AMERICAN CONSERVATISM DEFINED (this one’s an important history lesson)

There has been a reoccurring exchange between several RNL readers over the definition of American Conservatism, so when I noticed it coming up again in the comment section of a recent post, I thought I might offer a little historical background on this subject – especially since it is square in the middle of my wheelhouse.  But before I do, I want to make a full disclosure: as a philosophy student and – at the time – the only conservative student in my entire department – I developed a healthy measure of skepticism for Sir Edmund Burke.  So much so that I made myself an enemy of the only conservative professor in the entire department by calling Burke an idiot.  To this day I stand by that comment.  So, having made it plainly clear that I do not like the end result of the man’s philosophy, let me now explain to you what American Conservatism is and why I no longer call myself a conservative (this is going to make a lot of you very angry with me, but it needs to be said).

First, what we call conservatism – American Conservatism – is derived from the works of an Irish statesman, author, orator, political theorist and philosopher by the name of Sir Edmund Burke.  He lived from 1729 until 1797 and was actually a supporter of the American Revolution while, as the same time, he opposed the French Revolution (I offer you this link as support of my claim, though not necessarily as support for my overall argument: from the Heritage Foundation, The Roots of Modern Conservative Thought from Burke to Kirk).  Hopefully, this will suffice to establish that I am correct in asserting that American Conservatism traces its roots back to Sir Edmund Burke.

Now, what does “conservatism” mean?  Simply, it is a political philosophy built on the premise of “conserving” whatever political structure may be in place at a given time.  So, when the modern American Conservative movement was first born, it could be said that it was generally supportive of the Constitution because the nation had not yet strayed as far from original intent as it has today.  However, even when conservatism was born, we had strayed quite significantly from the design our founders handed down to us, so from its start, conservatism was trying to preserve – at best – a remnant of what our government was meant to be.  But today, the true conservative Party – as defined by Burke – would be that of the American Left, as they have so successfully transformed this nations government from what it was that it no longer bares any functional resemblance to what our founders designed.  Therefore, the Left is the Party seeking to “conserve” their gains.

However, even if we chose to dismiss or ignore this and cling to the term “conservative” in spite of the fact that we’re no more conservative than the Left is Liberal, we still have to face the realities of what Burke believed.  I found a rather decent explanation of Edmund Burke’s Conservatism, from which I now post some key points for you to consider:

Burke viewed colonialism as bad, radicalism as dangerous, and democracy as a threat to social stability. He considered governmental conventions as spiritually based and not to be tinkered with.
Some of his other thoughts:

  • While he conceded human equality in the eyes of God, he felt no such compunction for equality here on earth.
  • Respect for a higher power was essential to his philosophy, no matter what the religion. Church and State were inseparable, but in spiritual, not mechanical sense. Both were derived from God.
  • Individual conscience was meant to be directed by “prescription, presumption and prejudice.” (His use of the word “prejudice” had nothing to do with bigotry, but with having a sense of innate “pre-judgment.”)
  • It was not enough to be free. Life had to have meaning as well, and meaning can be found in tradition, folklore and myth.
  • History was the unfolding of a design wrought by Heaven, of which today’s consumerism would be antithetical.
  • Government finds its authority not on a social contract, but on virtuous principles.
  • There is a collective intellect, seeped in ancient wisdom, that people inherit and culture safeguards and transmits. We learn about principle through the understanding of nature and history.

And this is why I call Burke an idiot: it isn’t that there is no merit in his ideas, but that, if carried out as he detailed them, his ideas can and do lead to out-right atrocity.  I’ll prove my case using Burke’s own words.  This is from my personal copy of The Philosophy of Edmund Burke, a Selection of His Speeches and Writings – more specifically, from Liberty within the Social Order.   Here he is talking about the rights of the East India Tea Company as purchased by the Company from the Crown.  We pick up his speech just as he is acknowledging this fact:

 “…But having stated to you of what description the chartered rights are which this bill touches, I feel no difficulty at all in acknowledging the existence of those chartered rights in their fullest extent.  They belong to the Company in the surest manner, and they are secured to that body by every sort of public sanction.  They are stamped by the faith of the king; they are stamped by the faith of the Parliament: they have been bought for money, for money honestly and fairly paid; they have been bought for valuable consideration, over and over again.” [Emphasis mine]

 Here is where Burke errs.  First, he has just admitted that a company is an artificial construction, yet he is openly treating it as an autonomous entity equal to that of any individual in society.  This is a violation of Natural Rights and Natural Law and, therefore, at odds with the spirit of the ideals and principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence.  What’s more, Burke is defending the both the ability and right of such an artificial construct (i.e. a company) to buy rights.  Modern American Conservatives would likely see no problem with this, but I wonder how many of those American Conservatives – the very ones who claim the mantle of original intent – are also aware of the founders’ opinion of artificial entities?  I wonder how many of these American Conservatives understand the role that the East India Tea Company played in starting the American Revolution, or that that role led the founders to forbid corporations and keep very tight controls on charter companies for several decades after our founding?

