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Conservatism, broadly, is a way of looking at the world that favors conserving or slowly reforming existing laws and tradition as opposed to rapid or ideologically based change. Many Americans profess to have this kind of conservative viewpoint and also seek to conserve or return to the American founding. The founding itself, however can be seen as a radical jump away from tradition onto an untried form of government, a move at odds with the idea conservatism. How do American conservatives reconcile this seeming inconsistency?

EDIT: My original question was overly simplistic, my apologies.

So what do I mean by conservative? I'm talking about a philosophical position opposed to radicalism, progressivism, or liberalism. A view that quick change is dangerous and that slow organic change is preferable. Perhaps look at some examples to get a sense of this definition of conservatism: Russel Kirk's 6 cannons, Oakshott's "On Being Conservative,", Hayek's "Why I am not a conservative.", or the life and writings of Edmund Burke.

I am not referring to the Republican party, which throughout its history has been a coalition of people who fit this definition of conservatism to varying degrees. For example many Republicans in history would also consider themselves: classical liberals, radical abolitionists, populists, hawks, or religious progressives.

I am not asserting that kind of conservatism is good or bad as a starting point for looking at policy, I am merely asking a question about how someone ascribing to this viewpoint would reconcile a potential philosophical inconsistency.

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    The first republican president was Abraham Lincoln. The party was founded by anti-slavery advocates, and is based in classic liberalism (especially concerning economic policy). What makes you think they don't endorse quick change? What makes you think their isn't an inconsistency with liberals in the USA, and their anti-free market policies?
    – user1873
    Apr 30, 2014 at 1:52
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    I'm referring to conservatism as an idea (defined in the beginning of the question) rather than the specific Republican party. Do you think that my definition is problematic or that American politics doesn't have conservatives? I'm absolutely not trying to be antagonistic with this question.
    – lazarusL
    Apr 30, 2014 at 2:33

7 Answers 7

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There are 2 problems with the viewpoint you presented in the question, which explain the seeming contradiction.

  1. The founding itself, however can be seen as a radical jump away from tradition onto an untried form of government, a move at odds with the idea conservatism

    Actually, it was not. The idea of a democracy and a republic was a very old tradition, going back to Athens and Rome. The idea of more and more power vested in the people and not the monarch has a storied history in England: from early Medieval Engliand - starting with Magna Carta, then some more history of it is on Wikipedia here, and Parlament history here.

  2. Second, there's a blind idiotic strawman "conservatism" (defined as "no change is ever good"), and then there's an actual conservative approach practiced by real people. In the latter, the concept is NOT to reject any and all change for the sake of rejecting change; but to reject change that will merely produce worse outcomes because you don't know why the status quo holds. However, there are some situations where the present circumstances are significantly worse off than the risk of change (such as being stuck under abusive monarchy or a totalitarian state; or having slavery - as another answer noted, it was Republicans who were anti-slavery and for that matter anti-discrimination for most of American history).

    The contradiction that your question presents presupposes the first strawman "conservatism" and not the real philosophical concept practiced by real people.

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  • I like the first part of your answer. I edited my question to attempt to resolve my unintended ambiguity that led you to your second conclusion.
    – lazarusL
    May 1, 2014 at 23:10
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    Arguably the Arthurian round-table legend shows desire for democracy pre-dating the magna carta by hundreds of years - although this may have been an invention from 1155 by Maistre Wace. Difficult to know whether that was based on earlier oral tradition - and even then if it was story or history.
    – Phil Lello
    Apr 1, 2016 at 19:43
  • @PhilLello - you can ask on Mythology.SE re: if it was a later addition to the myth. Or History.SE, depending on how you phrase
    – user4012
    Apr 2, 2016 at 12:29
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This answer is based on the question as edited May 1.

An American born after the American Revolution does not see that founding as radical - it is normal. We see this in every generation. Cars at one time were new-fangled contraptions. Later generations were amazed by and uncomfortable with computers. But the current generation is quite comfortable with cars, computers, airplanes, and a host of other things their predecessors thought were revolutionary.

