The Conservative Tradition in America

By Charles W. Dunn; J. David Woodard | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER FOUR
The Classical Roots of
Conservative Thought

... [T]here is no doubt that conservatism as a modern
movement is a response to the excesses of rationalistic zeal let
loose by
eighteenth-century radicals such as Jean Jacques
Rousseau
( 1712- 1778). Indeed, the word "conservative"
was coined from the French word conservateur, a name given
to certain French writers who wished to return to the conditions
existing prior to the rise of
Napoleon I ( 1769- 1821) and the
French Revolution.

JAY A. SIGLER1

All political action is guided by some thought of better or worse. Political things are by their nature subject to approval and disapproval, to choice and rejection, to praise and blame. In democracies, government power is retained only after the people approve of the choices their leaders make. Politicians balance their decisions between the extremes of preservation and change: "When desiring to preserve, we wish to prevent a change to the worse; when desiring to change, we wish to bring about something better." 2 Judgments about the rate and type of change do not exist in a vacuum, they rest on some conception of what should be, of what is best for society.

The foundation of conservatism is the belief that the good society has a reverence for proven values which guide the integration of new ideas through time-tested institutions. Tradition is nothing more than the concrete experience of this truth which is carried in common by the society. Knowledge of the past is the spiritual substance of shared living that makes society distinctively human. The fundamental values of conservatism, the premises of resistance to change and protection of past values, are best understood today as a reaction to the idealism of the

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