The Conservatives by Patrick Allitt

The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History

by Patrick Allitt

Recommendation: check out from library for reference (buy here).

The Conservatives

What is a conservative? Allitt is not sure. This is odd because you’d think a man who wrote an entire book about conservatism would have provided an unambiguous definition. But Allitt is shy about this important matter, and, like Justice Stewart, is content to know it when he sees it. However, we cannot bypass this question—even though most readers will be satisfied that Allitt identifies all the usual conservative suspects—because when the alleged insult “You’re a conservative!” is hurled, we have to be know what it means.

It cannot be that a conservative is one who wishes to see the past in the present, who struggles to keep the old ways from fading, and who “think[s] of the past as rich and complex, and of the future as thin and vague.” For if this were true, then progressives—the natural enemies of conservatives—would not have railed against welfare reform under Clinton, because welfare had by that time long been the norm. Reform was new, and looking back to the glorious past, struggling to uphold the traditions of the New Deal, were progressives.

Couple this with the empirical observation that capitalism, like no other economical system, has changed (progressed?) the world in more ways and faster than any other. As it is usually conservatives who argue for less government control, and who are most suspicious of centralized we-know-more-about-what-is-good-for-you-than-you-do planning, it is progressives who must answer guilty to the charge of longing for stasis.

Then, for example, there is William Sumner and other post-Civil War leaders. It is “useful to think of them as conservatives…[who] denigrated tradition, marginalized religion, and showed more sympathy for low-born but self-made entrepreneurs than for established elites.” One service Allitt provides is—finally—an acknowledgement that intellectuals like Sumner and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field—and many who followed after—were usually first in line to denounce plutocracy. Men like Andrew Carnegie (who certainly benefited amazingly from capitalism, but who argued and practiced forcefully noblesse oblige) never praised avarice. Their sympathy was for an educated, moral, and virtuous, but not necessarily moneyed, aristocracy, and was never for a rule by the wealthy (the followers of Ayn Rand notwithstanding).

The confusion about what a conservative is infuses the book. Every now and then Allitt comes out with something curious, like, “Think of the civil war as a conflict between two types of conservatism.” And then he says that it is better to see conservatism as “reactive and attitudinal than to regard it as a commitment to certain unchanging principles.” This won’t do. This leaves the definition floating and its interpretation ever changing. It lets its enemies ascribe its form. Anyone—left or right—who holds a political philosophy will find this position intolerable.

It is true that groups with varying core beliefs occasionally band together in an attempt to gain a majority: this, of course, is the political norm. But it’s not the core beliefs that are varying, it’s the groupings. Conservatives who favored small government welcomed into the tent the wave of disillusioned communist, big-government Trotskyites. (There were so many of these refuges that they gave themselves their own moniker, so they wouldn’t be confused with their classical brothers.) Then came the influx of Christian “evangelicals”, a small but not especially influential group that was made by their enemies to wear the conservative badge (and, as is human nature, they came to wear it proudly and loudly, eventually claiming the badge was their idea).

There is one thread that Allitt wove, but failed to recognize, that best describes the difference between conservatives and progressives, and that is their reaction to the world equality. Progressives say that they believe that all are equal, or can be, and that the lion will lie down with the lamb, if only X happens, where X can be, and has been, anything from voting for a particular ballot measure to, with Stalin et al., killing off as many who disagree with X as possible.

Conservatives say bosh, equality is an impossibility, and that Tocqueville was on to something when he said that equality might destroy liberty. They are apt to agree with Richard Weaver:

The comity of people is groups large or small rests not upon the chimerical notion of equality but upon fraternity, a concept which long antedates it in history because it goes immeasurably deeper in human sentiment. The ancient feeling of brotherhood carries obligations of which equality knows nothing…It places people in a network of sentiment, not rights…[F]raternity directs attention to others, equality to self, and the passion for equality is simultaneous with the growth of egotism.

The book could have used some editing: repetitions appear from time to time; in one place Allitt finds it necessary to tell us who Alexander was. Curiously, Allitt chose to ignore the influence of radio on the modern branches of conservatism. Books, newspapers, and periodicals have their place, even Fox News TV garners a mention, but Limbaugh, Hannity, Levin, and others are eschewed.

Remember: before you accuse somebody of being a conservative, make sure you know exactly what one is.