Conservatives (using your definition) seek conserve the good things the way they are. To return to monarchy would, at this point, be a radical change for America.

A quick change from monarchy to democracy would have been considered dangerous at the time - and indeed it was, both in terms of the cost of the American Revolution in human life and in terms of what the French Revolution demonstrates could have happened.

But now that the American Revolution is over, the danger has passed.

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I think the problem here is that the American Revolution wasn't really radical at base. (In contrast to say the French Revolution.) It was much more that the Americans were trying to preserve their traditional English liberties, which the British government was taking away from them.

The government that was set up after the Revolution went to considerable lengths to preserve those same rights, through the Constitutional system of "checks and balances", the Bill of Rights, prohibition against hereditary nobility, &c. That it was a jump from monarchy (though the British had their somewhat democratic Parliament) was in part because the founders thought it would better conserve their liberties, and perhaps in part because George Washington refused to be a de facto or de jure king.

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This letter to Henry Lee by Thomas Jefferson is my starting point for the opinion that the Founding was profoundly conservative, and not at all "a radical jump away from tradition onto an untried form of government".

Jefferson is as liberal and progressive and whatever as you want but clearly he does not see this as a jump away or that untried means 'not in accord with time-tested principles".

In the letter, Jefferson says:

the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc. The historical documents which you mention as in your possession, ought all to be found, and I am persuaded you will find, to be corroborative of the facts and principles advanced in that Declaration.

Harry Jaffa and all the super-conservative people I know would agree, all the way up to Lincoln and on to Coolidge.

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  • Thank goodness someone has spotted the obvious flaw in the question. The American so-called Revolution was anything but that. All it amounted to was a group of English landowners and slave-holders claiming their entitlements under the British 1689 Bill of Rights - no taxation without representation etc. There was little that was radical - indeed one can argue that it gave the USA a more conservative constitution than was the case in Britain. The "President" was simply an elected King. Washington inherited all the powers of George III.
    – WS2
    Jun 17 at 15:33
  • Importantly it did not make GW answerable to parliament as the British crown had largely become since William III's Glorious Revolution of 1689. The circumstances were very different 13 years later in France - now that really was a Revolution!
    – WS2
    Jun 17 at 15:39
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Speaking on purely philosophical conservative terms, we first need to make a distinction between the European and American Conservatism, which are fundamentally different. As stated, Conservatism is about opposition to quick and radical change, however, it's important to make a distinction in Europe, that tends to favor monarchy and aristocratic institutions. The United States was fundementally opposed to monarchal institutes, so modern American Conservatism has more in common with liberal (Classical Liberalism, Liberalism, and NeoLiberalism to the non-American World, as described in various points in Wikipedia). It is in this sense that Modern American Conservatism is conservative to Americans: The tenants of the nation was that governments exist by consent of the govern, individualism, and that local governments should have more power to interfere with individuals than state governments, which should have more power than the national government (Jeffersonian Democracy). Keep in mind that at its time, Conservatives were opposed to the revolution (Called Loyalists at the time). Over time, support of England government lost support, seeing its death knell during the War of 1812. By the time of the Civil war, the political divide is about how much power should be given to various levels of government in a federal system (a debate which still rages).

As to your question, the American Conservative can justify the Revolutionary war by means of support of classical Liberal Ideology, under which, a government derives power from the consent of the govern. You need not look father than the opening line of the Declaration of Independence, which explains that a government that loses consent of the people has lost its power and returns it to the people. This is further supported by the Second Amendment (right to keep and bear arms) and Federalist Paper Number 46 (James Madison) explained that it was a sign of trust by the government that it let it's citizen keep arms and that the people need not fear the government because the people were armed.

