Historians tend to dismiss conservatism as irrelevant to the American experience. Conservatism—dispositional as opposed to programmatic in nature—is often hard to see, especially for historians who tend to use the lens of “progress” in looking at history…
Forgotten Conservatives in American History, by Brion McClanahan and Clyde Wilson
Is there a conservative tradition in America? More than half a century ago, Louis Hartz argued emphatically that there was not. Instead, Hartz and other liberal historians claimed, the “founding” of the United States of America, finalized with the institution of the Constitution of 1787-1788, was a decidedly Lockean event, in which James Madison and company attempted to “check interest with interest, class with class, faction with faction … in a harmonious system of mutual frustration,” as Richard Hofstadter, Hartz’s contemporary and fellow progressive, famously put it.
Hartz’s interpretation came to dominate the thinking of liberal historians—which is to say, almost all historians—who tend to dismiss conservatism as irrelevant to the American experience, and conservatives themselves as, at best, cranks and crackpots, or worse, as racists and misogynists. Conservatism—dispositional as opposed to programmatic in nature, as Russell Kirk noted—is often hard to see, especially for historians who tend to use the lens of “progress” in looking at history and who are generally preoccupied with gauging the “achievements” of “movements” like Progressivism and the civil rights cause. Even eminent conservative historians, such as George Nash, Michael Federici, and Patrick Allitt admit that a conservative “movement” arose only in the post-World War II era.
Yet modern-day, self-described “conservatives,” as Brion McClanahan and Clyde Wilson point out in their introduction to the present work, rarely fit the traditional definition. Following Kirk’s lead, the authors define a conservative as “one who values ‘prescription,’ who insists that inevitable change should be cautious and reconcilable with the wisdom of the ages.” Today, those who pass for conservatives on the political and media scenes largely embrace Hartz’s Hobbesian paradigm. Embracing competitive capitalism and technological innovation as positive goods, these conservatives find their heroes in such as captains of industry as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg. As McClanahan and Wilson suggest, among contemporary so-called conservatives “there is a frequent erroneous identification of conservatism with capitalist interests.”
In foreign affairs, most latter-day conservatives embrace a Theodore Roosevelt-inspired projection of American power abroad and a Wilsonian impulse to “make the world safe for democracy.” When these faux conservatives look back at American history to find their heroes and precursors, therefore, they tend to choose the Hamiltons, Jacksons, Lincolns, and TRs, wrongly equating nationalist ideology and rhetoric with patriotism, and patriotism with conservatism. Even those contemporary conservatives who understand the importance of limits on government power in the domestic sphere usually err when looking at the past for heroes, being seduced, for example, by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, whose flowery utterances in favor of states rights’ against federal power cloud the radicalism of his social thought. (This was a man, after all, who bandied about such modest proposals as wiping out the entire human race and beginning anew with another Adam and Eve.) Time has made for strange bedfellows indeed, and today’s self-identified conservatives would hardly be recognizable to pre-20th century conservatives.
Brion McClanahan and Clyde Wilson have done a great service here by helping us build a pantheon of true conservative heroes from the time of the writing of the Constitution to the late twentieth century. Presenting a series of “biographical vignettes,” they remind us that true American conservatives included not only thinkers like Kirk but also active statesmen, lawyers, and journalists.
Some of the men under consideration in the present volume do not fit the authors’ claim to being “forgotten”: John C. Calhoun, James Fenimore Cooper, William Faulkner, H.L. Mencken, Grover Cleveland, Charles Lindbergh, Sam Ervin—even John Tyler is at least remembered for serving out his predecessor’s term as president. Yet with the exception of Calhoun (whose towering presence the authors seemingly felt like they could not ignore), the authors throw new light on the thought and actions of these men, making the case that they are worthy exemplars of the conservative mind.
In the case of Faulkner, for instance, the authors challenge the accepted wisdom that the great novelist is best understood as a “Southern liberal,” arguing instead “that the essential and important thing about a great artist is his vision, not his opinions. A great artist sees in ways far more fundamentally true and meaningful than mere opinion.” To McClanahan and Wilson, the key to understanding Faulkner is the recognition that both in his fiction and nonfiction, the Southerner “admires and believes in honor, or chivalry, if you will. He shows the evil and futility of chivalric pride and violence, but at the same time provides us sterling portraits of courage and honor informed by Christian virtues and in service to the community.”
