the imaginative conservative logo

founding fathers neoconsThe imaginative conservative champions certain first principles in response to the fragmenting forces of modernity. Burke articulated a humane order to counter the “armed doctrines” of French revolutionaries in the eighteenth century; in turn, Kirk opposed the galloping statism and rapacious totalitarianism of the twentieth. These avatars set down principles that are drawn from the tested wisdom of the species. They provide a compass, anchor, and rudder for Homo viator—man the pilgrim—in his long voyage on rough seas.

One paradox of this conservatism is often overlooked by its champions, and in the present essay I would like to begin to explore the implications of this “disconnect.” The paradox is that most of conservatism’s first principles are derived from history’s greatest revolutionaries.  Consider briefly:

  1. The belief in a transcendent moral order came not from the conservatives but the revolutionaries of their day.  The Hebrews—led first by Abraham, and then by Moses and Aaron—launched the radical idea of transcendent monotheism amid numerous nature deities. Such innovative ideas as linear time, a people’s covenant with God, the separation of the Creator from creation, the ethical critique of rulers, the moral evaluation of history, and the end of human sacrifice are all notions we take for granted today, yet they were dramatic departures from the norm between 2,000 to 3,000 years ago.
  2. Sitting in our comfortable pews on Sunday, we also tend to forget that Christianity was once the most radical spiritual force on earth. (It likely still is.) Jesus and St. Paul alienated their conservative Jewish teachers even more than their imperial Roman masters. The blood of the martyrs testified to the gospel’s departure from the status quo. Centuries later, Gibbon would lay the blame for the fall of the Western Empire at the feet of Christians who preached the counter-cultural beatitudes and proclaimed a new creation under Christ’s dominion.
  3. The idea of popular sovereignty under the rule of law traces back not to conservatives but to revolutionaries in the ancient Mediterranean world. Both in democratic Athens and Republican Rome, it was radicals who asserted the audacious idea of self-government in a world grown old with monarchs and capricious tyrants.
  4. Our ideals of liberal education and free inquiry came not from the conservatives but the radicals of ancient Greece. Thales of Miletus and Socrates—to name just two—were innovators who would provide enduring methods of inquiry esteemed by later generations of conservatives.
  5. Language is inherently conservative, but many significant conventions of English usage derive not from a language conservator but a linguistic radical. Shakespeare stretched English more than any writer has before or since.  To cite just one expression of his innovation, the Bard of Avon was the master of the neologism, penning more than 1,700 new words in his sonnets and plays.
  6. The long-held notion in the West of the sanctity of private property was most powerfully buttressed during the era of the American Revolution, again, not by conservatives but by radicals. The conservatives in eighteenth-century Europe were either commercial mercantilists or aristocratic holdovers of the feudal age. The radicals of the era were capitalists in France, England, Scotland, and America who, following Adam Smith, championed the division of labor and accumulation of capital that would soon transform material life around the globe. In diverse and substantial ways, the new economics would rudely usher in the very un-conservative modern age.
  7. Perhaps the greatest paradox of all, at least for American conservatives—whether we append imaginative, traditionalist, paleo, cultural, neo, compassionate, populist, or tea party to our pedigree—is the reflexive tendency to make our founding fathers icons of conservative thought when many of them were anything but conservative. (They don’t call it the American Revolution for nuttin’.)

Not only were many of the founders not conservative, but they were also deeply divided among themselves. There is the unfortunate tendency among populist conservatives to see the founders as a relatively unified bloc of thinkers who championed a unitary set of principles. This is to ignore how they divided over an extremely innovative Constitution. Of the 55 delegates who met in Philadelphia in 1787, 16 refused to sign the document. Even state delegations were divided. Alexander Hamilton was the only delegate from New York who supported the new frame of government. Most historians speculate that had the Constitution been up for a simple up-or-down vote among citizens in the 13 states, it would not have been ratified. Thus it did not represent the conservative-leaning climate of opinion in the late 1780s.

What are the implications of the conservative paradox? One is that it impedes our ability to see the source of tensions that have arisen in our ranks. Another is that it gets in the way of our ability to communicate effectively with each other and with a wider audience. Our simplifications and gloss-overs have led conservatives—I am not pointing fingers, for I include myself—to use shorthand words like “republic” and “empire” and “culture” and “founding principles” in sloppy, ill-defined ways. But what does it mean “to restore the Republic?” Whose republic do you have in mind? To which principles do you recur?

