What a 19th Century Political Thinker Can Teach Us About ‘True’ Conservatism

What a 19th Century Political Thinker Can Teach Us About ‘True’ Conservatism

Robert Moffit /

Self-identified conservatives are at odds with each other. What American conservatism means today, who defines it, and who is or is not a “true” conservative, is the flashpoint of bitter controversy. So, too, is the ever-shifting definition of that broadly despised thing called “The Establishment.”

But there is a North Star that should simultaneously guide and unify American conservatives: fidelity to the Constitution and a clear understanding of what Alexander Hamilton called the “new political science” undergirding it. Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint put it neatly:

Conservatives don’t revere the Supreme Law of the Land just because we love tradition. We revere the Constitution because we recognize it as a comprehensive blueprint for a freer society. The Founding Fathers left a lot of power in local hands for a reason: They knew just how bad things could get when a distant, out of touch government called the shots.

In the current issue of The American Conservative, senior fellow at the Liberty Fund, Richard Reinsch, and I strongly endorse such a renewed appreciation of America’s unique constitutional achievement as explicated by Orestes Augustus Brownson (1803-1876). For good reason: The late Russell Kirk hailed Brownson as a foundational figure of American conservatism. In 1865, Brownson published “The American Republic,” a masterpiece of political theory and spirited defense of the federal Constitution.

In the spirit of President Abraham Lincoln, Brownson favored clemency toward the defeated South, but in “binding up the nation’s wounds” he insisted that the victorious Union leaders get federalism itself right, and thus oppose a national consolidation of power while arresting the national disintegration of secession. They didn’t.

The ingenious political order the Constitution reflects is, or should be, the primary object of preservation among those who claim the conservative mantle. Wrote Brownson, “I find, with Mr. Madison, our most philosophic statesman, the originality of the American system in the division of powers between a General government having sole charge of the foreign and general, and particular or State governments having, within their respective territories, sole charge of the particular relations and interests of the American people.”

The Constitution simultaneously channels and limits political power, thus allowing the non-political institutions of civil society to thrive and flourish. Partisan politics and fleeting popular opinion, wrote Brownson, must never obscure this basic truth:

The only authoritative will of the people under our form of government is that which is embodied in and expressed through the Constitution, and it is the only will of the people the representatives is bound to obey, or even to consult. To suppose an authoritative will outside of that, or independent of it, is to convert the government from a Constitutional government into a government of popular opinion, varying as that most fickle of all things, popular opinion, varies. It supersedes the Constitution, renders it worthless as so much waste paper, and converts the government into the worst possible form of democracy; and democracy was held in horror by the fathers of the republic.

A journalist and a formidable Catholic apologist, writing passionately about the issues of his own day, Brownson was sometimes quite wrong. But most of the time, he was dead right, particularly about the major issues that trouble Americans at the present moment.

Blazing out of the past, Brownson’s prose is a bracing reminder that today’s fight for common sense, good government, and personal liberty is an endless battle:

On National Debt and Spending. “The first duty of the government undoubtedly is, to contract no more debts, to vote away to corporations no more of the national domain, to grant no more subsidies to business corporations, to impose no duties to swell the profits of iron, steel, coal or any other interests, amply to protect themselves, and to reduce taxes to the lowest point practicable with the raising of revenue sufficient to pay the interest on the public debt, and to provide for the most rigidly economical administration of the government, and the maintenance of the army and navy, both of which are far below what is really necessary, and leave paying of the principal of the public debt to a more favorable opportunity.”

On Career Politicians.  “I see men come here worth only their salary as members of Congress, and in two or four years return home worth from a hundred thousand to two hundred thousand dollars.”

On Free Trade and the Poor. “We do not adopt the free trade policy as a policy for all nations, and for all times, and under all circumstances; but we cannot respect very highly the policy that lays a heavy duty on imported woolens for the benefit of the home manufacturer, and a corresponding duty on imported wool to encourage the wool grower. It is simply a policy that gives with one hand and takes away with the other, with no other effect than an increased tax on consumption, from which the laboring classes, as the greatest consumers, are the principal sufferers.”

On Religious Liberty. “The enemies of religion must understand, that if they require the state to use its power against religion, or to suppress it, they violate the first principle of civil and religious liberty. Religious liberty does not mean the liberty of infidelity to use the state or the civil power to suppress religion. The state, under the control of infidelity, and establishing atheism, is, to say the least, as hostile to religious and civil liberty as the state under the control of the clergy, and establishing the Roman Catholic Church.”

On Marriage and the Family. “Marriages are much happier and domestic life much more peaceful and pleasant, where divorces are unknown, and not to be thought of, than where they can be had very nearly for the asking, as they can be in several states of the Union.”

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American conservatism transcends partisanship. It was never an “ideology”; a closed system of abstract formulas to be applied or imposed on social or political reality—Marxism being an iconic example. Nor is conservatism simply defined by a particular stance on a particular issue at a particular point in time. No; American conservatism, at least as presented by the modern movement’s founders, such as William F. Buckley Jr. and Russell Kirk, is characterized by the primacy of constitutionally protected personal and political liberty, a reverence for religion and tradition, gratitude for the many gifts of preceding generations, and deference to the nation’s organic communities, what the great Edmund Burke called the “little platoons” of society.

Back to the Basics. A conservative acts in the present, embraces the best of the past, and works to preserve what is good for the future. In a powerful essay, “Liberalism and Progress” (1864), Brownson wrote:

We belong not to the party that would restore the past, but to that which would retain what was true and good, and for all ages, in the past; we are not of those who would destroy the past, and compel the human race to begin de novo, but of those, few in number they may be, who see something good even in Liberalism, and would accept it without breaking the chain of tradition, or severing the continuity of the life of the race, separate it from the errors and the falsehoods, and bitter and hateful passions with which it is mixed up, and carry it onward. We are too much of the present to please men of the past,  and too much of the past to please men of the present; so we are not only doomed, Cassandra-like, to utter prophecies which nobody believes, but prophecies which nobody heeds enough either to believe or disbelieve. … Hence, though we know that we speak the words of truth and soberness, we expect not our words to be heeded. Popular opinion decides us all questions of wisdom and folly, of truth and falsehood, and popular opinion we do not and cannot echo.

That’s a tough assignment, but fidelity to the Constitution and the transmission of the best of the past to future generations is the unending task of American conservatism.


Portrait of Robert Moffit

Robert E. Moffit, a seasoned veteran of more than three decades in Washington policymaking, is a senior fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Health Policy Studies.Read his research.

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