The Founding Conservatives: How a Group of Unsung Heroes Saved the American Revolution, by David Lefer (Sentinel, 416 pp., $29.95)
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.
It’s true that, like the classical Tory, Lefer’s Founding Conservatives were mostly upper-class, mostly of New York and Pennsylvania and the Deep South (while the “radicals” had their base in New England and their island outpost in Virginia), and mostly beneficiaries of the status quo (and thus uniformly cautious). But they were decidedly not Tory loyalists, and many became heroes of the war for independence.
John Dickinson, the gifted son of an aristocratic Delaware plantation owner, was their unofficial leader, and perhaps is the central figure in Lefer’s story. Educated in the law at London’s prestigious Middle Temple — at the same time young Edmund Burke was there — he returned to America with a classical erudition tempered by a Country Whig’s romanticized notion of republican virtue, and with his formidable intellect became a respected lawyer and a gadfly in Pennsylvania politics. Though in contemporary casual histories Dickinson’s name is mostly relegated to dependent clauses, throughout the crises and provocations of the 1760s — the Stamp Act, the Declaratory Acts, the Townshend Duties — he was the colonies’ most effective advocate for American self-rule (though, decidedly, not for American independence). His Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, although unsigned, briefly made him the most famous political pamphleteer on the continent — Voltaire declared him “the American Cicero” — until a disgruntled British bureaucrat émigré penned Common Sense.
Dickinson would figure in virtually every significant event of the Founding, but he had something of an annus mirabilis between the First and Second Continental Congresses. We tend to forget how different the former was from the latter. At the first, nervous loyalists wrote one another secret, sworn affidavits attesting to the fact that they had voted against resolutions they believed treasonous. A proposal to create an American union with Britain, governed by a Crown-appointed president-general, was seriously considered before news of the siege of Boston tabled it. The banquet marking the end of the session finished with a toast to His Majesty George III.
Dickinson’s critical role at this delicate juncture cannot be overstated. When he arrived at the Congress, “The Farmer” was revered by radicals and moderates alike, and it took every bit of his intellect to temper the former even as he stiffened the instinctual obsequiousness of the more Loyalist-leaning elements among the latter. It is fair to say that he was Henry Clay two years before Henry Clay was born — the Great American Statesman of the years before there was an American state.
Even at the Second Continental Congress, convened against the backdrop of the outrages at Lexington and Concord, Dickinson shrewdly split the difference between revolution and rapprochement, arguing that the aggressive provision for war “must go pari passu with measures of reconciliation.” Dickinson may have been privately convinced that both independence and all-out war were now inevitable, but publicly he was instrumental in securing one final petition to the Crown for the redress of grievances, against the huffing of the Adamses and their bloc of New England and Virginia radicals. What Adams and the radicals didn’t understand was that Dickinson’s “Olive Branch Petition” was really about buying time for war preparations, and giving the colonies something to rally around when Britain inevitably rejected it.
In the fateful summer of 1776, Dickinson’s conservatives were instrumental in securing a one-month delay in voting for independence that John Adams, at the time virulently opposed to delay, would admit in 1813 was critical to readying the continent for war. It was Dickinson, subsequently, who rose to make the final case against the Declaration, well aware that in doing so he was expending every ounce of goodwill and esteem he had accrued. Dickinson thought the Declaration not unjust, but imprudent, and wanted to secure both foreign allies against Britain and a new government for America before declaring open war on the greatest empire in the world. When his counsels didn’t prevail, Dickinson and his ally Robert Morris (the Liverpool-born financier who became America’s first financial wizard) decided of their own accord to stand “behind the bar” during the July 2 vote, and were officially marked “absent.” This tipped Pennsylvania toward independence, and, along with the New York delegation’s abstention, allowed posterity to record the vote as unanimous.
Dickinson drew scorn from every corner of Pennsylvania society as a suspected Loyalist, but although he never signed the Declaration, he proclaimed himself “resolved by every impulse of my soul to share, and to stand or fall with [America] in that scheme of freedom she had chosen.” And that he did. In the same week he stood athwart history, Dickinson made it, drafting the Articles of Confederation, legally christening the days-old republic “The United States of America.” Then, as a colonel in the Pennsylvania militia, he led a battalion to join General Washington’s army in the battle for New York. If a tapestry were made to commemorate the founding of American conservatism, these events would be as good a subject matter as any.
