The Giants of American Conservatism


John Marshall of Virginia drew on both Hamilton and Adams. For the former, whose constitutional writings he must have known by heart, he carried on the great work of nationalism and centralization with Gibbons v. Ogden and McCulloch v. Maryland; for the latter, who placed him at the head of the Supreme Court, he carried on the great work of protecting property against headstrong democracy with Fletcher v. Peck and Dartmouth College v. Woodward. For both, he made the judiciary the darling instrument of conservatism when he conjured up judicial review in Marbury v. Madison. By asserting the power of the Court to ignore and thus invalidate laws judged unconstitutional, Marshall put the last and most essential stone in place in the wall of conservative constitutionalism. American lawyers, natural leaders of the conservative revival, have special reason to cherish the memory of this conservative Virginia lawyer.

The achievements of these eminent men, the Federalists, were of such huge consequence to the founding of the Republic that we may salute them not only as the first but the greatest of American conservatives. These achievements were essentially three in number: the Revolution, for which they provided much of the political, diplomatic, and military leadership; the Constitution, which they planned for at Annapolis, hammered out at Philadelphia, and pushed through enough state conventions to secure ratification; and the Administrations of Washington and Adams, which won respect for the new Republic abroad, placed the government on a firm financial footing, and set standards of morality and efficiency in the public service that have never been surpassed.

Perhaps the most striking evidence of this triumph in conservative statesmanship is the fact that after twelve years of Federalist rule another group of men, many of whom had originally been opposed to the Constitution, could take over the machinery of government with hardly a hitch or break or a call for a new Constitution. The Federalists had their full share of failures, from both their point of view and ours, but their successes outweigh them by far in the balance of history. When we consider that they, like all men and movements, were devoted primarily to their own interests, we must marvel at the services they rendered to the whole Republic. These were American conservatism’s finest years, and all Americans, conservatives and liberals alike, may be grateful that the Federalists wrought their prudent deeds.

The Federalists passed into oblivion as a party in the election of 1816. Since the opening phase of the Revolution, the inherited system of government by gentlemen chosen by a restricted electorate had been under severe assault from the disfranchised and disinherited. Now, in the first decades of the new century, the collapse of the organized Right heralded the triumph of democracy. So rapid was the advance of the new nation toward political equality that many old Jeffersonians now found themselves in the ranks of conservatism side by side with long-time enemies from the Federalist camp. The drive of the plain people and their able leaders to democratize the limited Republic of the fathers was aimed at concrete political goals: removal of property restrictions for voting and office-holding; popular election of the executive; popular election, to short terms, of the judiciary; devices, like the convention, for popular control of parties; popular election of state constitutional conventions and ratification of their results; and the “spoils system.” The counterdrive of the conservatives, the men who feared Jacksonian democracy, was aimed at fighting off these innovations just as long as possible. The mission of American conservatism had shifted from construction to obstruction, and few conservatives were entirely happy about it.


In three conventions that met to revise state constitutions—in Massachusetts (1820-21), New York (1821), and Virginia (1829-30)—the conservatives made their hardest fight to preserve the old ways. John Adams, Daniel Webster, Joseph Story, and Josiah Quincy in Massachusetts; Chancellor James Kent in New York; James Madison, James Monroe, John Marshall, and John Randolph in Virginia—all these worthies, old Federalists and old Jeffersonians together, threw themselves into the hopeless struggle against universal suffrage.

None of them, except perhaps the gloomy Chancellor, was a hidebound Tory like Fisher Ames or a plutocratic Tory like Hamilton. They were, for the most part, libertarians and constitutionalists, men who took pride in the “great subdivision of the soil” among the American people and were devoted to the cause of the yeoman republic. But they could not abandon a fundamental teaching of their fathers: that men without property lack the independence, interest, judgment and virtue to be participating citizens of a free republic. They clung tenaciously, like the good conservatives they were, to the inherited doctrine of the “stake-in-society,” which affirms that office-holding and voting should be the concern of only those who have “a common interest with, and attachment to the community.”