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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
They may take even greater pride in four men—two of whom were at Philadelphia in 1787, two who were not but might just as well have been—who loom above all other men of their age as models of conservative statesmanship and wellsprings of conservative thought.
The first of these, as he is the first of Americans, is George Washington. He is, to be sure, the property of the whole nation, yet it is impossible to deny that he will always have a peculiar appeal for Americans anxious to preserve their unique way of life, just as Jefferson always will for Americans anxious to improve it. In him all the virtues of gentility, integrity, and duty met to form the archetype of the conservative statesman. In his career those great abstractions—service, loyalty, patriotism, morality—came nobly to life. And from him the nation heard, in his Farewell Address, the earnest plea of the true conservative for that firm support of ordered liberty: the unity that overrides petty dissension and selfish faction.
Alexander Hamilton presents a hard problem. That he was a “man on the Right” is beyond dispute. No prominent American was ever so unashamedly committed to government by “the wise and good and rich,” so opposed to political radicalism, so distrustful of the bright promises of democracy. Whether Hamilton was a genuine conservative, however, is a question worth disputing. If he was conservative in practical politics and in his concern for property, he was reactionary in his devotion to monarchy and hereditary aristocracy, visionary in his schemes for an industrial America, and who-knows-what—radical, reactionary, or just plain opportunistic?—in his eagerness to reduce the states to an inferior position. His basic ideas, which he voiced on the floor of the Convention, were irrelevant in the American environment and were certainly not those of a man who knew and cherished the American tradition. His working ideas, which he followed in his later career, were hardly more conservative. His reports and speeches as secretary of the treasury expressed a high-toned, mercantilist, opportunistic brand of Federalism that can only be regarded as Rightism run riot. Hamilton was a great man and, despite what Woodrow Wilson may have once said, a great American. A great conservative he certainly was not. No man could be so indifferent to the established order, full of schemes for its alteration, dazzled by plutocracy, and casual about centralized power, and still lay claim to the title of conservative.
Yet Hamilton is not so easily dismissed as all that. He was, it will be remembered, one of the two chief authors of The Federalist, and The Federalist is conservatism at its finest and most constructive. It is a book that voices in all its pages the conditional hope that men who are properly educated, informed, and restrained can govern themselves wisely and well, a book whose grim confidence in the feasibility of liberty makes it one of the three or four basic texts of American conservatism. More important still is the well-documented fact that in one area of immense concern for Americans today, the formulation of foreign policy and conduct of diplomacy, Hamilton acted consistently and wrote eloquently in the spirit of genuine conservatism. It is interesting to note that leading critics of “sentimentalism” and “idealism” in American diplomacy such as George Kennan and Hans J. Morgenthau rely heavily on Hamilton’s writings on diplomacy. Prudence, realism, discretion in speech, moderation in act, concern for the national interest—these were the principles and methods that Hamilton pressed upon President Washington in the Anglo-French crisis of 1793, and these are coming to be held in ever higher esteem as we move slowly toward maturity in our relations with the world. Hamilton, it might be said, was America’s Castlereagh, and as such he remains a figure of consequence for American conservatism.
John Adams was another breed. His roots were in the American land, his home was the New England town, his vision of the Republic was much the same as Jefferson’s. His whole approach to life was different from that of Hamilton. Virtue, loyalty, reverence, moderation, traditionalism—these qualities were made real in the person of Honest John Adams. He was, moreover, a conscious political thinker, and his beliefs—in the corruptibility of men, the persistence of inequality, the need for aristocracy, the potential tyranny of the majority, the beauties of balanced government, and the sanctity of private property—have proved at least as relevant to the American experience as those of his early and late friend Thomas Jefferson. If we add to this tough-minded political theory Adams’ Puritan sense of sin, his reverence for history and its teachings, his veneration of “the little platoons” of New England’s way of life, his intense constitutionalism and spotless patriotism, and his supreme devotion to public duty, we must grant him the first rank among American conservatives. Here was no lover of government by plutocracy, here no rootless dreamer of an America filled with factories and hard-packed cities. Here was a man who loved America as it was and had been, one whose life was a doughty testament to the trials and glories of ordered liberty. Here, in John Adams of Quincy, was the very model of an American conservative.