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Conservatism

Conservatism arose in response to the Progressive challenge in the early 20th century and coalesced into the modern conservative movement in the post-World War II era. Here are three must-reads and some basic Q&As to get a handle on Conservatism. When you're ready for more, read the primary sources yourself and explore Conservatism in greater depth.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the conservative movement about?

The American conservative movement is not defined by a set of policies but rather by a commitment to conserve America's first principles and its tradition of limited self-government. Conservatism holds that these first principles—proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and promulgated by the United States Constitution—define us as a country and inspire us as a people. Conservatives believe that the original structure of America's carefully written constitution and its enduring framework of limited government is the best mechanism for securing national independence, providing economic opportunity, establishing religious liberty, and maintaining a flourishing society of republican self-government. Conservatives believe that the change we need, the change that is consistent with the American idea, is not movement away from but toward our principles—which are both the fixed goal and the unchanging ground of our ever-changing experience.

There are, of course, a wide variety of groups and movements within the conservative movement itself. Some are primarily focused on strengthening our national defense, others are concerned primarily with social issues, and still others are driven primarily to advance economic freedom. Although each of these groups is unique, they are all fused together into an identifiable movement—the conservative movement—by a common commitment to conserve America's first principles and political traditions.

For more on the conservative movement, see Matthew Spalding's lecture " A New American Fusionism: Recovering Principles in Our Politics. "

What are the origins of the conservative movement?

Though its origins stretch back in Western thought, conservatism, as an organized set of ideas in the United States, can be said to begin when America's founding principles first were seriously challenged and in need of conserving. In the early 20th century a philosophical movement called Progressivism began to dominate mainstream American politics and academia. Progressives rejected the principles of the Founders and advocated reforming the American government as a centralized, administrative state. As Progressivism became increasingly prevalent, prominent political figures and intellectuals, including Calvin Coolidge, began to openly oppose the movement, advocating instead to maintain America's founding principles. As the 20th century progressed, Progressivism and subsequently liberalism would increasingly undermine and attack America's first principles. As these attacks grew stronger, so too conservatism grew stronger and became more visible. The conservative movement became particularly visible and more formalized after 1945 thanks to the energizing work of conservative intellectuals and politicians such as William F. Buckley Jr., Russell Kirk, and Barry Goldwater.

For more on the origins of Conservatism, see Johnathan O'Neill's First Principles essay "The First Conservatives: The Constitutional Challenge to Progressivism."

Who was Calvin Coolidge and why does he matter?

Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States, was one of the most principled and successful conservative Presidents of the 20th century. He assumed office in 1923 after the death of Warren Harding, under whom he served as Vice-President, and served as President until 1928. 

Coolidge matters today because he is an example of how a principled, conservative leader can be both highly popular and successful in the modern era. Underlying his policies was a proper attachment to America's founding principles. Coolidge was also one of the most important critics of the threat Progressivism posed to those principles.

His conservative economic policies and his constitutional vision helped bring about the prosperity of the 1920s. Harding inherited massive budget deficits and a severe depression from Woodrow Wilson. Coolidge aggressively cut federal spending and income tax rates. In 1922, the top income tax rate was 73 percent. By 1925, Coolidge had reduced it to 25 percent, where it remained until he left office. Harding and Coolidge cut federal spending and helped reduce the debt.

For more on Coolidge, see Julia Shaw's WebMemo "This Fourth of July, Keep Cool with Coolidge."

Who was Robert A. Taft and why is he important?

Robert A. Taft, known in his day as "Mr. Republican," served in the United States Senate from 1939 until 1953 representing the state of Ohio and was one of the leading opponents of both the New Deal and President Truman's failed "Fair Deal."

As a Senator, Taft respected the checks and balances of the Constitution and stood for liberty under law. He once remarked that "the consideration which ought to determine almost every decision of policy today is the necessity of preserving, maintaining, and increasing the liberty of the people of our country." He also accepted the obligation of government to care, in part, for those who can not care for themselves.