Dickinson had allies. There was Morris, the Presbyterian sea merchant who singlehandedly oversaw a smuggling operation that outfitted the Revolution with matériel and supplies, who bankrolled the Battle of Yorktown and paid disgruntled Continental regulars from his own deep pockets, and who represented the dynamic capitalism (some would say war profiteering) of young America. Morris, a signer of the trifecta of founding documents — the Declaration, the Articles, and the Constitution — put both a conservative and an entrepreneurial stamp on America’s birth certificates.
In Tory-leaning New York, there was Gouverneur Morris (no relation): tall, young, and handsome, a foppish womanizer from a family of rich Loyalists. Morris came to the revolutionary cause cautiously, having seen the violent demonstrations of the radical laborers, stevedores, and merchants in Manhattan and come to believe that, as Lefer puts it, “it was crucial for elites like him to join the fight for colonial rights in order to keep it under control.” Joining Morris in New York’s moderate circle were John Jay (later a co-author of The Federalist Papers and first chief justice of the Supreme Court); Robert Livingston (later a jurist who administered the oath of office to George Washington and negotiated the Louisiana Purchase), and James Duane (later mayor of New York and a federal judge).
Each would become a loyal servant of the United States, some at great personal cost. (Gouverneur Morris’s mother remained a Loyalist to the end, giving the family’s Bronx estate to the redcoats for use after the Battle of Long Island.) But in the early 1770s, the cabal was concerned primarily with keeping the rabble in line and exerted great control over the formal instruments of anti-British protest in New York, stacking the state’s correspondence committee with cautious aristocrats to balance the landless disciples of Thomas Paine.
What all had in common was a certain ambivalence. There were shades and gradations, but all shared a suspicion about what they saw as the less praiseworthy elements of the Revolution: its leveling effect, its mobbishness, and its villainization of the moneyed and the aristocratic in favor of what would become the Jeffersonian ideal of an agrarian republic.
This may appear unseemly, even un-American, to modern eyes, but Lefer expertly puts their concerns in context and shows that they were frequently justified. He compares the Founding Conservatives’ political philosophy to that of Edmund Burke, their greatest friend in Britain, and suggests that the conservative critique of revolution was vindicated in the subsequent French upheaval, which Burke got right and Jefferson got wrong. And he does an excellent job of showing that what we might call “the radical moment” that gave the American Revolution its ardor and zeal, and secured the buy-in of the ordinary Americans who would actually fight the war, was in fact late-developing and fleeting. As late as 1773, the Boston Tea Party divided even the “tier-1” Founders: John Adams called it “the grandest event,” Ben Franklin “an act of violent Injustice.” And it was, in contrast to more orderly protests in Philadelphia, Charleston, and New York (where a tea-bearing ship was kindly asked to turn back for England as a band played “God Save the King”), more an example of New England radicalism than a reflection of the colonies as a whole.
Nor was the domination of the Continental Congress by radicals in the early days of the war a uniformly good thing for the American cause. Through legally dubious means, the Adams faction passed through the Congress a measure that effectively dissolved Pennsylvania’s royal charter before independence from Britain was declared. This was unprecedented, and emboldened Pennsylvania’s radicals to create a new constitution hostile to property, free speech, and the right to bear arms, and governed by a headless, unicameral body that wouldn’t have looked out of place after the Bastille. Worse, the form was copied by other colonies, many of which would experiment with decidedly European forms of government until self-evident disaster compelled them to adopt constitutional regimes like those we’ve come to love.
The upshot of Lefer’s survey is that even if the conservatives remained unloved and suspect, their ideas — on the conduct of the war, on diplomacy, and even on the crafting of the Constitution and the early American order — prevailed at critical moments, or at least prevailed enough to save the radicals from their own excesses.
Richard Hofstadter called the 20th-century effort by historians to downplay the internal disagreements of the Founders and the political messiness of the Revolution the “consensus school” of American history, and Lefer fixes his bayonet against it, to great result. His volume is a work of revisionism in the best sense of that word, and I suspect that even if you consider yourself a buff, The Founding Conservatives will change your understanding of the political and philosophical dynamics of the American Revolution and the early days of the Union. It capably demonstrates that, though the Adamses and Jeffersons of ’76 would write the glorious Revolution’s history, the Dickinsons and Morrises did a great deal to ensure that there were glories of which to write.
– Mr. Foster is the former news editor of National Review Online.