But let’s examine these Company rights Burke is defending.  We pick up in the very next paragraph:

 “I therefore freely admit to the East India Company their claim to exclude their fellow-subjects from the commerce of half the globe, I admit their claim to administer an annual territorial revenue of seven million sterling, to command an army of sixty thousand men, and to dispose (under the control of a sovereign, imperial discretion, and with the due observance of the natural and local law) of the lives and fortunes of thirty millions of their fellow-creatures.  All this they possess by charter, and by Acts of Parliament, (in my opinion,) without a shadow of controversy.”

Did you catch that?  Let me single it out for you in case you missed it:

 “I therefore freely admit to the East India Company their claim to exclude their fellow-subjects from the commerce of half the globe, I admit their claim to administer an annual territorial revenue of seven million sterling, to command an army of sixty thousand men, and to dispose (under the control of a sovereign, imperial discretion, and with the due observance of the natural and local law) of the lives and fortunes of thirty millions of their fellow-creatures.  All this they possess by charter, and by Acts of Parliament, (in my opinion,) without a shadow of controversy.”

This is Natural Law according to Hobbes – not Locke!  And Hobbes = The French Revolution, not the American.  Burke is stating and defending an understanding of Natural Law that claims government grants rights and that it has the authority to grant the power over individuals to an artificially constructed thing that was – in part — created by the political power of the very individuals who would now fall under the power of that artificial construct.  This is despotism for sale!  And my professor wondered why I vehemently object to Burke.  The better retort would be to ask why or where anyone finds liberty in Burke at all.

And this is what it means to claim the mantle of American Conservatism.  This is also why I claim the mantle of Jeffersonian Liberal, but that is another post.

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35 thoughts on “AMERICAN CONSERVATISM DEFINED (this one’s an important history lesson)

    • “The Declaration of Independence is actually a very eloquent abbreviation of Locke’s version of Natural Rights and Natural Law theory. But how many Americans alive today even know what the theory of Natural Rights and Natural Law is, or that the Constitution is a practical application of a related part of this theory, that of the Social Contract?”

          • Sign me up…i don’t even know what it is….but if it supports You and/or RNL I buy it !

            ( none of the proceeds will go to another Pelosi face-stretch right… :- )). )

            • Don,

              LOL, no, ALL proceeds will actually go to helping me write the next book. Heck, it’s only $5 for the pdf. We also have a kindle version, but it works best on a devise that is connected to the internet.

              • PDF works for me ! If I could print it off great….. I don’t have kindle……maybe Amazon would be good if ur not already there.

          • Don,

            I published an e-book that was designed to teach high school kids about Natural Rights, Natural Law and the Social Contract. It is titled Stick & Twig. This is what Kells is talking about. I’ll try to get it posted to the site over the next few days.

  1. If we are to apply monikers to ideologies, and thus define our ‘conservatism’, maybe we are best defined as ‘Constitutional Conservatives”. Though I have disdain for contemporary labeling that seems so en vogue these days, I believe the true succession Joe so often speaks of should come from within our political circles, and as such, any politician I may potentially vote for in the future will need to answer one question from me:

    “Do you identify with the contemporary definition of conservatism, or the constitutional definition of conservatism?”

    Answer carefully.

    • Augger,

      As much as we dislike “labels” in our society, they are necessary — as is our recognition that our aversion to labels is partially the product of Progressive indoctrination (it’s part of the PC shield).

      Think about it: everything in language deals with labels. Without them, we couldn’t communicate. What would happen if “STAT” were suddenly understood in your field to be short for and mean “statistic” AND “static electricity?” Suddenly “Get him to the ER, STAT!” would take on a whole new and harmful understanding, wouldn’t it? And that is why the Left has bastardized the language: so we will all be reduced to the remnant of Babble — only, instead of speaking different words to mean the same thing, we’ve been taught to speak the same words meaning different things.

      • “What would happen if “STAT” were suddenly understood in your field to be short for and mean “statistic” AND “static electricity?” Suddenly “Get him to the ER, STAT!” would take on a whole new and harmful understanding, wouldn’t it?”

        No offense here Joe, but your use of “STAT” is incorrect. “STAT” at best is an adverb, and more specifically, “STAT” is an abbreviation of the original word: “statim” which means without delay. It is not a moniker (i.e., nickname, label).

