American conservatism is a philosophy that has a long and rich history. It was not born yesterday, or even with the publishing of Russel Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. It has roots that go back to the earliest reaches of English history. This is because American conservatism is a philosophy that was born of English conservatism. Despite how progressive liberals like to portray it, to be an American conservative is not to believe the past is best or that change is always bad. It is a specific set of beliefs based in a long storied history. The word conservative comes from the legal sense of the word conservator meaning a guardian and protector. Conservatives are first and foremost protectors of people and society.
At this point it is important to point out that we are talking about American conservatism based on English/American tradition. One can not relate an American conservative to say a Japanese conservative or a Egyptian conservative. In the American tradition conservatism is based on a clear tradition and set of beliefs that extend beyond what may or may not be historically popular. It can only be understood within the American and English tradition and is totally unrelated to the use of the term to describe individuals from other places and times.
American conservatism comes down through the earliest forms of English/Anglo Saxon common law. We have all heard of the Magna Carta but what is missed is that it was just a reassertion of common law that was at that point being trampled on. John Locke’s treatises built on that much older tradition as did England’s Glorious Revolution and the Constitution it bred. These traditions defined in the English mind what was mans natural rights. Those that held these rights and their corresponding responsibilities as absolutes where called conservatives, that is to say protectors of the people and society. In England the early Whig party was the bastion of these conservatives and Edmond Burke the preeminent conservative of the Whigs. The opposing party at the time was called the Tories or King’s party. It was not coincidence that as Americans stood up to reassert their rights it was the Whigs in Parliament that came to their aid. In one of the most dramatic moments of the time William Pitt the elder collapsed and later died in a grand defense of colonial American rights (it is his image found on the header and it is he for whom Pittsburgh is named). This was only natural as it was merely English conservatives standing up for their American conservative brethren across the ocean.
When Patrick Henry famously said give me liberty or give me death he was not being a radical but stating in the most absolute terms possible that rights of Englishmen in the conservative mind were nonnegotiable. Something that was already understood by conservatives in England and America.
This is the tradition on which American conservatism is based. It is not a mere knee jerk reaction against new ideas but it does have a set of standards by which such ideas must be judged. The founders where mostly conservatives that sought not a revolution but were merely fighting to maintain the God given rights they had always enjoyed. The war for independence was one most reluctantly choose to fight but given the alternative willingly put their lives on the line to win.
As soon as the guns stopped firing a second battle began. The question being asked was could the land of the free be also a land of slavery? Conservatives tried to get slavery barred from the new republic and failing that they aimed at its slow removal. Refusing to mention slavery by name in the constitution they set the countries course toward freedom. The constitution, as pointed out by Fredrick Douglass, was designed to slowly strangle the peculiar institution. It was the constitution’s inherent limiting of the slave holding states from profiting politically from their slave populations that, more then anything else, sealed its fate. When Lincoln was elected the strategy of the constitution had come full course and the south knew it. With the election of the conservative president and a congressional base to back him up the south realized the gig was up. At that point a line was drawn, here and no further, the conservatives finally had to power to force the country to face the contradiction between its creeds and its actions.
Abraham Lincoln was a conservative, both in the outlook he proclaimed and in the way he described himself. His anti-slavery stance was born of his conservatism where as the pro slavery stance of the south that sought to keep the status quo was based on an agrarian aristocracy that was anything but conservative. It was its conservative roots that kept the country going through the bloodiest time in its history. When it was over it was American conservatives in congress passed legislation after the war to help get former slaves back on their feet but as the political fortunes turned the legislation was overturned.
The truth is that throughout American history it has been the conservatives that have pushed the citizens of the U.S. to lived up to the loftiness of its ideals. It was conservatives that fought to maintain the rule of law and the constitution. It was conservatives that fought to have it applied to all evenly. In the missing pages of American history books it was conservatives that opposed the segregation of the federal government by the progressive Woodrow Wilson. It was conservatives that opposed the upsurge in KKK activities under Wilson and FDR and tried but failed to get anti-lynching legislation passed during the Great Depression. It was the conservative Dwight D. Eisenhower that tried to get the first civil rights legislation passed only to have it watered down by progressives in congress.
The modern stereo type of conservatives conjured up by liberal demagogues really started when Barry Goldwater voted against the civil rights act. What the left forgets to mention is Goldwater supported desegregation when progressive liberals were defiantly supporting it. To Goldwater, author of Conscious of a Conservative, to give any group special rights above another was unconscionable no matter what the reasoning. This is why he opposed the 1964 civil rights act, he was making a principled stand based on the tradition of conservative thought. That the progressive liberals, who had up to that point opposed civil rights for minorities, to turn that stand into a basis to say they are the true supporters of civil rights and conservatives the enemies is one of the great acts of demagoguery in history. A cynic might say the whole maneuver was orchestrated to buy votes but that is for history to decide.
The truth is American Conservatism is based on the ideas of individual rights and natural law. It is the philosophy that is dedicated to protecting individuals and society They do not seek the unobtainable utopia of progressive liberalism nor do they fall for the self destructive chaos of libertarianism. A conservative accepts mankind is flawed. He realizes that it is only through a society that is ruled by laws based in the principles of individual rights and responsibilities can mankind reach his true potential. A conservatives view is influenced by the wisdom and traditions handed down to us. Only when we apply reason based in experience and tempered by timeless principles can we expect to grow as a society. The choice is ordered liberty or tyranny, there are no other options.
“If this makes you think pass it on”