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This lively book traces the development of American conservatism from Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Daniel Webster, through Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Herbert Hoover, to William F. Buckley, Jr., Ronald Reagan, and William Kristol. Conservatism has assumed a variety of forms, historian Patrick Allitt argues, because it has been chiefly reactive, responding to perceived threats and challenges at different moments in the nation’s history.
While few Americans described themselves as conservatives before the 1930s, certain groups, beginning with the Federalists in the 1790s, can reasonably be thought of in that way. The book discusses changing ideas about what ought to be conserved, and why. Conservatives sometimes favored but at other times opposed a strong central government, sometimes criticized free-market capitalism but at other times supported it. Some denigrated democracy while others championed it. Core elements, however, have connected thinkers in a specifically American conservative tradition, in particular a skepticism about human equality and fears for the survival of civilization. Allitt brings the story of that tradition to the end of the twentieth century, examining how conservatives rose to dominance during the Cold War. Throughout the book he offers original insights into the connections between the development of conservatism and the larger history of the nation.
"Thus the book's main benefit: One learns a lot without being either lectured at or pandered to."—Mickey Edwards, Boston Sunday Globe
— Mickey Edwards
"Patrick Allitt has succeeded admirably in his objective of producing a compact survey of American conservative thought that will be useful to students and general readers. The Conservatives features excellent succinct summaries of key conservative thinkers, going back to the Founding era, ably conveying along the way the inconsistencies and internal divisions on the right."—Steven F. Hayward, The Weekly Standard
— Steven F. Hayward
"[This] wideranging, briskly written survey of the American Right from the founding era through the end of the 20th century is no conservative history of conservatism in the sense of an attempt to vindicate a conservative viewpoint against others, nor is it a liberal debunking exercise. Rather, it is a descriptive account, situated at the crossroads of intellectual and political history, that seeks to allow the various strains of conservative thought in America to emerge in the context of the political debate of their time."—Tod Lindberg, The National Review
— Tod Lindberg
"Tracing the origins of American conservatism is a challenge, especially when the very term itself was not generally acknowledged by its practitioners until the mid-20th century. In The Conservatives, Patrick Allitt has taken on the task and drawn the conservative lineage from this nation's founding to the present day."—Wes Vernon, The Washington Times
— Wes Vernon
“Allitt’s generally unbiased and objective treatment of conservative thinkers and ideas through the decades is one of the best ever produced.”--Stephen F. Hayward, Claremont Review of Books
— Stephen F. Hayward
The only problem with this book is that it makes you want to read so many other books, if that can be called a problem! Allitt (history, Emory Univ.) traces leading voices of American conservative thought from the American Revolution to the end of the 20th century. He is amazingly widely read, surveying the field and presenting not just the usual suspects (John C. Calhoun, William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman) but forgotten giants (Edward Everett, William Graham Sumner) and some who were always pretty obscure (e.g., John Randolph of Roanoke, Jerome Tuccille). Most books on political conservatism today are full of invective, their authors preaching to the choir. Allitt isn't trying to convert or demonize anyone; instead, he merely presents a history of ideas. He has written a marvelous book that will be enlightening to both conservatives and liberals and is the rare university press book that is a page-turner, readable while also scholarly. Libraries, be prepared for some interesting purchase and ILL requests from the citations in this book!
—Michael O. Eshleman
IN THE HISTORY OF THE EARLY REPUBLIC, the term Federalist had two meanings. Both are important in the history of American conservative thought. First, Federalists were the politicians and thinkers of the 1780s who wrote the Constitution and argued in favor of using it in place of the Articles of Confederation. Their experiences since 1777 had convinced them that the Articles were too weak to hold the new nation together and that a stronger instrument of government was necessary. Their antagonists, the anti-Federalists, argued that the Constitution would rob citizens of their new liberties and would subordinate the states to an overmighty central government, that it was, in effect, counterrevolutionary.
Federalist refers, second, to the politicians of the 1790s and 1800s who rallied around George Washington, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton in what some historians have described as the First Party System. Although they did not constitute a political party in the modern sense and had a principled objection to the creation of political factions, in practice they shared views and collaborated on a wide variety of issues. At home they wanted a strong federal government guidingnational economic policy. In foreign policy they favored Britain in the wars of the French Revolution. They feared French revolutionary radicalism and accused their rivals, the Jeffersonian Republicans, of being Jacobins (a reference to the instigators of France's Reign of Terror). Believers in social hierarchy, class deference, and restraint, they did not think the American republic should become a democracy. It is, accordingly, appropriate to think of them as conservatives, even though it is a word they rarely used to describe themselves.
The Constitution was written by fifty-five men, meeting in secret, whose experience in the early 1780s convinced them that the republic was in danger. They wanted to preserve the nation for which they had fought against Britain and which, after Shays's Rebellion, seemed to be bankrupt, unmanageable, and about to break up. Their 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.