Skeptical about Big Business as well as Big Government, Taft contended for "a humane economy" in which the benefits of American industry might be extended to every citizen. He helped restore the balance between management and organized labor with the Taft-Hartley Act. After his death, Taft was elected to the bipartisan Senate Hall of Fame joining John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and Robert La Follette as legislators who have "left a permanent mark on our nation's history and brought distinction to the Senate."

Who was Friedrich von Hayek and why is he important?

In 1944, when the whole world seemed to be turning left, the Austrian economist F. A. Hayek published The Road to Serfdom and laid the foundation for an intellectual and political counter-revolution. Deeply disturbed by collectivist signs in Britain, America, and elsewhere in the West, Hayek proposed a different road—the road of classical liberalism. He listed the personal virtues necessary to travel that road—independence and self-reliance, individual initiative and local responsibility, and "a healthy suspicion of power and authority." At the same time, he accepted a governmental role, carefully limited by law, that encouraged competition and the functioning of a free society.

Awarded the Nobel Prize in economics and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Hayek is regarded as one of the most influential economists of the 20th century, the equal and the philosophical opposite of John Maynard Keynes. An active intellectual, he founded the Mont Pelerin Society, which has become the world's leading organization of free-market advocates.

For more on Hayek, see Bruce Caldwell's First Principles essay "Ten (Mostly) Hayekian Insights for Trying Economic Times."

Who was Russell Kirk and why is he important?

In 1950, the literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote that in America liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. Unbeknownst to Trilling, a young Midwestern academic was writing an intellectual history that would demolish such liberal arrogance. With The Conservative Mind (1953), Russell Kirk gave the conservative movement its name and conservatism an intellectual respectability it had lacked in the modern era. Kirk later became one of 20th century conservatism's most active apostles, publishing over 30 books and lecturing on hundreds of college campuses.

His definition of conservatism consists of six canons: (1) a divine intent as well as personal conscience rules society; (2) traditional life is filled with variety and mystery while radical systems are characterized by uniformity; (3) civilized society requires orders and classes; (4) property and freedom are inseparably connected; (5) man must control his will and appetite knowing he is governed more by emotion than reason; and (6) society must alter slowly.

For more on Kirk, see Edwin J. Feulner's First Principles essay "Roots of Modern Conservative Thought from Burke to Kirk."

Who was William F. Buckley Jr. and why is he important?

William F. Buckley Jr. (1925–2008) was the renaissance man of modern American conservatism. He was the founder and editor in chief of National Review, a syndicated columnist, the host of Firing Line (TV's longest-running weekly public-affairs program), the author of more than 50 books, and a college lecturer for nearly five decades. His mighty stream of words is almost surely unequalled by any other writer of the last 100 years. 

When Bill Buckley came along, American conservatism was composed of "a congeries of ill assorted half-enemies." Buckley purged the conservative movement of its extremist elements and united the rest by persuading traditionalists, libertarians, and anti-communists to focus on a common enemy—liberalism.

Buckley's vision of ordered liberty shaped and guided modern conservatism from its infancy in the 1950s to its present-day maturity as a political force that has transformed American politics. As George Will has written, "Before there was Ronald Reagan, there was Barry Goldwater, and before there was Barry Goldwater, there was National Review, and before there was National Review, there was Bill Buckley with a spark in his mind, and the spark in 1980 became a conflagration."

For more on Buckley, see Lee Edwards's First Principles essay "Standing Athwart History: The Political Thought of William F. Buckley Jr."

Who was Barry Goldwater and why is he important?

Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona was the first presidential nominee since Calvin Coolidge to run openly as a conservative. He was not so much the nominee of a political party as the personification of a nascent political movement. In his 1964 campaign, he addressed the issues that have dominated the national debate ever since—Social Security, federal spending, privatization, morality in government, and national defense. Goldwater changed the rhetoric of politics by challenging the principles of the New Deal, something no Democrat or Republican presidential candidate before him had dared to do.

Goldwater inspired countless young people to enter and remain in politics. As part of the 1964 campaign, Ronald Reagan delivered his famous TV talk "A Time for Choosing," which made the one-time film actor a national political star overnight (in many ways overshadowing Goldwater).

