Reading Conservative History 1.1: The Shadow of the Stuarts
Cross-posted at Progressive Historians
Was the American revolution a conservative cause? The question itself is burdened with all the weight of our present-day ideological debates; it’s also fraught with anachronism. Philosophical conservatism per se
is a product of the European reaction to the French revolution; in 1763 (and 1776) Burke
was still a Whig
, his Reflections
still years in the future. In that respect, it seems to make no more sense to call the American revolution “conservative” than it does to call the English civil war Marxist.
But historians have broadly understood the revolution as conservative in a situational
sense – the colonists seeking, at least at first, not to establish a radical new order, but to defend the English constitution against encroachment by prerogative power. From this general interpretation, some modern conservatives have moved toward a seamless appropriation of the revolutionary story into the narrative of American conservatism. Here, for instance, is Russell Kirk, in his influential 1953 work, The Conservative Mind:
By and large, the American Revolution was not an innovating upheaval, but a conservative restoration of colonial prerogatives. Accustomed from their beginnings to self-government, the colonials felt that by inheritance they possessed the rights of Englishmen and by prescription certain rights peculiar to themselves. When a designing king and a distant parliament presumed to extend over America powers of taxation and administration never before exercised, the colonies rose to vindicate their prescriptive freedom; and after the hour for compromise had slipped away, it was with reluctance and trepidation they declared their independence. [p. 72]
Here the term “conservative” slips almost imperceptibly from a situational understanding to an ideological one: the Founders’ defense of their “prescriptive freedoms” looks to the modern eye like an affirmation of the long Anglo-Saxon tradition, a rejection of government social engineering, a plausible argument for states’ rights, and precedent for resistance to taxation.
In The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution
, Bernard Bailyn works from the same basic interpretation of the initial problem, but opens the door to an entirely different understanding of its legacy. As Bailyn explains, what began as a defensive reaction soon became, out of pure necessity, a process of radical transformation. As the crisis developed, the colonists “struggled to work out the implications of their beliefs” and “grasped implications only vaguely sensed before.” In so doing, they thoroughly transformed conceptions of representation, constitution, rights, sovereignty, establishment of religion, social hierarchy, and republicanism, and laid the groundwork for further upheaval over issues like slavery and federalism. Thus situational conservatism led to ideological radicalism.
But that’s for another time. I wonder whether it’s even appropriate to refer to the colonists of 1763-1776 as situationally
conservative. True, they acted reluctantly at first, in order to defend a constitutional balance they saw as threatened by corruption and by the expansion of ministerial and parliamentary power. But the very fact that they saw the world this way positioned them, in the context of their time
, not as conservatives, but as radicals. Begin with their understanding of the English “constitution,” as Bailyn describes it:
The colonists at the beginning of the Revolutionary controversy understood by the word “constitution” not, as we would have it, a written document or even an unwritten but deliberately contrived design of government and a specification of rights beyond the power of ordinary legislation to alter; they thought of it, rather, as the constituted – that is, existing – arrangement of governmental institutions, laws, and customs together with the principles and goals that animated them. [pp. 67-8]
This arrangement, kept in its proper balance, had as its goal “the attainment of liberty.” Liberty, as the colonists understood it, was always everywhere threatened by power and the corruption associated with power. They were obsessed with case histories of how power had destroyed liberty; a particular influence on their thought was Robert Molesworth’s An Account of Denmark
, which described the collapse of a once-free people into tyranny.
The colonists’ preoccupation with the threat to liberty by corruption, and with the constitution’s true role as the balance meant to protect liberty, marked them as in the tradition of what Molesworth called “the True Whig.” More specifically, it positioned mainstream
colonial opinion squarely in the tradition of English radical opposition. The works of radicals like John Trenchard
, Thomas Gordon
, Benjamin Hoadly
, Thomas Hollis
, and Paul de Rapin-Thoyras were of fundamental importance to the Americans but were marginal in England itself. The American colonists perceived an ever-present threat to liberty in general, and a crisis in the English constitution in particular, because
they were positioned within this radical Whig tradition.