        However, your point is not lost upon me this day. And as stated, though I despise the use of monikers which define us all (white, black, liberal, conservative, human, etc., etc.) there has become a purpose for their use (as you point out), and as such, if we are going to redefine “conservatism” to a unified meaning, we are now split from those who believe in contemporary conservatism (to maintain the existing or traditional order). That moniker fits more of the progressive agenda does the label I devise … “Constitutional Conservatism”.

        Now as you chose to point out, if my application of that label is partially part of the Progressive indoctrination, yet at the same time we cannot communicate without labels, then by all means label me a progressive … however make sure you apply it in such a manner that accurately reflects my position politically: Progressively Constitutional Conservative.

        Think about it.

        • Augger,

          I get it. I just think it would serve the cause well if there were clean break made. Think about how it might sound to the “duped” if the message were suddenly:

          Hey, we’ve all been tricked. Everything has been stood on its head. Conservative doesn’t really mean “constitutional,” and liberal doesn’t mean “individual rights and liberty.” Both Parties have been playing us for jumps, they have stolen our language and our history. Both Parties have worked together to stand things on their heads so we wouldn’t see that we really do have common goals. As it turns out, the Left is the conservative Party and there is no Right in the nation anymore. That has been a lie, too. Liberalism is on the Right — true Liberalism — Jeffersonian Liberalism. The type of liberalism that ended slavery, gave women the right to vote and passed the civil rights laws is the ideology of the right, of our founders. Small government and the rule of law live on the right as well. They have all lied to us by stealing our history and our language.

          but then, I understand this won’t work on the current generation — but then, neither will your approach, which is why I fear for the future. :-(

          • “I just think it would serve the cause well if there were clean break made.[…] Both Parties have been playing us for jumps, they have stolen our language and our history.”

            I couldn’t agree more.

            “any politician I may potentially vote for in the future will need to answer one question from me:

            “Do you identify with the contemporary definition of conservatism, or the constitutional definition of conservatism?”

            Answer carefully.”

            That’s a pretty clean break to any politician in my book. And maybe your guy Burnie Thompson has the right idea …. start passing out pocket Constitutions, and say “Hey, check this thing anytime you want to support something, and ask yourself … is this Constitutional?”

            • Augger,

              LOL, if Burnie heard you calling him “my guy,” he’d bust a gut. Burnie LOVED me when he first met me (even told me I was a natural for talk radio). But the moment he figured out I have the nerve to actually mean and stand behind what I say…well, let’s just say we went south from there. Then he tossed me under the bus one day over an issue he had agreed with just a few weeks before and the flame thrower was set to that bridge. ;-)

    • I like “Constitutional Conservatism” as the current Best Definition of Tp, Conservative, Libertarian and Jeffersonian democratic values and as a label.

      As HockeyDad said on another post we need to focus on returning America to a Constitutional Republic. Trying to re-inflate enlightenment Labels because they have historical precident and personal significance …AT THIS POINT…is a bit like tilting at windmills. People won’t get it…and they won’t get it in time. Teaching Principles and where and how we have strayed from those Principles is what is needed in the Culture war, AT THIS TIME……People will come to the realization of the original meaning of “liberal”, “whig”, “tory” on their own as their understanding of what the Founders created grows.

      • Don,

        I mean no disrespect because I understand what you are saying, I just don’t think you understand that you will just be providing the camouflage behind which progressive infiltrators will hide while standing out in the open. they will simply agree with you and tell you they are constitutional conservatives and they will even use your language, but when you elect them, they will go George “W” on you. When that happens, don’t complain, they didn’t lie. You just opened the door for them because they were using the classic definition and you were trying to be “progressive” in keeping them out by re-defining your terms.

        • No at this point I don’t think keeping the Conservative moniker IS re-defining terms….that’s my point….Trying to resuurect the term Liberal to mean what Conservatives today mean will do what you are getting at.

          Clearly DEFINING WHAT Conservatives stand for ( most of which is defined already by the Founders and the Constitution and Bill of Rights) is what is needed……NOT some defence of the term Conservative…..nor an attempt to claim back the Liberal moniker as tied to Jefferson etc.

          Progressives will demonize whatever we say ….. we have to speak above their language as Goldwater did, as Reagan did, as Ted Cruz is doing now…..and as Doug Urbanski has laid out…..WHAT we broadcast and HOW will serve well enough to define the moniker….. as long as the Constitution, Natural Rights and our Bill of Rights is the foundation. In addition Free Enterprise and Private Property need to be pillars supporting that foundation….all of which serves as the excercise of and protection of Liberty !