Some conservative writers are quite clear on the subject. As John Willson has pointed out, it makes a difference if you mean John Dickinson and not James Madison. As Brad Birzer will tell you, it makes a difference if you mean Charles Carroll and not Thomas Jefferson. As Bruce Frohnen has written, it makes a difference if you mean the Anti-Federalists and not the Federalists. Would that more of us could be so forceful and clear in cutting through the conservative paradox.

In surveys that ask historians to rank the most important founding fathers, the top five who usually make the cut include (in no particular order) Hamilton, Madison, Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin. I don’t know about my many distinguished colleagues on The Imaginative Conservative blog, but I find it difficult to discern a consistent, self-conscious conservatism in any of these five titans of the revolutionary generation. More accurately, I would say that they are innovative republicans. (And innovative here connotes radical.)

Take Alexander Hamilton, who exercised a profound influence on George Washington’s thought. Even though Hamilton is often invoked by populist conservatives, he was neither conservative nor a conservative when it came to nation building. Indeed, he was a devotee of one of the most revolutionizing thinkers of his day, Adam Smith, whose Wealth of Nations helped launch the permanent revolution that a later economist would famously characterize as “creative destruction.” Moreover, Hamilton’s early opposition to slavery was a relative novelty in its day: he was on the side of the innovators, not the conservators, when it came to abolishing the peculiar institution. It was also Hamilton’s idea to hold an extra-constitutional convention that would brazenly disregard the Confederation Congress’s instructions to the delegates, throw out America’s first constitution (the Articles), and write an entirely new constitution that would locate the lion’s share of power in the national government. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and in the Federalist essays 30 and 31 that followed, Hamilton argued forcefully to empower the new national government to raise taxes without limit, if necessary, on citizens. (How many populist conservatives are aware of this fact?)

But what would be considered necessary? Hamilton provides a chilling hint when, in Federalist Paper 30, he writes, “I believe it may be regarded as a position, warranted by the history of mankind, that in the usual progress of things, the necessities of a nation, in every stage of its existence, will be found at least equal to its resources” [Hamilton’s emphasis]. Commenting on this passage, the Straussian Thomas Pangle rightly observes that “whatever power a government has it will use and find a good reason for using….The more power a government has, the more need it will find for its power” [Pangle, The Great Debate, p. 67]. Combine this thought with Hamilton’s argument for the authority of the national government to raise taxes without limit on all citizens, and you have the irresistible temptation to empire.

Hamilton was certainly underwhelmed by the principles and examples of classical republicanism. In truth, he represents a radical break from the classical republican tradition so admired by the majority of his contemporaries. In Federalist 9 he opines, “It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust….” And in Federalist 23 he writes, “There is an absolute necessity for an entire change in the first principles” by which to govern the United States, for classical republican principles were not up to the task. Not the writing of a conservative, this.

Like Hamilton, James Madison was neither conservative nor a conservative when it came to framing the new constitution. He was downright radical in his new formulation of the republic, and his Federalist Paper 37 argued forcefully for innovation: “The novelty of the undertaking [of founding the United States on the principles of a new constitution] immediately strikes us. It has been shown, in the course of these papers, that the other confederacies which could be consulted as precedents, have been vitiated by erroneous principles, and can therefore furnish no light than that of beacons, which give warning of the course to be shunned, without pointing out that which ought to be pursued.”

It is also worth pointing out, while dwelling on the Father of the Constitution, that of the 18 congressional powers enumerated in Article I, section 8, only half deal with foreign affairs and defense. The other half invite congressional domination over the states in many matters that the states believed they were competent to handle. This, among other things, is what so frightened and infuriated the Anti-Federalists about the Federalists’ work in Philadelphia.

The other titans of the American founding also present problems for thoughtful conservatives. Many see in George Washington the temperament of a conservative. To be sure his personal virtue and his love of Addison’s Cato were signs of his regard for classical republicanism. But anti-imperial conservatives sometimes overlook that Washington championed the idea of American empire. His ambition to unite the Potomac watershed with that of the Ohio with a sophisticated transportation network addressed both the nation’s eagerness to expand westward and his personal ambitions to carve out an empire of real estate. Nor would he brook any challenge to the national government, as his forceful response to the Whisky Rebellion demonstrates.

Then consider Benjamin Franklin. He is hardly the model conservative. A man of the secular Enlightenment, he was a skeptic or deist for most of his life. While it made him popular in the salons of France, his faith in reason hardly commended him to Burke.  Franklin was “progressive” in other ways as well. He wanted to do away with classical studies as a dominant presence in the curriculum. And like Hamilton, he subscribed to the then-radical notion that slavery ought to be abolished.

