[E]very characteristic that I’ve listed is actually a species of liberalism. I don’t mean that they are liberal in the way that we typically use the word to describe people like Nancy Pelosi or Michael Dukakis; rather, I mean liberal in its classical conception, that political philosophy that arose in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with its deepest origins in the Social Contract theory of Thomas Hobbes, further refined by John Locke, amended by Adam Smith and Montesquieu, and put into effect by our Founders, especially in those two founding documents The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. To be clear – there is a species of conservatism within this tradition, to be sure – about which I’ll say more – but at the outset it needs to be acknowledged that we are speaking here of the difference between conservative liberals and progressive liberals, and not typically non- or anti-liberal conservatives and liberals per se.Deneen's point is well taken. Unlike European conservativism, which developed out of the altar and throne alliances that were the principal political fruit of the Reformation, American conservativism evolved within a cultural and political milieu that strongly emphasized natural individual rights as they were developed during the British Enlightenment, along with some critical French thinkers like Montesquieu who reflected on the British political tradition. This explains, for example, how someone as central to the modern American conservative tradition like Ronald Reagan could cite Thomas Paine so much (more than any other Founder, as historian John Patrick Diggins discusses in his biography of Reagan). Modern American conservatism is not a refutation of the broader liberal tradition as much as it is a strand within that tradition. This is one of the things that makes American conservatives stand out from their Tory counterparts in Canada and the UK, and from their Christian Democratic counterparts in countries like Germany and Italy.
Deneen makes another point in his post, which is to identify traditional, non-liberal conservatism with the anti-federalist movement during the debate over the Constitution. According to Deneen, it is the anti-federalists, with their aversion to centralized government and the mechanisms for national action located within the then-novel Constitution, who represent the conservative spirit in the early American context. Modern American conservatives, Deneen contends, defend a Constitution that leads inexorably towards the kind of big-government activism that they claim to eschew. As Deneen puts it at the close of his article:
It’s true that “conservative liberalism” is more “conservative” than “progressive liberalism,” if we mean by that it takes at least some of its cues from an older, pre-liberal understanding of human beings and human nature. Still, its dominant liberal ethic – summed up in the five points I suggested at the outset – means that in nearly every respect, its official allegiances end up eviscerating residual pre-liberal conservative allegiances. In particular, it could be argued that conservative commitments 1-4 – that end by favoring consolidation (in spite of the claim to favor “limited” government), advancing imperial power and capitalism (i.e., why consolidation is finally necessary), and stressing individual liberty, are all actively hostile to commitment number 5 – the support for family and community. It is a rump commitment without a politics to support it, and one that daily undergoes attack by the two faces of contemporary liberalism, through the promotion of the Market by the so-called Right and the promotion of lifestyle autonomy by the Left. A true conservatism has few friends in today’s America.Deneen's thesis on this point is one worthy of some considerable discussion. To start that discussion, I think that Deneen overlooks a critical component of conservative thought, namely that conservatism is an inherently non-ideological movement. This understanding of conservatism, developed by theorists like the American writer Russell Kirk and the British writer Michael Oakeshott, views conservatism as primarily an approach to polity concerned about preserving custom, tradition and usage in the face of unnecessary change. It is about depending upon the tried and the true, upon the consensus of community and culture, upon the established patterns of family, religion and voluntary associations. While conservatism has certain common principles and practices, it still varies greatly from country to country, from time to time, from place to place. Italian conservatism and Chinese conservatism and Chilean conservatism and Yankee conservatism should and do vary greatly. As both Kirk and Oakeshott consistently emphasized, there is no single conservative ideology upon which to build a political program. It varies. Conservatism can be thought of more as a disposition than a doctrine, more of a way of approaching the world than a specific agenda that is uniform across time and space.
From that perspective, Kirk approached the Constitution as a fundamentally conservative document, as an attempt to preserve the best elements of the English legal and political tradition, adapted to the culture and context of America, as possible, while allowing for the prudential and necessary increase in the powers of the federal government that were necessary to preserve the nation from the disaster that was brewing under our first constitution, the Articles of Confederation. Kirk himself wrote a splendid book on the conservative nature of our Constitution, Rights and Duties.
As for the anti-federalists as conservatives, Kirk himself did not think of them as such. Kirk had little time for the anti-federalists, viewing them as representing a radical tradition within American public life. Like Jefferson, they were ideological fundamentalists, unable to understand that the science of statesmanship was the study, as Burke put it, of necessary change. This means that politics cannot remain unchanging -- reform is part of the life of the body politic. However reform should only be undertaken when necessary, not simply because revolutions, as Jefferson once said, help to "clear the atmosphere." For Kirk, the conservatives of the early American Republic were the Federalists, particularly John Adams, and the National Republicans lead by John Randolph of Roanoake. He wrote at length about both men in his masterwork about the conservative intellectual tradition, The Conservative Mind.
Adams and Randolph embodied, to Kirk, the kind of cautious statesmanship, attached to principle but not to ideology, that exemplifies the conservative approach to government. Ideologues like the anti-federalists simply did not qualify. And I think that Kirk's judgment on this point was fundamentally sound.