The document we now know as the Federalist papers was the new nation's first conservative classic. Its eighty-five essays were written at high speed and published in newspapers sometimes at the rate of four per week, by supporters of the Constitution seeking to persuade their fellow citizens that this new frame of government was necessary and good, that it would make the central government effective yet preserve their liberty. The essays, fifty-one of them written by Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), twenty-nine by James Madison (1751-1836), and five by John Jay (1745-1829), were all published under the pen name "Publius" (a reference to Publius Valerius, who had banished the last king of Rome and founded the Roman republic). Most newspapers featured anti-Constitution or anti-Federalist essays on the same or adjacent pages, so that readers could follow arguments for and against each new element of the proposed Constitution.
Hamilton and Madison differed on many issues, but in 1787 they agreed on the need for the Constitution and agreed to make Publius as consistent as possible. Both believed that the Constitution addressed hard realities better than the ineffective Articles of Confederation and was well attuned to human imperfection. As one of Hamilton's biographers says: "The two shared a grim vision of the human condition, even if Hamilton's had the blacker tinge. They both wanted to erect barriers against irrational popular impulses and tyrannical minorities and majorities. To this end they thought that public opinion should be distilled by skeptical, sober-minded representatives."
The Constitution, they wrote, justifies an increase in the power of the central or federal government, which is essential if the nation is to hold together at all and not become a cluster of lesser federations. Because men are swayed by self-interest, because they are passionate, ambitious, and greedy, the Constitution places limits on how much power they can exercise, and for how long. Ordinary citizens contribute by electing representatives, but their choices are complemented by indirect elections (state legislatures, not ordinary voters, chose U.S. senators), and all are subject to an impartial, unelected judiciary. Under the Constitution the nation would, they said, be strong enough to face down all internal and external threats.
A few of the essays have been acclaimed for their particular insight and for adapting old political ideas to new American conditions. The Federalist, No. 10, for example, argued that the vast geographic extent of the United States was a strength, not a weakness. It contradicted the conventional view that republics could prosper-and endure-only if they were small. Why might size be an advantage? The larger the republic, the more likely that it could assemble outstanding men as its legislators. "As each representative will be chosen by a greater number of citizens in the large than in the small republic, it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried." Further, the geographic and economic diversity of a large nation would inhibit the formation of any one overmighty faction. Different areas would have different material interests, which could compete without upsetting the whole system.
Publius was careful to reassure readers that the reach of the federal government was limited to issues of collective concern that could not be taken care of locally. Individual states would conduct their own affairs and need not fear obtrusive federal officials; the Constitution was not creating a single, all-powerful national government. In the Federalist, No. 45, he wrote that "the powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement and prosperity of the state."
Members of the revolutionary generation saw themselves as having overthrown a tyrant, King George III, and some were afraid that the Constitution might create a new form of tyranny. Publius explained in the Federalist, No. 51, that this hazard would be prevented through the separation of powers. Each section of the proposed government had a particular function. The self-respect of the people in that section would lead them to preserve it, protect its dignity, and prevent encroachments from the other sections. In this way human nature, despite all its weaknesses, would preserve separation of powers and prevent tyranny. In a classic passage that any conservative can read with pleasure Publius wrote: "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.... It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself." In a nod to the principle of popular sovereignty the passage concludes: "A dependence on the people is no doubt the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions."
All eighty-five of the papers are written in a stylish eighteenth-century prose that requires a twenty-first-century reader's full attention. They never deviate into pious hopes and make no claim for the transformation of humanity, but exhibit, rather, a clear-eyed view of human realities and political experience, showing how thoroughly Madison and Hamilton had studied the fate of earlier republics and the characteristics of their decline.
The unanimous choice of George Washington (1732-99), the most famous and widely honored man in America, as first president, added greatly to the Constitution's legitimacy and its prospect of survival. At first Federalist had meant simply a supporter of the Constitution, by contrast with the anti-Federalists who opposed it. Once the document was in operation, however, two tendencies developed in the political life of the 1790s. We remember these groups as Federalist and Republican, though they were not political parties in the modern sense, in that they lacked the management and machinery to enforce party discipline on their members.
The Federalists of the 1780s and 1790s did not describe themselves as conservatives, but they certainly hoped, with the help of the Constitution, to conserve a traditional social order that, as they saw it, was threatened by disorder from below and radicalism from abroad. Afraid that the chaos of the French Revolution, which reached its height in the Terror of 1793, might spread to America, they tried to preserve the old social hierarchy and to act as much like British gentlemen in the new republic, as the colonial elite had done a few decades earlier. Even their view of the American Revolution was conservative. Far from seeing it as a bold adventure in liberty, sweeping away the old British order of things to create a new and rational alternative, they saw it as an attempt to restore the traditionally balanced British constitution, which a grasping monarchy had corrupted in the course of the eighteenth century. They were, in their own eyes, "restorationists" rather than revolutionaries. One among them, Harrison Gray Otis (1765-1848) of Massachusetts, expressed this point exactly when he wrote: "Those [people] mistake altogether the nature of the political controversy between the American Colonies and the British Ministry, who suggest that our fathers were actuated by a radical spirit. They acted on the defensive, and contended only for constitutional rights and privileges."
