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The Giants of American Conservatism
A thoughtful discussion of the men who contributed the most to what is now the dominant political pattern
October 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 6
The swing to conservatism in American politics and culture is one of the most remarkable facts of our age. The signs of this conservatism are all about us. After generations of exile from respectability, the word itself has been welcomed home with cheers by men who, a few short years ago, would sooner have been called arsonists than conservatives. Politicians, columnists, businessmen, and editors shout the slogans of the great revival; the campuses run over with poets and professors who yield to no one in their insistence that “what America needs is a healthy dose of true conservatism"; a President who proudly proclaims himself a conservative sits in the White House and enjoys overwhelming popular support. The tide of conservatism runs in confusing patterns, but no one will now deny that it runs deep and strong.
One of the telltale marks of our conservative mood is an intense devotion to tradition. Such devotion is not a new or unusual attitude for Americans to adopt. Despite our youth as a nation, or more probably because of it, we have always been fond of rituals, symbols, and slogans that bind us to a glorious past, and our present troubles serve only to stiffen the conviction that “the American dream” and “the American tradition” are one and the same thing.
One of the most interesting signs of an increased devotion to tradition is the way in which Americans of all kinds and political shadings are searching the past avidly for heroes who can teach, inspire, and comfort. Special groups, of course, have special heroes. For Polish-Americans there is Pulaski; for Italian-Americans, Columbus; for Negroes, Booker T. Washington; for southerners, Robert E. Lee; for baseball fans, George Herman Ruth; for small boys, the man who was born on the mountain top in Tennessee. But who is there for American conservatives, for the millions of solid Americans who, standing confidently on the ancient ways and avoiding political extremism, are setting the tone for politics and culture in America today?
They, like all Americans, cherish Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and Lincoln; but who are, or should be, their special heroes? What eminent Americans should they look to before all others for support of their common-sense, middle-of-the-road approach to the issues of our time? Who, in a word, are the giants of American conservatism? This is a question that demands an answer. In the hope of answering it satisfactorily, let us survey American history with an eye for great men who did conservative deeds, thought conservative thoughts, practiced conservative virtues, and stood for conservative principles.
The search for the giants of American conservatism begins at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. There were, to be sure, outstanding men of conservative principle in the colonial period—John Winthrop, Increase Mather, Jonathan Edwards, and Richard Bland, to name a few whose lives and works have much to teach—but their purposes and arguments are too unfamiliar to modern Americans to attract the attention of any large number of conservatives. The American Revolution is now being interpreted as an essentially conservative event, as a large-scale rebellion to preserve rather than gain liberty, but it was an event that appeals as much to progressives and radicals as to conservatives. The history of American conservatism may be said to date from the decision of a group of Revolutionary leaders—conservatives all—to end the uncertainties of the post-Revolutionary years by establishing a national government that would secure peace and order, protect the legitimate rights of property, and place political power in the hands of large-minded gentlemen like themselves. Having filled with distinction the incongruous roles of rebels against royal and ancient authority, these able conservatives now undertook to play the hardly less incongruous roles of framers of a new charter of government.
The monument to their success is the American Constitution, a triumph of conservative statesmanship. The framers of this Constitution, who distrusted democracy, deserve much credit for the success of our democracy. Lacking faith in the people, they none the less rested their new Constitution on the broad base of popular sovereignty. Placing faith in government by the gentry, they none the less raised a structure that could be converted without bloodshed into government by the people. The framers insisted in 1787, and their document insists today, that law is the price of liberty, duty of happiness, communal order of individual development, deliberation of wise decision, constitutionalism of democracy. Their Constitution, conceived in this tough-minded philosophy, has made it possible for a restless race to have its stability and its progress, too.
It has been perhaps the most successful conservative device in the history of mankind, and the Americans, a singularly conservative people for all their restlessness, have adored it with good reason. It has been their king and church, their ark and covenant, their splendid sign of freedom and unity; it has been all these things because, first of all, it has been their tutor in ordered liberty. American conservatives, for whom the Constitution has special meaning, may also take special pride in the men who framed it, in James Madison, James Wilson, Roger Sherman, John Dickinson, Gouverneur Morris, the Pinckneys of South Carolina, and the rest.