For more on Goldwater, see Lee Edwards's First Principles essay "The Conservative Consensus: Frank Meyer, Barry Goldwater, and the Politics of Fusionism."

What were Ronald Reagan's greatest achievements?

Every President is judged on his performance in two areas—peace and prosperity. By this standard Ronald Reagan was one of our greatest Presidents and this is why the last half of the 20th century is often described by historians as the Age of Reagan.

Reagan's military buildup and competition with the Soviet Union not only kept America safe but also won the Cold War without firing a shot, in Margaret Thatcher's memorable phrase. At home, he persuaded Congress to pass an economic recovery program—centered on cutting marginal tax rates—that sparked an unprecedented period of peacetime prosperity. As important, Reagan lifted the country out of a great psychological depression induced by the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. and sustained by the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the Jimmy Carter malaise. He did so by appealing to the best in the American character. As he explained in his Farewell Address, quoting the Constitution, "We the People" was the underlying basis for everything he tried to do as President.

What is the "Tea Party"? Is it important?

The Tea Party is one of the most significant citizen efforts in recent times to revive America's founding principles. It is a grassroots populist movement driven not by politicians but by ordinary American citizens who have become fed up with the excesses of modern government. The Tea Party movement has already had a tremendously significant effect on national politics. It has forced politicians of both parties to pay tribute (even if only superficially) to America's founding principles. In particular, it has galvanized many Republicans to make limited government a top policy priority and revitalized American conservatism.

Although the Tea Party has been dismissed by some as a fringe element of the Republican Party, the movement is, in fact, based on legitimate arguments. The Tea Party's core beliefs are grounded in the principles of limited self-government as a laid out by the Founding Fathers and are consistent with well-established conservative arguments.

For more on the Tea Party, see Matthew Spalding's WebMemo " Reclaiming America: Why We Honor the Tea Party Movement."

Primary Sources

Our Publications

More Resources

Conservatism: Early Conservatism

Coolidge: An American Enigma
Robert Sobel (Regnery, 1998)
Sobel’s biography rebuts the traditional account of Calvin Coolidge as a mediocre, do-nothing, reactionary president who only sought to help big business. Instead, Sobel argues, Coolidge was a skilled politician who adhered to his principles of limited government.

The Price of Freedom (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1924)
Foundations of the Republic (Ayer Company Publishers, 1926)
Calvin Coolidge
A collection of 28 wonderful speeches and addresses written by Coolidge between 1920 and 1923 (which covers his vice-presidency), as well as a prize essay he wrote at Amherst on the subject of the American Revolution and a veto message from his governorship. These writings confirm Coolidge as a serious thinker and sharp critic of Progressive ideas.

Popular Government: Its Essence, Its Permanence and Its Peril
William Howard Taft (Yale University Press, 1913)
A collection of ten lectures by the former president (and future chief justice), delivered at Yale University and the American Bar Association. The Yale lectures use the Preamble of the US Constitution to address issues like republicanism, Progressive direct democracy, broad federal powers, states’ rights, judicial recall, war powers, and diplomacy. The ABA lectures address judicial tenure and “judge-made” law.

Elihu Root and the Conservative Tradition
Edited by Oscar Handlin (Little Brown & Co., 1954)
A 1954 book on the life and career of Elihu Root, the formidable turn-of-the-century senator and statesman. Handlin situates Root, Theodore Roosevelt’s secretary of state, as a member of the American conservative tradition. By doing so, Handlin sheds light on what it meant to be a conservative in the context of the early 20th century.

Conservatism: Modern Conservative Classics

The Road to Serfdom
F. A. Hayek (University of Chicago Press, 1944)
Described by The New York Times as “one of the most important books of our generation,” Hayek’s “little book” was the first defining philosophical work of the modern American conservative movement. Hayek describes the disturbing signs of collectivism all around him and proposes a different road—the road of individualism and classical liberalism.

