The Right and the Tea Party like to think of themselves as freedom fighters in the mold of the Founding Fathers, but a closer look reveals that their revolution is really devolution, because at its core, conservatism is about returning to the past. Upon examination it turns out the Tea Party has more in common with King George, than the Founding Fathers.
Conservatism is the most common attitude in the history of mankind. Conservatism is the desire to maintain the status quo – both with regards to the customs and the institutions of the past. The reason is simple: most people are not comfortable with new ideas or their application.
Conservatism is not about change but about stasis (from Greek στάσις “a standing still”).
As the Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1967) has it, “Conservatism is…the preference for what has grown up over a long period of time in contrast to what has been made by deliberate human contrivance.” (2:195).
The United States of America is undeniably the result of “deliberate human contrivance.”
Lord Hugh Cecil wrote in 1912 (Conservatism 25) that “Before the Reformation it is impossible to distinguish conservatism in politics, not because there was none, but because there was nothing else.” Since that time there have been those who are for change and those who oppose it. While the conservative attitude has always been with us the name “conservatism” itself only developed in London and Paris around 1830 (2:195) and by 1835 was in use by British Tories.
“Conservatism most precisely denotes a hostility to radical social change, particularly social change that is instituted by the force of the state and justified by an appeal to abstract rights or to some Utopian aim.” (Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2:195)
The ideas of the Founding Fathers can reasonably be characterized as Utopian and seen as justified by an appeal to abstract rights.
The Declaration of Independence can be seen as the high point of the European Enlightenment, enshrining as it does the liberal principles of the time.
And these were liberal principles. Not conservative. They were liberal then and they are liberal now. The idea put forward by modern conservative “thinkers” that the opposite is true is without foundation. Revolution cannot come about from a conservative mindset; it can only come about as a result of liberal thinking. Any conservative revolutionary movement will be a counter-revolutionary movement, designed to restore the status quo in the wake of drastic change.
Liberalism on the other hand stresses change. The very original ideas of the Enlightenment turned the world upside down. Humans are rational animals it was now said, and they could prosper without the old demands, promises and threats of religion. Happiness became paramount: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Life. Liberty. Happiness. Not heaven. Not salvation. And faith was now a faith in science, faith in humanity and in progress, in reason and in education. At the heart of the Enlightenment lay the ideal of social justice, as enshrined in the above quote from the Declaration of Independence.
“In the revolutionary situation there was general support for the polemics of Jefferson,Paine, Joel Barlow and others who argued that “natural rights”(life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) constitute the foundations of social justice. Governments are artificial contracts designed to protect these inalienable rights.” (Encyclopedia of Philosophy 1:84)
Our American government was based not on conservative biblical principles but on those of the Enlightenment, on a trust not in God but in humankind. It was optimism that fueled America’s experiment in liberty and democracy; it is fear of the mob and its demand for change that fueled, as it has always fueled, conservatism.
It has been claimed, of course, that the revolution was not a revolution at all, but a “war of independence” but that claim is belied by a simple appeal to the literature of the time.
Rip Van Winkle didn’t wake up shocked because the world had stayed the same, because the status quo had been maintained. He was shocked by change, by the results of liberalism. In the Washington Irving story, Rip Van Winkle falls asleep before the French Revolution and sleeps for over twenty years. An entire generation has passed:
“The very character of the people seemed changed. There was a busy, bustling disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquility.” There are new terms and ideas: “rights of citizens – elections – members of Congress – liberty…and other words which were a perfect babylonish jargon to the bewildered Van Winkle.”
As historian Gordon S. Wood observes, “In a few short decades Americans had experienced a remarkable transformation in their society and culture, and like Rip and his creator, many wondered what had happened and who they really were.” (Empire of Liberty 1)
Yet we see conservatives writers like Thomas E. Woods, author of the “Politically Incorrect Guide to American History” (2004) make claims like this of the colonists: “They were not revolutionaries seeking the radical restructuring of society.” The chain of logic here (if it can be called that) is that “The Americans who protested against British encroachments on colonial liberties wanted to preserve their traditional rights.” (Woods 11).
Thomas E. Woods might think so. Washington Irving (April 3, 1783 – November 28, 1859), who grew up in the wake of all that change Woods insists the colonists did not want, saw things more clearly. The attempt made by Woods and others like him to relegate “innovation” to simply unwanted new taxes is a specious line of reasoning which would make the revolution a conservative reaction to the encroaching evils of liberalism, a complete inversion of historical fact.
Mr. Woods’ book might indeed be politically incorrect; it is certainly historically incorrect. If Woods’ “conservative revolution” would have materialized the king would have stayed and we’d be singing “God Save the Queen” rather than the “Star Spangled Banner.”
Amusingly, Woods appeals to the Magna Carta (1215), the Petition of Right (1628) and the Bill of Rights (1689) in defense of his arguments (and presumably of the colonists), but these documents were themselves innovations raised in opposition to the status quo.
In point of fact, taxes are as old as prostitution. Kings have always imposed taxes. It was part of the old conservative fabric of society. The idea that a government would not be able to tax the populace is a liberal one. Opposition to taxes, not taxes themselves, is the true innovation.
If we follow Woods’ reasoning to its logical conclusion, he overturns his own thesis.
As should be obvious by now, it is a logical impossibility that the American revolutionaries who gave us the United States were conservatives. American Tories, or Loyalists, those who supported the king against the revolutionaries, were conservatives. Their math was simple: change=bad, stasis=good, kill the rebels and restore royal rule – obey the king and keep things as they were.
The American conservative movement today is of a counter-revolutionary nature, a reaction to and against the liberal principles of the Enlightenment, and an attempt to turn the clock back to pre-Reformation days when God, not humankind, was the center and focus of human endeavor, when not natural rights but divine restrictions were the order of the day – a retroactive attempt to turn America into something it was never designed or created to be, indeed, could not have been before the Enlightenment.