William Anthony Hay: Conservatism's got a real history

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Hay, a historian at Mississippi State University, is the author of "The Whig Revival, 1808-1830." ]

... Richard Hofstadter and other thinkers in the postwar years saw conservatism as a morally compromised project in which vested interests played on populist fears to thwart progressive reforms. Lionel Trilling dismissed conservative thinking as "irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas." His Harvard contemporary Louis Hartz loftily claimed that a liberalism derived from John Locke provided the only authentic political tradition in the U.S.

Patrick Allitt begs to differ. In "The Conservatives" he traces the evolution of conservative thought in America, from the Founding period to the present, tracing its shifting emphasis and its particular way of responding to the challenges of the times. To be sure, conservatism lacked a full political meaning in America until the 20th century, and it didn't exist as an organized movement before the 1950s. Mr. Allitt nonetheless introduces a range of figures -- some famous, others forgotten -- who embody a long (and authentic) American conservative tradition. It is a good time to remember them.

Mr. Allitt does not discover a perfect unanimity of conservative outlook or judgment, of course. But certain principles or concerns persist: limiting power, defending a balanced order, securing property and upholding the rule of law -- not least against radical or anarchic elements. Harrison Gray Otis, a Boston Federalist, warned that those who saw a radical spirit in the clash between the American colonies and British crown mistook the Revolution's nature, for the colonists were acting defensively to protect their constitutional rights.

Classical republicanism animated the early American Republic -- helping to create the Constitution's balanced system of government -- and the French Revolution haunted it. Federalists like Fisher Ames and John Adams, observing what had happened in France, saw how easily the passions of the people could grow into anarchy and then tyranny. American conservatives in later generations returned to this theme. Nicholas Biddle and Rufus Choate viewed Andrew Jackson in the 1830s as a frontier "Napoleon" and Jacksonian democracy as homespun Jacobinism. Choate in particular rejected Locke's theories, dismissing the idea that society and the state originated in a voluntary contract among citizens. He preferred a Burkean conception of society that emphasized tradition, organic relations and local "prejudices." And he was not alone: Edmund Burke, in the 19th century, had a greater influence on America than on Britain.

Southern Conservatives like John Randolph (who denounced "King Numbers" -- majoritarian rule -- in 1830) opposed pure democracy no less than their Northern counterparts. Mr. Allitt shows that what may look like elitism to us, or just plain crankiness, actually reflected a concern with the limits necessary for a stable republican order. The same impulse for order can be seen, he says, in John Marshall's insistence on the judicial review and, decades later, in John C. Calhoun's theory of states' rights, a bulwark, as Calhoun saw it, against the potential despotism of central government....

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