Republican candidates continually bill themselves as the most 'conservative'. Republican voters respond to these appeals, voting for 'strong conservatives', 'conservative outsiders', 'Christian conservatives', 'Constitutional conservatives', etc., though their behavior when they actually get into office is all over the map. This has lead to the term 'conservative' seeming almost meaningless, but it was not always so. Part of the reason is that people have forgotten what being conservative actually means. Conservatism in general and our special tradition of American conservatism has deep roots and that is so because conservatism is precisely about being connected to our roots (one of the reasons I use a radish— a root— in the logo for this blog.
So, what in the world is a 'conservative'? Where are our roots? Let's dig.
In which we start with the plain meaning and break the surface...
1 Averse to change or innovation and holding traditional values.
2(in a political context) favouring free enterprise, private ownership, and socially conservative ideas.
In politics, progressives often stop with 'averse to change' and assume that to be conservative is simply to afraid of 'progress'. But we also have 'traditional values' and in definition #2, a hint of what those values might include. Conservatives are not merely averse to change, they are trying to protect something of value. This should not be surprising, because of the relationship to the verb, to conserve:
1: to keep in a safe or sound state - He conserved his inheritance.; especially : to avoid wasteful or destructive use of conserve natural resources conserve our wildlife
There is gold here: "He conserved his inheritance." This is exactly what we are looking for. What, as conservatives, is our lost inheritance?
... to uncover a lost inheritance.
Lord Coke, in the 16th century, talks about the treasure of the common law, its accumulation representing:
...the wisdom of the most excellent men, in many successions of ages, by long and continual experience (the trial of light and truth) in his head the wisdom of all the men in the world...
[As quoted in: David A.J. Richards. Foundations of American Constitutionalism. Oxford University Press. New York. 1989. pp 69-71 or see The Reports of Sir Edward Coke, Knt. [1572-1617]: In Thirteen Parts, Volume 4]
Coke, almost two hundred years before our Revolution, points to the fact that none of us is born into this world alone, but that we inherit the written wisdom of those that came before us, something which none of us, even the wisest (wo)man alive can alone match. In law, this wisdom is accumulated in centuries of common law histories, cases, controversies, and court decisions passed down to us which our constitutional framers in turn used as the foundation for our system of government.
The idea of a kind of trust was created, something we inherit from those long dead, maintain, improve incrementally, and hand on to children not yet born. We conserve then something which we recognize does not belong to us. The Parable of the Three Servants [Mathew 25:14-30], teaches us we cannot merely bury this trust in the ground and ignore it, we must nurture and invest that with which we were entrusted, but nor do we mindlessly tinker. As Edmund Burke, a British Whig often seen as the father of modern conservatism, reflected on the French Revolution:
An ignorant man, who is not fool enough to meddle with his clock, is however sufficiently confident to think he can safely take to pieces, and put together at his pleasure, a moral machine of another guise, importance and complexity, composed of far other wheels, and springs, and balances, and counteracting and co-operating powers. Men little think how immorally they act in rashly meddling with what they do not understand. Their delusive good intention is no sort of excuse for their presumption. They who truly mean well must be fearful of acting ill.
[Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, emphasis mine]
This is no less true given that our Framers fought a violent revolution and established a new system of government. Our founders were not the victors of one revolution but of two. They were raised on the history and literature of the English Civil War and the British Bill of Rights. As Winston Churchill wrote of that conflict in his four-volume history of Britain:
Here is the salient fact which distinguishes the English Revolution from all others: that those who wielded irresistible physical force were throughout convinced that it could give them no security. Nothing is more characteristic of the English people than their instinctive reverence even in rebellion for law and tradition. Deep in the nature of the men who had broken the King’s power was the conviction that law in his name was the sole foundation on which they could build.
The early Americans followed the same pattern. The Declaration of Independence was a revolutionary document, but also a profoundly conservative one. The American Revolution was not an assertion of radical of ideology over law but a protest against the usurpation of traditional rights by the British Crown and Parliament, rights won by the sacrifices of generations of Englishmen. The Declaration painstakingly sets out a checklist of the reasons for this break and establishes it in the traditional principles and duties of a moral people. The principles of the Declaration established a strong root of conservatism to flourish in American soil, established a new —but not radical— inheritance, cut from still older stock.
Progressivism in the United States attempts to follow the same disastrous path as the French Revolution, cutting us off from our inherited traditions in favor of a modern and 'scientific' approach, but one, which, strangely, ignores the evidence of millennia of human experience, tinkering with the clock while skipping the cardinal rule of the competent tinkerer: save the parts. What results, as Calvin Coolidge stated in his Independence Day speech in 1926, is no improvement:
...About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions.
Jefferson's declaration of the primacy of liberty, however did not stand alone. It was based on an assertion of a higher law, that of "Nature and Nature's God" and it came with a deep skepticism of unrestrained democracy and of human nature. After all, it was as much the British Parliament and native Englanders as the British Crown which failed the American Colonists. John Adams asserted that liberty could not exist outside the checks and balances of law, but it is perhaps most famously and compactly stated by Madison in the Federalist Papers (#51):
It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.
So again, we fall back on experience to guide us. Certainly the Constitution was built on a such a foundation, perhaps the most literate of such exercises ever attempted, relying on detailed research of many governments over several thousand years (much of it compiled by Madison himself).
This then is our inheritence...
It is a complex and rich inheritance, one which we could spend a lifetime exploring and still have more to discover. Various people along the way have summarized its core principles, however. One such is Russel Kirk with his "Six Canons of Conservative Thought", itself a condensed summary of Burke which I excerpt further (follow link for full text):
- "Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems...
- "Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems;...
- "Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a 'classless society.' With reason, conservatives have been called 'the party of order.' If natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill the vacuum. Ultimate equality in the judgment of God, and equality before courts of law, are recognized by conservatives; but equality of condition, they think, means equality in servitude and boredom.
- "Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked... Economic levelling, they maintain, is not economic progress.
- "Faith in prescription and distrust of 'sophisters, calculators, and economists' who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs. Custom, convention, and old prescription are checks both upon man's anarchic impulse and upon the innovator's lust for power.
- Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress. Society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation; but a statesman must take Providence into his calculations...
[Russell Kirk, "The Conservative Mind, From Burke to Elliot" 7th Ed., revised. Gateway Editions. Washington, DC. 2016. https://www.scribd.com/book/337552026 pp 45-46]
Someone who does not demonstrate this faith in both a natural order, something greater than ourselves, and of natural law, a non-negotiable higher law, defining rights and duties above mere human law, is not a conservative. As a Christian, I profess to know what this 'something greater' is, though we may not always precisely agree. What we should agree on, as conservatives, is that our faith drives us to both trust that the natural order exists for a purpose (one which we may not understand) and that we are to struggle against it to find justice, not burn it down, but struggle.
...which it is our duty to conserve.
Our duty, then is to strive for justice within a reverence for natural law, inherited wisdom, and social structures which we believe to have a value in and of themselves. The Constitution is not an outdated document, nor is it an immutable shrine, but it is a treasure, something of surpassing beauty with which we have been entrusted. A conservative neither hides from change nor rushes to embrace it. This is the sense of duty which would lead an inveterate conservative like John Adams to fight a war for freedom against his King and yet act as defense counsel for the soldiers responsible for the Boston Massacre, courting personal danger both times. As conservatives, we have a tremendous legacy to attempt to live up to, but our roots are strong, and deep, watered in generations of sacrifice.