Magazine | August 10, 2009, Issue

The Deepest Roots

The Conservatives: Ideas & Personalities Throughout American History, by Patrick Allitt (Yale, 336 pp., $35)

In numerous books over the years, conservatives have offered historical perspectives on conservatism, liberals on liberalism, and each on the other, crowding bestseller lists and remainder piles alike. The common denominator is usually a polemical zest that is a product of the sense that major issues are at stake in our politics right now. The past is chiefly a storehouse from which to select what’s useful to the debate at the moment.

Patrick Allitt is a professor of history at Emory University, and whatever political opinions he may hold, he keeps them to himself in The Conservatives. His wide-ranging, briskly written survey of the American Right from the founding era through the end of the 20th century is no conservative history of conservatism in the sense of an attempt to vindicate a conservative viewpoint against others, nor is it a liberal debunking exercise. Rather, it is a descriptive account, situated at the crossroads of intellectual and political history, that seeks to allow the various strains of conservative thought in America to emerge in the context of the political debate of their time.

Professor Allitt has thereby done both liberals and conservatives a favor. Progressives may be a little too flush with victory these days to care much about what conservatives think, and in any case they may be fonder of an approach toward conservatism that seems much more common in the academic world today than Allitt’s, namely, treating conservatism as a pathology in need of explanation. But here progressives have an excellent opportunity to develop a richer understanding of their adversaries.

Allitt’s service to conservatives is greater still. This would be true if only for the careful attention he pays to taking conservative ideas seriously. More than that, however, this volume seeks to secure for conservatives something oddly lacking in conservatism these days: a sense of a past. 

The last 100 pages of The Conservatives offer a fine description of the modern conservative era, from the founding of National Review through the founding of The Weekly Standard. This period begins with conservatism in the wilderness, and William F. Buckley Jr.’s effort “to set up a big tent, bringing in as many types of conservatives as possible, and to keep them together despite their differences,” as Allitt describes Buckley’s vision for NR (not omitting the part of the story about those Buckley chose to keep out, such as the John Birchers and the Randians). It ends with conservative ideas’ driving a national political agenda through their influence in the Republican party. 

Along the way, we meet the National Review circle in its heyday, from James Burnham calling for the liberation of the “captive nations” to Frank Meyer promoting a “fusionist” conservatism that would explain to free-marketeers and traditionalists why they “actually needed each other and should work together.” Allitt introduces the Chicago School economists, preeminently Milton Friedman, as well as the leading early Cold Warriors. 

He documents the emergence of the neoconservatives, mainly disaffected liberals or leftists, such as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, grown frustrated both with the inability of ambitious government programs to deliver results at home and with U.S. weakness abroad. He describes the rise of the “paleoconservative” tendency, and engagingly retells the story of how a seemingly obscure dispute over whether Ronald Reagan would name the neocon-favored William Bennett or the paleo-approved M. E. Bradford as director of the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1981 crystallized a set of resentments for a generation. Here we meet the Chronicles crowd, as well as Patrick J. Buchanan, who would go on to lead an effort to reorient post–Cold War conservatism in the direction of “America First.” 

Allitt traces the evolution of the conservative view that market economics was defensible not only as an efficient means of allocating scarce goods and services but also on moral grounds, through the freedom it safeguards and the wealth it creates. And he describes well the persistent frustration conservatives have felt at their inability to make headway in what they perceive as a “culture war” over social issues, standards of cultural achievement, and the direction of the university. Here, we encounter New Criterion founder Hilton Kramer and First Things founder Richard John Neuhaus. 

This part of their history conservatives themselves know reasonably well. Partisans of the various subsets of conservative opinion will have their nits to pick with Allitt’s account, but in truth, they themselves all tell pretty much the same story about the past 50 years. Allitt’s virtue here lies in telling the tale not as we have most frequently heard it before, through the perspective of one of the factions of conservative opinion seeking to discredit others (or a liberal perspective seeking to discredit the whole conservative enterprise), but neutrally. As he remarks in his conclusion, his “intention throughout has been to keep the rhetorical temperature as low as possible and be descriptive rather than prescriptive.” In this he has succeeded. 

But the first two-thirds of The Conservatives are in their way more valuable, because less familiar. It’s not that anyone even glancingly acquainted with American history will have missed the Federalist Papers, the Whigs, the Southern agrarians, Calhoun, Webster, or Tocqueville. It’s that Allitt puts them together into a fascinating portrait of the various forms American conservatism has taken.

He calls the Federalist Papers “the new nation’s first conservative classic.” The case for the new Constitution, as mounted by the Federalist, was conservative not because its authors called themselves that, but because they “hoped, with the help of the Constitution, to conserve a traditional social order that, as they saw it, was threatened by disorder from below and radicalism from abroad.” One danger would be a state too weak to govern effectively and provide security. Another danger would be a state so powerful or autocratic that it deprived people of liberty. A government too democratic might give rise to a tyranny of the majority. All of these concerns come through in the Federalist.

A democratic, egalitarian political system could also entail the loss of the social hierarchy necessary to defend and perpetuate the higher ends of human achievement, from honor to virtue to artistic excellence. A society too commercial in orientation might lose its sense that there is anything higher than immediate gratification. Here, it is Tocqueville who resonates, pointing out that American democracy, which he admires, nevertheless comes at a cost. Professor Allitt calls Democracy in America, too, “a conservative classic.” 

