Another conservative history
Posted by Mitch Kokai at 10:08 AM
There are two types of people in the world: those who assign everyone to one of two opposing categories, and those who don't.
That thought crossed my mind a number of times while reading Emory University history Professor Patrick Allitt's recent book, The Conservatives: Ideas & Personalities Throughout American History.
Allitt's work makes clear the futility of trying to define a "one true American conservatism" among the competing conservative tendencies that have flowed through the nation's political beliefs since the nation's founding. Conservative beliefs often have led people to vastly different conclusions. In fact, one of Allitt's more interesting arguments is the idea that the political beliefs motivating the actors in the Civil War represented competing forms of conservatism.
It's possible to quibble with Allitt's decisions about who should be considered conservative. For instance, he includes some classical liberals in his study but omits others (such as President Grover Cleveland) who clearly would fall into the conservative camp today. He calls Teddy Roosevelt conservative, though many would deny that description to the nation's first "progressive" chief executive.
Still, Allitt always offers a case for his assessments, and he explains his reasoning at the outset:
Here I argue that conservatism is, first of all, an attitude to social and political change that looks for support to the ideas, beliefs, and habits of the past and puts more faith in the lessons of history than in the abstractions of political philosophy. The attitude long predated the movement. Conservatives were skeptical and anti-utopian. They doubted the possibility of human, social, or political perfection. The attitude toward politics was comparable to the religious idea of original sin: people are unable to act entirely rationally or selflessly, human plans will go awry, well-meant actions will have unintended bad consequences. Planned societies are therefore impossible, and the attempt to create them will probably lead to chaos or tyranny.
Those interested in the topic will find other interesting volumes on conservative history here, here, and here.
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