Very insightful analysis, Gleaves (see The Founding Fathers–Our First Neocons?). 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 part 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 instance, 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.
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