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.