          • ===”Clearly DEFINING WHAT Conservatives stand for ( most of which is defined already by the Founders and the Constitution and Bill of Rights) is what is needed……NOT some defence of the term “===

            Don,

            My friend, this is the problem: I defined what Conservatism is in my post. You trying to claim that it does not mean this, that it means “Jeffersonian Liberal,” is doing exactly what you tell me we can’t do.

            I guess we’ll have to disagree, my friend. You are trying to be “practical,” while I am trying to be accurate. I have watched “practical” fail repeatedly, whereas I look back to accurate and I see the founding of this nation. I suppose this is what I’m trying to do: go back to what worked and stop repeating something that has proven doesn’t work.

            I hope you’ll understand.

            • I understand and agree in more than Just principle.

              BUT ….. the example of The Goldwwater which lead to Reagan (revolution) or shift DID work…..let us not forget.

              • Don,

                yes, they did, and they moved the Republican Party further LEFT! Toward the Democrats. And it did that because Burke is NOT the ally of our founder’s ideals and principles.

                • I appreciate that you would like people today to know and understand that the Original meaning of the word “Liberal” belonged to those espousing Lockian principles and enlightenment political philosophy.

                  But it was The Moderates in the GOP who were moving the Republicans toward the Democrats…..and Goldwater and Reagan were fighting those moderates……..the same as the GOP Moderates today are fighting the TP and other Conservatives…..the GOP Moderates today embody the Progressive mindset….same as they did in Goldwater’s and Reagan’s time.

                  • Don,

                    At what point does one try to clarify peoples’ understanding? Or do we just accept the mess we’re in and try to play by the rules that others have set for us?

                • I’m currently having some Prblms at our businesses and also am trying to figure out a financial conundrum not unrelated to the whole ObamaCare theft and asset devaluation…so am distracted, and not on all thrusters at this time. Thus i can’t tell if UR refering to my own “obtuseness”…or the Problem at hand with (1) Low-info, low-interest voters or (2) Correct-thinking Americans who are confused as to “the bigger picture”, which includes the nomenclature games played by the progressives.

                  Assuming it is the (1)-(2) Combo……It is perhaps a little like Set Theory…..simple forms like Venn Diagrams which show which Kernal Set of ‘vital Principles’ all or most allies agree on and understand. This Kernal can be leveraged as a Tool to Clearly define a movement and to rally like-minded folks. The understanding being by all involved that the ‘other’ characteristics of their beliefs that DON’T fit into the Central mutually agreed on set are left out of Political planning.

                  So the dialogue happens within the small ‘Kernal set’…..Liberty based on personal choice, private property rights….all guaranteed by the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Which as Texas95 pointed out recently (and You have numerous times as well) are ‘Natural Rights’ preexisting the Constitution. As time goes by this Set of Principles
                  within the Kernal becomes expanded like concentric circles outward with the deeper understanding of the underlying principles and where they came from historically, and what they mean on a deeper Philosophical, Moral and religious level…….Over time the Concentric circles of understanding move outward and overtake the Original Belief sets of the various groups or folks that agreed to focus on the Smaller ‘Kernal’ set. As understanding grows ‘organically’ those beliefs carried but not discussed in the beginning will begin to change of their own….because of the deeper understanding of the Core Principles.

                  So no we don’t accept the MESS….but we accept that we have to fight WITHIN certain parameters for a time in order to morph the MESS naturally, find those key vital principles which unite Libertarians, Conservatives, Those such as yourself who understand things on a Deeper level, and those who even only half-way feel they believe in the Constitutional
                  Republic, focus attention on restoration and while doing so articulate slowly the Language and Political Games that many may not yet be willing to believe exist……..Some rules we have to play by…..and others not….but in the long run, by including folks over the Broad spectrum of understanding one can change Perspective by the Concentric Circle of understanding moving outwards until the NEW Central ‘Kernal Set’ becomes large enough to have radically changed various groups preconcieved views.

                  • Don,

                    I want to assure you, I meant no slight or insult toward you. I also see where you are coming from and where you are trying to go.

                    I’ve been thinking about this and, in any of my reading of the founders, I can’t recall them ever mentioning political ideologies in terms of labels as we use them today. Instead, they discussed the ideas of individuals and universal principles. I think that is the direction in which we really need to head.

                    As we are playing the game now, we’ll never find common ground — even where plenty exists. e have been too successfully divided into groups: we’ve internalized this “group-think” society wide. To me, the way I see it, the solution is to “quit” this box we’ve been living in.

