Conservatism in America


conservatism, in politics, the desire to maintain, or conserve, the existing order. Conservatives value the wisdom of the past and are generally opposed to widespread reform. Modern political conservatism emerged in the 19th cent. in reaction to the political and social changes associated with the eras of the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. By 1850 the term conservatism, probably first used by Chateaubriand, generally meant the politics of the right. The original tenets of European conservatism had already been formulated by Edmund Burke, Joseph de Maistre, and others. They emphasized preserving the power of king and aristocracy, maintaining the influence of landholders against the rising industrial bourgeoisie, limiting suffrage, and continuing ties between church and state. The conservative view that social welfare was the responsibility of the privileged inspired passage of much humanitarian legislation, in which English conservatives usually led the way. In the late 19th cent. great conservative statesmen, notably Benjamin Disraeli, exemplified the conservative tendency to resort to moderate reform in order to preserve the foundations of the established order. By the 20th cent. conservatism was being redirected by erstwhile liberal manufacturing and professional groups who had achieved many of their political aims and had become more concerned with preserving them from attack by groups not so favored. Conservatism lost its predominantly agrarian and semifeudal bias, and accepted democratic suffrage, advocated economic laissez-faire, and opposed extension of the welfare state. This form of conservatism, which is best seen in highly industrialized nations, was exemplified by President Reagan in the United States and Prime Minister Thatcher in Great Britain. It has been flexible and receptive to moderate change, favors the maintenance of order on social issues, and actively supports deregulation and privatization in the economic sphere. Conservatism should be distinguished both from a reactionary desire for the past and the radical right-wing ideology of fascism and National Socialism.

See R. Kirk, The Conservative Mind (rev. ed. 1960); J. Habermas, The New Conservatism (1989); T. Honderich, Conservatism (1991); C. Robin, The Reactionary Mind (2011).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2015, The Columbia University Press.

Conservatism in America: Selected full-text books and articles

A Time for Choosing: The Rise of Modern American Conservatism By Jonathan M. Schoenwald Oxford University Press, 2001
Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives By Amy J. Binder; Kate Wood Princeton University Press, 2013
Mothers of Conservatism: Women and the Postwar Right By Michelle M. Nickerson Princeton University Press, 2012
God's Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right By Daniel K. Williams Oxford University Press, 2010
The Conservative Tradition in America By Charles W. Dunn; J. David Woodard Rowman & Littlefield, 1996
Freedom and Virtue: The Conservative/Libertarian Debate By George W. Carey Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1998 (Revised edition)
Looking for a topic idea? Use Questia's Topic Generator
Author Advanced search


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.