Their ideas about a balanced political system came from the old Whig tradition, which had grown out of English political controversies of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. A generation of intellectual historians in the past three decades has shown the influence and power of these ideas for nearly all the American revolutionary leaders. "Country" Whigs, opponents of the king's court circle, idealized the classical republican tradition, derived from such Roman authors as Cicero and Tacitus, descending through Machiavelli and the Florentine humanists of the Renaissance, and taking more recent form in the work of the British writers James Harrington, Algernon Sidney, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon. The ideal political system, according to this view, draws its legitimacy ultimately from the people but in practice balances monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, preventing any of the three from dominating the others and creating a condition of ordered liberty. The citizens must be civic-minded but not ambitious, dedicated to the nation without looking on politics as an arena for self-advancement.
The Revolution had, of course, brought monarchy to an end in the United States, and the new nation was determined to have no titled aristocracy. The historian Gordon Wood has shown that a new variant of classical republicanism developed under these circumstances, adapting the presidency to the role formerly held by the monarch, and the Senate to the role formerly held by the aristocracy. But president, Senate, and House were all, in the terms of the tradition, parts of the democratic element. Whether these substitutions would work remained uncertain. Fisher Ames (1758-1808), perhaps the most outspoken of the Federalists, doubted it. "The power of the people, if uncontroverted, is licentious and mobbish," he wrote. "It is a government by force without discipline. It is led by demagogues who are soon supplanted by bolder and abler rivals, and soon the whole power is in the hands of ... the boldest and most violent." A virtuous aristocracy, "natural" if not hereditary, must restrain the common people.
No one worried more about the lack of monarchs and aristocrats than John Adams (1735-1826), one of the seminal figures in the history of American conservatism. He thought President Washington should be exalted by being referred to as "His Majesty," rather than the humble "Mr. President," and argued that presidential vetoes should not be reversible even by a two-thirds majority in Congress. Adams feared the influence of the philosophes, a group of eighteenth-century French intellectuals who attempted to understand politics from first principles rather than on the basis of long historical experience. In his view these writers, including Denis Diderot (1713-84), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), and the Marquis de Condorcet (1743-94), were unrealistic about the dark human passions and too willing to think the best of humanity, despite historical experience to the contrary. "Not one of them takes human nature as its foundation." Adams argued for a political system consonant with human realities, restraining men's passions and limiting their power. "The best republics will be virtuous and have been so, but we may hazard a conjecture that the virtues have been the effect of the well ordered constitution, rather than the cause." Adams, like Ames, was skeptical of the idea of human equality. In 1811 he remarked, "Equality is one of those equivocal words which the philosophy of the 18th century has made fraudulent.... In the last twenty-five years it has cheated millions out of their lives and tens of millions out of their property."
Adams's three-volume Defence of Constitutions (1787) was as longwinded as the Federalist essays were concise. It argued against the idea-favored by Tom Paine and other revolutionary-era radicals-of a one-house (unicameral) legislature on the grounds that it was too democratic, too vulnerable to the transient passions of uneducated voters. Adams felt particularly proud of having written this attack on democracy before the French Revolution, with "its face of Blood and Horror, of Murder and Massacre, of Ambition and Avarice," and even suggested that it had inspired Edmund Burke's classic indictment, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). The Discourses on Davila (1790), Adams's translation of a seventeenth-century French book on civil war, interlarded with his own commentaries, was chiefly an analysis of human motivation in politics. Adams believed that no motive is more central in life than the desire to be noticed, admired, and emulated. Men's different ways of going about it and their different qualities make inequality inevitable. This insatiable craving could, of course, become dangerous; government must guide and sometimes inhibit it.
The Federalists were landed gentlemen of wealth and high social standing who shared Adams's view that social hierarchy was natural. Skeptical of popular democracy, they believed that only the elite, only those privileged by property, education, and leisure, were in a position to participate in politics. It seemed clear to them that a poor man entering politics would use his position to enrich himself, whereas a rich man, needing no more wealth, would dedicate himself to the public good. Republican citizens, and especially leaders, must be virtuous, immune to the temptations of corruption and of perverting the government to serve private ends. Adams disliked elections, saying that "experiments of this kind have been so often tried, and so universally found productive of horrors, that there is great reason to dread them." He and his generation knew from personal experience that election day could often become unruly or violent, as voting took place in public and as rival candidates treated voters to whiskey and showered abuse on one another.
The voters' job, as Federalist politicians and writers understood it, was to choose representatives from among the community's superior men, who would then govern on behalf of the community as a whole with virtuous selflessness, trusting to their consciences to act uprightly. William Richardson Davie (1756-1820), a North Carolina Federalist, told electors in 1803: "I never have and I never will surrender my principles to the opinions of any man, or description of men, either in or out of power; and ... I wish no man to vote for me, who is not willing to leave me free to pursue the good of my country according to the best of my judgment, without respect either to party men or party views." He and his fellow Federalists would not represent their constituents' particular interests because to do so would encourage factionalism at the expense of the general good. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Conservatives by PATRICK ALLITT Copyright © 2009 by Patrick Allitt. Excerpted by permission.
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