamilton’s argument for the authority of the national government to raise taxes without limit on all citizens, and you have the irresistible temptation to empire.
Hamilton, we know, was underwhelmed by the principles and examples of classical republicanism. In truth, he represents a radical break from the classical republican tradition so admired by the majority of his contemporaries. In Federalist 9 he opines, “It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust….” And in Federalist 23 he argues, “There is an absolute necessity for an entire change in the first principles” by which to govern the United States, for classical republican principles were not up to the task. Not the writing of a conservative, this.
--James Madison: Champion of a New Republic
Like Hamilton, Madison was neither conservative nor a conservative when it came to framing the new constitution. He was downright radical in his new formulation of the republic, and his Federalist Paper 37 argued forcefully for innovation: “The novelty of the undertaking [of founding the United States on the principles of a new constitution] immediately strikes us. It has been shown, in the course of these papers, that the other confederacies which could be consulted as precedents, have been vitiated by erroneous principles, and can therefore furnish no light than that of beacons, which give warning of the course to be shunned, without pointing out that which ought to be pursued.”
It is also worth pointing out, while dwelling on the Father of the Constitution, that of the 18 congressional powers enumerated in Article I, section 8, only half deal with foreign affairs and defense. The other half invite congressional domination over the states in many matters that the states believed they were competent to handle. The possibility of congressional domination over the states is what so vexed and frightened the Anti-Federalists when they pondered the implications of the Federalists’ work in Philadelphia.
--George Washington: Radical in His Conservative Way
The other titans of the American founding also present problems for conservatives. Many see in Washington the temperament of a conservative. To be sure his personal virtue and his love of Addison’s Cato were signs of his regard for classical republicanism. But anti-imperial conservatives sometimes overlook that Washington championed the idea of American empire. His ambition to unite the Potomac watershed with that of the Ohio with a sophisticated transportation network addressed both the nation’s eagerness to expand westward and his personal ambitions to carve out an empire of real estate. Nor would he brook any challenge to the national government, as his forceful response to the Whiskey Rebellion demonstrates. Many Libertarians hold his reaction to the Whiskey Rebellion against Washington to this day.
--Benjamin Franklin: Superstar of the French Salon
Then consider Franklin -- hardly the model conservative. A man of the secular Enlightenment, he was a skeptic or deist for most of his life. While it made him popular in the salons of France, his faith in reason hardly commended him to Burke or later cultural conservatives. Franklin was “progressive” in other ways as well. He wanted to do away with classical studies as a dominant presence in the curriculum. And like Hamilton, he subscribed to the then-radical notion that slavery ought to be abolished.
--Sage of Monticello: Hero or Antihero?
Thomas Jefferson is more complicated. He is rarely credited with being a forerunner of post-war conservative thought as defined and reclaimed by Russell Kirk. One must turn to conservatives of a more libertarian cast of mind -- for example, Albert Jay Nock and Clyde Wilson -- to read apologia for the Sage of Monticello. Although Jefferson has been roundly attacked by traditionalist, cultural conservatives, he actually had many ideas to commend him to conservative thinkers today. To cite just two examples, his skepticism of the money men rings truer than ever after the criminal behavior in recent years on Wall Street. Further, his defense (if not practice) of the strict construction of the U.S. Constitution counters the loose interpretation upon which conservatives often heap scorn.
Not only were many of the founders not conservative; they were also deeply divided among themselves. There is the unfortunate tendency among populist conservatives to see the founders as a relatively unified bloc of thinkers who championed a unitary set of principles. This is incorrect. There is no way John Adams and Tom Paine will ever be reconciled. Adams, with his dark view of human nature and history, championed the traditional ideal of balanced republicanism that subsumed monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements in one constitution. Paine, with his cheerfulness toward progress, emphasized the "democratical" element to the exclusion of the other two. No bridge is long enough to span the chasm between these two differing political philosophies.
Their animus was also personal. Adams said of Paine's Common Sense, "What a poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted, crapulous mass." Paine later repaid the compliment with sarcasm of his own: "Some people talk of impeaching John Adams, but I am for softer measures. I would keep him to make fun of."
Not even the Father of His Country was universally liked. Benjamin Franklin's grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, compared our first president to Oliver Cromwell, who had been ritually (i.e., posthumously) executed, and King Louis XVI, who was beheaded -- hardly fawning treatment.
H. W. Brands paints a memorable scene involving Washington in the company of two other prominent founders. "At the Constitutional Convention of 1787 the convivial Gouverneur Morris boasted that he could soften up the austere general. Hamilton dared him to try, saying that if he would clap Washington on the shoulder and make companionable small talk, Hamilton would buy dinner for Morris and friends. Morris accepted the challenge, and greeted Washington like an old drinking partner. Washington instantly grew stiffer than usual; he icily removed Morris's arm from his shoulder, stepped away in disgust, and drove Morris from the room with an ominous glower. 'I have won the bet,' Morris said at the promised dinner, 'but paid dearly for it, and nothing could induce me to repeat it.'"
