Many American politicians call themselves “conservative” despite never having read Paul Elmer More, Irving Babbitt, Robert Taft, Donald Davidson, Frank Meyer, Richard Weaver, James Burnham, or Russell Kirk. Television pundits recycle the term “neoconservative” without even a passing reference to Leo Strauss, Irving Kristol, or Norman Podhoretz. A welcome respite from the ignorance of the talking heads, Patrick Allitt’s The Conservatives (Yale University Press, 2009) is an engaging and informative book, even if it is more of an introduction to American conservatism than a critical study. I recently reviewed the book here at the journal 49th Parallel, but I have more to say about it.
American conservatism is rich and complex but too often simplified or ignored by academics who think they know what conservatism means. I applaud Allitt for taking conservatism seriously and for marshaling a wealth of evidence to support his thesis. Those who cannot identify what generally distinguishes a paleoconservative from a neoconservative, or who’re confused by the apparent hypocrisy of conservatives who call for big-government spending on military and surveillance while griping about big-government, need to read this book. Allitt provides clarity and direction for the uninitiated. He deserves not just our attention, but our admiration.
Allitt attends to several figures in this book, including John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, William Cobbett, John Marshall, John Randolph of Roanoke, George Fitzhugh, Rufus Choate, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, George Ticknor, Abraham Lincoln, Orestes Brownson, William Graham Sumner, Andrew Carnegie, Theodore Roosevelt, John Crow Ransom, Andrew Lytle, H. L. Mencken, Herbert Hoover, William Howard Taft, Albert Jay Nock, Ralph Adams Cram, George Santayana, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig Von Mises, Murray Rothbard, Ayn Rand, Whittaker Chambers, William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman, Barry Goldwater, George Will, Ronald Reagan, Michael Novak, Robert Bork, Allan Bloom, M. E. Bradford, Thomas Fleming, Clyde Wilson, Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington, Patrick Buchanan, Jerry Falwell, Roger Kimball, Thomas Sowell, Charles Murray, Dinesh D’Souza, and others. One book cannot address every major figure that influenced American conservatism, and Allit’s failure to mention some names (Strom Thurmond, Gerald Ford, Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, Donald Rumsfeld, Wendell Berry, James Dobson, Pat Robertson, or any of the Bob Joneses) is understandable. Paul Gottfried appears just once in the book, and passingly. But a case could be made that Gottfried’s paleoconservatism is more European in origin and thus worthy of analysis. And surely Eric Voegelin warrants more than a casual reference in a single paragraph.
For some, Allitt’s most objectionable suggestion will be that the Civil War was a conflict of two conservatisms: Calhoun’s versus Webster’s. This interpretation illuminates and simultaneously complicates such recent debates as the one held between Thomas DiLorenzo and Harry V. Jaffa over the issue of Abraham Lincoln’s legacy.
Allitt also suggests that the Federalists represent an early manifestation of conservatism. This classification would mean that Jefferson and his ilk were not conservatives, which would in turn imply that current Jeffersonians are not in keeping with a purely conservative tradition. Allitt offers this helpful and accurate note about Jefferson: “He might not have been the Jacobin his Federalist foes alleged, but neither can he easily be thought of as a conservative.” Many scholars and enthusiasts consider Jefferson to be a “classical liberal,” but the signification of that word relative to “libertarian” or “conservative” merely confounds definitional precision: All three words have been used interchangeably and negligently in recent decades. It may not matter if Jefferson is called “conservative” or “liberal,” especially if those terms cause people to short-circuit reflection or affix a contemporary label to a complicated man living in a complex, radically different era.
Allitt’s book is a fine contribution to and about conservative letters. I recommend it to anyone who thinks he can explain conservatism.