Politics & Policy

Right Roots

America has been conservative from the beginning.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth in a series of excerpts from The Right Nation, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. This and the next installment comprise Chapter 13: “Right From the Beginning.”

The life span of the American conservative movement is comparatively short. The life span of America’s exceptional conservatism, on the other hand, stretches back to the country’s birth. The United States has always had conservative instincts: suspicion of state power, enthusiasm about business and deep religiosity. But for most of its history America has been so comfortable with its innate conservatism that it has had no need of a political movement to articulate conservatism’s principles or harass its enemies.

The idea that America had conservatism encoded in its DNA might strike some people as a little odd. Wasn’t America the Enlightenment made flesh? The world’s first “new nation”? The very model of a young country? “The Utopia of radicals and the Babel of Conservatives”? The United States deliberately swept away the Old World of monarchy, aristocracy and established church, and guaranteed its people the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In the decades after its birth the new republic sided with revolutionary France against the assembled powers of the old order. Indeed, when the French revolutionaries stormed that ancient symbol of despotism and oppression, the Bastille, the Marquis de Lafayette sent the key of the prison to George Washington.

There is no doubt that America’s conservatism is an exceptional conservatism: the conservatism of a forward-looking commercial republic rather than the reactionary Toryism of old Europe. But it is conservatism nonetheless. If America is a new nation, it is getting rather long in the tooth. If America is the product of a revolution, it is a very different revolution from the French one. And there have been elements in American society from the very beginning–religiosity, capitalism and even geography–that have put a brake on any drift to the Left. America is the only developed country in the world never to have had a left-wing government.


Start with the idea that the United States can no longer really be regarded as a “new nation.” There is no doubt that America is singularly lacking in ancient châteaux and schlossen (though it has no shortage of more recent McChâteaux and McSchlossen). But this scarcely constitutes evidence of youth. The first settlers arrived when James I was on the throne and England was not yet Britain. Galileo was offered a chair at Harvard University, which was founded in 1636, before Charles I had his head cut off. The Declaration of Independence was signed a century before the unification of both Germany and Italy (supposedly part of Old Europe). The historical hearts of Boston and Washington feel as old as many European capitals (older, in some ways, because they weren’t bombed in the Second World War). Many of the traditions that define Britain as an old country in the minds of admiring Americans–the pomp and circumstance of empire, the rituals of Charles Dickens’s Christmas, Sherlock Holmes’s deer-stalker hat–were invented a century after the American constitution. “The youth of America is their oldest tradition,” Oscar Wilde quipped more than a century ago. “It has been going on now for three hundred years.”

In fact, America has a good claim to being one of the oldest countries in the world, in the sense of possessing one of the oldest constitutional regimes. The United States is the world’s oldest republic, its oldest democracy and its oldest federal system. The country possesses the world’s oldest written constitution (1787); the Democratic Party has a good claim to being the world’s oldest political party. France has had five republics since 1789, not to mention monarchies, empires, directories, consulates and a collaborationist-fascist dictatorship. New Labor has thoroughly revamped one of the oldest parts of the British constitution, the House of Lords. But America has done little more than tinker with its constitutional arrangements, such as allowing voters rather than state legislatures to choose senators. Even the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, was an attempt to force America to live up to its original constitutional ideals, rather than a departure from those ideals.

The past feels eternally present in American life. Americans routinely make monumental decisions–such as whether women can have abortions or children can say prayers in school–with reference to the designs of a group of eighteenth-century gentlemen who wore knee breeches and powdered wigs. Politicians happily describe themselves as Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians. Even cyberlibertarians, hardly the most historically minded of people, like to describe themselves as “Jeffersonians with laptops.” With the exception of the amendments after the Civil War which dealt with equality for all American citizens, the constitution remains very much as the founders intended it: a complicated system of checks and balances designed to prevent any politician from becoming a latter-day George III. “Our history has fitted us, even against our will, to understand the meaning of conservatism,” Daniel Boorstin observed back in 1953. “We have become the exemplars of the continuity of history and of the fruits which come from cultivating institutions suited to a time and place, in continuity with the past.”