Personality conflicts divided the founders, as did deeper philosophical, political, and procedural differences, especially when they began debating the extremely innovative Constitution. Consider Luther Martin. In a 1787 speech to the Maryland House of Delegates, he assailed the Constitutional Convention in which he had recently taken part. Violating the pledge of secrecy he and other framers had vowed, Martin informed Maryland lawmakers that the framers had broken faith with their states. They deliberately and systematically violated their charge to revise the Articles of Confederation, instead creating an altogether new constitution. That is not what they had been sent to Philadelphia to do. Is it not ironic that individuals espousing the rule of law would have so utterly disregarded -- the rule of law?
Not surprisingly, of the 55 delegates who met in Philadelphia in 1787, 16 refused to sign the document. A number of state delegations were divided. For example, Alexander Hamilton was the only delegate from New York who supported the new frame of government. Most historians speculate that had the Constitution been presented for a simple up-or-down vote among citizens in the 13 states in October 1787, it would not have been ratified.
Bulletin: the drafting of the new Constitution of the United States was not authorized by any legal body. And it did not represent the conservative-leaning climate of opinion following the War for Independence. It would take the herculean efforts of a faction of elites to move public opinion to support the new frame of government. Few Americans seem to be aware of this very un-conservative storyline.
What are the implications of not knowing the story well?
One is the continuing widespread ignorance of what the Founders really believed and argued. Isn't our culture already dumbed down enough? Isn't it a scandal when presidential candidates and political servants do not know even the basics of the American Revolution (demonstrated recently on the campaign trail by Tea Party leader Rep. Michele Bachmann, who claimed that Lexington, Concord, and "the shot heard 'round the world" were all in New Hampshire)?
Second, there is the danger of falling into the historical fallacy of presentism, in which the past is judged by today's standards and from today's perspective, without reference to the historically available options to the Founding generation. Presentism desensitizes Americans to how shockingly original much of the thinking of the Founding generation was.
A third implication to overlooking conservatism's radical roots is that conservatives lapse into using shorthand words like “republic,” “empire,” “culture,” and “founding principles” in sloppy, ill-defined ways. What really does it mean “to restore the Republic?” (Whose republic do you have in mind -- Cicero's or Montesquieu's or Jefferson's or Hamilton's?) To which principles do you recur? (Those of the older civic republican tradition or those of the more modern commercial republican tradition?)
A True Conservative among the Founders
If you seek a true conservative among America's founders, look no further than John Dickinson, the statesman who steadfastly opposed a total break with London. He possessed political talents equal to those of his more famous colleagues, but because he was not enthusiastic about revolution, he is relegated to the back bench. Few conservatives today grapple with his opposition to revolution. Yet they should. Endowed with the virtue of prudence and enlightened by the lamp of experience, Dickinson posed excellent questions to the other founders in 1776:
(1) Why sign and publish the Declaration of Independence when reconciliation with London might still be possible?
(2) Weren't there still influential friends back in England whom we did not want to alienate?
(3) Are Americans in 13 disparate colonies united enough on key issues to make a coherent argument for independence?
(4) Does anybody think that the Continental army and navy are prepared to duke it out with the most powerful nation on earth? Throughout the autumn of 1776, Washington's army was losing battles and in headlong retreat: the number of men under his command dropped from 19,000 to 5,000.* The military prognosis could not be more bleak.
(5) Given the bleak military picture in the autumn of 1776, could Americans assume that France would come to the new republic's assistance?
(6) Would the Americans who wanted the war have the will to prosecute the war to the end?
Good questions, all. Prudent questions enlightened by the experience and wisdom of the species. Yet how many conservatives remember and honor John Dickinson today? Is there irony in the fact that so few do?
Is it not paradoxical that today's conservatives look back to John Adams for their hero, when it was Adams who could not stand the true conservative of the day, John Dickinson?
Imperial Republicans or Republican Imperialists?
Back to the Big Five -- Hamilton, Madison, Washington, Franklin, Jefferson. What all five iconic founders had in common was the ambition to make the United States not just an empire, but the greatest republican empire the world had ever seen. To some degree each agreed with Thomas Paine that the revolution was not a unique regional occurrence, but of universal significance to human destiny.
In some ways, as my good friend Winston Elliott put it after two whiskey sours, these innovative republicans may have been the original neocons. However much populist conservatives draw from this pedigree, the imperial ambitions of America's Founders cannot sit well with conservatives in the tradition of Robert Taft or Russell Kirk. Many cultural conservatives follow in the footsteps of the great Anti-Federalists – George Mason, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, Edmund Randolph, Mercy Otis Warren, Luther Martin, and others. Do conservatives seek to “restore” their idea of the republic – paradoxically, a republic that never existed?
*Peter C. Mancall, Origins and Ideologies of the American Revolution (Chantilly, VA: Teaching Company, 2006), lecture 26.
An earlier version of this essay appeared, along with a lively discussion thread, in August 2010 at http://www.imaginativeconservative.org/ (posted by Winston Elliott).
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