American conservatives must constantly confront the myth that our nation was founded on the basis of a radical ideology, creating the world’s “first new nation.” As with most myths, there is a smattering of truth to the view that the American Revolution was a full-fledged “revolution” in the sense of overturning the old order. The Framers of our Constitution themselves spoke in terms of establishing a “new order of the ages” as stated on the back of the Great Seal of the United States (in Latin, of course—after all, the new order was not yet the uneducated order). More important than the rhetoric, there were certain clearly “new” aspects to the revolution and subsequent Constitution—principally the firm grounding of political legitimacy on the consent of the governed. The theory of consent, as has been shown by historian Brian Tierney, actually goes back to the Christian Middle Ages. But the United States was rare for its era in being a country of substantial size and population founded without recourse to some inherited set of rulers.
Alas, the “modernity” of our revolution has caused some Christian thinkers in particular to question its very legitimacy, deeming it too rooted in individualism, materialism, and a subjective understanding of the good as what happens to satisfy people’s desires of the moment. But there has been another side to this debate. A number of historians have pointed to the influence of conservatives in the American founding era. I am not referring, here, to historians like Russell Kirk who took an explicitly conservative view of the era, emphasizing the contrast between the American Revolution, which brought independence from Great Britain but no great social upheaval or radical changes to our form of government, with the utopian and extremely bloody French Revolution that sought to make society and human nature anew. I refer instead to a varied group of liberal historians who emphasize the caution of at least some American founders, who as it were “hit the brakes” to slow down what might have become a more truly revolutionary movement, perhaps bringing a form of Jacobinism to America before it infected France.
Perhaps conservatives are expected to be grateful to be mentioned at all in relation to the founding era. After all, most historians seem oblivious to their existence. But the dominant historical view of “conservative” founders such as John Dickinson, Gouvernor Morris, and others, makes of them something far less than important thinkers or, in the end, conservatives in any meaningful sense. Essentially, contemporary historians read into the founding era their prejudices about conservatives and conservatism, which is to say, they see both as lacking in serious thought.
Some of these historians, such as Gordon Wood, have decried the conservative tendencies of important revolutionary figures, who in his view turned back the egalitarian republicanism of the revolution in defense of their own power, wealth, and status. Others, including David Lefer, have sought to present figures like John Dickinson as steadying, prudent statesmen who did the nation and the cause of freedom a service by seeing that it did not move too quickly and spin out of control. What each holds in common is a thin view of conservatism according to which that body of thought has no real principles or content, but rather is summed up as a disposition to move slowly in whatever direction events (or liberals) are pushing it.
There is a false choice presented to most students of American history, between reading the American Revolution as a radical event, with all good Americans on the side of progress toward ever greater individual liberty and equality, and rejection of that revolution (and, seemingly, the entire “project” of American self-government) for the same reasons. The notion of conservatives as stand-patters (to use Clinton Rossiter’s somewhat patronizing phrase) opposed to swift change of any kind may make of those conservatives something almost heroic (Lefer) if intrinsically quite limited, or something almost demonic (Wood). But such a view does nothing to change the fundamentally liberal interpretation of America as, from its immaculate conception in the minds of a few philosophically adept statesmen, liberal. Utterly absent from any of these narratives is the possibility of an American conservatism. For how can one “conserve” an intrinsically liberal project other than as a mere, semimindless “stand-patter?”
Obviously, one could not be a serious, thinking conservative possessed of philosophical acumen or meaningful insight into human nature, let alone grounding within the American tradition, were it in fact the case that the revolution was essentially liberal. Even if that revolution was only moderately liberal, and saved from radicalism by good statesmanship, genuine conservatism would be impossible in the United States.
This has been the position of liberals and their neoconservative competitors from Louis Hartz (in his classic The Liberal Tradition in America) to Harry Jaffa, who spent his career attempting to sell the Republican Party on the idea of a natural rights liberalism that would support limited government and a vigorously expansionist foreign policy. What has been lost in all this, of course, is the traditional, conservative reading of the revolution itself. That reading, to which I already have alluded in mentioning Russell Kirk, once was dominant among Americans and remained dominant among those calling themselves conservatives until near the close of the twentieth century.
It is not as if the evidence for the conservative reading of our nation’s founding were not overwhelming. Some of the patriots were making broad philosophical statements about human equality, government by consent, and individual rights, but those statements were far from dominant in the discussion and were grounded in a natural law tradition going back to the Middle Ages. The Declaration of Independence sought to summarize public thinking and sentiment in a bold statement of these principles. But the bulk of that document consists of a list of charges against the British monarch for violating common law rights and, as important, customary rights and responsibilities developed over many decades of experience within the new world, rather than mere abstract philosophical precepts. And the fundamental, concrete act of national establishment—the actual Constitution that would govern this nation—was designed to take preexisting states and local communities as they were, merely adding to them a federal government of highly limited, enumerated powers designed to protect and mediate among those states while providing support for free interstate commerce.
All these aspects of our revolution are by nature and intent conservative. They were aimed at preserving a way of life, not overturning and replacing it. This being the case, the American tradition is intrinsically conservative, though, like all traditions, it contains within itself elements capable of distortion and its people are subject to the calls of ideology as well as those of cultural drift and every form of vice intrinsic to human nature.
The actual nature of our tradition may be a disappointment to many historians and political thinkers, for it limits their proper role to understanding, defending, and drawing appropriate implications from institutions, beliefs, and practices that are given, rather than created. But the result is not mindless, for all that. Rather, it is a particular instantiation of a broader civilization and, ultimately, of the nature of reality. To defend a nation so conceived is not to merely “stand pat,” let alone to deny some great historical law or set of imperatives. It is to live up to the duties placed on us by our position in place, time, and social order.
Bruce P. Frohnen is Professor of Law at The Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law.