When I received my copy of The Founding Conservatives and saw that it was published by Sentinel, the conservative imprint at Penguin responsible for such titles as 48 Liberal Lies About American History, I started to expect a certain kind of book: one that reassured the contemporary American conservative movement that it hosts the Spirit of ’76, by, say, tracing a philosophical through-line from Thomas Jefferson to Ronald Reagan, or spending pages and chapters arguing that Madison would have opposed Obamacare. There is nothing wrong with that kind of book, per se, but what Lefer — who is not a particularly well-known popular historian, but who now deserves to be — has done is quite different. His argument is not that the titans of the American Revolution — the men with their faces on our marbles and mountains and money — were “conservative” in the sense in which we today employ that term but rather that those men were radicals, often dangerous radicals, and might even have smothered America in its cradle, if not for another, little-noted and not-long-remembered batch of patriots who tempered their zeal with prudence and healthy respect for tradition.
There is a bit of terminological slipperiness in Lefer’s characterization of these patriots. In the world right before the Declaration of Independence, he calls them “moderates,” as opposed to the “radicals” who had been beating the drum of independence in the streets of Boston for years before it became the colonial consensus. But in the world of July 5, 1776, he calls the same men “conservatives,” a shift that also suggests the precariousness of the Founding Conservatives’ position, since, in a matter of days, the previous bearers of that appellation — Tories loyal to the British Crown — had transmogrified from political enemies of independence to traitors to the Revolution.