It’s important not to lose sight of the varied nature of the felt dangers to the social order to which people have responded with the impulse to conserve. Thus Allitt avers that “Lincoln deserves a place in the American conservative pantheon for one big reason: He led the nation to victory in a civil war that could have destroyed it, succeeding in this most basic of all conservative tasks.” But his inclusion of Lincoln in the conservative pantheon does not prevent him from identifying as “conservative” southern defenders of states’ rights, such as John Calhoun, as well as Calhoun’s sharpest critic, the northern Whig Daniel Webster. To Lincoln the conservative, add on the conservative side Lincoln’s greatest vilifiers, the post–Civil War southerners who championed the view of the war as a Lost Cause in which, as Allitt describes their grievance, “a virtuous, godly people had justifiably seceded,” only to be crushed by “a numerically overwhelming foe.”

It will not do, then, to look for “conservatism” in a single set of policy positions or even a single stance on the central question of the day. The conservative sensibility begins with an attachment to some aspect of the social order and the impulse to protect it from threats arising from any and all directions. But what the qualities of the social order in need of protection actually are and what truly threatens them are issues that have always been highly contested. We find different kinds of conservatives taking different positions on major issues; what they have in common is the understanding that change often if not always comes with risk. A conservative crank who hates America because he thinks egalitarianism’s leveling tendencies have paved over the possibility of great achievement is no less a conservative than a conservative who cherishes American society for doing away with arbitrary hierarchical or class barriers to personal achievement. 

The picture is further complicated by the fact that the American constitutional order itself and the principles on which the American political system was founded are unmistakably liberal in the classical sense of the term, as was the colonial society out of which the United States arose. One essential element of liberal society is dynamism born of free-market economic arrangements. Thus we have a branch of conservatism paradoxically dedicated to protecting the conditions that allow for change.

Because the task many conservatives have set themselves to (whether they see it that way or not) is the conservation of classical liberalism, in many cases they are not simply enemies of liberalism, even if progressives see them that way. Because progressives know that progressivism entails forward motion, most of them conclude that conservatism must entail backward motion. This view is mostly wrong. More often than not, the conservative position amounts to nothing more than a brake applied in the name of stability on the forward motion that classical liberalism set in train.

Allitt’s approach to conservatism is not schematic. In his introduction, he offers the view that “conservatism is, first of all, an attitude to social and political change that looks for support to the ideas, beliefs, and habits of the past and puts more faith in the lessons of history than in the abstractions of political philosophy.” He notes further that conservatism “has often been reactive, responding to perceived political and intellectual challenges.” Though clearly not exhaustive, and clearly broad, these markers enable us to see that American conservatism cuts a broader and richer swath through American history than even conservatives themselves have generally understood. 

Allitt spends considerable time on the question of slavery and conservatism. He is right to do so, since, as he notes, conservative writers of the modern era have had little to say on the subject, perhaps out of embarrassment. Indeed, one might venture the conclusion that slavery is the reason for modern conservatism’s loss of its sense of a past dating back before the middle of the 20th century and the appearance of the writings of Hayek, Mises, and Kirk. The 19th century’s conservative defenders of slavery were defending the indefensible. But it is a little too easy to say nothing more than that Calhoun was wrong. Allitt reminds us that some conservatives who saw a great wrong in slavery were nevertheless more worried about the destabilizing effects of trying to speed its end, especially according to the schedule of the more fervent abolitionists. Some feared that moving too rapidly would provoke secession and civil war. It is uncomfortable, to say the least — or it should be — for most modern conservatives to put themselves in the shoes of those thinking about this issue at the time. 

An affection for what’s best in the social order and the urge to protect it are qualities that inevitably lead to a degree of tolerance for the defects of the social order. This is the problem of conservatism, then and now. A conservative sensibility would not necessarily lead to a defense of slavery or toleration of it: See Allitt’s characterization of Lincoln. One might instead note that Calhoun’s racial theorizing was novel and radical more than it was conservative. But a defense in the 1830s or 1850s of slavery as a social institution would necessarily have been conservative. 

Progressivism has its central problem as well: the tendency to take the positive aspects of social order as a given and to assume that the attempt to remedy its defects can be achieved without risk to what’s already good and perhaps essential. One would welcome a book by Professor Allitt about the progressive tendency in American intellectual history, one that would bring this central problem of progressivism into similarly sharp relief. 

But for conservatives, Allitt seems to offer a bargain: In exchange for a frank acknowledgment of the problem slavery posed for and exposes in conservatism, conservatives can lay claim to the Federalist Papers, Tocqueville, Webster, Lincoln, and a place in American intellectual history far broader and deeper than most of them had probably contemplated before. This is a fair recovery of an important element of conservatism’s past. It will be interesting to see whether liberals mount a campaign to deprive conservatives of their claim on these jewels, leaving them only with the self-dramatizing blowhards and crackpots who are also well represented in The Conservatives (as they would certainly be in The Progressives). If so, such an initiative would be very conservative on the part of the liberals — a search for support in the ideas of the past.

Meanwhile, if anyone ever needs a book to recommend as a clear and concise introduction to the development of conservative thought in America, The Conservatives is it. Before its arrival on the scene, there was no obvious candidate.

– Mr. Lindberg is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and the editor of Policy Review. He is the author of The Political Teachings of Jesus.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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