Michael Gerson: The Heart of Conservatism





[Mr. Gerson was President Bush's chief speech writer.]

For many conservatives, the birthday of the movement is Nov. 1, 1790 -- the publication date of Edmund Burke's "Reflections on the Revolution in France." Burke described how utopian idealism could lead to the guillotine, just as it later led to the gulag. He rejected the democracy of the mob and argued that social reform, when necessary, should be gradual, cautious and rooted in the habits and traditions of the community.

Some of Burke's contemporaries took these arguments further. "I am one of those who think it very desirable to have no reform," declared the Duke of Wellington. "I told you years ago that the people are rotten to the core." And this affection was returned. Wellington took to carrying an umbrella tipped with a spike to protect himself from protesters.

But there is another strain of conservatism with a birthday three years earlier than Burke's "Reflections." On May 12, 1787, under an English oak on his Holwood Estate, Prime Minister William Pitt pressed a young member of Parliament named William Wilberforce to introduce a bill for the abolition of the slave trade. Wilberforce's research found that the holds of slave ships were, according to one witness, "so covered in blood and mucus which had proceeded from them in consequence of the (dysentery) that it resembled a slaughterhouse." Enslaved Africans on the ships attempted to starve themselves to death or to jump into the ocean. Wilberforce thought this suffering a good reason for reform.

A later conservative, Lord Shaftesbury, fought against conditions that amounted to slavery in British factories, rescued child laborers from chimneys and mines, and worked for improved sanitary conditions in British slums. In 1853, for example, the citizens of Dudley, England, had an average age at death of 16 years and 7 months. "I feel that my business lies in the gutter," said Shaftesbury, "and I have not the least intention to get out of it."

Both Wilberforce and Shaftesbury considered themselves Burkean conservatives; Wilberforce was a friend of Burke's and a fellow opponent of the French revolution's wild-eyed utopianism. Wilberforce and Shaftesbury were gradualists, not radicals. They hated socialism and rejected the perfectibility of man.

But both were also evangelical Christians who believed that all human beings are created in God's image -- and they were deeply offended when that image was degraded or violated. Long before compassionate conservatism got its name, the ideas of compassion and benevolence were central to their political and moral philosophy....



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