In 1990’s classic The Matrix, the lead character realizes that the world he thought he knew was false, and that the truth about his society was being hidden by a hostile power. Many conservatives have a similarly Matrix-like moment in their intellectual development, that moment when they realize that much of what they had been taught to believe by progressive elites is simply not true.
In Conservative Heroes: Fourteen Leaders Who Shaped America, from Jefferson to Reagan, Garland Tucker attempts an act of recovery and an exit from the liberal matrix. He traces a genealogy of conservative heroes who embody a counter-tradition to the dominant progressive narrative. This book, though different in tone, has strong echoes of Russell Kirk's 1953 tome The Conservative Mind. Kirk’s book too was really a string of loosely connected biographies rather than a formal history of ideas. Conservatism, was not, Kirk insisted, primarily a set of abstractions but was rather a habit of mind. And most learn that habit best from examples, from which general principles can be discerned for both individual and social behavior. Tucker invokes Kirk, among others, to remind us that the progressive narrative deliberately obscures a rich history, in favor of presidential demagogues and speech codes imposed by ideological enforcers.
This book is composed of nine chapters, covering conservative statesmen from Jefferson and Madison through figures like Grover Cleveland, Andrew Mellon, and Robert A. Taft, and ending with the triptych of William F. Buckley, Jr., Ronald Reagan, and Barry Goldwater.
Amity Shlaes, who wrote the introduction and who has herself done much to resurrect the reputation of the forgotten Coolidge as a conservative hero, writes that these “profiles remind us that the country’s history is too subtle to force into the framework of modern progressivism,” and that Tucker makes two important points. “The first is that supporting states’ rights is not equivalent to supporting racism,” and that “[o]ur traditional respect for states’ rights and restrained government run back to the American Revolution” itself. These may seem rather modest points, if one knows anything about American history.
But alas, far too Americans today do not. Educational progressives prefer a narrative of consolidating government power in the service of “rights” granted solely by the state. The hard-won principles of the founding and subsequent generations are mischaracterized and more often, simply consigned to irrelevancy.
Not to mention the founders themselves. As some of them were slaveholders, their arguments about liberty must be only a cover for bondage; as men, they cannot speak for women; and so on through the usual litany. Tucker takes on this view, advocating for a return to a tradition focused on liberty, individual rights, and limited government as one worth preserving for all Americans. The arguments of Jefferson and Madison in the early years of the Republic “serve as foundations for the conservative view that the Constitution carefully restricts the federal government powers,” Tucker argues. That is still a view worth advocating, for which disasters such as Obamacare provide real-time evidence. (Although it should be noted not every conservative would agree with placing Jefferson in this pantheon; Kirk, for example, looked more to Federalists like Fisher Ames or John Adams rather than the philosophe-influenced Jefferson for support for limited government.)
Tucker moves on to the Tertium Quids, and returns politicians like the little-known Nathaniel Macon and John Randolph of Roanoke to their positions as proponents of lasting conservative principles. Randolph’s view of human nature was one rooted in a Christian understanding. Because all men are tainted by sin (or, if one prefers non-religious language, evil), then limiting government is the only sensible course; to do otherwise is to tempt oppression by evil men. Given the massive examples of government-supported evil – starting, of course, with slavery and continuing through today – this conservative argument seems at the very least highly reasonable, even if one does not agree with any specific conservative proposal. But modern politics cannot acknowledge this perspective, because it lays open its pretense that utopia can be achieved here and now with just a little more government planning, intellectual conformity, and tax revenue.