Conservatism is a system of thought that focuses upon upholding traditional values, social structure, government, and economic systems. Conservatives hold specific views about the role of government in the economy and the value of democracy. Conservatives have sometimes been suspicious of change in a modernizing world, and usually try to support to traditional institutions.

The origins of conservatism occurred in seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe and America. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes, author of “Leviathan,” argued that government is necessary to provide order that is typically lacking among humans subject to the consequences of original sin. For Hobbes, “all men in the state of nature have a desire and will to hurt” because they are all seeking the same thing, power. The solution, Hobbes believed, was that the English should “confer all their power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men, onto one will: which is as much as to say, to appoint one man, or assembly of men, to bear their person.”

A century later another English philosopher Edmund Burke, reacting to the astonishing changes brought about by the French Revolution, sought to promote the stability of past tradition and absolute, unchanging values. Revolution is about utter change, chaos, ideas and institutions never before seen. Burke attacked the ideological program of the French revolutionaries, who worked to destroy the hierarchy of church and state and the aristocratic belief in human inequality. Burke was shocked by the revolutionary program to create a secular state, to abandon divine providence, to substitute traditional morality with humanistic values, to embrace modern capitalism and all of its implications. Burke feared the impact of laissez-faire economics and the rejection of landed property as the traditional basis of society, economy, and government.

Leading conservatives in America at the time of the American and French revolutions included John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Adams and Hamilton were leaders of the Federalist political faction that strongly advocated the adoption of the Constitution of the United States. These American conservatives were heavily influenced by the writings of Thomas Hobbes. Adams and Hamilton did not go as far as Hobbes, defending the English monarchy, but they accepted his pessimistic assessment of human nature, and assumed that government must impose order upon its people. They applauded the Constitution for circumscribing the liberties of the American citizen within the structure of an orderly, rational government. American conservatives feared the disruptive consequences of the American Revolution, and sought to prevent anarchy and chaos by the overwhelming influence of the best men, that is, the economic, social, and cultural elite. Adams, for example, believed not in an aristocracy of birth (as did Burke) but in an aristocracy of talent and merit. This “natural aristocracy” represented the very few in America, who should inevitably supervise the liberties of the majority. Such was the reasoning behind the Electoral College, which would mediate the popular vote with the influence of the elite Electors. Hamilton, the first Secretary of Treasury, advocated an economic program that made the federal government very influential in the credit and banking structures of the United States. He encouraged the government to promote manufacturing, international trade, policies favoring the rich, and investment in the American economy.

The Industrial Revolution, new technologies, and the dominance of scientific thinking in the nineteenth century forced conservatives to reassess their ideas and policies. Conservative programs of continued government involvement in the economy during the early nineteenth century, such as Henry Clay’s American System, gave way in the post Civil War era to a view that embraced laissez-faire economics. Republicans advocated limited government involvement in the economy, and opposition to labor and trade unions and other such reforms that would impede unlimited economic progress. They advocated economic policies that supported the wealthy, big-business, and manufacturing interests, which in turn would benefit the entire economy, and all Americans, rich as well as poor. The maintenance of a limited money supply, which supported creditors over debtors, brought opposition to the Republican administrations of, for example, William McKinley, from liberal reform groups such as the Populists. Industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie spoke for the majority of conservatives in “The Gospel of Wealth,” arguing that competition dominates economic and social existence; those who compete the best also thrive the best. Social Darwinists such as William Graham Sumner applied the implications of Darwin’s theories of natural selection and survival of the fittest to humans: inequality is the natural state of things; the poor serve a purpose–performing the drudgery of human labor; likewise the rich serve a purpose–directing the application of labor to the infrastructure of society.

