Patrick Allitt

 

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

Cover Interview of February 26, 2010

The wide angle

The U.S.A. was the product of a successful revolution so it may seem paradoxical to regard many of its leading figures as conservative.  However, they recognized their achievement as fragile, knew that it might be destroyed, and dedicated their lives to conserving it.

Despite differences over the question of whether the federal government should be big or small, whether American foreign policy should be proactive or isolationist, and whether conservatives should support or criticize capitalism, they all shared a broad streak of anti-utopianism.  Human nature will not change, they believed, and a healthy skepticism about human self-interest and corruptibility is preferable to a credulity that cannot stand the test of experience.

The first half of the book sketches the conservative outlook of the Federalists in the 1790s and the Whigs in the early 19the century.  It makes the argument that the American Civil War was a conflict between two types of conservatism: that of the slave South that wanted to preserve its threatened labor system, and that of the Republican North that wanted to preserve the Union.  The second half of the book looks in more detail at the history of conservatism after the Russian Revolution, one of whose effects was to transform the U.S.A. from the world’s most revolutionary nation into the world’s most counter-revolutionary nation.

One chapter explores the conservative opponents of the New Deal in the 1930s.  Led by ex-President Herbert Hoover, they feared that the Federal Government was becoming much too powerful and that President Franklin Roosevelt might be turning himself into an American version of the dictators then rising throughout the world (Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin).

Subsequent chapters explore the New Conservative movement of the 1950s that brought together free-market libertarians, anti-Communists, and traditionalists at a new journal, the National Review.  Led by William F. Buckley, Jr. they helped launch the Goldwater Campaign in 1964.  Despite its defeat they continued to move the GOP in a consciously conservative direction and succeeded in electing their candidate, Ronald Reagan, in 1980.  By then they were enjoying the support of the Neoconservatives, former liberal intellectuals who had been dismayed by the upheavals of the 1960s.

The book’s last chapters examine conservatism in power during the 1980s and the way the movement began to unravel after the end of the Cold War.

I came to this project over the course of twenty years’ work on other topics.  My first book was a study of just one aspect of the conservative movement in the Cold War era, Catholic Intellectuals and Conservative Politics in America: 1950-1985 (1993).  I then wrote several other books on religious history but kept alive an interest in conservatism.  When I realized that no one had attempted a general history of American conservatism since Russell Kirk’s 1953 book, The Conservative Mind, I decided to try it, despite the daunting scope of the project.