• The Heritage Network
    • Resize:
    • A
    • A
    • A
  • Donate
  • The First Conservatives: The Constitutional Challenge to Progressivism

    Modern conservatives look to a variety of historical figures for guidance as they confront progressive liberalism.  Some are from the 1700’s and 1800’s, including Edmund Burke, the Founders, and Abraham Lincoln.  Others, like Russell Kirk, F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Ronald Reagan, are from the postwar era.  Strangely enough, conservatives rarely turn to the original opponents of progressivism, even though that would seem like the first place to look.  And as historian Jonathan O’Neill writes in a new paper, American conservatism was hardly on hiatus during the progressive ascendancy.

    Opponents of Progressivism held a wide range of beliefs about government and society, but one group of them refused to jettison the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.  These “constitutional conservatives” included President William Howard Taft, Secretary of State Elihu Root, and a group of intellectuals and politicians who formed the National Association for Constitutional Government (NACG).  In their common commitment, they contrasted with not only the Progressives but also those conservatives who were willing to abandon the founding documents in favor of other ideologies.

    So what did Taft, Root, and the NACG believe?

    • Our Constitution recognizes that people have natural rights that do not come from the government.  Instead, the government is tasked only with protecting them from “arbitrary or illegitimate authority.”
    • Our government is one of limited powers, both because the people retain sovereignty at all times and because the Founders recognized that human nature inclines people to abuse power.
    • Conservatism insists on “equal rights for all” and “special privileges for none.”  This means that laws should not single out groups for special treatment, either negative or positive.
    • Being a constitutional conservative requires a commitment to republicanism rather than direct democracy.  A republic, unlike a democracy, allows for beneficial “distance and delay between public opinion and the creation of law.”

    Three other schools of conservatives abandoned American first principles during this period, which hampered their response to Progressivism.  Southern agrarian conservatives ended up marginalized as apologists for secession or co-opted by the federal gravy train as they secured special treatment for the South.  Burkean traditionalists never managed to overcome their aristocratic tendencies and reconcile themselves to self-government, a fundamental principle of the Constitution.  And just as they denounced all other existing forms of government, radical libertarians like Albert Jay Nock rejected even the American experiment in limited government as illegitimate.  Each of these groups challenged all or part of the Founding’s emphasis on self-government and natural rights, with deleterious effects.

    Today, it is easy to tell what conservatives are against – the left.  It’s harder to say what the diverse movement is for.  Just as the NACG and other constitutionalists from a century ago united behind the principles of our Constitution and Declaration, modern conservatives of all stripes must unite behind America’s first principles.  After all, they are ultimately what the movement seeks to conserve.

    Brian Lipshutz currently is a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/internships-young-leaders/the-heritage-foundation-internship-program

    Posted in First Principles [slideshow_deploy]

    5 Responses to The First Conservatives: The Constitutional Challenge to Progressivism

    1. John Brooks Murray says:

      I am glad the article mentioned "Radical" libertarians versus just libertarians as denouncing the limited government established by our founding. All that I have read indicates that Jefferson, Franklin, and many others were libertarian conservatives. So, unless all the information I have read so far is wrong, standard libertarians and Tea Party conservatives are closer to our original founding father's principles and values than today's "standard" Republicans. Let me know if you have proof otherwise. Thanks

      • shrgngatlas says:

        I agree with you 100% The Libertarianism that I know isn't Anarchistic. We're perfectly happy with sticking to the Constitution as originally intended and going through the specific amendment procedure to make changes.

    2. Tom Bogle says:

      Why was my comment removed by the administrator? It was both civil and supportive.

    3. Pat says:

      Guess what very few Republicans are aware of? Abraham Lincoln was well aware of, and fond of Karl Marx. Remember him? They wrote eachother on several occasions, and Marx was very supportive of Lincoln during the Civil War, and Lincoln agreed with Marx's position of worker's rights, and Lincoln(as well as many of the founding fathers) was against the banksters.

      "History records that the money changers[private bankers] have used every form of abuse, intrigue, deceit, and violent means possible to maintain their control over governments by controlling money and it's issuance." — James Madison (The man who wrote the Constitution, for those who don't know)

    4. Bobbie says:

      Pat, that just tells me they're working together since government took on "oversight" at tax payers expense.

    Comments are subject to approval and moderation. We remind everyone that The Heritage Foundation promotes a civil society where ideas and debate flourish. Please be respectful of each other and the subjects of any criticism. While we may not always agree on policy, we should all agree that being appropriately informed is everyone's intention visiting this site. Profanity, lewdness, personal attacks, and other forms of incivility will not be tolerated. Please keep your thoughts brief and avoid ALL CAPS. While we respect your first amendment rights, we are obligated to our readers to maintain these standards. Thanks for joining the conversation.

    Big Government Is NOT the Answer

    Your tax dollars are being spent on programs that we really don't need.

    I Agree I Disagree ×

    Get Heritage In Your Inbox — FREE!

    Heritage Foundation e-mails keep you updated on the ongoing policy battles in Washington and around the country.