Ideas Have Consequences
Richard M. Weaver (University of Chicago Press, 1948)
For many, Ideas Have Consequences is the fons et origo (source and origin) of the American conservative movement. Here, Richard M. Weaver traces the dissolution of Western thought and culture to the 14th century when the West abandoned its belief in transcendental values and accepted man as “the mea­sure of all things.”

Memoirs of a Superfluous Man
Albert Jay Nock (Harper and Brothers, 1943)
Author-editor Albert Jay Nock was a radical libertarian of the 1920s and 1930s whose denunciations of the State and of unbridled materialism influenced such leading figures of the post-war Right. In Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, Nock reveals himself to be passionate in his anti-statism, and unyielding in his love for the classics and traditional education.

God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom”
William F. Buckley Jr. (Regnery, 1951)
In 1951, as a recent Yale graduate, William Buckley wrote this book to reveal the profes­sors who were inseminating the minds of students with counter traditional values. Buckley charges that Yale’s values were agnostic as to religion, Keynesian as to economics, and collectivist as regards the relation of the individual to society and government.

The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana
Russell Kirk (Regnery, 1953)
In this book, Russell Kirk’s over­views Anglo–American conservative thinking over the past 175 years. It is a defiant indictment of every liberal nostrum from human perfectibility to economic egalitarianism. The Conservative Mind made conservatism intellectually respectable in the modern era and gave the conservative movement its name.

In Defense of Freedom: A Conservative Credo
Frank S. Meyer (Regnery, 1962)
In this work, Frank Meyer- an individualist who argued that “freedom of the person” was the primary end of political action - attempts to reconcile the philosophical differences between traditional conservatives and libertarians in an approach that was dubbed ‘fusionism.’ Both should acknowledge the true heritage of the West: “reason operating within tradition.”

Witness
Whittaker Chambers (Random House, 1952)
Whittaker Chambers was a veteran Soviet spy who became, in William F. Buckley Jr.’s words, “the most important American defector from Communism.” Published in 1952, Witness argues that America faces a transcendent, not transitory crisis; that the crisis is not one of politics or economics but one of faith; and that secular liberalism, the dominant “ism” of the day, is a watered-down version of Communist ideology.

The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order
Robert Nisbet (Oxford University Press, 1953)
Man’s fundamental desire for community, argues sociolo­gist Robert Nisbet in this conservative classic, cannot be satis­fied either by the centralized state or by unrestrained individualism. In order to live in freedom, man must revitalization of inter­mediate associations such as the family, the church, and the neighborhood—the “little platoons of life.”

Conservatism: Modern Conservative Politics and Movement

The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945
George H. Nash (Basic Books, 1976)
This book is indispensable to an understanding of modern American conservatism. Part history, part biography, and part philosophical primer, Nash’s book shows how a brilliant group of scholars and writers—traditional conser­vatives, libertarians, and anti-Communists—slowly came together and by the 1960s had formed an intellectual move­ment.

The March of Freedom: Modern Classics in Conservative Thought
Edited and with commentaries by Edwin J. Feulner (Heritage Books, 2003)
The March of Freedom is a collection of 15 essays by exceptional thinkers like F. A. Hayek, Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk, and Milton Friedman. Ed Feulner, president of The Heritage Foundation, selected the essays and wrote an accompanying biographical essay on each thinker.

The Conscience of a Conservative
Barry Goldwater (Victor Publishing Company, 1960)
The Conscience of a Conser­vative is an essential work by a founding father of the modern conservative movement. Goldwater dismisses the idea that conservatism is out of date and addresses the issues that have dominated the national debate for decades: taxes, government spending, social security, law and order, and communism.

The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order 1964–1980
The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution
Steven F. Hayward (Crown Publishing, 2001 and 2009)
In the two volumes of Age of Reagan, Steven Hayward makes the man and his time one and the same. He argues that Reagan became President because of his extraordinary political skill, often underrated persistence, and unwavering conservative philosophy and because of the rapid decline of liberalism in the 1960s and 1970s.

Reagan, in His Own Hand: The Writings of Ronald Reagan That Reveal His Revolutionary Vision for America
Ed. Kiron K. Skinner, Annelise Anderson, Martin Anderson (Free Press, 2001)
This selection of 670 radio commentaries the future President personally wrote and delivered between 1975 and 1979 reveal Reagan’s conservative vision for America: a vision of faith and freedom that would restore Americans’ confidence in themselves and their country.

Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea
Irving Kristol (Free Press, 1995)
In Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea, Kristol traces the series of events in the late 1960s and early 1970s that jolted a small but influential group of old-fashioned liberals and forced them out of their no-longer-comfortable Democratic circumstances. These neoconservatives carried the conservative message to places where traditional conservative had not gone before.

Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto
Mark R. Levin (Threshold Editions, 2009)
Liberty and Tyranny is not a screed but an erudite work that defines conservatism as “a way of understanding life, society, and governance.” He calmly but firmly critiques statist policies in environ­mentalism, immigration, and the welfare state, proposing alter­native approaches based on the free market and the rule of law rooted in the Constitution.

Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power
Lou Cannon (PublicAffairs, 2003)
Former Washington Post reporter Lou Cannon offers a perceptive and gracefully written account of Reagan’s gubernatorial years, as well as a brief description of his early years in radio and Hollywood, his almost successful run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976, and his 1980 victory over President Jimmy Carter. Cannon knows Reagan as well as he knows politics, and the result is an out­standing political biography.

With Reagan: The Inside Story
Edwin Meese III (Regnery Gateway, 1992)
Ed Meese, Ronald Reagan’s most trusted aide and adviser, sticks to the facts in this memoir. Meese dismisses the suggestion that the president was “a mere puppet of his staff,” and he praises Reagan’s economic and national security accomplishments. With Reagan ends with a short chapter of reflections and recommendations that ought to be read by every policymaker in Washington.

Goldwater: The Man Who Made a Revolution
Lee Edwards (Regnery, 1995)
Barry Goldwater was an unlikely revolutionary and the most consequential presidential loser in American politics, as Lee Edwards recounts in his dramatic biography that often reads like a novel. Goldwater’s candidacy for president marked the beginning of a dramatic shift in American politics—from East to West, from the cities to the suburbs, from containment to liberation, from liberal to conservative—that continues to this day.

Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography
William F. Buckley Jr. (Regnery, 2004)
In Miles Gone By, Buckley offers a personally chosen selection of previously published writings that reveal what matters most to the founder of the modern American conservative movement: his family, his friends, and his travels. Buckley said he would never write a formal autobiography but hoped that Miles Gone By would serve “much the same purpose and that it will give pleasure.”

The Conservative Revolution: The Movement that Remade America
Lee Edwards (Free Press, 1999)
This political history of the modern conservative movement covers the period of ups and downs from the end of World War II through the late 1990’s. Edwards highlights the important roles played by Senator Robert Taft, Senator Barry Goldwater, President Ronald Reagan, and Speaker Newt Gingrich in conservatism’s ascendance. His conclusion: “The conservative revolution is here to stay.”

Conservatism: Online Resources

The Claremont Institute
www.claremont.org
The West Coast stronghold for constitutional conservatism, Claremont’s website includes essays, speeches, scholarly articles, recommended books, and a complete archive of the must-read Claremont Review of Books.

National Review
www.nationalreview.com
The online version of one of the conservative movement’s most influential publications, with content from the magazine as well as web-only essays, blog posts, and multimedia.

The Weekly Standard
www.weeklystandard.com
The website for another influential conservative magazine, with content from both the magazine and the “Daily Standard” blog.

Intercollegiate Studies Institute
www.isi.org
A resource for everything ISI: books published by ISI, complete archives of their outstanding journals, and video and audio files of ISI-sponsored lectures.

National Affairs
www.nationalaffairs.com
Launched in 2009, National Affairs has quickly acquired a reputation for promoting thoughtful conservative ideas in their longer-form essays. Their website also includes a blog “round-up” of recent academic studies.

The Public Papers of President Ronald Reagan
www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/speeches/publicpapers.html
A database of President Reagan’s public papers, which can be searched by keyword or browsed chronologically. Also includes selected papers from his time as Governor of California and a list of his major speeches.