  1. Noblesse Oblige

    I’ll offer a descriptive definition. Progressives (liberals, fascists, communists, scoialists are all ‘progressives’) believe that Utopia on earth can be achieved through the efforts of humanity. Conservatives do not. Progressives seek to change all of us so as to move toward their particular version of Utopia. A necessary precondition for progress is that the current organizing principle of society is counter Utopian. Another is that the Utopians always (yes, ALWAYS) know better what you should do than you do. We witnessed several attempts at Utopia in the 20th century. All failed; all with catastrophic tragedy along the way. Yet the Utopians are back with new versions; consider the greens, with all their distortions and fabrications, as a new chapter in anti humanist Utopian drivel. Conservatives know Utopia is not achievable and that our nature prevents it. That is why they react so negatively to its latest manifestations. In that sense they are indeed reactionary, and thankfully so. They seek ways to defeat the Utopians by resisting the collective and supporting the individual. Religions are natural allies of conservatives because they are fundamentally opposed to earthly Utopias. Their decline in the West has helped pave the way for the new Utopians. At some level the rise of the fundamentalist Islamic movement is ultimately a counter Utopian movement.

  2. Bernie

    Noblesse Oblige:
    I agree with what you say, but this seems more a definition of “Progressives” than “Conservatives”. I do not believe that Conservatives are anti-Progressives.

    I am still working on my own definition.

  3. JT

    There is an excellent book called “Darwinian Politics:” by Paul H. Rubin which discusses, among other things, the evolutionary origins and function of Envy. Upon reflection, and though it may seem a grand over-generalization, I think it fair to suggest that the core moral intuition of the Left is Envy, and that the core moral intuition of the Right is Jealousy, where Envy is the resentment of others having more or better than you do together with the conviction that Justice demands an equal share, and Jealousy is the resentment of others attempting to take what you have together with the conviction that Justice demands that each may keep his own. You could say that the history of the recent past has been the War between Jealousy and Envy.

  4. Bernie

    OK, after pondering Noblesse Oblige’s and JT’s ideas and being distracted by the Patriot’s miraculous comeback, here goes.

    Semantically the attitude towards major social and economic changes surely is at the heart of the distinction. Conservatives act as if all major social and economic changes come with substantial risks and costs. In part this stems from the functional benefits of what ever currently exists and that, therefore, incremental change is far better than revolutionary change. (Burke’s view of the French Revolution is a good example. Less accurate were the debates over ending of slavery.) Progressives, liberals, socialists, etc., act as if the benefits of the proposed changes are so great and overwhelming that they can safely ignore the risks and costs associated with the change. (The current Health Reform debate is a case in point. Collectivizing farms in the Ukraine is a negative example, while Civil Rights is probably a positive example.)

    Undoubtedly Conservatives and Progressives also have different models of Man, with the former believing that Man is fundamentally flawed but can be improved by his own efforts through a constant struggle to control is impulses. Progressives believe that Man in his natural state is all things virtuous and that Man’s failings reflect deviations from ideal social and power relationships, i.e., Utopian conditions.

    These models of Man are congruent with the beleifs about change.

    Associated with these models of Man is the notion that for Conservatives the skills and talents that a man possesses belong to him as do the benefits derived therefrom. Liberals believe that the skills and talents a man possesses are due to luck and that therefore the benefits belong not to the individual but to “society” or the collective – hence the Marxist aphorism – from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.

    I am sure there are additional dimensions. I also feel that I have derived the above from others – but I know not whom.

  5. JH


    Bernie mentioned the Civil War. I am just curious. Would Lincoln, who presided over the Civil War, be identified as a conservative or liberal based on Allitt’s contemporary views?

  6. JH

    Oh, no, Bernie mentioned civil rights.

  7. Briggs


    Lincoln was a conservative to Allitt.

  8. JH

    Admittedly I had to brush up my knowledge on Lincoln on Wikipedia. He was an abolitionist, spoke out against the Mexican-American War, signed legislation creating the first U.S. income tax, was hated in the south, and so on. Considering in the context of his time, Lincoln was a progressive. So Lincoln was a conservative to Allitt?!

  9. Bernie

    I am not sure whether I would have called Lincoln a Conservative – I have not yet found the book. However, an abolitionist could still be a Conservative just as one could be against the death penalty and be a Conservative. The issue is how do you get to the end state. I also see a form of income tax being an outcome of the need to fund the War, not a desire to create a large central government per se.

    Your point about Civil Rights makes me think that the distinction between Conservatives and Progressives is not simply about Ends, but is about Ends and Means. So a Conservative could be for equal treatment of minorities but against forced busing. Equally a Conservative would see prejudice and bigotary as part of the human condition that could not be legislated away, but might gradually over time mutate in a different direction.

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