- The Washington Times - Friday, August 21, 2009



By Patrick C. Allitt

Yale University Press, $29.95, 280 pages

Reviewed by Wes Vernon

Tracing the origins of American conservatism is a challenge, especially when the very term itself was not generally acknowledged by its practitioners until the mid-20th century. In “The Conservatives,” Patrick Allitt has taken on the task and drawn the conservative lineage from this nation’s founding to the present day. Wading through the thicket is complicated somewhat by the fact that conservatism from its very beginning has come in many different forms with separate — and sometimes conflicting — priorities.

Mr. Allitt’s book cites economic conservatives — often known today as “libertarians” — who were not always in sync with social conservatives, now dubbed the “religious right.” Similarly, “national security” conservatives at times have clashed with “isolationists.”

There are ongoing battles between “neoconservatives [largely 1950s liberals who “crossed over” mainly on national security issues]” and “paleoconservatives [traditionals who are less interventionist and who see the “neocons” as intruders diluting the very meaning of conservatism].”

Then there are those conservatives quite comfortable with elements of the different factions depending on the issues and the circumstances under which they emerge. Thus, the more inclusive term “mainstream conservative” has come into vogue.

Many “isolationists” of the 1930s who honestly believed U.S. involvement in World War I had been a mistake became national defense advocates in the 1950s as the Soviets conquered a third of the world and threatened our security. In fact, for nearly 50 years, the Cold War and anti-communism provided much of the glue that kept the coalition from falling apart.

A horrified Sen. Robert A. Taft feared the Cold War would empower the government in domestic matters as well. Who can deny he had a point, given the size of today’s central government?

Mr. Allitt, a professor of history at Emory University, sees three common themes, particularly early on, running through most conservative thought:

1. An attitude that gives more weight to the lessons learned from past experience “than [to] the abstractions of political philosophy.”

2. A “suspicion of [pure] democracy and equality.” Equality before a Higher Authority and the rule of law is compatible with safeguards against anarchy — or what some would call “mobocracy.”

Many conservatives, for example, took a dim view of the 17th Amendment, ratified 95 years ago, which took the election of U.S. senators out of the hands of the state legislatures and transferred that privilege directly to the voters. The objection was that this would bypass the focused concerns of the states, thereby ceding more power to Washington.

3. Conservatism presumes that “civilization is fragile and easily disrupted” and that the very survival of the republic “presupposes the virtue of citizens” who require the guardianship of “a highly educated elite.”

Here, Mr. Allitt pinpoints a change from the conservatism of the Founders to what it is today. In some of the more populist conservative quarters of the 21st century, the word “elite” has taken on unfavorable connotations, as in “limousine liberals.”

While some would view Alexander Hamilton as something akin to the godfather of American conservatism (Harry S. Truman would make him a whipping boy 150 years later), Hamilton actually had some “big government” ideas, starting with a central bank and a belief in government’s role in the nation’s infrastructure.

Before and during the Civil War, conservatives were found in both camps. “Otherwise sober Northern conservatives” feared a vast slaveholders’ conspiracy, while Southern conservatives feared the Republican Party was out to destroy the very foundations upon which their society was built. Both were “acting on what might be thought of as conservative fears,” Mr. Allitt writes.

It is when “The Conservatives” focuses on the personalities that influenced America’s conservative history that its narrative is most engaging. For example, the author cites John Randolph and John Taylor, two Southern planters who feared strong central government — Randolph going so far as to say the best legislature “was one that passed no laws and whose members slept.”

The writings of the brothers Adams (Henry and Brooks — descendents of the second and sixth presidents) carried considerable intellectual heft in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They shared President Theodore Roosevelt’s disdain for the greed of some industrialists.

Mr. Allitt places Roosevelt firmly in the conservative camp, although some would take exception — noting his views on universal health care and the progressive income tax. Others argue that, whatever the rhetoric, the first Roosevelt presidency (unlike the second one under Franklin D. Roosevelt 30 years later) created neither new entitlements nor attempts at wealth redistribution.

As the 19th century ended, Mr. Allitt says, all strands of conservatism saw socialism as “a severe and growing threat” that would be “a formidable enemy in the Twentieth century.”

Mr. Allitt devotes much deserved attention to the late William F. Buckley Jr., widely credited with mainstreaming late-20th century conservatism and who helped provide the political firepower that resulted in the Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan candidacies.

Mr. Allitt falls off the wagon from his vow to keep his views “as far in the background as possible,” when he defines Mr. Buckley’s “McCarthy and His Enemies” as the only “remotely plausible defense of the Wisconsin senator ever written.”

One begs to differ. M. Stanton Evans’ “Blacklisted by History” (2007) includes mountains of original research/documentation vindicating McCarthy’s investigations — material unavailable to Mr. Buckley in 1953.

Although Mr. Allitt gives due credit to the British statesman Edmund Burke as a progenitor of Western conservatism, he gives short shrift to the hugely important contributions of the Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith, not even including him in the book’s index.

Also not mentioned are Rush Limbaugh, who broke the liberal stranglehold of the modern media; Reed Irvine, who pioneered media whistle-blowing and the just-departed Robert D. Novak, a conservative journalist easily as influential as H.L. Mencken of an earlier era whom the author does recognize.

The aforementioned caveats notwithstanding, “The Conservatives” is a good effort to tell such a long story in a mere 280 pages (excluding notes and index). Hopefully at some point, a more detailed work will emerge.

Wes Vernon is a Washington-based writer and veteran broadcast journalist.

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