Thomas Jefferson is perhaps more complicated. He is rarely credited with being a forerunner of post-war conservative thought as defined and reclaimed by Russell Kirk. Certainly Jefferson has been roundly attacked on this blog.  But the Sage of Monticello actually had many ideas to commend him to conservative thinkers today. To cite just one example, his skepticism of the money men rings truer than ever after the criminal behavior in recent years on Wall Street.

Hamilton, Madison, Washington, Franklin, Jefferson—what all five iconic founders had in common was the ambition to make the United States not just an empire, but the greatest republican empire the world had ever seen. In some ways (as Winston Elliott put it last night after two whiskey sours) these founders were the original neocons. However much populist conservatives draw from and are happy with this pedigree, it cannot sit well with conservatives in the tradition of Russell Kirk.

I see many of the imaginative conservatives on this blog following more in the footsteps of the great Anti-Federalists—George Mason, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, Edmund Randolph, Mercy Otis Warren, and others. Do we seek to “restore” their idea of the republic—paradoxically, a republic that never existed?

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
10 replies to this post
  1. Interesting observations. I have often heard that radical conservatism a contradiction in terms. But to get back to the principles that triumphed in the American Revolution it will take another revolution.

  2. Dear Friend and Brother Gleaves, this is an excellent and thought-provoking piece. I just returned from Indy, and I've only had the chance to read it through once. I'd like to take more time with it–as it deserves–before I offer anything longer than this comment.

    I would like to state this, though. The connection with all of these examples is that each of the figures we modern conservatives like/love/appreciate/appeal to are all struggling to preserve, promote, or innovate toward that which is humane. Each is attempting to over beyond the particularism of the moment and the place to find a universal truth.

    One other brief note. I've probably been as hard on Jefferson as anyone on this blog. He was, I think, morally quite repulsive. However. Well, better put. . . HOWEVER, he did write the Declaration of Independence. His words changed the world. And, though I may very well be in a minority of those writing and reading the Imaginative Conservative, I embrace as heartily as possible the doctrine of Natural Rights.

    Thanks, Gleaves. You've given everyone a lot to think about. Yours, Brad

  3. Very insightful analysis, Gleaves. You leave us with a number of good questions that need answering in order to develop a consistent, well-defined understanding of what it means to be conservative. Without venturing an answer to these questions, I do want to point out that your underlying assumption appears to be that one who challenges the status quo is not a conservative. While this may be true, I think the starting point for addressing the issues you raise is whether one can be a conservative and challenge established customs, traditions, institutions, etc., and if so, what is the conservative way versus a radical way of doing so?

    According to Kirk, a conservative does, at time, challenge the status quo and does so in a particular way. Referencing Burke, Kirk argues in The Conservative Mind that conservatism is not the thoughtless and permanent upholding of an established order. He counsels that "change is inevitable and is designed providentially for the larger conservation of society; properly guided, change is a process of renewal. But let change come as the consequence generally felt, not inspired by fine-spun abstractions. Our part is to patch and polish the order of things, trying to discern the difference between a profound, slow, natural alteration and some infatuation of the hour." Kirk admits that "even ancient prejudices and prescriptions must sometimes shrink before the advance of positive knowledge." If Kirk is right, conservatism not only allows for, but requires a thoughtful critique and possible alteration of well-established traditions, customs and institutions. The key to a conservative innovation versus a radical one is that it does not seek to change things simply out of lust for change, and respects tradition by its careful and thoughtful refinement rather than a sharp break. In other words, conservative reform is organic rather than cataclysmic.

    Kirk's understanding of conservative change reminds me somewhat of Alasdair MacIntyre's analysis of traditions of rational inquiry in his Whose Justice? Which Rationality? McIntyre's thesis is that we need to recover a "conception according to which the standards of rational justification themselves emerge from and are pat of a history in which they are vindicated by the way in which they transcend the limitations of and provide remedies for the defects of their predecessors within the history of that same tradition." So, for instances, according McIntyre, "the Aristotelian account of justice and of practical rationality emerges from the conflicts of the ancient polis," conflicts that arise out Thucydides' and Plato's grappling with their Homeric tradition. If McIntyre is right about how new ideas arise from conflicts within a tradition, it does not necessarily follow that we should assume that an innovation and those that promote it are not conservatives. In fact, to the extent the innovation is even possible because of the existing traditions within which it arises and only could arise, one could argue that the innovator is conservative.

    Admittedly, without a deeper analysis, it is not easy to see how this articulation of the organic nature of conservative change provides an answer to the specific questions regarding whether Jefferson or Hamilton, are or are not conservatives. Perhaps, it does not even resolve the paradox Gleaves points to because the innovations of the Founding Father's – whether Jefferson or Hamilton – can to some extent or other be seen as arising from ideas within an established tradition. Perhaps then, one may only classify these individuals as conservatives within degrees. Nevertheless, I think it is important to note that conservatism does not confine one to stagnation, but allows for, and even at times, requires innovation.

