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What does it mean to be an American conservative?

Aug 17, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 45 • By STEVEN F. HAYWARD
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The Conservatives

Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History

by Patrick Allitt

Yale, 336 pp., $35

Patrick Allitt has succeeded admirably in his objective of producing a compact survey of American conservative thought that will be useful to students and general readers. The Conservatives features excellent succinct summaries of key conservative thinkers, going back to the Founding era, ably conveying along the way the inconsistencies and internal divisions on the right. If The Conservatives is in some way unsatisfying, it is not Allitt's fault; the different strains of conservative thought are difficult or impossible to reconcile. The dynamic tension among conservatives is the secret of the right's success, but is hard to capture in a chronological narrative, and remains baffling to observers on the left.

The virtue of Allitt's book is its focus on American conservatism, which is distinct from European conservatism even as it draws upon European sources. Traditionalist conservatives of the Russell Kirk variety have always tried to implant Old World, Burkean-style conservatism on these shores, but it fits as insecurely as a bowler hat on a sprinter for the simple reason Allitt grasps near the middle of his account: "American conservatism has always had a paradoxical element, entailing a defense of a revolutionary achievement."

The American Revolution has been a stumbling block for some conservatives, who either deny its revolutionary character, or try to portray it as being in essential continuity with British or European political thought. (Hence Kirk's dislike of the Declaration of Independence, for example.) James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, both rightly considered 18th-century liberals, emerge in Allitt's account as "conservative innovators"--only in America would such a phrase not be considered an oxymoron--and The Federalist, according to Allitt, should be considered "the new nation's first conservative classic."

The inconsistency and internal divisions among American conservatives derive, Allitt thinks, from a general antitheoretical approach to the world; conservatism is more "an attitude to social and political change that .  .  . puts more faith in the lessons of history than in the abstractions of political philosophy." But this is another paradox: At some point, deference to history becomes an abstraction. Although Allitt discerns a suspicion of democracy and equality, and constant worry about the fragility of civil society, as recurrent themes across the broad spectrum of conservatives, his narrative offers many exceptions and contradictions of even these lowest common denominators. The social and political split between the North and South, culminating in the Civil War, is obviously the largest stumbling block to a coherent or consistent account of American conservatism. Allitt offers good accounts of the divergent streams of antebellum Northern and Southern conservatism, both suspicious of populism and skeptical of democracy. Allitt subtly conveys the intellectual and political problems of Southern conservatism, as well as the overweening elitism of some strands of Northern conservatism. There is no escaping, however, that the Civil War was "an encounter of two incompatible conservatisms."

While Allitt strives to present an unbiased or objective view of the conservative landscape, he does not shrink from making some judgment calls that will not command universal assent. He offers a long account of why "Lincoln deserves a place in the American conservative pantheon" because, in preserving the Union, Lincoln succeeded "in this most basic of all conservative tasks" while acknowledging that many conservatives (mostly southerners) then and now vehemently reject Lincoln's company.

Many more conservatives will rightly disagree with Allitt's inclusion of Theodore Roosevelt in the conservative pantheon, merely on account of his elitism, opposition to radicals, utopians, and pacifists, and his belief in the value of human struggle. T.R.'s large and admirable personality should not distract us from his anti-conservative and often demagogic progressivism that manifested itself in a cavalier attitude toward the Constitution and saw the transformation of the presidency and the birth of the modern administrative state.

With this much latitude, why not include Franklin D. Roosevelt as a conservative for having preserved capitalism?