Commentary Magazine

Conservatism in America, by Clinton Rossiter

Kinds of Conservatism
Conservatism in America.
by Clinton Rossiter.
Knopf. 327 pp. $4.00.


Toward the close of FDR’s administration, many liberals, reflecting the atmosphere of “a season of inaction and consolidation,” seemed more interested in conserving than altering the political and economic status quo. Thus they became, under Clinton Rossiter’s definition, conservatives. Other liberals today, though remaining liberals, feel that a new crystallization of conservative doctrine is necessary in order to preempt the ideological void on the right before it is filled by fascism and racism. Still other liberals—intellectuals and home-owners—incline towards conservatism because they are disillusioned with liberalism for not having produced the millennium. Finally, the so-called better elements—businessmen for the most part—now entering politics through real or vicarious roles on “Ike’s team” stand in need of an ideology, and naturally look for it on the right.

One should not overlook the academic roots of the “new conservatism.” Many conventionally trained political scientists are somewhat dismayed by the incursions of pollsters, sociologists, psychologists, and psychiatrists into their field; the more orthodox scholar finds it difficult to evaluate those glittering inversions of the obvious which David Reisman is so fond of presenting. The spate of recent books by historians on the nature of American liberalism, and of books like Mr. Rossiter’s on American conservatism, constitutes an affirmation of history-centered political science as against the typically phenomenological approach of the socio-psychologists: the latter are to be criticized for their lack of a sense for the historical factor.



Two somewhat separate interpretations of American conservatism have been advanced lately. The first, of which Louis Hartz’ The Liberal Tradition in America is an outstanding example, argues that, since the United States was “born free” and never had an important feudal class (except what he calls the pre-Civil War make-believe Southern aristocracy), the nation has always been monolithically liberal. The only really enduring political conflict in America has been between big-propertied Whigs and small-owners who are liberal, and its violence has been limited by the adherence of both groups to a liberal constitution that defends both property and liberty. The lack of truly deep class divisions, argues Mr. Hartz, has prevented the evolution of sharply defined radical and conservative dogmas in this country.

Mr. Rossiter’s willingness to go along with this thesis is implicit in a chapter of his book entitled “A Conservative History of American Progressivism.” But his major effort is devoted to delineating the unique characteristics of an American conservative tradition. According to Rossiter, you are a conservative, rather than a liberal, if you believe less in the innate goodness of man and more in his potential for evil; if you are inclined to recognize inequality—but not political inequality—as the natural condition of mankind; if vox populi impresses you more as a potential tyrant than as the voice of God; if you regard civil rights as the rewards for political virtue and vigilance rather than as natural rights; if you regard private property as the concomitant of human rights rather than as a threat to them; if you possess “religious feeling” and a more than middling amount of moral sense; if you distrust “reason” sufficiently to let it be overruled by the mandate of a higher law on occasion; if you recognize the inevitability of social classes and an aristocracy that both rules and serves; if you believe in the “civilizing, disciplinary, conserving mission of education.”

The conservative genus Americanus is endowed by Mr. Rossiter with still other characteristics, however. He is a Republican, although Mr. Rossiter does not say that Democrats and other people can’t be conservatives—in fact, just about the only people disqualified as conservatives are Communists and individuals like Gerald L. K. Smith and Allen Zoll. Still, the Republican party is designated as standard-bearer of the new conservatism, particularly if it “champions the preservative elements in the American tradition, appeals high-mindedly to sentiments of loyalty and unity, combines the conservatism of the sound dollar and the liberalism of government-aided equality of opportunity into a positive program for the twentieth century, remembers that a united America is the ‘last best hope of earth’ and thus casts away the bloody shirt of Communism . . . and fights elections on genuine issues—and all the while maintains that it is ‘the party of tradition and progress’.”

The American conservative is also to be distinguished by his preoccupation with the three great institutional complexes upon which conservatism rests: churches, schools, and the economic system. If, at the next meeting of the PTA, you discover someone steering a steady course between “Deweyites and anti-Deweyites, vocationalists and generalists, traditionalists and progressives, sectarians and secularists . . . absolutists of the Right and absolutists of the Left,” he is pretty sure to be a conservative. If at your local chamber of commerce you happen to meet someone with a preference for the facts of economic life rather than for assumptions about it, who believes in socially responsible free enterprise, the honest dollar, and a “welfare community” that would be “less dangerous in power and more benevolent in operation than the ‘welfare state,’&“ that man is talking conservatism. Finally, all good conservatives will unite on a foreign policy “based on hard facts and animated by good will.”



