Patrick Allitt


On his book The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History

Cover Interview of February 26, 2010

In a nutshell

“Conservative” means different things in different times and places.  This book describes and explains the different types of conservatism in American history, from the Constitution to the end of the twentieth century.  In writing it I tried to avoid taking sides, so that readers from all points on the political spectrum can read the book and learn from it.  The Conservatives does not make the case for or against conservatism.  Instead, I explain who was conservative, why, and how their beliefs informed their actions.

Before about 1930 few Americans described themselves as conservatives but they often used the word as an adjective (as in “I have a conservative view of this problem”).  For various eighteenth- and nineteenth-century figures, accordingly, I have made the argument that they can be thought of as conservatives, but with the important proviso that it’s not a word they used about themselves.  Often I say, in effect: think about George Washington (or Daniel Webster, or Henry Adams) as a conservative, and see how that can help you understand him.

I argue that conservatism is contextual and reactive.  Conservatives believe that civilization is complex, precious, and delicate, always vulnerable to threats from external enemies and from impetuous reformers within.  As the threats have changed over the decades, so has the nature of conservatism.