The American Founding: Conservative or Radical?

Conservatives in the U.S. like to put forth the idea that those who founded the USA did so on conservative principles. Of the fundamental tenants (not dogmas or doctrines, according to Kirk) mentioned in the previous post, which are in agreement with the principles of the American Founding? A Whig in the British Parliament, Edmund Burke joined the Radical Whigs (there’s that darned r-word again) in support of the American colonists’ rights to self-government and to fight against an over-reaching monarch. And although most of his conservative writings were in response to the bloody French Revolution and the “radical” ideas of “liberty, fraternity, and equality”, conservatives promote Burke’s opinions on the American revolution and the fundamental principles of the American Founding as being, well, conservative. Let’s see how conservative those ideals were.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Let’s see: self-evident truths–how do truths become self-evident? Kirk would argue that these “self-evident” truths are made such by their historical existence. For how long in the history of the world had “these truths [been held] to be self-evident”? Only via the philosophy of the Enlightenment against which Burke and other conservatives argued so vehemently did the principles that “all men are created equal…and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, [including] Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” come into play in the political arena. These were new ideas, not ancient ones. Politics during the Middle Ages were an incredibly unequal proposition and those who had the rights to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” were few and always seemed to have the guns and the money. Not until within the 100 years prior to Burke and the American Revolution did these now “conservative” ideas such as universal rights and universal freedom become widespread through the writings of John Locke.

These fundamental principles in the U.S. founding document were exceptionally radical at the time. However, the next statement by Jefferson is even more earth-shattering:

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

This is among the least conservative statements in the history of representative democracies. It is, shh!–radical, if not downright revolutionary. The idea that a people has the right to throw off its form of government for another that better serves it, is a revolutionary idea.

Another radical, non-conservative, idea is delineated in the first line of Preamble to the Constitution: WE THE PEOPLE! Never before had the people constituted a new form of government. It had always been foisted upon them by an external force or by a powerful monarch or by a wealthy oligarchy.

Again, the claim that the American Founding was a “conservative” process is lacking in substance and evidence. If you are an American and you believe in the ideals that formed this country, maybe you are a radical also. Welcome to the club.

5 Replies to “The American Founding: Conservative or Radical?”

  1. Conservatism, by definition, resists change. But often change is good, as in the example of the Revolution, abolitionism, civil rights, women’s suffrage, banking regulation after the Depression, etc. One of the problems with conservatism is that while its adherents rail against change, it’s happening under their noses and they aren’t having the positive effects they might have in GUIDING change. Instead, change is happening without the positive moral influence that those who claim conservatism think they are adhering to in calling themselves conservatives.

    A couple of years ago, my wife went to Women’s Conference at BYU and heard a speaker talk of “planned indoctrination.” This concept admits that children will change as they grow up (nothing new there), but parents need to guide their children’s character and priorities by nudging or pushing them in the right direction. Values voters are missing a huge opportunity in influencing the future by looking always to the past. As Billy Joel says, “The good ol’ days weren’t always good, and tomorrow’s not as bad as it seems.”

    People concerned with the morals of this country need to de-don the “conservative” appellation (and mindset) and start working for a better future rather than trying to turn the train around.

  2. From Burke:

    “You will observe, that from Magna Carta to the Declaration of Right, it has been the uniform policy of our constitution to claim and assert our liberties, as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity; as an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom, without any reference whatever to any other more general or prior right. By this means our constitution preserves a unity in so great a diversity of its parts. We have an heritable crown; an inheritable peerage; and a House of Commons and a people inheriting privileges, franchises, and liberties, from a long line of ancestors.” (Burke’s italics).

    I add this comment to demonstrate the stark difference between the rights Jefferson describes in the Declaration of Independence and the rights Burke ascribes to the British people. Burke’s rights are inherited, not natural and “inalienable”; they are “an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom” as if Britons should have different rights, as opposed to Jefferson’s claim that “all men are created equal.”

    This carries over in today’s conservatives who believe that Americans (or Caucasians, or Western civilization) have a certain right to freedom “specially belonging to them” and that Mexicans, Iraqis, Russians, “wacko-liberals”, etc. don’t have.

    Can anyone explain to me how conservatives can consider the American founding as conservative, especially using Burke as a source, when his fundamental claim of rights is so diametrically opposed to the rights in the founding documents?

  3. It seems to me “conservatism” (defined as resistance to change) is highly contextual, and, therefore, not intrinsically opposed to libertarianism. In this definition of the word, it is hard to even see it as an ideology with particular values. I can see the point of view of the writer. Ludwig Von Mises argued along these lines against “conservatism,” especially as he was frustrated with the lack of activism in the early 20th century against statism.

    However, would it be wrong to say that a strong classical liberal (though they wouldn’t be called that in the 1800s) who fought the gradual usurpations of power by the federal government throughout our history was wrong to be conservative by supporting constitutional originalism? It’s hard to say this isn’t a form of conservatism (i.e., resistance to change). Indeed, the way many people use the word, they are interested in conserving the Constitution (though the way this plays out popularly, many of these same people turn to populist xenophobes when politically expedient).

    Burke’s “conservatism” was also highly contextual. He was attempting to avoid the madness of the French Revolution’s idealism which was largely a mindless, mobocratic bloodbath with, in all reality, few agreed-upon principles and even less real, clear thought on how to apply those principles. Indeed, he would have agreed with Jefferson’s idea that governments not be overthrown for “light and transitory causes.” In contrast to the French Revolution’s madness, Burke was appealing to an ingenious English government tradition (including the common law system) which DID protect individual rights to a larger degree than had any other system of government in the history of the world on so wide a scale (until the U.S. came along). By appealing, pramatically, to tradition, rather than a mob-driven idealism, he was being conservative about England’s liberalism.

    It should also be pointed out that it is hardly contradictory to say both that rights are inherited in tradition (in the sense that laws come about that protect them), AND to say that they are inalienable and exist prior to government. The one refers to the reality of positive law, the other refers to moral law.

  4. Joseph,

    Thanks for your comments.

    1. I agree that conservatism is rather contextual, especially in today’s environment (paleo-cons, neo-cons, Crunchy Cons) etc. I have based my arguments and points on Kirk’s tenants of conservatism. He states (and I quote him so) that there is no dogma of conservatism (likely in an attempt to not come across as ideological) but then gives the six doctrines I mentioned in the previous post.

    2. I think many classical liberals would resist being called conservatives, although we may see them as such. Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, William Wilberforce, etc. were hesitant, if not adverse to align themselves with the likes of John Adams, Edmund Burke, etc.

    3. I understand Burke’s argument that the American Founding was a hearkening back to the English revolutions of the 1600’s. However, there was a clean break (and this is where I disagree fundamentally with you) between those who saw rights as a privilege of inheritance (Burke) and those who saw them as inate (Jefferson, most of the other Founders, Paine). Positive law seems like a completely different animal than natural/moral law and thus the argument that they are hardly contradictory doesn’t seem to hold water to me.

    I just tend to see the world in more of a Jeffersonian, von Mises view and had a really tough time buying into Kirk’s arguments, (and your combining of conservatism with classical liberalism) especially since the current conservative movement lacks so many aspects of the classical liberals.

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