The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History
Peter Berkowitz reviews Patrick Allitt’s The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History in the latest Policy Review. Berkowitz explains that Allitt helps explain the “paradoxes that constitute conservatism in America.”
The questions that guide his study are straightforward: “Where did conservatism come from, what are its intellectual sources, and why is it internally divided?” In answering them, however, he is obliged to undertake considerable intellectual legwork because a recognized conservative movement in America only came into existence after 1950. This doesn’t prevent Allitt from reconstructing “a strong, complex, and continuing American conservative tradition” stretching from The Federalist to the Federalist Society. It does mean, though, that to justify his decisions about whom and what to include and exclude in the absence of a formal conservative tradition, a common canon, and an established set of spokesmen, Allitt is compelled to spell out the conflicting elements that distinguish a distinctively conservative approach to politics in America.
Allitt does not seek to go beyond his role as a historian. Yet his learned and fair-minded reconstruction lends support to the view that the proper way forward for conservatives is neither greater purity nor a more perfect unity, but a richer appreciation of the paradoxes of modern conservatism and a more assiduous cultivation of the moderation that is necessary to hold conservatism’s diverse elements, frequently both complementary and conflicting, in proper balance.
I particularly liked Allitt’s definition of American Conservatism (as summarized by Berkowitz):
According to Allitt, conservatism is, first, “an attitude to social and political change that looks for support to the ideas, beliefs, and habits of the past and puts more faith in the lessons of history than in the abstractions of political philosophy.” Second, it involves “a suspicion of democracy and equality.” This can be divided into a concern that the formal equality of men before God and law not be confused with equality in all things, particularly virtue, and that too much government power not be placed directly in the people’s hands. Third, conservatism reflects “the view that civilization is fragile and easily disrupted” and therefore it teaches that “the survival of the republic presupposes the virtue of citizens” and calls for “a highly educated elite as guardians of civilization.”
MORE: Tod Lindberg reviewed Allitt’s book in the latest addition of National Review and gives Allitt high marks for focusing on conservative history back to the founding and, more importantly, for helping to focus on the central problem of conservatism:
An affection for what’s best in the social order and the urge to protect it are qualities that inevitably lead to a degree of tolerance for the defects of the social order. This is the problem of conservatism, then and now. A conservative sensibility would not necessarily lead to a defense of slavery or toleration of it: See Allitt’s characterization of Lincoln. One might instead note that Calhoun’s racial theorizing was novel and radical more than it was conservative. But a defense in the 1830s or 1850s of slavery as a social institution would necessarily have been conservative.
Lindberg hopes Allitt will turn to an examination of Progressivism next:
Progressivism has its central problem as well: the tendency to take the positive aspects of social order as a given and to assume that the attempt to remedy its defects can be achieved without risk to what’s already good and perhaps essential. One would welcome a book by Professor Allitt about the progressive tendency in American intellectual history, one that would bring this central problem of progressivism into similarly sharp relief.
For more, read on….
Berkowitz explained that Allitt considered the founders “conservative innovators”, with Allitt writing that the Founders:
…work was simultaneously revolutionary, in that it created a written blueprint by which the nation would live, and conservative, in that it drew from the wisdom of the ages and aimed to embody the political lessons taught by the experience of generations.
Further, Lindberg describes that Allitt considers both the Federalist Papers and Democracy in America “conservative classics.” Back to Berkowitz:
While federalists led by Adams, Hamilton, and George Washington were seeking to consolidate the power of the national government, a conservatism emerged in the antebellum south that emphasized states’ rights and small government. John Taylor (1753–1824) and John Randolph (1773–1833) defended agrarian life and deplored city life, opposed standing armies and favored state militias, feared the participation in politics of the poor and propertyless, emphasized the political relevance of inequalities among men, stood against territorial expansion as a threat to citizens’ virtue, and argued that states had the inherent authority to reject congressional action that they determined to be inconsistent with the Constitution.
This points to the different varieties of conservatism that grew up in America. Thus, as Lindberg explains, there is no central conservative philosophy:
It will not do, then, to look for “conservatism” in a single set of policy positions or even a single stance on the central question of the day. The conservative sensibility begins with an attachment to some aspect of the social order and the impulse to protect it from threats arising from any and all directions. But what the qualities of the social order in need of protection actually are and what truly threatens them are issues that have always been highly contested. We find different kinds of conservatives taking different positions on major issues; what they have in common is the understanding that change often if not always comes with risk. A conservative crank who hates America because he thinks egalitarianism’s leveling tendencies have paved over the possibility of great achievement is no less a conservative than a conservative who cherishes American society for doing away with arbitrary hierarchical or class barriers to personal achievement.
The picture is further complicated by the fact that the American constitutional order itself and the principles on which the American political system was founded are unmistakably liberal in the classical sense of the term, as was the colonial society out of which the United States arose. One essential element of liberal society is dynamism born of free-market economic arrangements. Thus we have a branch of conservatism paradoxically dedicated to protecting the conditions that allow for change.
Because the task many conservatives have set themselves to (whether they see it that way or not) is the conservation of classical liberalism, in many cases they are not simply enemies of liberalism, even if progressives see them that way. Because progressives know that progressivism entails forward motion, most of them conclude that conservatism must entail backward motion. This view is mostly wrong. More often than not, the conservative position amounts to nothing more than a brake applied in the name of stability on the forward motion that classical liberalism set in train.