  4. Wise people know when and what to 'conserve'

    …and when and why to 'progress'.

    Sometimes wise people are our leaders. sometimes not.

  5. If the first principles had been discovered by the time of Russell Kirk, then advocacy for a new radicalism is misplaced. What is needed is to hew to the old principles and norms. Chief among these is limiting the power of the state, both at home and abroad. This is the underlying source of the bitterness within the conservative movement today. Many conservatives who are also members of factions that wish the government to do their bidding are finding those who are "too vocal" about declawing leviathan to be a constant irritant.

  6. Gleaves, I'm still pondering your post. I will add this: Thomas Pangle, as I understand it, represents a very strange and particular offshoot of Straussianism, the Chicago/Bloom school. I don't think it represents Jaffa or Jaffa's students (at least from my conversations with my colleagues here at HC). I've had the opportunity to talk with Mrs. Dr. Pangle, and I found her mpressive. I've not met Mr. Dr. Pangle, but I thought his work, Spirit of Republicanism, nothing short of bizarre and offensive. His argument that only six of the founders really mattered and that the rest served as "pious dupes," as Graham Walker has explained, is esoteric and gnostic, at best.

  7. Friend Gleaves,
    Whilst Bradley ponders, allow me a few short comments. Your polemic, vigorously argued and beautifully written as is true of all your work, reminds me of Gordon Woods' "The Radicalism of the American Revolution." It is so plausible, isolating some leaders (the models for today's neocons?), some documents, some incidents. But, as Christianity may have been "radical" in a relative sense, if it conformed to the Truth of the Created Order, then it was the ultimate conservative way of believing and living. In a similar sense, as your mentor and mine Russell Kirk believed, there was no "revolution," except the one, as Burke had put it, "prevented." To wit: the "revolution in New England was over before Jefferson ever put pen to paper. There were no battles in New England after the Brits were forced out in the summer of 1775–and NOTHING CHANGED! What changed in Virginia? In New York? The republic of the antifederalists (a name, like "isolationism," given by the eventual winners to an attitude that never existed–the "antifederalists" were the real federalists) in fact did exist for some time, and was bound to change. As Forrest McDonald has pointed out tirelessly, and an attitude with which Russell agreed, the opposite of conservative is not progressive, not even radical, it is IDEOLOGY–as Forrest defines it, "dogmatic, scientific, secular millenialism." We had plenty of ideologues around during the War for Independence, but they didn't win out until, precisely, 1933.

  8. Typically, John has nailed it yet again by touching on ideology as the decisive factor. This seems consistent with Burke's defense of tradition as 'the bank and capital of nations and ages,' and Dr. Kirk's belief that the American War of Independence sought to preserve rather than to overthrow as the French one did.

    Parenthetically, Dr. Kirk once told me that conservatism is prescriptive and had he been born in ancient Egypt, he would have supported change as vigorously as he presently supported preservation. I think this fairly slays the notion of the conservative as a fly-in-amber, and perhaps points to pharaonic Egypt as a hide-bound ideology of sorts. Were there parallel universes, I should like to see the one in which Dr. Kirk was there agitating for change to see how he did it, and unless he was there as a Hebrew with their covenant, he may have looked to older, local rural traditions of self-help and self-governance over the 9then) ever encroaching behemoth state.

    As to neocons in perriwigs, I defer to the better-read. But it seems to me that there are three possibilities: (a) the Founders, being men born into the Enlightenment, felt a need to frame their new, independent state in the principled and structured language of the time in the same way that every modern pizza-parlour needs to have a 'mission statement;' (b) they did their best to create a structure to preserve individual rights under a minimalist state rather than to sweep all away and create anew; and/or (c) engage in neocon triumphalism and empire-building. Allowing for individual vagaries, I think (b) seems predominant, but I leave it to the better read.

    Stephen Masty

  9. Drat, I just realized this conversation is a year old. But it's too good not to get involved in. When I talk to schools about classical education, I emphasize that it does not aim to resurrect the past, but does believe that our tradition is full of wisdom, a wisdom which must be the beginning of our thought about the true, beautiful and good in the present.

    Is it meaningful to use the term conservative to indicate adherence to universal truth, without a connected belief that the tradition that has grounded our civilization has unique insights into that truth? The use of the Statue of Liberty (or Goddess of Liberty?) at Tiananmen Square (I was reminded of this by Brad's recent lecture) indicated that their movement was not conservative but innovative.

Leave a Reply