It is true that the American past is punctuated by the Civil War, the bloodiest conflict of the nineteenth century. But the Civil War was in many ways a very conservative war. Both sides loudly proclaimed that they were fighting to defend the constitution: the North to defend the federal system and, later, the vision of individual equality that stands at the heart of the document, the South to defend the rights of states guaranteed in that same federal system. The United States has been singularly free of the sort of revolutionary wars that are so common in Europe: wars that are designed to sweep away the old regime and replace it with something new.

One reason why Americans are obsessed by history and tradition is that they have little need to bury the past like the Germans or Japanese. They lustily celebrate Memorial Day and Independence Day. They regularly send books on the Founding Fathers to the top of the best-seller lists. They form historical societies to reenact the Civil War. They dutifully troop to the country’s great monuments. The Capitol is always full of schoolchildren being given reverential lessons on the nation’s constitution. (It is impossible to think of Italian teachers speaking with such awe of the Italian constitution.) One of America’s most popular children’s television programs, Liberty’s Kids, lovingly retells the heroic deeds of the Revolution.

But because they conceive of themselves as a new nation, Americans don’t feel any need to make a cult of newness in the way that some Britons and French do. They have not disfigured the center of Washington with aggressively new buildings, as modernists have felt the need to update London. Many parts of Europe give the impression that they are divided into two parties: an “old party” that regards everything new as suspect and a “new party”–now very much in the ascendant in Britain–that hates the Old World and regards newness as a virtue in and of itself. Ironically Old Europe is currently engaged in a radical experiment to create a New Europe. The Maastricht Treaty is not yet a teenager, the common currency is barely out of its diapers, a new constitution is being debated, ten new members are due in 2004, there is talk of creating a common foreign policy. In America everybody but a radical fringe is happy with the constitutional arrangement.


How conservative was the American Revolution? We should begin by admitting that it was plainly a revolution. As Gordon Wood demonstrated in The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1993), the rebels didn’t just kick out the British; they kicked out the legal trappings of the feudal social order–primogeniture, entail, titles of nobility, the established church and the rest of it. They based their republic on two revolutionary principles–that all men are created equal and that power ultimately derives from the will of “the people.”

There was nevertheless a conservative subtext in everything the revolutionaries did. The revolution began as a colonial rebellion rather than an attempt to remake the world anew like its French equivalent. The revolution was the work of landed gentlemen rather than alienated intellectuals or enraged peasants: prudent and prosperous men who initially argued that they were fighting on behalf of the principles of the British constitution, not against them. They invoked historical English party names, calling themselves “Whigs” and their opponents “Tories,” and claimed that they were fighting to preserve ancient British rights (trial by jury, due process, free assembly and no taxation without representation, for example) rather than to establish new ones.

The resulting revolution was a remarkably restrained affair. The worst the American Tories suffered was exile and dispossession. There were no show trials and executions in Philadelphia in the way that there were in Paris. Instead, the revolution unleashed a wave of constitution making. In the wake of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 every state drew up its own constitution, and the states bound themselves together in the limited Articles of Confederation (1783). The states then met together in Philadelphia in 1787 to draw up a national constitution that could reconcile a degree of central control with the ancient rights of the states. The Founding Fathers lived on to contemplate their handiwork in serene old age.

There was undoubtedly more to the American Revolution than defending ancient British liberties. The Founding Fathers gradually realized that something more creative was demanded of them than a defense of the status quo–that, as John Jay of New York declared, they were “the first people whom heaven has favored with an opportunity of deliberating upon and choosing forms of government under which they should live.” And they were more interested in securing liberty in general than in merely defending their rights under the ancient British constitution. They read Locke and Montesquieu as well as Blackstone. However, the liberty they sought was a very moderate sort of liberty: the freedom for individuals as far as possible to pursue their own ends unconstrained by government interference. It was this overriding commitment to civic liberty that gave the American Revolution its conservative edge. It put a limit on the ambitions of government. Government was to be judged not by its ability to promote virtue or prosperity but by its ability to leave people alone to pursue their private ends. The Founding Fathers had no truck with old ideas about virtuous aristocratic elites, but they had no illusions about the innate goodness of the masses either. “If men were angels,” Madison wrote in Federalist number 51, “no government would be necessary…. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

