In continuing our quest to define conservatism, it makes sense that we define the movement overall before continuing with various sub-groups. This isn't as simple as it sounds though ... So on that note, today we'll take a brief look at the history of the movement, and finish with the first detailed description of a conservative, as written by one of the movement's intellectual founders.
- Defining Conservatism (Introduction)
- Conservative: What is a Neocon?
- Conservative: What is a Paleoconservative?
The conservative movement began in the early 20th century, primarily in opposition to Hoover, FDR, and the New Deal. Witnessing rapid growth and vast change in Washington, many Americans started fighting back, determined to maintain the republican form of government and our classical liberal traditions.
The movement was a genuine Big Tent too. Democrats, Republicans, libertarians, et. al., all joined together in the fight! But it wasn't called the "conservative" movement yet, it was known as "individualist," "rightist," or "true liberal." The word "conservative" wouldn't become popular until after 1953, when Russell Kirk published his now famous book, The Conservative Mind.
Prior to Russell Kirk, however, Senator Josiah Bailey (NC-D), fed up with the "unchecked power in FDR’s hands," secretly met with a handful of other Democrats and Republicans to draft "An Address to the People of the United States," which later came to be known as "The Conservative Manifesto."
The "manifesto" wasn't exactly conservative or even anti-New Deal, but still enough to light a fire in the movement, shake the administration, upset the New York Times, and at least temporarily slow down the rapid growth of the federal government. The following were the 10-points in the manifesto:
- Immediate revision of taxes on capital gains and undistributed profits in order to free investment funds.
- Reduced expenditures to achieve a balanced budget, and thus, to still fears deterring business expansion.
- An end to coercion and violence in relations between capital and labor.
- Opposition to “unnecessary” government competition with private enterprise.
- Recognition that private investment and enterprise require a reasonable profit.
- Safeguarding the collateral upon which credit rests.
- Reduction of taxes, or if this proved impossible at the moment, firm assurance of no further increases.
- Maintenance of state rights, home rule, and local self-government, except where proved definitely inadequate.
- Economical and non-political relief to unemployed with maximum local responsibility.
- Reliance upon the American form of government and the American system of enterprise.
As an intellectual, Russell Kirk set out to provide the conservative movement with a set of clear and concise principles. And in doing so, he gave the movement its soul.
Conservatives distrust what Burke called “abstractions”—that is, absolute political dogmas divorced from practical experience and particular circumstances. They do believe, nevertheless, in the existence of certain abiding truths which govern the conduct of human society. Perhaps the chief principles which have characterized American conservative thought are these:
(1) Men and nations are governed by moral laws; and those laws have their origin in a wisdom that is more than human—in divine justice. At heart, political problems are moral and religious problems. The wise statesman tries to apprehend the moral law and govern his conduct accordingly. We have a moral debt to our ancestors, who bestowed upon us our civilization, and a moral obligation to the generations who will come after us. This debt is ordained of God. We have no right, therefore, to tamper impudently with human nature or with the delicate fabric of our civil social order.
(2) Variety and diversity are the characteristics of a high civilization. Uniformity and absolute equality are the death of all real vigor and freedom in existence. Conservatives resist with impartial strength the uniformity of a tyrant or an oligarchy, and the uniformity of what Tocqueville called “democratic despotism.”
(3) Justice means that every man and every woman have the right to what is their own—to the things best suited to their own nature, to the rewards of their ability and integrity, to their property and their personality. Civilized society requires that all men and women have equal rights before the law, but that equality should not extend to equality of condition: that is, society is a great partnership, in which all have equal rights—but not to equal things. The just society requires sound leadership, different rewards for different abilities, and a sense of respect and duty.
(4) Property and freedom are inseparably connected; economic leveling is not economic progress. Conservatives value property for its own sake, of course; but they value it even more because without it all men and women are at the mercy of an omnipotent government.
(5) Power is full of danger; therefore the good state is one in which power is checked and balanced, restricted by sound constitutions and customs. So far as possible, political power ought to be kept in the hands of private persons and local institutions. Centralization is ordinarily a sign of social decadence.
(6) The past is a great storehouse of wisdom; as Burke said, “the individual is foolish, but the species is wise.” The conservative believes that we need to guide ourselves by the moral traditions, the social experience, and the whole complex body of knowledge bequeathed to us by our ancestors. The conservative appeals beyond the rash opinion of the hour to what Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead”—that is, the considered opinions of the wise men and women who died before our time, the experience of the race. The conservative, in short, knows he was not born yesterday.
(7) Modern society urgently needs true community: and true community is a world away from collectivism. Real community is governed by love and charity, not by compulsion. Through churches, voluntary associations, local governments, and a variety of institutions, conservatives strive to keep community healthy. Conservatives are not selfish, but public-spirited. They know that collectivism means the end of real community, substituting uniformity for variety and force for willing cooperation.
(8) In the affairs of nations, the American conservative feels that his country ought to set an example to the world, but ought not to try to remake the world in its image. It is a law of politics, as well as of biology, that every living thing loves above all else—even above its own life—its distinct identity, which sets it off from all other things. The conservative does not aspire to domination of the world, nor does he relish the prospect of a world reduced to a single pattern of government and civilization.
(9) Men and women are not perfectible, conservatives know; and neither are political institutions. We cannot make a heaven on earth, though we may make a hell. We all are creatures of mingled good and evil; and, good institutions neglected and ancient moral principles ignored, the evil in us tends to predominate. Therefore the conservative is suspicious of all utopian schemes. He does not believe that, by power of positive law, we can solve all the problems of humanity. We can hope to make our world tolerable, but we cannot make it perfect. When progress is achieved, it is through prudent recognition of the limitations of human nature.
(10) Change and reform, conservatives are convinced, are not identical: moral and political innovation can be destructive as well as beneficial; and if innovation is undertaken in a spirit of presumption and enthusiasm, probably it will be disastrous. All human institutions alter to some extent from age to age, for slow change is the means of conserving society, just as it is the means for renewing the human body. But American conservatives endeavor to reconcile the growth and alteration essential to our life with the strength of our social and moral traditions. With Lord Falkland, they say, “When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” They understand that men and women are best content when they can feel that they live in a stable world of enduring values.
Conservatism, then, is not simply the concern of the people who have much property and influence; it is not simply the defense of privilege and status. Most conservatives are neither rich nor powerful. But they do, even the most humble of them, derive great benefits from our established Republic. They have liberty, security of person and home, equal protection of the laws, the right to the fruits of their industry, and opportunity to do the best that is in them. They have a right to personality in life, and a right to consolation in death. Conservative principles shelter the hopes of everyone in society. And conservatism is a social concept important to everyone who desires equal justice and personal freedom and all the lovable old ways of humanity. Conservatism is not simply a defense of “capitalism.” (“Capitalism,” indeed, is a word coined by Karl Marx, intended from the beginning to imply that the only thing conservatives defend is vast accumulations of private capital.) But the true conservative does stoutly defend private property and a free economy, both for their own sake and because these are means to great ends.
Those great ends are more than economic and more than political. They involve human dignity, human personality, human happiness. They involve even the relationship between God and man. For the radical collectivism of our age is fiercely hostile to any other authority: modern radicalism detests religious faith, private virtue, traditional personality, and the life of simple satisfactions. Everything worth conserving is menaced in our generation. Mere unthinking negative opposition to the current of events, clutching in despair at what we still retain, will not suffice in this age. A conservatism of instinct must be reinforced by a conservatism of thought and imagination.