The Giants of American Conservatism

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Yet the modern conservative has much to learn from the ideals that guided Lincoln. If he cannot claim Lincoln for his own, surely he need yield to no American in his devotion to this giant among all men. Through most of his life a Jeffersonian agrarian in whose mind devotion to law and order, respect for property, and veneration for the men of old were entrenched, Lincoln was transformed in the crucible of war into a statesman with deeply conservative instincts. His awareness of the tragedy and mystery of human life, his feeling for the slow pace of history, his patience in the face of abuses he could not alter, his identification of freedom with Jackson’s Union and Jefferson’s Republic—these were marks of a man who met the Burkean “standard of a statesman.” He had “a disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve.”

Conservatives may well go back to Lincoln’s words and deeds, not to seek for a phrase here or an act there that can be dragged in to prove some petty political point, but to observe a broad pattern of life and thought that was grounded on those hard but hopeful truths about man and history to which the good conservative has always sworn allegiance. If Lincoln was something more than a great conservative, this should not render him less appealing to conservatives.

The Civil War was the great divide of American conservatism. The victory of the northern armies assured the victory of northern sentiment on two issues, slavery and the nature of the Union, that had fed the fires of political thought from the beginning of the Republic. Henceforth most thinking Americans would fix their attention on another great issue. The war as conceived and fought by the Union also sealed the triumph of the Constitution as symbol of national unity and of democracy as secular religion. Henceforth they would debate this issue in one political language.

The major point of that debate, on which all other controversies turned, was the right and capacity of government to regulate business enterprise in the general interest of the community and in the specific interest of its less fortunate members, and the struggle between Right and Left, between those who opposed reform and those who favored it, was just about the whole history of politics in the Age of Enterprise. The root cause of this struggle over the future of America was industrial capitalism.

Change—rapid, massive, and unsettling—was now the dominant characteristic of the American scene. Leaders of the Right served as the chief agents of change, confident that their mines and mills could bring them power and riches without disrupting the established order. Leaders of the Left served as the chief advocates of reform, convinced that positive action by federal and state governments was needed to shore up democracy against the rising tide of material inequality and treacherous currents of panic and depression.

The Right of these freewheeling decades was a genuine Right: it was led by the rich and well-placed; it was skeptical of popular government; it was opposed to all parties, unions, leagues, or other movements that sought to invade its positions of power and profit; it was politically, socially, and culturally anti-radical. The men who feared Bryan, however, lived in a different age from the men who had feared Jefferson, and the principles of the Federalists, even those of Webster and Lincoln, no longer seemed applicable.

Since these men were committed to change in a vital area of American life, they were forced to argue that change was progress and progress a blessing. Since the one real threat to their position was the demand of reformers for government intervention, they were forced to argue against all communal activity. And since, most important, they were leading citizens of a country in which political democracy was now an established fact and holy faith, they were forced to talk, and even to think, in the language of Jefferson rather than Adams.

Progress, individualism, democracy—conservatives could never have embraced these essentially alien beliefs with convincing enthusiasm except for one decisive fact: the intellectual climate of the age was thoroughly materialistic. More and more Americans were coming to measure all things with the yardstick of economic fulfillment. This made it possible for conservatives to argue that liberal democracy and laissez-faire capitalism were really one and the same thing, which in turn made it possible for the business community to defend itself against the heirs of Jefferson with Jefferson’s own words, to celebrate the struggle against social progress as a last-ditch stand for human liberty.