The conservatives of the Founders’ day were the Tories
, who stood for the ultimate pre-eminence of the monarch’s prerogative power, as well as the mainstream Whigs who had developed a special genius for corrupting and manipulating Parliament in order to expand their ministerial power (thus the rise of Robert Walpole
, the first “prime” minister). Powerful Whigs were themselves often derided as “Tories.” But when the radical opposition of the mid-late 18th century looked at these Tories and Tory-fied Whigs, what they saw was not just corruption in the present, but the long shadow of the greatest threat to liberty in English history.
England had escaped Denmark’s fate, but only just – and the agents of tyranny had been the Stuart kings
, two Charleses and two Jameses, who had forced the English to defend themselves with a pair of revolutions. The Jacobites, together with their Tory defenders, refused to accept the principle that the power of the monarchy should be kept in balance with the power of Parliament. Charles I’s
long period of prerogative rule (that is, his refusal to convene Parliament from 1629-40), was not the proximate cause of the English Civil War, but it was a critical underlying cause. And, as the conservative British historian Paul Johnson has described, it was viewed by Charles’s subjects not merely as an outrage in its own right, but as a disaster for England generally: the country’s interests in Europe and its power on the high seas were neglected; pirates raided the coasts and carried English men and women off into slavery; resistance by the Scots and revolts by the Irish were humiliating. And at home, the English were faced with an empty treasury, a corrupted judiciary, scandalous giveaways of royal favors, divisive royal manipulation of religious affairs, and a destroyed political consensus. All of this led to the widespread conclusion that such misfortune could not be attributed to incompetence alone: there must be a conspiracy
to destroy England:
The impression was formed – and on the face of it there was plenty of evidence – that Charles, Strafford and Laud were engaged in a deliberate operation to destroy English liberties and the Protestant religion and install instead a Catholic absolutist monarchy of a Continental type. […]
It was not just a class or a religion that was menaced: it was English civilization. [The Offshore Islanders, pp. 191-2]
All of this clearly parallels the attitudes and paranoias of the American colonists in the years leading up to the revolution; like the English under Charles, they saw a conspiracy to destroy the constitutional balance and the liberty it guaranteed. And they clearly interpreted this threat in light of the lessons learned from the struggle with the Stuarts and their Tory allies – not just in the civil war, but in the Exclusion Crisis
, the Glorious Revolution
, and the Jacobite uprisings
. Thus it was that Stephen Johnson cited the Glorious Revolution as precedent for the colonists’ resistance to “encroaching tyranny,” [Bailyn, 304], that James Otis
would recount how the “execrable race of the Stuarts” had forced the “formidable, violent, and bloody” confrontation between the English people and the forces of oppression [ibid, 81], and John Adams’ and Samuel Adams’ arguments were “alive with century-old Popish-Stuart-Jacobite associations” [ibid, 98].
In this interpretation, the conservatism of the Founders’ day was not a static force, but an ever-lurking menace prepared to usurp the painstakingly achieved constitutional balance. It was the constant threat to undo everything that had been accomplished since the Magna Carta. This understanding drew on experiences at the heart of the English political tradition, but it represented, in the context of the late eighteenth century (once the Levellers
had given way to an accommodating Whiggish compromise), a distinctly marginal radicalism.
Again, it is far too easy to fall prey to anachronism when trying to read precedents for modern ideological battles in the struggles of the revolutionary era. But maybe it’s too simplistic to assume that the rebels, because they viewed their fight as a defensive one, were in any substantive sense acting as “conservatives.” Arguably, one could only believe that such a defense was necessary if one subscribed to certain distinctly radical (in the context of the time) understandings of history and politics. And the forces the rebels opposed were the very same forces that would move in reaction to French radicalism. The same forces with whom Burke would join, when Charles Fox’s
sympathies with the French revolutionaries became too much to bear, and who would before long adopt the label “conservative.” To the American founders, those forces looked distinctly familiar – they looked like the Stuart kings, like the very face of tyranny.
Next: American Tories
Previous: Is Conservatism Un-American?
Labels: American Revolution, Bernard Bailyn, conservatism, conservatives, Paul Johnson, Reading Conservative History, Russell Kirk, Tories, Whigs