McClanahan and Wilson find James Fenimore Cooper’s conservatism in the New Yorker’s criticism of democratic egalitarianism, his aversion to change, and in adherence to the compact theory of the Union. Typically seen as a hero of the snobbish left, journalist-gadfly H.L. Mencken, the authors remind the reader, was also a harsh critic of the major progressive figures of his day. “It is also true,” McClanahan and Wilson write, “that a great satirist like Mencken is necessarily a conservative, for a satirist is the upholder of values, a chronicler of the gap between what is and what ought to be.”
Grover Cleveland is to the authors “the last Jeffersonian president,” in that he “championed low tariffs, light taxes, minimal debt, and sound money.” In their least convincing chapter, McClanahan and Wilson defend Charles Lindbergh père against the charge that he was a socialist—the New York Times once dubbed the Minnesota congressman a “Gopher Bolshevik”—and more convincingly refute the accusation that Lindbergh fils was an anti-Semite. Still, the overall case for the Lindberghs being conservatives is weak as presented here.
Though the authors’ Southern sympathies are obvious, to their credit they tout Yankees who sometimes disparaged the South. E.L. Godkin is one such example, whose conservatism lay in his opposition to democratic excess and imperialism. But McClanahan and Wilson’s greatest enthusiasm is reserved for the Southerners in these pages, not only, predictably, Calhoun, but also Senator Sam Ervin and historian Mel Bradford. The authors rightly chastise the majority of mainstream historians who tend to assume that the states’ rights, strict-constructionist views of such Southern conservatives stem from a “sinister motivation,” i.e., racism.
It is the chapters on some of the truly almost unknown men that make for the most interesting reading. “Forgotten Founding Father” James Jackson was a lawyer and planter who represented Georgia in the First Congress. An outspoken opponent of Hamiltonianism and an enemy of corruption, Jackson sought to preserve the new United States as a republic whose central government was severely restricted in its powers. The men of the Bayard family of Delaware served in public office throughout the 19th century, opposing Lincoln’s war with the South and imperial adventurism and arguing for true federalism based on the compact theory of the Union. James A. Bayard the younger’s plea to his son-in-law who joined the Union army in 1861 is typical of the family’s common-sense conservatism:
In embarking on this war, therefore, you enlist in a war for invasion of another people. If successful it will devastate if not exterminate the Southern people and this is miscalled Union. If unsuccessful then peaceful separation must be the result after myriads of lives have been sacrificed, thousands of homes made desolate, and property depreciated to an incalculable extent. . . . Why in the name of humanity can we not let those States go?
The authors praise John Taylor of Caroline as a true apostle of Jeffersonian democracy and second historian Charles A. Beard’s judgment that Taylor’s 1814 Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States should rank among the greatest works of American political science. McClanahan and Wilson see Taylor as a true prophet, chastising the Hamiltonians centralizers and oligarchs of his day and providing a warning for future generations of the danger of “debt and burdensome taxation, unhealthy intrusion of the state into private society, and the concentration of wealth and power into fewer and fewer hands.”
Abel Upshur shares a chapter with John Tyler as the true Whigs of their time. Upshur wrote a treatise in 1840 against Joseph Story’s famed Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States. In his Brief Enquiry into the True Nature and Character of our Federal Government, Upshur challenged the nationalist interpretation of the Constitution promoted by Story and John Marshall. Rejecting the notion that “the people” had created the central government, Upshur used history to prove that the states were supreme in the American constitutional order and defended nullification and secession as measures that worked to preserve the Constitution, the Union, and liberty.
Books of short essays, by their nature, rarely do well (and some of the essays here are quite short indeed—the one on twentirth-century novelist James Gould Cozzens takes less than four pages). But this book deserves to be read by conservatives and by honest historians too. Written for the general reader—there are no footnotes—it at once gives an idea of how historically elusive conservatives can be, yet how wonderfully diverse are their ranks.
This originally appeared in The American Conservative and is republished here by their permission.
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