In the early part of the twentieth century American conservatives such as Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, who led an intellectual movement called the New Humanism, feared the rise of the masses, the typical American and his rude habits and uncultured jargon, the anti-intellectualism in American life. The New Humanists believed modern society was under attack from the new ideologies of pragmatism, naturalism, materialism, behavioralism, and liberalism. Babbitt, More, and other New Humanists believed in the moral presence of decorum and order existing within the human soul, which by cultivation and intuition can be accessed–but only a very few can do so. The New Humanists were not alone in responding with concern that the post World War I era would bring new democratic, liberal forces to the world. The “Roaring 20s” in America included a conservative reaction to the war in the forms of prohibition, the Red Scare, the rise of religious fundamentalism, and the Republican administrations of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover.

Late nineteenth- early twentieth-century American conservatives were clearly influenced by their European counterparts. In 1889, German intellectual Ferdinand Tonnies argued that the impact of modernization upon a traditional society had caused artificial associations to replaced the organic institutions of family and community; close-knit society and orderly class structure were giving way to a new middle class and working class with completely different moral assumptions, economic concerns, and social habits. Other European conservatives such as Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Auguste Comte examined past societies to question the validity of modern change upon medieval, communitarian institutions.

Conservatism after World War II was of two types. First, there was the intellectual conservatism of thinkers such as Russell Kirk, author of The “Conservative Mind” (1953). Kirk’s brand of conservative thought was similar to that of nineteenth-century conservatives in his focus on absolute truth and morality, elitism, and opposition to modern relativism and secularism. The horror of the madness of Hitler and the use of atomic bombs during World War II led to a confused and fearful response in America. Added to such uncertainty was the triad of tragedies in 1949 and 1950: the Soviet Union’s acquisition of the A-Bomb, the fall of China to Communism, and the attack of communist North Korea against South Korea. Anxiety about communism led to fears of espionage and the emergence of Joseph McCarthy to public attention. Many American conservatives rallied around McCarthy and his ideas of anti-communism and anti-liberalism–in short, opposition to anything that appeared un-American. Such was the mentality that William Buckley touted in starting the magazine, the “National Review,” in the 1950s.

The second expression of post war conservatism has been represented by the Republican Party. Barry Goldwater, who unsuccessfully ran for president in 1964 against Lyndon B. Johnson, became the spokesman for a new political conservatism embracing the economic principles of laissez-faire. Goldwater, author of The Conscience of a Conservative (1960), argued for a vastly reduced federal government and deregulation of economic and social policies in favor of turning power over to state and local governments. Conservatives, according to Goldwater, opposed the rights of labor, the fight for civil rights, and government intervention into the economy. He supported individual freedoms and the sanctity of private property. He saw the federal government as having a limited role, involving itself in maintaining public order and involvement in foreign affairs. Goldwater’s stance on the cold war and the spread of communism in Europe, Asia, and Africa was that of a “hawk.” He believed in aggressive military and economic containment and confronting the Soviet Union and its communist satellites with vast superiority of nuclear weapons.

Although Goldwater lost to Johnson, his ideals found new life during the Republican administrations of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Both Nixon and Reagan endorsed Goldwater’s run for president, and both gained important influence in supporting a lost cause. Nixon rode his conservative reputation to the White House in 1968, while Reagan became a leading conservative spokesman and governor of California. As a two term president from 1981 to1989, Reagan continued to be the point-person for the conservative movement.

Today, conservatism is still an important political philosophy focusing on government restraint, the free market, individual freedoms, and strong defense of American values both at home and abroad.


Lora, Ronald. Conservative Minds in America. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1979.

Guttmann, Allen, The Conservative Tradition in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Diggins, John P. Up from Communism: Conservative Odysseys in American Intellectual History. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.

Hoeveler, Jr., J. David. The New Humanism: A Critique of Modern America, 1900-1940. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1977. Hobbes Selections. Edited by F. J. E. Woodbridge. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1930.

(A version of this essay was originally published in the “Encyclopedia of Capitalism,” Facts on File)

About theamericanplutarch

Writer, thinker, historian.
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