In that spirit, the Founding Fathers regarded democracy as a means to a higher end rather than an end in itself–the higher end being liberty. They were careful to design a system that guarded against democracy’s “turbulence and follies.” They used the division of powers (among other things) to prevent the most common dangers of democracies: majorities oppressing minorities, minorities hijacking the government, and elected representatives putting their own interests before the people’s. They created a Senate, with senators being initially appointed by the states rather than directly elected, in order to provide “an anchor against popular fluctuations.” They used the principle of federalism to make sure that decisions were made at the lowest possible level. And, of course, they had a somewhat limited idea of who constituted “the people”: women, non-landowners and slaves, for example, were not allowed to vote. The intricacy of the founders’ design was remarkable. While senators sat for six years so that they could take a long-term view of things, representatives sat for two years in order to be closer to the will of the people. Presidents were elected by an electoral college, rather than crude majorities, in order to make sure that they paid attention to smaller states.

It is hardly surprising that Edmund Burke, the patron saint of British conservatism, admired the American Revolution as much as he hated its French stepsister. The French ended up producing disaster, he argued, because they were fighting for freedom in the abstract (“the wild gas of liberty,” as he put it)–and because they wanted to use the government to remake human nature. The Americans produced a successful revolution because they were fighting for the real freedoms of real people, for the established way of life in America against the growing ambitions of an arbitrary power, and they tempered their government to suit human nature. They never lost sight of the fact that the task of government is to protect the individual in his private pursuit of happiness.


Burke was right to see the conservative essence behind the revolutionary words. Through accident or design, the constitution has helped push America toward conservatism (and ultimately away from socialism) in two ways–by putting a limit on the power of the centralized state and by giving disproportionate power to rural states.

Distrust of government came over to America on the first English ships. The Puritans who settled in New England were fugitives from Anglican hegemony–and they were soon followed by other kinds of religious dissenters, including Catholics. The colonists got used to ignoring rules that were made in London. Sir Robert Walpole, the first British prime minister, described British rule of the thirteen colonies as a system of “salutary neglect”; and it was the attempt to transform that into a real system of imperial rule that precipitated the revolution. Even during the revolution, the Continental Congress was unwilling to provide George Washington with the men and materials that he needed to fight the British.

Americans repeatedly reasserted their preference for “salutary neglect.” During the republic’s early years, the battle between small-government Republicans and Federalists was eventually solved in the Republicans’ favor. In his first inaugural address in March 1801, Jefferson reaffirmed his commitment to “a wise and frugal government which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuit of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.” The Democratic platform of 1840, the first document of its kind, begins with the words: “Resolved, That the federal government is one of limited powers….” Twenty years later, in their own first platform, the Republicans sounded a similarly anarchistic note: “Resolved…That the people justly view with alarm the reckless extravagance which pervades every department of the Federal Government….”

The second way that the American political system reinforced conservatism was that it gave a disproportionate amount of power to America’s most conservative elements. The American South–a region originally controlled by a plantation aristocracy and rooted in slavery–was the dominant political force in the country between the Revolution and the Civil War. Jefferson, Madison and Washington were all slaveowners. In the seventy-two years between 1789 and 1861, Southerners accounted for ten of sixteen presidents, twenty-four of thirty-six House Speakers and twenty of the thirty-five Supreme Court justices.

The Civil War and Reconstruction put a violent end to the South’s power. But the Southern genius for politics nevertheless reasserted itself in the first half of the twentieth century. The fact that the South was so solidly Democratic meant that the region’s senators could turn themselves into “human institutions with southern accents,” reelected term after term and, thanks to the chamber’s rigid seniority system, appointed to the chairmanships of all the most important committees. When Lyndon Johnson arrived in the Senate in 1949, only one of the Senate’s thirteen committees was not chaired either by a Southerner or somebody closely allied to the South. Conservative Southern Democrats formed a powerful voting block with Northern Republicans to protect the region’s peculiar racial practices and to frustrate ambitious liberal reforms.

The practice of giving every state two senators, regardless of population, has also reinforced America’s conservative tendency. Sparsely populated rural states like Wyoming and Montana have as much say in the Senate as California and New York. This inevitably magnifies the influence of rural voters in the West and Midwest and limits the influence of urban voters on the coasts and in the industrial belt. Throughout American history senators from small states have acted to frustrate federal programs favored by the House. And the electoral college system gives a conservative bias to presidential races for the same reason, as Al Gore discovered in 2000 when he won the popular vote by a decent margin, but still lost the White House.


