Magazine article The American Conservative

A Missing History of Conservatism

Magazine article The American Conservative

A Missing History of Conservatism

Article excerpt

A Missing History of Conservatism Conservative Heroes: Fourteen Leaders Who Shaped America, From Jefferson to Reagan, Garland S. Tucker III, IS1 Books, 224 pages

I confess: when I received my review copy of Garland Tucker's Conservative Heroes, all I could think was, been there, done that. Having endured my share of collections that outwardly resemble Tucker's book, I am drearily familiar with the genre: commonplace, conventional, and generally inoffensive historical figures, of the sort all right-thinking people are expected to admire, are solemnly commended to the reader as model conservatives.

That's why Tucker's book came as such a pleasant surprise: here are plenty of figures-from Nathaniel Macon and John Randolph of Roanoke to John C. Calhoun and Robert Taft-who play rather a minor role, or are actually cast as villains, in the neoconservative version of American history.

Tucker sidesteps a major dispute in intellectual history by frankly treating American conservatism as synonymous with classical liberalism. Thus the political philosophy whose fortunes are chronicled in Conservative Heroes "was originally called classical liberalism' but now more often is termed 'conservatism?'

The ideas Tucker associates with conservatism are familiar ones: a disbelief in the perfectibility of man, a commitment to limited government, support for private property, and a conviction that private virtue is necessary for the maintenance of a free and just society. But as I say, the people he chooses to illustrate these principles are far less familiar, and that's a good thing.

Tuckers is an adequate if not inspired overview of Southern statesman and political theorist John C. Calhoun-I'm partial to the brief biography of Calhoun I find in Forgotten Conservatives in American History, a similar volume released several years ago by Clyde Wilson and Brion McClanahan-but I am impressed all the same to see Calhoun in a mainstream conservative book like Tuckers in the first place. Modern conservatism with its nationalist idiom cannot understand Calhoun, much less respect the gravity of the problems he identified. And Tuckers discussion of the South Carolina Exposition and Protest- which, if I may gently correct the author, was two documents, not one-of 1832 gets to the heart of Calhouns concerns.

Any society will have its competing and incompatible interests. In the United States, Calhoun found, those competing interests were by and large geographically defined: the North and the South, generally speaking, had opposing views on many of the key issues important to both regions.

"The interest of the two great sections is opposed," Calhoun wrote. "We want free trade-they restrictions; we want moderate taxes, frugality in Government, economy, accountability, and a rigid application of the public money to the payment of debt, and to the objects authorized by the Constitution. In all these particulars, if we may judge by experience, their views of their interest are precisely the opposite."

How to prevent the various interests in society from using their electoral strength to oppress one another was the task that consumed Calhoun, and it was at the heart of his idea of the "concurrent majority" and his version of state nullification. Wrote Calhoun: "It requires the greatest wisdom and moderation to extend over any country a system of equal laws; and it is this very diversity of interests, which is found in all associations of men for a common purpose, be they private or public, that constitutes the main difficulty in forming and administering free and just governments." No delusional happy talk about "democracy" here.

Also making an appearance here is Grover Cleveland, who along with Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan is one of three U.S. presidents to feature in Tuckers book. Cleveland's virtues are familiar to students of American history, though few of us ever heard them presented as virtues. Cleveland was anti-inflationist, generally laissez-faire, a constitutionalist, and while not a strict noninterventionist, certainly an opponent of the drive toward imperialism that was gathering steam in the late 19th century. …

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