                    In that sense, I agree with those who object to the use of labels. But then, the founders had a classic education, so they all knew of the people and understood their ideas. They had a common background by which to debate things between themselves. We no longer have that today. This is something that has to be rebuilt — our culture has to be rebuilt. And in that, we are so far behind the Progressives, we’re sniffing their exhaust fumes.

                • No insult taken whatsoever….

                  And yes 100 % on your reponse…..my response direct above your last is in consideration of both the Low-Info-somewhat- apathetic-but-still-possible-to-be-reached voter as well consideration of what you mentioned about our current lack of a “common backround” that favoured the Founders Generation.

                  I think we are only far behind the Progressives in that we Lack a Strong Media presence actually. If our message(s) were out there on even footing….with equal Air-Face time……then I think what Bill Whittle says is true….there would be easy and “organic” converts so to speak. That’s why G Beck is Correct about biuding a bon-fide Netwrok that can compete in the DC pressers…..and Urbanski is right about focusing the message ans using alternative spaces for it such as Nationla Bill-Board campaigns ( Pamela Geller has had GOOD successes with that for instance)…..and M Levin talks about Newspaper and esp. Buying time on TV and having someone like Rand Paul or Cruz or Rubio give airtime to articulating directly.

                  • Don,

                    Man, we should take this discussion to a dedicated post. Here, consider this and you’ll probably see why:

                    Yes, I agree: we need to better use media. But then, look at WHY the Left uses the media. Like it or not, as a people, we have been trained to accept the media as ‘god’ (ultimate authority). the Left then uses the media to CONTROL people. That is because this is their nature: they seek to control everything — not just people, but the universe, as well.

                    On the other hand, we on the right are not of this mindset because we are made up of different stuff. So we do not seek to control, only to persuade. Now, if we use media to educate and persuade, I’d have no issue with it. But it starts you out on the slippery slope.

                    Do you really think that EVERYONE on the Left started out being the control freaks they are now? I don’t. But once you are vested in your process, the drive takes over, you lose sight of the goal and — eventually — you start to think in terms of “eliminating obstructions.” Unfortunately, once you cross that line, you no longer care that those “obstructions” are people.

                    This is a line that must be guarded because — even if we do follow Beck’s lead, the Right will run the real risk of becoming the Left. And the only anchor that man has ever found that provides the strength necessary to hold this line is GOD! Hence, Voltaire’s quote. ;-)

                • Yes again. The Slippery slope analogy is a true one indeed.

                  At this point, at this stage of the “game”, I am thinking along the lines of Battles to be fought in order to win the war. The war for people’s “Hearts and minds” so to speak. This is because the OTHER Slippery Slope is one which you and Utah and Texas and HockeyPop have been articulating with articles and commentary……THAT slope is the ‘fall from grace’ of our Republic into the abyss of Tyranny ( Socialist / fascist versions )…..because history shows that there is NO escape from that fall.

                  Saving the Republic enables us, and “Knights” such as yourself to work on that other ‘Fall from Grace’. And I have confidence that if the Constitution and the Republic survives the Pendulum can be turned .

                  • Don,

                    We have an accord — so long as we are careful not to fall off either side of the ledge.

                    Do you remember the original Star Trek TV show episode where Kirk and Spok are forced to fight each other by a group of aliens who were trying to understand whether good or evil were the strongest between the two? I wish I could find a clip from the most important scene from that show. At one point, before Spok was forced to fight Kirk, Spok reminded Kirk that his experience was that evil usually defeats good unless good is very, VERY careful. Well, the point is, I suggest we be that very, VERY careful in whatever we do to try and reverse our slide into the abyss.

                    The problem is, at this point, we may not be needing an anchor to arrest that slide, I fear we need powered wings so we can lift ourselves back up onto the ledge. :-(

                • It was indeed Spock and Kirk who fight….but I believe it was Dr McCoy who says that to Kirk before he gives him a shot of something.

                  You might be right in regards to Wings vs Anchors….but I hail from Utah’s age-group and I’m sure he remembers as I do the surprise at How quichly the CCCP came Up with Glasnost and Perestroika…and most importantly how soon the wall came down. When we were in out teens and early 20’s we knew it would someday come down….I don’t think many of us thought it would be in our own youth !

                  Miracles can happen….. the “Dove” awaits… ;- )) .

                  • Don,

                    Yes, miracles can happen, but then, the Russian people had Reagan on their side. Whose on ours today?

                    BTW: now that you mention it, I think you’re right: it was Bones who said that to Kirk. I miss the old Star Trek shows: they always had morality themes to them.

  2. There are some interesting points in time in this article but I dont know if I see all of them center to heart. There is some validity but I will take hold opinion until I look into it further. Good article , thanks and we want more! Added to FeedBurner as wel

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