If the constitution strengthened the more conservative forces in the country, it also weakened the more radical ones. Socialist parties blossomed in every important country in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century, mobilizing mass support for expanding the power of the state, both to provide welfare services (such as pensions) and to restrain the power of the market. But in America socialists cast their seed on barren ground.

This failure was partly for mechanical reasons. The first-past-the-post electoral system, the focus on the presidency and the separation of powers made it all but impossible for third parties to challenge the duopoly. The fact that universal male suffrage was introduced for whites as early as the 1820s in some states prevented socialists from linking their demands for economic change to demands for universal suffrage, as they did in Europe.

Yet the socialists’ failure was also ideological: in America, they ran into a working class that showed far less enthusiasm for socialist ideas. Back in 1890 Friedrich Engels fumed that “America is so purely bourgeois, so entirely without a feudal past and therefore proud of its purely bourgeois organization.” Interestingly, the left-wingers that America did eventually manage to produce clung to individualism, unlike their European equivalents. Prior to the Great Depression the entire gamut of American labor, from the mainstream unions in the American Federation of Labor to the radical Industrial Workers of the World, opposed programs that extended the role of the state. The AFL opposed state provision of old-age pensions, compulsory health insurance, minimum-wage legislation, unemployment compensation; and from 1914 onward it was even against legislating maximum hours for men. Most American leftists were more interested in getting their fair share of the American dream than creating a socialist society.

By 1929 Joseph Stalin was so impatient with the progress of socialism in America that he summoned Jay Lovestone, the head of the American Communist Party, to Moscow to explain the lack of success. Lovestone duly came up with much the same sort of excuse as Engels, blaming the absence of a European class system, aristocracy and so on. In fact, the Great Depression did eventually “Europeanize” American politics a little. The New Deal led to a huge expansion in the state’s powers to tax, spend and regulate, including a Social Security system to help the aged and government agencies to monitor the affairs of business. The membership of unions exploded from a little more than 3 million in 1927 (11.3 percent of the nonagricultural workforce) to more than 8 million in 1939 (28.6 percent of the nonagricultural workforce). The unions also deepened their relationship with the Democratic Party.

For all that, the most striking thing about the New Deal, considering the extent of the calamity that America was facing, was its moderation. The American Fabians who flocked to Roosevelt’s Washington with the dream of establishing central planning were sorely disappointed. Roosevelt preferred regulation to outright state control, resisting calls to nationalize the disintegrating banking system. Congressmen fought to preserve the power of local government. Everyone hesitated to make the safety net too cushy. The Social Security Act of 1935 specifically excluded agricultural workers and domestic staff, thus leaving many poor blacks out in the cold. In September 1935, the newly created Gallup polling organization asked Americans what they thought about the amount of money the government was spending on relief and recovery. Twice as many respondents said that the government was spending too much as said it was spending the right amount. Scarcely one in ten said it was spending too little. After Roosevelt’s reelection, 50 percent of Democrats said that they hoped that his second administration would be more conservative than his first, and only 19 percent said that they wanted it to be more liberal.

This lack of a socialist party put the United States on a very different path from its European competitors. Before the Second World War social spending was no smaller in the United States than in Europe. In 1938 the Roosevelt administration spent 6.3 percent of GDP on social programs like employment assurance and public employment–a higher proportion than governments in Sweden (3.2 percent), France (3.4 percent), the United Kingdom (5.5 percent) and Germany (5.6 percent). But after the war things diverged dramatically. In Europe the socialist parties that had been gathering strength for years seized the opportunity of postwar reconstruction to impose far-reaching social programs. In America the government hesitated to introduce free child health care, let alone a full-blown national health service. America’s two main attempts at providing health coverage–Medicare and Medicaid–did not appear for another quarter century. When Ronald Reagan rode into the White House in the 1980 election on a wave of conservative resentment against “big government,” the United States had a lower tax rate, a smaller deficit as a proportion of GNP, a less developed welfare state and fewer government-owned industries than any other western industrialized nation.

Put in these terms, it can sound as if America was tricked out of having a proper socialist movement. But there have always been three other forces keeping America on the Right well before it discovered a conservative movement–religion, capitalism and, most fundamental of all, geography.

John Micklethwait is the U.S. editor of The Economist and Adrian Wooldridge is its Washington correspondent.


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