Modern Conservatives are very supportive of the Second Amendment and the US has the highest gun ownership in the world both in numbers and per capita (350 million guns compared to a population of 330 million citizens). Many second amendment supporters do hold with the intent as expressed by Madison in that the 2nd Amendment is an unofficial "Fourth" check on the government, and that should government not correct it's over reaches, an armed citizenry will correct the over reach. In such a situation, the idea of "Consent of the Governed" holds that the government only has its power if the people say it does, and any government that loses the support of the people is no different than any other threat, which the people have a right to defend against. This gets a lot of ridicule from non-conservatives in the United States, but any serious discussions regarding repeals of the second amendment will run into the problem of safely confiscating fire arms from a population that does believe in this right (hence why non-conservatives try to make weapons procurement more difficult but only hardliners discuss out and out banning of it).

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First, I think you do mean the Republican Party and not conservatism. Both parties use historical myths to tell stories about "what it means to be a Republican or a Democrat." These are myths, since they reflect more ideology and creative or selective reinterpretations of our American history than a fully contextualized and self-reflective understanding would provide.

I'm using here a scholarly definition of historical myth. Searching on the internet I get very low quality results. I found one paper to suggest: Some Reflections on Myth, History and Memory As Determinants of Narrative

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  • So you think the American founding has been re-imagined for political reasons and that any thoughtful and consistent conservative political philosophy would have to reject the founding?
    – lazarusL
    Apr 30, 2014 at 3:26
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    @lazarusL political ideology isn't logically consistent. I don't see how preserving a tradition isn't traditional, though, even if its not preserving it in the way you think it should be
    – Razie Mah
    Apr 30, 2014 at 3:32
  • political ideology no, in a democracy it's designed to win votes. That's why I never used the word Republican. I think political philosophy should be consistent though, so something would feel wrong if someone said "Broadly speaking rapid change is bad, so in the short run I think we should try to return our political institutions to the way they were in a time of radical experimentation and rejection of tradition."
    – lazarusL
    Apr 30, 2014 at 3:54
  • Do you have a particular philosophical interpretation in mind?
    – Razie Mah
    Apr 30, 2014 at 5:23
  • I think Russel Kirk's Six Cannons are a good place to start for an America definition of conservatism. Michael Oakshott has a very interesting and secular take on the term. Hayek does a pretty good job at defining conservatism in "Why I am not conservative."
    – lazarusL
    Apr 30, 2014 at 11:51
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This is a question about baselines. Conservatism is an attachment to an established worldview — a set of principles, practices, and ideals — that is in many ways (hat tip to Benedetto Croce) a matter of aesthetics more than pragmatics. Conservatives are people who (mainly) like the sociopolitical world as it has been given to them. It's a world in which they're comfortable and content — a world they find morally and aesthetically pleasing — and so they resist changes that might upset the applecart. But because it's mainly an aesthetic position, it is usually unmoored from time. Conservatives will often pick an arbitrary significant era as the point in which their sociopolitical world was 'founded', but that is largely a symbolic gesture meant to give the psychological worldview some sort of material substance. That era could even be imaginary or allegorical, the way some Britishers see the Arthurian cycle as foundational to British identity.

In other words, Conservatives pick a historical era as the baseline foundation of their beloved culture, without really caring what the nature of that era really was. Modern US Conservatives like the sociopolitical world they have, and imagine it as coming from the (revolutionary) spirit of 1776; there's no contradiction there because they are attached to the resultant sociopolitical world, not to the act of revolution itself. By the same token, US conservatives in the late 18th century took their aesthetic baseline as British rule, and objected to the revolution as far too rapid and dramatic.

not that the difference between mainstream conservatism and radical conservatism is that mainstream conservatives perceive the world they love as a present (or at least proximal) reality that needs to be preserved, while radical conservatives feel the sociopolitical world they love is lost in history, or even stolen from them. This can lead to violent efforts to restore some ancient or mythological social order that can look like a revolution (i.e., a progressive call for change), but actually has the opposite motivation. The US revolution in 1776 was a progressive moment that settled into something modern conservative like; the '1776' calls for violence from Trumpists and other modern radical conservatives is reactionary, attempting to undo progressive changes. One needs to keep an eye on the ball, which is always shifting position.

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