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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
Conservatives brought off this feat quite sincerely and unconsciously; no one can accuse the agents and philosophers of economic individualism of perpetrating a deliberate fraud. One can only wonder at the adroitness with which they seized upon liberalism for their own purposes and managed to convince a good part of the nation that their narrow interpretation of its meaning was unassailably correct. In any case, in proclaiming a political faith framed largely in Jeffersonian phraseology, the American Right ceased to be consciously conservative. The old conservative tradition sank deeper into lonely disrepute, while a new kind of anti-radicalism, the individualism of Herbert Spencer, moved in to take its place and provide conservatives with comfort and inspiration.
This large-scale retreat of conservatives from conservatism, surely one of the wonders of American intellectual history, makes it difficult for the modern conservative to identify his heroes in the days of Grant and McKinley. Yet if he keeps in mind the principles of Adams and Marshall and practices of Washington and Webster, he will probably decide that men like Grover Cleveland, Elihu Root, William Howard Taft, and Theodore Roosevelt were most successful in shaping the old truths of conservatism to the new facts of industrialism and democracy. John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and J. P. Morgan can be ruled out on a half-dozen obvious counts, not the least of these being the easily-forgotten fact that they were in one important sense “radicals.” Their experiments in finance and technology worked astonishing changes in the American way of life, and about these changes they were astonishingly casual.
William Graham Sumner, too, is a hard man for conservatives to canonize, since no American thinker ever went to such lengths in questioning at least half the accepted principles of the conservative tradition. In the end, Root and Roosevelt seem to be the most worthy candidates for membership in the select circle —the former for his defense of old-fashioned constitutionalism against the advocates of “direct democracy"; the latter for his vigorous patrician leadership of a nation that was already showing too much fondness for vulgarity and mediocrity; both for their many acts of conservative statesmanship.
Although it is plainly too early to nominate candidates for conservative immortality out of our own generation, it would not be amiss to suggest that three men, one living and two recently dead, stand an excellent chance to be added eventually to the distinguished line that runs from Adams through Root: Robert A. Taft, the model of a modern American conservative; Charles Evans Hughes, a worthy successor to Marshall’s chair; and Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was elected by the American people to give them peace at home and abroad, to hold for them the gains of the recent past but not to hurry them too fast into the future.
Adams, Hamilton, Marshall, Webster, Calhoun, Root, and Roosevelt—these are the giants of American conservatism, and no conservative need ever feel reluctant to stack them up against the giants of American progressivism, especially since he may argue with some conviction that Washington and Lincoln can also be added to his list.
In the final reckoning, it is John Adams of Massachusetts who stands forth as the greatest of American conservatives. Hamilton was too contemptuous of the sovereign people, Webster too prone to moral laxity, Calhoun too dedicated to a special interest. Marshall and Root had too little to say directly on the subject of conservatism, while the rough-riding Colonel was always too much of an overgrown boy to serve as a working model for those who believe in steady habits and prudent politics. Adams alone passes all the rigorous tests that a man must pass before he can be said to embody an entire way of life and thought.
He was somebody important, a successful President, more successful than the history books would have it. He stood for something: the old and tried American virtues. He had something to say; the political theory of American conservatism dates from his A Defence of the Constitutions. And he lived, as a real giant must live, in heroic times. Adams is one of the four or five men who qualify without question for the title of “Founding Father of the American Republic.”
Most important of all, he was a student and lover of American liberty. For all his talk about aristocracy and inequality, John Adams was John Adams and not Edmund Burke. The town meetings, free schools, small farms, and democratic churches of New England —not the monarchy, peerage, estates, and Church of old England—were the institutional foundation of his conservatism. Burke, too, was devoted to liberty, but even he had to admit that the Americans enjoyed a kind and measure of freedom unmatched in the rest of the world. We still do, or so we like to think, and that is why Adams’ life deserves fresh contemplation. It should serve to remind us that the one thing we have most reason to be conservative about, the one thing we should be most anxious to preserve, is our free, open, progressive society. In honoring Adams and the giants who followed him, conservative Americans, indeed all Americans, rededicate themselves to ordered liberty.