These criteria are disappointing; they offer little help, except in gross instances, in distinguishing conservatives from liberals and the rest of the population. And yet if conservatism is less a fixed political credo and more a state of mind or way of looking at the world and at life, then all that Mr. Rossiter has to say about conservatism adds up to more than his definition of it. If the actual content of his book is vague, its mood is pervasive, unmistakable, and offers a reflection of what an earlier generation of historians called “the spirit of the age.” At the same time, it is unusual to see a historian like Rossiter writing impressionistically in a book bare of footnotes and with only a scant bibliography; one expected his treatment of conservatism to be more solid in its scholarship and stronger in scholarly apparatus. This, together with its relative shortness, puts Mr. Rossiter’s book in the category of the once-over-lightlies that Peter Viereck and Russell Kirk have given the same subject.

One cannot help but wish that Mr. Rossiter had written a different kind of book—more of a history of American conservatism and less of an essay on it. What we need is thorough research clarifying the specifics of American conservatism, rather than a tour de force simply proclaiming it to be a good thing. Mr. Rossiter apologizes for neglecting such “exciting examples of conservative political and social thought” as George Santayana, Ralph Adams Cram, Agnes Repplier, H. L. Mencken, Albert Jay Nock, Madison Grant, Barrett Wendell, Charles Eliot Norton, James Russell Lowell, and others. These omissions—for the post-Civil War period alone—are enough to cause one to wonder whether Mr. Rossiter hasn’t got hold of the wrong end of his subject. Moreover, in dealing with the historic development of American conservatism, Mr. Rossiter permits himself some surprising omissions and emphases. He sees the present generation of American businessmen as constituting an elite, an aristocracy “of an American cut” that could assume a position of leadership in a conservative society. There is, however, little in his account to indicate that American businessmen, as a class, have any traditions to draw upon that would support them in this role. The author’s handling of the historical background of our business community follows the lines of the liberal (so-called Jefferson-Jackson-FDR) interpretation of American history, which depicts Alexander Hamilton as serving the rich and well-born, business as the antagonist of Jacksonian democracy, and Andrew Carnegie as a poor social philosopher. The transition from this to the lofty, if not platitudinous, expectations that Mr. Rossiter entertains of the businessman of today is too sudden.

Indeed, I am puzzled as to why he did not base himself on the Federalist-Whig-Republican interpretation of American history, which has become rather popular during the past decade. In this view Hamilton is less collaborator and defender of the Colonial upper class than a nation-maker par excellence, a political genius who saved the infant republic by deliberately and realistically marrying it to that group in the community which had the largest economic stake in its preservation; and who did all this without himself profiting from it financially.

The Federalist-Whig-Republican interpretation sees the business community as the prime moving force not only in the establishment of the Republic, but in the growth of American democracy. The emerging business class, it argues, rather than the frontiersman, as Frederick Jackson Turner claimed, or the urban proletariat, as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. maintains, was the chief impetus behind Jacksonian democracy. Premising political freedom upon the development of free enterprise, the Whig-Republican view sees the “industrial statesman” (no longer the “robber baron”) of the post-Civil War era as fighting democracy’s true struggle in resisting “bureaucratic” efforts toward the regulation of his business. Finally, today’s businessman, insofar as he seeks to preserve his freedom of action from government interference, has again become democracy’s main defender against statism.

Mr. Rossiter undoubtedly had his reasons—even valid ones—for ignoring this line of historical interpretation. But one would still like to know why he completely ignores it, particularly since the differences he points up in his book between past business behavior and future expectations are so striking.

If Mr. Rossiter’s thesis is granted that American conservative thinking has a unique and definable pattern (and that is perhaps to grant a great deal), it still seems to me that he might have marked some of the variations within this pattern. The conservatism of the latter 19th-century business community, which finds classic expression in the writings of William Graham Sumner, is distinctly laissez-faire. Patrician conservatism, on the other hand, of which Henry and Brooks Adams were the spokesmen, and of which Theodore Roosevelt was the outstanding embodiment in politics, makes free use of governmental power in trying to impose a patrician restraint upon the juggernauts of capital and labor for the benefit of society as a whole. Mr. Rossiter might have dealt better with the 19th century had he explored the possibilities offered by the hypothesis of two conservatisms: one business-oriented and laissez-faire, the other patrician-oriented and making free use of the agencies of government in an effort to impose intelligence and order upon society and to establish the patrician class as a mediating one between capital and labor.

Years ago, Vernon L. Parrington planned three volumes on the evolution of American liberal thinking in which he intended to defend it even as Rossiter now defends conservatism. Today, Parrington’s approach—particularly with respect to his rigorous division between liberals and conservatives and the dark colors in which he painted the latter—is open to serious criticism. But the fact remains that Parrington, for all the faults in his method that later scholars have discovered, contributed importantly to the establishment of traditions of American intellectual liberalism. Today there is need for a similar effort in understanding American conservatism. This could be done by a scholar of Parrington’s intensity, but without his dogmatism.



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